You probably take your home Wi-Fi for granted — after all, it’s usually reliable and fast enough to stream some great content from Netflix, or upload photos to social media. But what happens when you add a new tablet or game console? Or your teenage son starts streaming his gaming sessions on YouTube? Your once-snappy router might fall short of its potential. Fortunately, it’s easy to get more oomph out of a router with a few simple tweaks.
The first step is selecting the right router for your home network — because not every router will meet your specific needs and budget. Choosing a new router can be a daunting task: there are thousands of brands and models to choose from. To help narrow down your search, we’re sharing our tips on what you should consider before buying your own router. Starting with compatibility and making sure the router supports your internet speeds, these are the specs we considered when making router recommendations, plus a few extras that could improve your online experience.
Wi-Fi Basics: What to Look for in a Router
First and foremost, your wireless router needs to broadcast a strong signal at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Why? Because the vast majority of households have at least one device (a smart speaker, a Smart bulb, or Doorlock) that works best on the 2.4GHz frequency. Most Wi-Fi routers broadcast a signal that covers a circular area of about 150 feet (or 50 feet if you live in a dense urban environment). If your home is much larger than that, you might need to buy a specialised Wi-Fi system with multiple access points. You may also want to consider installing a mesh system like TP-Link Deco or Arlo to provide stronger Wi-Fi coverage throughout your home. The next thing to look for is support for at least one of the latest wireless networking standards: 802.11ax is the best option for fast, reliable connections with minimal buffering and lag issues. If you’re not sure which standard your router supports, check the specifications or manual before you make a purchase. Next, make sure your router has at least two external antennas for increased range and reliable connections. And don’t forget about the other features that are ideal for large homes, like parental controls and guest networks.
Wi-Fi standards are used to measure the speed and range of a router. The most recent standard, 802.11ax, is capable of delivering speeds of up to 10Gbps. This is fast enough to stream Ultra High Definition (UHD) content and supports multiple devices.
You’ll see the numbers 802.11 plus a letter or combination of letters when looking at routers. This is called the wireless protocol or Wi-Fi standard, and it tells you how good the router’s throughput and range are. But you don’t need to get technical to understand these Wi-Fi standards. Just look for a router that supports one of the newest wireless protocols:
11ax (Wi-Fi 6): The newest standard is expected to deliver speeds up to 10 Gbps, but many devices and internet connections don’t support these speeds. So you may not need to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 just yet.
11ac (Wi-Fi 5): You’ll likely see this standard on most routers, and it’s perfectly capable of keeping you connected since it supports speeds up to 3.5 Gbps.
11n (Wi-Fi 4): This standard was the first to allow you to use both the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequencies, and it supports speeds up to 600 Mbps.
How to Find the Best Wi-Fi Router for Your Home
Now that you know what to look for in a Wi-Fi router, you can figure out which specific model is right for you. You can start by considering the following factors when choosing a router:
Range - The range of your home Wi-Fi network will depend on your location and the layout of your house. If you live in a big, multistory home, you may want to consider a Wi-Fi system with multiple access points.
Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) - With MU-MIMO, your router can support multiple wired and wireless connections more efficiently. Without MU-MIMO, your router can send bandwidth to only one device at a time, even if they’re both connected at the same time. But MU-MIMO lets your router divide up your bandwidth and support all of your connected devices at the same time.
Network capacity - If you live in a crowded household with multiple high-bandwidth activities (like gaming, video streaming, and online shopping), you’ll want more network capacity. This means finding a router that can handle more connections and has enough bandwidth to accommodate all your devices and activities.
Connectivity - If your home is wired for Ethernet connections, you might want to look for a router that supports gigabit Ethernet ports. If you’re planning to connect smart home devices, look for a router with support for Internet of Things (IoT) standards, like Z-Wave and ZigBee.
Beamforming - This technology uses a beam to focus Wi-Fi signals in a specific direction. This can help boost signal strength and reduce interference.
Multiple antennas - The more antennas your router has, the stronger the Wi-Fi signal. Three antennas are standard, but more expensive routers can have up to 8 antennas.
Guest network - If you like to host friends and family, a guest network lets you keep your regular network private while giving visitors Internet access.
How to Decide Which Router Is Right For You
You should now have enough information to identify the best router for your home network. But before you make a purchase, make sure you understand the return policy and terms of service for the retailer selling the router (or router/access point kit). While most routers will work with any ISP, you should make sure that the model you prefer is compatible with your current Internet plan. And if you’ve got a big family with lots of connected devices, you may want to go with the highest-capacity router you can afford. And don’t forget about the other components of your Internet setup — a modem and Ethernet cables are just as important as the router itself. Ideally, you want to find a router that works with your cable modem. If you’re not sure which modem to choose, contact your ISP to find out what types of modems they support.
How to Find the Best Place to Put Your Router
You may have heard that the best place to put your router is up in the ceiling — which is true, as long as you have access to the roof or attic. While it might not be possible for every homeowner, mounting your router high up will allow it to broadcast a strong signal throughout your home. If you can’t mount your router, try to position it in an open area away from walls, metal objects, and appliances that could interfere with the Wi-Fi signal. You may also want to consider investing in a Wi-Fi extender if your router is in an inconvenient place.
The Internet is an important part of our daily lives, and it's only going to become more essential as time goes on. Luckily, it's also something that can be improved over time, and that is particularly true of Wi-Fi. While it is important to remember that it is always best to make sure you have a reliable Internet connection, it's also important to know that there are steps you can take to make sure your Wi-Fi is as good as it can be. By knowing what to look for in a router and making sure that you put it in the best place possible, you can be sure that your Wi-Fi is as strong as possible.