The Best Wireless Router
Connect your gadgets without the headache.
Wireless routers might not be the sexiest gadgets, but let’s face it: You need a good one. Whether you work from a home office or have a large family with a collection of computers, tablets, and smartphones, you need this essential part of your home-tech setup to have a fast, reliable internet connection.
It’s easy to tell whether a router is serving your needs. Either you’re able to load websites quickly and painlessly, or you’re ready to pull your hair out over the sluggish connection. And between all the tech-speak and the exhaustive lists of specs, it almost requires expert-level knowledge to narrow the search down to one excellent router.
Relying on a solid WiFi connection, we’ve experienced the agony of a subpar connection. To simplify the shopping process, we did our research by looking at the wireless routers currently on the market, reading tech publications, surveying consumer reviews, and talking to experts in the field to help find the best overall models.
After narrowing down a massive list of almost 40 products and hours of speed testing later, the TP-Link Archer C8 was the clear top pick, thanks to its very strong wireless range and speed, all for a reasonable price point.
The 5 overall best wireless routers
How We Chose the Best Wireless Router
To find the best wireless router, we spent more than 20 hours researching online, reading reviews on reputable tech sites such as CNET, PCMag, Trusted Reviews, and Wirecutter. We explored which features are most important to users by reading reviews on e-commerce sites like Amazon and Newegg. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the customer reviews we read focused on wireless speed, with easy router setup figuring heavily into a product’s rating.
Samara Lynn, the founder of home-networking site Smart Lairs and the former router reviewer at PCMag, provided essential insight on what features a great wireless router should have. To round it all out, we conducted a survey on Google, asking 1,500 random users which features they care about most. We kept the top response (speed of connection) in mind when considering which products to include as finalists.
After my initial research, we had a list of nearly 40 wireless routers. To whittle that number down, we compared the products’ review scores across consumer sites and tech publications. Since customers on sites like Amazon have a wide variety of home setups, we prioritized ratings on CNET and similar publications that test every product’s range from the same distances and measure speed using the same benchmarks each time.
After eliminating the routers with the lowest aggregate ratings, we spent time on more specialized networking sites, including SmallNetBuilder. We saw how all the routers performed in extensive wireless performance testing, including measuring download and upload speeds as well as how long it took to transfer files of various sizes. This helped narrow down the list even further to include only the fastest models. Eventually, we ended up with 14 products worthy of in-depth testing.
I live in New York City, and it turns out that my apartment in lower Manhattan is a great place to put a wireless router through its paces. Not only are there plenty of other routers using the same frequencies in this densely populated neighborhood, but also my apartment’s thick concrete walls allowed us to push a router’s range to the limits. We used Speedtest.net to test each router’s performance from various distances, starting from eight feet away and going as far as across the street from my apartment building (about 50 feet).
I evaluated the ease of use for each router, from setup to navigating the browser-based interface. To measure throughput (the speed a router can process information), we transferred a file between a MacBook Air and an external hard drive attached to the router, timing how long it took to both upload and download. For the test, we used a 1.08GB disc image of the program Photoshop, a fairly large-sized file. Finally, we evaluated each wireless router’s design and — most importantly — value for the money.
Not everyone has a degree in IT. With that in mind, we focused on routers that don’t require a ton of specialized knowledge. Since we was on a quest to find the best overall wireless router, we didn’t prioritize more advanced features such as support for alternative firmware like DD-WRT.
It’s impossible to pick one best router [for everyone]. It depends on your WiFi needs, how many devices are in your home or office, your budget, your security concerns, and myriad other factors.
A Full Review of the Best Wireless Router
The TP-Link Archer C8 router is fast and consistent, and its $130 price puts it leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. This is an 802.11ac router, so it’s future-proof for the next generation of wireless devices. Plus, it doesn’t skimp on bonus features like USB 3.0. For the average user, this router makes an excellent case for staying south of the $150 mark — you can buy more expensive models, but unless you need advanced functionality, why would you?
When we ran speed tests on my MacBook Air at various distances from the router, we was impressed with the C8’s consistently speedy performance. At about 20 feet and two rooms away from the router, we saw download speeds of 57 Mbps and uploads of 61.7 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. With my ISP, Verizon FiOS, my provider-throttled internet speed caps out at around 65, so the C8 essentially performed as well as possible.
The Archer C8 doesn’t just excel at short ranges exclusively, though. We took my laptop to the communal lounge one story below my apartment — with thick concrete separating each floor — and still got a speedy connection. This router was especially impressive on the 5GHz band, which has less interference from other devices trying to get online, but also a shorter range than the 2.4GHz band. (One of the runners-up for the best router, the ASUS RT-AC68U, was a speed demon on the 5GHz band when my laptop was within a 20-foot range, but when we took a trip downstairs, the 5GHz network disappeared completely.)
In the name of thoroughness, we even took a laptop across the street (about 50 feet away from the router), and the C8 turned in a superb download rate of 51.9 Mbps. All the strange looks we got for standing in front of a fast-food restaurant with a laptop were worth it — no other router came close to the C8’s speed at this range.
The TP-Link Archer C8 is available for $130 at Amazon. Setup is straightforward, but there’s always TP-Link customer service, should you encounter any performance hiccups.
The Archer C8 gives you the absolute top-of-line performance in regards to range and speed, but [is] still surprisingly affordable!
Who is it best for?
The TP-Link Archer C8 is an unbeatable pick for folks who want a reliable and speedy wireless connection at a reasonable price. If you want to stay below $150, this is your best bet — just don’t expect a state-of-the-art design. It fits the bill if you’re looking for a simple interface, as the Archer C8’s browser-based portal makes it easy to tweak basic settings.
Who should skip it?
Anyone with zero tech knowledge looking for advanced features. There’s no shortage of features on the Archer C8, but you’ll need a bit of networking savvy (or at the very least some patience) to access them. For example, you can connect an external hard drive and share files, but you’ll need to access a Samba server to do so. Other router manufacturers, such as D-Link, have easier-to-navigate interfaces.
Those who can spend more. Make no mistake, you can find a faster, more aesthetically pleasing router, but it will cost you. The C8 is the pick for best overall router because it offers the best value without sacrificing performance. If you raise your budget by $50 or more, you’ll find options with better speed and range.
Anyone looking for a work of art. The white, plasticky TP-Link Archer C8 is hardly an eyesore, but it’s not the sleekest router, either. If you want a device that looks good enough to display in a sculpture niche, you’ll want to take a pass on this one.
The Runners-Up for the Best Wireless Router
While only one router can earn the distinction of being “the best,” that doesn’t mean there aren’t other excellent options out there to consider.
ASUS RT-AC68U ($180). This router was neck and neck with the Archer C8, but ultimately lost due to the latter’s better range and lower price. Still, the RT-AC68U is impressively fast, with an easy-to-use interface and quick file-transfer times to boot. It’s also widely available, and you can purchase it from Amazon, Newegg, and other tech retailers.
Linksys WRT1900AC ($212). Going for $212 on Amazon, this Linksys router is too pricy to beat the competition, but it’s worth a look for those willing to spend some extra dough. We saw impressive speeds from both the short and long range, and the WRT1900AC’s file-transfer rates were the fastest among the routers we tested. One potential downside for aesthetically minded types: The blue-and-black design is clunky.
D-Link DIR-880L ($165). Speed, range, and the user interface are all top-notch on the DIR-880L, which is currently selling for $165 on Amazon. When connecting to the router from a distance, the 2.4GHz band fell a bit short, though. We also found the 5GHz performance to be finicky. We had to play around with the external antennas and switch channels several times before we got a stellar connection.
Netgear Nighthawk R7000 ($200). Another more expensive option, the $200 Nighthawk R7000 is very fast, and it’s not bad looking, either. Just be prepared for a laggy interface — especially when you’re changing any wireless settings. The model’s currently on sale via 10 online retailers, including Dell and Amazon.
Other Wireless Routers to Consider
The Best Cheap Wireless Router
According to Lynn, you can get a decent router for $20. Available for $50, the TP-Link TL-WDR3600 is a bit more expensive than that, but it’s still an excellent value for anyone looking to spend less than $100. Unlike other similarly priced routers, the TL-WDR3600 is dual-band — meaning it can operate on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands — and it includes two USB 2.0 ports for sharing an external hard drive or printer. Plenty of customers have raved about the router on Amazon; it garnered 1,550 reviews with an average score of 3.9 out of 5 stars. You can find this router on Amazon as well as other online vendors, including Newegg, Office Depot, and Staples.
The Best High-End Wireless Router
If money is no object and you’re after the crème de la crème of wireless routers, look no further than the D-Link DIR-890L/R. This tri-band model is blazing fast, which helps justify the high price. All the bells and whistles are here, too, including remote-access management, USB 3.0 connections, and the ability to create guest networks. The red, angular DIR-890L/R sports one of the most distinctive designs I’ve seen on a router. Plus, it offers an impressive wireless range, making this router an excellent choice for a large home. You can find the DIR-890L/R at Amazon, Best Buy and other e-tailers, as well as through D-Link’s own online store.
The Best Wireless Router for Gaming
It should come as no surprise that the best high-end router is also the best pick for gaming. After all, you want a super-fast connection to see you through graphics-heavy titles, so the DIR-890L/R fits the bill perfectly. If $310 is a bit more than you were planning on spending, the $212 Linksys WRT1900AC and the $165 D-Link DIR-880L are strong alternatives. You can find this router on Amazon as well as other online vendors, including Newegg, Office Depot, and Staples.
Choosing the Right Type of Wireless Router for You
When shopping for a wireless router, you’ll likely be confronted with mile-long lists of specs using terms like “QoS” and “beamforming.” To help you decode the networking-speak, here are some definitions:
Bandwidth: A wireless connection’s maximum data-transfer rate, usually measured in Mbps or Gbps.
Beamforming: A process that concentrates the focus of your WiFi signal so that your devices get a better connection — often found on 802.11ac routers.
Client: Any device connected to your router, such as a laptop or smartphone.
Dual-band: A dual-band router can transmit signals on both the 2.4GHz- and 5GHz-frequency bands. Having more than one signal band allows a router to have better range and speed.
ISP: Your ISP is your internet service provider. Time Warner and Verizon are both ISPs, for example.
QoS: Short for “quality of service.” A network with QoS lets you prioritize different types of internet traffic. For example, you can designate online gaming as most important.
Throughput: Whereas bandwidth is the maximum data-transfer rate of a wireless connection, throughput is a measure of the amount of data that actually moves through the wireless connection. Like bandwidth, it’s usually measured in Mbps or Gbps.
802.11n Versus 802.11ac
According to Lynn, a router should have WPA2 security, and “at the very least” should support the 802.11n wireless standard. Most newer, higher-end routers also support the 802.11ac standard, which provides faster WiFi, but is still not commonplace among all wireless devices. Lynn says that will change in the next three to five years, though, so if you’re looking to future-proof your purchase, you may want to prioritize 802.11ac support.
Another factor to consider: “802.11n routers require a little more tech know-how to set up and maintain,” Lynn explains. If you’re not confident in your networking skills, it might save you some headaches to spend a bit more for an 802.11ac device.
Assuming you’ve narrowed down your shopping list to several routers with WPA2 security and support for 802.11n or higher, what else should you consider? Think about what functionality, if any, you expect out of a router beyond connecting to the internet. For instance, if you want to connect a hard drive to the router to share files wirelessly, you’ll want to find a model with at least one USB port.
What Makes a Good Wireless Router?
Plain and simple: A good wireless router is one that gets you online with a fast, reliable connection.
The Three Most Important Features
Security. A good router will include WPA2 security, the latest standard for protecting the personal information on your devices.
Speed. A good wireless router is one that gets you online with a fast, reliable connection. In your search for the perfect one, you can’t just believe the marketing. Companies will use clever tricks, like adding the maximum speed of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands together to make it seem like they offer faster speeds than the competition. In reality, you’ll never see those numbers, as your ISP likely caps your connection at a certain speed (check your wireless internet package to find your maximum speed; each tier usually offers up to a certain number of Mbps). Routers that support the newer 802.11ac standard offer faster speeds than 802.11n products.
Range. Aside from offering fast speed, a good wireless router should offer decent range. Depending on your needs, good range can mean anything from a connection from just five feet away to getting a signal from down the street. In any case, a wireless router should provide a strong enough connection to keep you online anywhere in your house or office. Slightly longer range is another benefit of opting for an 802.11ac router.
Bonus Features to Look For
Guest network. A router with guest-network support lets you share your internet with friends without giving them access to the personal files on your computers.
External antennas. External antennas can be adjusted to improve your network’s signal.
Beamforming. This technology lets you focus your network’s signal to counteract obstacles like interfering equipment and thick walls.
Clearly, there are many options, and many of them are budget-friendly. If your networking needs are straightforward, the TP-Link Archer C8 is a great choice. And if you have something more specific in mind, hopefully you know which specs to prioritize. In any case, remember to look for a dual-band router — and try to find an 802.11ac model if you don’t want to replace it anytime soon.
Have any questions about wireless routers that weren’t addressed in this review? Is there a must-have wireless router you think we should have included? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Our Favorite Wireless Router Reviews From Around the Web
Amazon It’s no surprise that the biggest online marketplace has a wealth of reviews for every kind of product, including wireless routers. You’ll find plenty of insight from networking novices and IT experts alike.
PCMag offers comprehensive coverage of routers in all categories, and you can sort products by company, price, and more.