How to Shop for a Wi-Fi Router: 6 Things You Need to Know

Maintaining your home Wi-Fi network can be more complicated than you’d think. Wi-Fi networks often become slow, become less dependable, and consistently create problems for you to troubleshoot. You can consider a number of different solutions to improve your Wi-Fi. But replacing an aging or outdated Wi-Fi router is a pretty solid strategy.

We’ve chosen our top 10 Wi-Fi routers, which you can choose among if you don’t want to do a lot of research or spend a lot of time making the decision. But what if you need some advice about how to shop for a Wi-Fi router? How do you decide which router is the right one for you? Which specs are the most important, and what do they mean? And what’s the best way to determine exactly what you need out of your next Wi-Fi router? Read on to check out our recommendations on how to shop for a Wi-Fi router, and what you’ll need to think about each step of the way.

1. Figure out why you need a new Wi-Fi router

Frustrated with your current Wi-Fi router? Here's how to shop for a new one

Frustrated with your current Wi-Fi router? Here’s how to shop for a new one. | iStock.com/JackF

Chances are good that unless you’ve had major issues with your Wi-Fi network in the past, you haven’t thought much about your router. That’s especially true if your cable company has provided you with one. But if you and the other members of your household use lots of devices, or live in a large home, the router that you lease from your internet provider probably won’t cut it. In fact, your router may be responsible for some of the performance issues that have you shopping for a new Wi-Fi router.

As Consumer Reports reviewers explain, there are plenty of reasons to take a look at new routers. (And that’s in addition to the obvious reasons of a worn-out or broken router). If you have a broadband modem that’s directly connected to a single computer, but want to go online with multiple devices, then you’ll need a router. If your current router only supports wired connectivity, but you want to go online with wireless devices like a laptop or tablet, then you should start shopping for routers. Or, if your existing router is too slow or its range too short to reach the parts of your home where you want to use your devices, then you probably need a new router. Have your reasons and priorities straight? Then we’re ready to move on.

2. Determine what you need in a router

Businessman looking at his laptop

Choosing a new Wi-Fi router can get complicated. Figure out what you need before you start shopping. | iStock

Comparing Wi-Fi routers involves looking at several different sets of specifications. The most important of those are speed and range. Routers using the 802.11ac protocol are much faster than 802.11n routers, so you should almost always opt for an 802.11ac router. (Plus, 802.11ac routers can support up to Gigabit speeds.) But Wi-Fi routers aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of purchase.

You’ll need to think about how your house or apartment is laid out, and whether you typically have trouble getting consistent performance throughout your home. If so, you can thank materials like drywall, plaster, aluminum studs, insulated walls, and even hollow doors for degrading the signal. Generally, the more floors and walls that are in the way, the more likely it is that you’re going to have problems with your router’s signal.

If you live in a small apartment and won’t be more than a room away from your router, then you need a router that places less of a priority on distance, but offers excellent throughput in both near and mid-range situations. Alternately, shoppers who live in a big house with lots of rooms and more than one floor will most often need a router with a long range. (Which is usually true even if they place the router in a central location.) If that sounds like your situation, you’ll need to look for a router with excellent throughput in longer-range situations. Checking out reviews, like those published by Consumer Reports, is a great way to gauge exactly which routers are going to work for you, and which models aren’t ideal for your specific situation.

3. Figure out Wi-Fi speeds

Wi-Fi speeds on your laptop

Learn what you’re actually getting when you compare Wi-Fi router speeds | iStock

As Tyler Lacoma reports for Digital Trends, many Wi-Fi router manufacturers list the theoretical maximum bandwidth on their boxes, but you’ll rarely see throughput that high in any real-world situation. (Since in the real world, there are walls, doors, and appliances standing in the way of a clear line of sight between the Wi-Fi router and the devices that will be connected to the network.) The upshot is that many specs, standards, and real-life situations influence the speed that you’re actually going to get from a router. So the speed printed on the box will just give you a general idea of how routers compare.

Wi-Fi routers also feature Ethernet for hard-wired connections, which sounds simple. But you need to look out for cheaper routers that have switches rated at only 100Mb/sec. It’s better to opt for a model with a Gigabit switch (which offers 1,000Mb/sec) if you’re planning on using wired connections. Also keep in mind that the router’s speed only determines the speed of your home network, and won’t make your actual internet connection faster unless it’s slowed down by your current router. (And that’s a situation that’s growing increasingly unlikely in most parts of the world.)

4. Decide how many bands you need

Wi-Fi at the office

Learn about dual-band and tri-band routers to figure out exactly what you want | iStock

Wi-Fi routers have been offered in dual-band models for years, and many manufacturers are now offering tri-band models, too. A dual-band model generally has two radios, one that operates on the 2.4GHz frequency band and one that runs on the 5.0Ghz band. A dual-band Wi-Fi router enables you to set up separate networks. That way, speeds can be improved on a crowded network by moving some devices to the alternate frequency. However, Lacoma recommends reading the fine print, since some dual-band routers actually have just one radio, which can operate on either band but not both at the same time.

Tri-band routers, on the other hand, are equipped with a second 5.0Ghz band, which can be useful when you have numerous mobile devices on one network, and need better efficiency and data management. But as Lacoma notes, tri-band routers are relatively rare because few people really need them. (He advises that they’re useful in a dorm or in an office, but they aren’t necessary for the average house.) Just make sure whatever you’re getting matches up with the devices you plan to use on the network — not all computer and mobile devices will support both frequencies (older devices will likely support 2.4GHz, and newer or higher-end devices will likely support 5.0GHz).

5. Take a moment to learn about security

Working at a laptop

Always consider security when you’re buying a Wi-Fi router and setting up your network | iStock

Security isn’t the most fun topic when you’re shopping for a new gadget. But it’s certainly one of the more important things to be informed about. It’s no surprise that an insecure network is a target for people to steal your Wi-Fi. But an unsecured Wi-Fi network also makes it easy for those with more malicious purposes to watch what you’re doing online, steal files that are stored on your computer, or even infect your systems with viruses. As we’ve already mentioned, any Wi-Fi router you’re considering should support at least WPA2. But every device on your network will also have to support WPA2, since the network will only be as secure as the least-secure device on it.

Some routers, particularly those designed for enterprise customers or for consumers with families, have extra security features. Those can include the ability to add extra encryption, the functionality to monitor devices, and even the ability to block unwanted users from the network. Some even enable you to see what people are browsing — which may work for you if you have young kids, but might not go over so well with (grown) roommates.

6. Learn about other features you’ll need to compare

Man working at a laptop at home

Make sure that you thoroughly understand your Wi-Fi router’s features so that you know what’s most important for you | iStock

In addition to figuring out what throughput and range you need in a Wi-Fi router, you’ll also need to compare them based on other factors. You’ll want to aim for the best mix of speed, range, and reliability. The top speed of almost any new router will exceed the speed of your broadband connection. So don’t assume that getting a faster router will speed up your Netflix streaming. In most cases, the slowest connection is the one between your house and your internet provider. You can pay for a faster connection if you determine that that’s really the issue.

As we’ve already discussed, if you live in a large home, you need a Wi-Fi router with a long range and strong throughput at longer distances. If you live in a small apartment, range won’t be quite as important, but advanced security settings and multiple Wi-Fi channels are crucial in crowded urban areas and buildings with many residents. (Though everybody should secure their Wi-Fi router with a password using WPA2 encryption.)

If you host guests often, consider routers that make it easy to set up a guest network. And if you have children, you may want to choose a router with parental controls. (But you should keep in mind that determined teens will often find ways around the safeguards you put in place.) Or, if interference is the biggest problem for you, look for a router that can identify and target dead zones. Alternately, shop around for router systems comprised of several nodes to more fully cover a big space. Or, check reviews for routers that use a well-designed smartphone app to help you manage your network.

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