How to Tell When It's Time to Replace Your Router
These are the signs that your router is no longer fit for duty
Before COVID-19 forced many of us to work and learn remotely, the difference between a so-so router and a great one wasn't that important.
As long as Netflix worked in the living room and the kids could play games online with their friends, why bother thinking about it?
But now that wireless routers have become a more critical part in our lives, it’s time to pay closer attention to them. That includes recognizing when they should be replaced, either because they no longer perform well or aren't receiving security updates.
The security concern is a big one. We trust wireless routers to safely and reliably connect our laptops, smart TVs, and video game consoles to the internet. The last thing we want is to have data we send or receive become vulnerable to hackers.
To be clear, we're talking here about routers you buy and set up yourself, not the ones provided by internet service providers for a monthly fee. If you have questions about those routers, call your ISP.
If you own your router, there is no clear-cut way to decide when to replace it. But there are a few signs that indicate it’s time to say goodbye.
Even if your router appears to be working well, you’ll want to replace it if it’s no longer receiving firmware updates.
These updates are installed automatically on some routers, while other routers require you to do it. An update can add useful new features to your router. For instance, last year, Google introduced a tool for its Nest WiFi and Google WiFi routers to minimize video call disruptions like buffering or stuttering.
You also should upgrade your router if it's no longer delivering fast and reliable WiFi to your devices. You can determine this a few ways.
You might suddenly find that you can’t watch Netflix in 4K on the couch while the kids are chatting with their friends on Discord in their rooms. Large downloads, such as games from platforms like Steam and Xbox GamePass, may take forever and a day to finish. Or maybe you can’t quite get a decent connection in your spare bedroom turned home office.
But before you buy a new router, run a speed test or two to get an idea how fast your connection is to the internet. This will tell you whether the problem is really with the router or with your internet service provider.
Speed tests are somewhat finicky and you may see different results depending on several factors, including time of day and other activity on your network, but they’ll give you a good idea of the speed you’re getting.
And if that number is materially different from the speed you’re paying for, you’ll want to call your ISP to see what’s going on. It could be an issue on their end. Or if the speeds match, you may just need to pay for a faster tier of service to handle the demands you're putting on your system.
But if the data speeds coming into your home seem okay, it could be that your router is no longer up to the task. That might be particularly true if you have better connectivity in one part of the house than in another.
If it has been quite a while since you last upgraded your router, you might not know that a relatively new type of technology, called mesh networking, has become quite popular.
Routers that use this technology are typically sold in packs of two or three, and they work together to spread WiFi throughout your home. In many cases, you’ll get better performance with a mesh router than a traditional, single-unit router, particularly if you live in a larger home.
Right now there are 56 models in CR's ratings, split across two categories: wireless (aka single-unit) and multi-unit mesh WiFi models. The following are some of the best of the bunch, with an emphasis on models that have automatic firmware updates.