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When it comes to home networking questions, what we’re really looking for are two things: faster speeds and better reliability.

Any router that improves on one – or both – of these things takes a prominent position as the next best thing. But is it?

Several new(ish) high-priced routers are starting to make their rounds on the tech sites; the most notable of these being the Nighthawk X6 3200. Which, let’s admit, sounds really freaking cool.

But does it do anything your current router can’t? Will it be a significant improvement for your home network Everything You Need to Know About Home Networking Everything You Need to Know About Home Networking Setting up a home network is not as hard as you think it is. Read More ?

It depends.

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Breaking Down the Jargon

Internet connectivity is a jargon-heavy industry. 802.whatever, GHz, Mbps, AC technology, dual-band, and now tri-band routers feature enough tech terms to make your head spin. This new breed of routers features a few specific technologies you might not have known about; so let’s discuss.

AC Standard

Before the AC standard, we had a logical progression of letter-based choices for our routers: a, b, g, and n. One of the improvements in the AC standard was backwards compatibility. This allowed you to keep pace with current tech, while not sending older devices into obsolescence.

Speed was the other main selling point. However, it’s important to note that router standards don’t work in absolutes. Each speed cited is an estimated maximum speed and finally summed up in an aggregated maximum, meaning, you will never reach it.

The 802.11ac standard Should You Buy A Wireless 802.11ac Router? Should You Buy A Wireless 802.11ac Router? 802.11ac promises blistering speeds, but many consumers are just now getting around to upgrading to 802.11n, leaving many to wonder if the new version is worthwhile. Read More , for example, has a cited speed of 1.3 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means you could see speeds of up to 166 megabytes per second (MBps) or 1331 megabits per second (Mbps). Of course, that’s under the assumption you ISP could deliver speeds that fast.

Tri-Band

Devices commonly run on one of two frequencies: 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Cordless phones, smart TVs, your laptop, etc.; all use 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. The inherent flaw in this strategy is that your devices, as well as those of your neighbors, are all running on one of these two frequencies. That leads to network congestion, and diminished speed and reliability.

networked-home-devices

A dual-band router How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes Using a router that supports the dual-band standard can significantly boost your Wi-Fi speeds in many circumstances. Read More allows you to use both 2.4GHz or 5GHz simultaneously. The idea is to connect your devices to the least crowded frequency and/or channel When Defaults Are Bad: How To Pick a Unique Wireless Channel For Your Router When Defaults Are Bad: How To Pick a Unique Wireless Channel For Your Router Wired ethernet will always be better than wireless connections, but sometimes you don’t have a choice - all manner of mobile devices need wifi. There is however one very basic step you can take which... Read More to maximize signal efficiency. There are other factors at play here, but this is the simplified explanation.

A tri-band router acts like its dual-band counterpart, but has an extra 5Ghz channel built in. Why? Well, that’s where it gets somewhat complicated.

3200Mbps

The maximum theoretical speed that the 2.4GHz band can achieve is 600Mbps, and 1300Mbps on 5GHz. In the case of the Nighthawk X6 3200, it’s advertised speed is 3200Mbps — but how does it achieve it? It’s important to remember the number is an aggregated throughput maximum for a tri-band router with one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, hence a total max speed of 600+1300+1300, or 3200Mbps.

How a Tri-Band AC Router Works

I stated previously that adding the extra 5GHz channel made things confusing. The confusing point – in a consumer sense – is understanding why you would want to upgrade your router if the technology didn’t offer you better speeds.

netgear-x6-tri-band

The best analogy I’ve seen on this matter is the following, from D-Link:

“A good metaphor that explains why Tri-Band is better is freeway congestion. When there’s traffic on a freeway and you’re crawling along at 10mph, increasing the speed limit isn’t going to help anyone get anywhere sooner. If you were to add another lane, though, traffic would clear faster and, in the future, congestion would be less of a problem.”

So, while the stated speeds haven’t increased, you have lessened traffic on the road. This makes everything move a bit faster.

This is especially important for the tech-centric households (like mine) who could have upwards of a dozen (or more) devices connected to a single router. Any time you can split those up into different channels so they’re not all crowding one; you’re going to see better performance.

Is It Actually Faster?

Well, yes… and no.

The newest line of tri-band AC routers touting greater than gigabit speeds is a bit of sneaky – bordering on outright deceptive – advertising. In fairness, Netgear actually presented this fact when introducing their new X6, but let’s be honest, it’s really unlikely that a consumer is going to see an industry presentation about a new router. What’s more likely to happen is said consumer walking in to their nearest big box electronics chain, and picking up two Netgear routers – one AC1750 and the other AC3200 – before walking to the register with the obviously superior 3200. Manufacturers are well aware of this.

Okay, back to the point. Is it faster?

It all depends on how we’re defining the word. Is it going to give you better maximum speeds? No.

Are your devices going to seem faster since they are now sharing more channels? Yes.

So Why Does This Matter?

It doesn’t.

In all reality, most ISPs are nowhere near the max stated speeds of their existing routers. Even when those kinds of speeds do become available, you’ll never get them in your home. Maximum speed calculations are performed in a controlled environment, without interference, and under perfect conditions. Your home? Not quite as perfect. The average home deals with interference both internally and from neighbors, positioning issues, and a host of other problems that could affect your WiFi Does Your WiFi Speed Drop? Here Is Why & How To Fix It! Does Your WiFi Speed Drop? Here Is Why & How To Fix It! One moment you're absolutely dominating in your online game while downloading some movies (legally, of course), and the next moment you can barely load a simple web page. What gives? Read More .

Wireless network set-up errors 10 Wrong Ways To Set Up Your Wireless Network 10 Wrong Ways To Set Up Your Wireless Network Set up your wireless network properly by learning from these ten avoidable mistakes. Read More  often make these even worse.

linksys-802-router

Should You Upgrade?

For most consumers, I wouldn’t suggest an upgrade at this point unless you have a few hundred dollars that you just can’t wait to get rid of. The performance increases will range from incremental to non-existent depending on just how connected your home actually is. Remember, this isn’t actually faster — in terms of maximum transfer speed — than existing router technology using the 802.11ac standard.

That said, there are scenarios that would benefit from a tri-band router: homes with a dozen or more connected devices. The extra band helps alleviate network congestion, providing a smoother experience overall.

Some of the new routers also claim that they’ll help increase in-home coverage. If that’s a problem you have, then it may be worth looking at a new router. However, it’s important to note that the fact it’s tri-band isn’t going to bring WiFi to your dead zones What Is A Wireless "Dead Zone" And How To Eliminate It? What Is A Wireless "Dead Zone" And How To Eliminate It? We take Wi-Fi for granted, but it's not magic -- it's radio waves. These radio waves can be interfered with or obstructed, producing wireless "dead zones" or "dead spots." Read More .

Do you own a tri-band router? Let us know in the comments how it’s helped your particular circumstance. If you don’t own a tri-band router, are you thinking about making the leap?

Photo credits: Network cables closeup via Shutterstock, Linksys router by Frederik Hermann via Flickr, Home WiFi network via Shutterstock

  1. Marshall
    August 6, 2016 at 2:17 am

    I got a 2 tri-band routers, the ea9200 and dir-890/r and i found them slower then my dual band wrt1900acs and ea8500. I think the slowness is due to the tri-band routers having 1 ghz processor and only 256 mb of ram, where as the wrt1900acs and ea8500 have 1.6 ghz and 1.4 ghz processors with 512 mb of ram.

  2. Fred
    May 9, 2016 at 4:52 am

    How about intra-network speeds? If you have media on local NAS boxes, then a tri-band will allow that to stream fast over your network.

  3. styvus
    February 24, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    I purchased an ASUS 5300ac tri-band router. Has great firewall/protection settings. If you are running servers on your cable. I have comcast and have a 150mb connection, but truly only runs about 115-120. I also run a router behind router, a Linksys WRT1900ACS strictly for all my tivo devices. I see a noticeable improvement in range and speed.

  4. erhan
    December 27, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Everyone here is missing the point. Forget the internet traffic.
    This product would be great for me because of the following.
    I have 4 family members on a given night on the computer/devices.
    I also have 2 chromecast devices which consumes a lot of bandwidth.
    If I use one chromecast and PS4 while 2 other people are using the laptops, my chromecast would lag or not work.
    Most devices are new and use 802.11ac so having two channels for 5ghz sounds great.
    It's like adding extra ram to your computer. Doesn't speed it up like a processor upgrade but will speed up heavy load/traffic.

    • craPkit
      January 20, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      Local network congestion is what I've been thinking too. Still, I'd like to see empirical research regarding a practical threshold for Dual- vs Tri-Band.

  5. Matthew Day
    May 29, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    My first thought on seeing "Tri-Band" was "have they opened up another frequency". Depending on the local occupancy, this so-called triband may be as antisocial as using wide mode (N150 or N300) on 2.4Ghz. The only thing this marketing snake oil actually delivers, is if you are operating more than one device capable of saturating throughput, and have the throughput available for it to be an issue

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      I think most of what we hear in terms of "new" router technology for the next few years is going to include a healthy dose of marketing spin.

  6. Luide Kakembo
    May 29, 2015 at 11:51 am

    I'm exceedingly curious about this chase for download speeds. Should 1.3Gbps throughput capability really worry people yet standard HDD's only support 480Mbps transfer rates on average? Tri-band would only make sense in scenarios involving multiple connected devices and users, splitting them up across 3 bands would certainly reduce the network load that would be experienced on a single wireless channel.

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:17 pm

      It's a race for higher stated speed... nothing more. Most ISPs in the United States are years away from reaching current stated router speed max's, so I'm not sure why we're in such a rush. That said, in countries with better Internet, like South Korea, I can buy into it a bit more.

      • Luide Kakembo
        June 9, 2015 at 9:25 am

        Indeed, it is all for higher stated speeds. And technically, they aren't lying, though it is misleading because not all spec sheet readers are technically competent.

      • erhan
        December 27, 2015 at 7:58 pm

        mm

  7. Yea-Min YOUN (DJ HabinPapa)
    May 29, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Hello, My ISP recently installed a gigabit line in my apartment building, so I had my contract upgraded. With wired connection, I've seen download speed hitting 27MB/s while downloading something from Steam. It's not at the theoretical max speed, but am quite happy with the speed. Now, in my household there are 4 mobile devices and 2 laptops connected to a dual band AC router over WIFI . They are on for the most of the time, and all support AC standard. So the question is....should I buy this thing?

    • Yea-Min YOUN (DJ HabinPapa)
      May 29, 2015 at 11:51 am

      sorry, that 27MB/s was over wireless connection, not wired. do you think a tri-band router will push up the nominal WIFI speed with my situation?

      • Bryan Clark
        June 4, 2015 at 10:19 pm

        If you have 6 devices that are nearly all connected and you run into sluggish speeds from time to time, a tri-band router can't hurt... but, I'm not sure it'll help much either. In the grander scheme of things that isn't a "lot" of connected devices - and your current dual band router should do the job.

  8. siedlerc
    May 29, 2015 at 12:52 am

    I'm sorry but this article is just wrong that upgrading isn't faster. Those max speeds are never anywhere close to achievable on consumer devices, they are literally the max possible at that frequency with completely optimal conditions and equipment. You do need the higher frequency! There is a simple test, connect two devices a 5 GHZ and another at 2.4 GHZ. Say your internet allows you to download at 30 Mbps. Surely you should be able to get this just fine on a 2.4GHZ device? Wrong. Your wireless device will probably get stuck around 14 or 15 Mbps, while the 5 GHZ device, maybe even the same router with multiple frequencies can hit the max of your internet speed at 30Mbps. This is partially due to the channel's but busy channels on 2.4 will actually only give you 5-6 Mbps in a city. TLDR: Upgrade to 5GHZ.

    • Bryan Clark
      June 4, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      I'm not 100% sure what you're meaning to say. I didn't say it wouldn't be faster, I'm saying the speed gains for most people (using 12.1 MBPS as the "average") would be minimal, or non-existent.

      Also, we use two 30Mbps connections in our home (spotty Internet in Mexico), and both can reach or exceed that speed at 2.4GHz. Unfortunately, there are no real absolutes in terms of wireless internet, and a lot depends on positioning, the router, your ISP, the location of your home, etc. I do agree that creating a wider channel can fix some of these issues, but you can do this with a dual-band router as well... hence my confusions as to why you say that everyone must upgrade.

  9. likefun butnot
    May 28, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    High speed 802.11 is exceedingly useful if you have devices that can take advantage of all three transceivers. It's entirely possible to get 3x3 NICs on business-grade (Lenovo /Dell/ HP) hardware that will gain real benefit during large file transfers. This is handy for things like backups or other data transfers to a NAS or file server regardless of what sort of internet bandwidth might or might not be available. A bit off topic, but I also use a couple 450Mbps 802.11ac links for modest point to point wireless connections even though the output on each side is only 100Mbit. In those cases, the high bandwidth made available for the wireless link ensures that I have a stable connection even under less than ideal circumstances (the "added lanes" part of the analogy).

  10. James Bruce
    May 28, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    You're forgetting quite a major point though: it's not always about your internet connection - it's about your internal network speeds. You can benefit when streaming movies from your home NAS to your mobile device, or doing internal file transfers from your laptop to main PC, or backups to your home server, for instance. These kind of routers are fairly pointless in the 1 or 2 device home where all grandma does is browse the internet, but that's why they're marketed at people like me instead. I do need throw gigabytes of video files around internally, and that speed bump to non-wired devices is much appreciated ;)

    • Lawrence
      March 21, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      Thank you! Exactly what I was thinking.

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