Choosing the Best Wireless Router

One of the many lessons we learned in recent years as a result of the pandemic is the importance of having a fast and stable home WiFi network.

Apps such as Google Classroom, Slack, and Zoom are crucial to working and learning remotely, while services like Disney+, Netflix, and Xbox Game Pass keep us entertained in our downtime. Even now, with (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic behind us, there’s no doubt that access to a reliable WiFi signal is a modern necessity.

All of which means you need a wireless router that works well and fits your budget.

But what makes a router good? And how do you know which one is right for you? Results from Consumer Reports’ testing can help you answer those questions.

What Is a Router?

A router takes the WiFi signal from the modem provided by your internet service provider (ISP), or the one you bought yourself, and wirelessly sends it to the devices in your home, including laptops, smart speakers, TVs, smartphones, and tablets.

Routers often have ports that allow you to connect them directly to, say, a game console via an Ethernet cable for WiFi service that’s typically faster and more reliable. You can also use an Ethernet cable to connect a printer to your home network so that it can be shared by everyone in your family.

Your ISP may provide you with a wireless router for a monthly rental fee as part of your internet package. At times, the device serves as both your router and your modem.

But if a router is outdated or limited in range, the WiFi signal may be too slow or too weak to provide internet access in important places in your home.

Another feature of many modern routers is automatic firmware updates. This ensures that your router always has the latest security patches as they become available, helping keep you and your data safe.

More on Wireless Routers

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 home 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, usually sold in packs of two or three, 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, as can the water in a fish tank. 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.

For more info, we have an article filled with tips on how to get a stronger WiFi signal throughout your home.

Important Considerations

WiFi Standards
Routers that support the latest WiFi standard—WiFi 6—first appeared on store shelves in late 2019. Compared with WiFi 5, which dates back to 2014, WiFi 6 is faster and boasts better support for the growing number of connected devices now found in today’s homes.

You may sometimes see WiFi 6 referred to by its technical term of 802.11ax (including in our ratings).

WiFi 6 is backward compatible, so a tablet, a laptop, or any other device made before the year 2019 won’t have trouble connecting to a WiFi 6 router. But those devices will not get the full benefits of WiFi 6.

The latest Apple and Android smartphones are compatible with WiFi 5 routers, too, but they’ll be capped at WiFi 5 speed, which, to be fair, is plenty fast. (It’s not like people living in, say, 2018, were suffering from unbearably slow WiFi.) And because you can still find WiFi 5 routers for sale, often for less than you’d pay for a WiFi 6 router, a WiFi 5 router may sometimes be the smarter buy.

Booster Club
Internet service providers typically offer several tiers of service, and you can 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 in our ratings. 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 Buying Guide Video

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.