Choosing the Best Wireless Router

With so many of us forced to work and learn remotely over the past year because of the pandemic, the importance of having a good router has become crystal clear. Apps such as Zoom, Slack, and Google Classroom have taken on new importance, while apps like Netflix, Disney+, and Xbox Live are keeping us entertained while stuck indoors.

But what makes a good router in the first place, and how do you know which one is right for you? Results from Consumer Reports’ testing can help you decide.

What Is a Router?

A router connects to the modem provided by your internet service provider (ISP) or the modem you already own, and wirelessly provides access to the internet via WiFi to devices in your home like your laptop, smart speaker, smartphone, and tablet. Wired connections are typically faster than WiFi, but they aren’t as convenient—unless you don’t mind stringing dozens of feet of Ethernet cable from the router in your living room to your bedroom Roku.

If you don’t want to be tied down, a reliable wireless router is a critical piece of your home’s infrastructure, making it all the more important to find the right one for your needs.

Your ISP may already provide you with a wireless router as part of your internet package. The router can be a standalone device that plugs into your modem or may be combined with the modem itself into a single device.

But if your existing router is too slow, or its wireless range is too short to reach important places in your home, you may want a new one. Especially now, when you may need reliable WiFi practically every waking hour of the day.

Types of Wireless Routers

There are two types of wireless routers in our ratings: traditional single-unit wireless routers and a newer type of router called a mesh router.

You’re probably familiar with the first type, which you simply plug into your modem to create a WiFi network. Depending on several factors, including the size of your home and the building materials used, a single-unit wireless router may or may not be sufficient to spread WiFi into every nook and cranny.

That’s where mesh routers come in. These are composed of multiple units (you’ll usually find three in a pack) that you place strategically around your home, where you need a good internet connection the most. One unit connects directly to your modem, then communicates wirelessly with the other two, creating a large “mesh” network to spread WiFi around your home more effectively.

Regardless of which router type you choose, getting a good WiFi connection can be as much art as it is science. Materials like drywall and plaster will interfere with your router’s performance; even uninsulated doors and floors can cause signal degradation. But the biggest offenders are aluminum studs (found in office buildings and some modern apartments), insulated walls and floors, glass, and solid brick and stone. The more floors, walls, and windows of any kind in the way, the worse for the signal.

Read more on getting a stronger WiFi signal throughout your house.

Important Considerations

WiFi Standards
As of early 2021 the tech world is starting to transition away from the WiFi standard known as WiFi 5 toward WiFi 6, which is faster and boasts better support for more devices connected at the same time. You can still use older, WiFi 5-certified devices like smartphones and laptops with WiFi 6 routers, but you won’t receive the full advantages of WiFi 6 unless the device you’re using is certified for the new standard. For more on WiFi 6 be sure to read this article.

Booster Club
Internet service providers typically offer several tiers of service, and you can always upgrade your service if you find yourself needing more speed for apps like video calls or gaming. A connection speed of around 200 megabits per second should be able to handle a family’s worth of these sorts of tasks.

Frequent Houseguests or Airbnb Visitors?
If so, use the guest network, which is available with all the routers we tested. It’s a second network that provides online access without you having to give guests your regular security password, which would give them access to your primary network.

How Much Security Do You Need?
You should secure your router with a password with the latest available encryption standard, which is probably WPA2 or WPA3, depending on the age of your router. You’ll normally need to enter the password just once into each wireless device you use; afterward, the device will remember it. Read here for more on router security best practices.

Features to Consider

LAN Ports
LAN (local area network) ports are used to connect a computer to the router using an Ethernet cable. Many internet-connected smart home devices, such as Philips Hue and Samsung SmartThings products, require a LAN port-connected hub to function. If you need more LAN ports than the router has, you can expand the number available by adding an Ethernet switch, which is sort of like a power strip that adds open Ethernet ports.

USB Ports
USB ports on a router are used for connecting to a flash drive, an external hard drive, or a USB printer if the router has a built-in print server.

Quality of Service (QoS)
Also called media prioritization or traffic control. If you’re the type who likes to play with your computer settings, you might appreciate the flexibility this feature offers. You can optimize the router’s performance depending on what you’re doing at a given time. For example, you can change the settings to work best for streaming videos, making Skype calls, playing games, or streaming music. It will give those applications more of the bandwidth—so, for example, your Netflix movie doesn’t pause and rebuffer because someone in your house is downloading a large file.

App-Based Management
Accompanying almost every new router are apps meant to simplify the task of setting up and making adjustments to your WiFi network. The apps make it easier than before to monitor which devices are connected to your network and adjust which devices get priority. These apps can also alert you when an update is available for your router.

Wireless Router & Mesh Network Video Buying Guide

In this video guide, we explain what you need to consider when shopping for a new router.

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.