Illustration of a router sending out a WiFi signal

As anyone who has adapted to the realities of life during this pandemic knows, it’s hard to underestimate the value of good WiFi.

Without it, it’s almost impossible to work from home, learn remotely, binge-watch Netflix, and socialize with friends and family members via computer screen.

All that Slacking and Zooming places a huge stress on your internet network, especially when everyone in the family is vying for access to the WiFi signal.

“WiFi’s critical role in people’s everyday lives was really cemented in 2020,” says Kevin Robinson, senior vice president of marketing at the Wi-Fi Alliance, the group that sets and maintains industry standards.

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Thanks to recent updates in those standards, we may see some marked improvements in router performance in the year ahead, particularly for people who live in crowded apartment buildings. Based on pricing trends, more of us will be able to take advantage of mesh router technology, too, to blanket our homes in WiFi.

The latest models from Asus, D-Link, and Netgear also offer features to help you optimize your network, removing common internet speed bumps with greater ease. Some even provide built-in support for Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, allowing you to adjust router settings with simple voice commands.

“Okay, Google, turn on my guest network!”

Here’s a brief rundown of recent product developments that could improve your WiFi in 2021.

WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E

There’s a good chance the next router you buy will be compatible with the WiFi 6 standard (also known as 802.11ax) introduced in 2019. Models are finally becoming commonplace on store shelves.

WiFi 6 promises faster speeds and better performance than WiFi 5 (802.11ac) while maintaining compatibility with your old devices. Apple’s iPhone 12 and Sony’s PlayStation 5 are fully compatible with the standard, and we expect to see many other smartphones, gaming devices, laptops, tablets, and smart TVs feature support for it this year, too.

That means faster download speeds, less buffering, and smoother gameplay while waiting at home for some semblance of normal life to return.

Get ready to see another flavor of WiFi 6 in stores this year, as well.

In early January, Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link all unveiled routers designed to support WiFi 6E, a variant that extends into the 6-gigahertz band, a swath of wireless spectrum that was off-limits to consumers until the FCC granted access to it last spring. WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 routers can access only the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

The 6GHz band offers speeds up to 2 gigabits per second. By comparison, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands of WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 deliver up to 600 and 1,300 megabits per second, respectively.

That’s because the 6GHz band provides more channels. Those channels are wider, too. The added capacity gives devices that support WiFi 6E the ability to transmit data faster and with less interference. That’s especially important in densely populated environments like apartment buildings, where the growing constellation of devices owned by families can slow WiFi speeds to a crawl.

“The 6GHz band is really pristine spectrum,” Robinson says.

As awesome as that sounds, though, it will take some time for WiFi 6E to get a foothold in everyday life.

For one, the standard’s 6GHz band is strictly limited to WiFi 6E-certified devices. Older devices can connect to WiFi 6E routers, but because they use the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, they won’t receive the tech’s full benefits.

That problem should diminish over time, of course, as more and more WiFi 6E-certified devices appear in stores. (The Samsung Galaxy S21 just arrived on shelves last week, for example.)

Price is another problem. A WiFi 6E model, including the Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500 and Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000, can easily shoot past the $550 mark. That’s a lot of money to spend on a router, especially when you can buy a top-rated WiFi 6 model, such as Linksys’s Max-Stream AX1800, for just north of $100. 

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Linksys Max-Stream AX1800 (MR7350)

Price: $150

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Mesh Router Networks You Can Afford

We’ve been extolling the benefits of mesh routers for a few years now. When your WiFi woes have more to do with dead spots than pokey speeds, they solve the problem by employing multiple devices—generally a main hub and two “beacons” or “satellites”—that link together to spread WiFi signals throughout your home.

Until recently, however, mesh networks were prohibitively expensive. Eero, which pioneered the concept back in 2016, charged $500 for its original three-unit setup. And the prices of other models hovered between $300 and $500 for a while.

But models like the Netgear Orbi AC1200 and TP-Link Whole Home now offer strong mesh performance for less than $200. They might not provide all the features found on premium models (they use the WiFi 5 standard, for starters), but they certainly do improve the quality of the WiFi network in your home.

And the next generation of mesh WiFi routers promise even better performance. The Arris Surfboard Max AX6600, $200 per unit, and Linksys AXE8400, $450 per unit, are WiFi 6-compatible. They both offer built-in support for digital assistants, too.

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Netgear Orbi AC1200 (3-Pack)

Price: $200

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TP-Link Deco Whole Home (3-pack)

Price: $170

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Throughput mid-range
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New Ways to Optimize Your WiFi Network

On the most basic level, a router’s job is to take the internet signal coming into your home and distribute it to your devices. But today’s models do much more than that. They also have features that help you fine-tune your network.

You can, for example, use the quality-of-service feature (aka QoS or prioritization) in your router’s settings, generally accessible on the unit itself or via an accompanying mobile app, to determine which of your devices moves to the head of the WiFi line. That’s a good way to ensure that your work laptop gets first-class treatment.

If you see a model described as a gaming router, this is one of the key benefits. It makes sure the signal to your Xbox or PlayStation rarely gets delayed.

You can also go one step further and create dedicated networks for “mission critical” devices, such as laptops belonging to Mom and Dad, by using the two frequency bands supported by modern routers. Think of it like creating two separate WiFi networks.

The 2.4GHz network is generally slower but offers coverage at a longer range, which is great for smart home products such as security cameras. And “slower” here is relative—that band still lets you use common work-from-home apps such as Microsoft Office, Slack, and Zoom.

By placing critical devices on the 5GHz network, you can alleviate congestion, limiting the interference from Junior’s gaming console, Chromebook, and smartphone.

Beyond that, you’ll find models with robust parental controls to keep children safe (and limit how much time they spend playing Fortnite) and security alerts triggered when the WiFi signals floating through your home detect unexpected motion.

Companies such as Asus and Netgear have also started to integrate limited versions of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant in routers to offload common maintenance tasks to voice controls. So rather than scrolling through your router’s app or settings page, you merely ask the device to, say, share your WiFi password with guests, run speed tests, or reboot when something goes awry.

Some routers, like the just-announced TP-Link Deco X2, go one step further, essentially serving double duty as a full-fledged smart speaker. That means you can even turn the smart lights down, power up the TV, and settle in for movie night.