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If you aren’t using a Wi-Fi router, then you should get one ASAP — even if you only have one connected device! Today’s routers offer useful features that you need to be taking advantage of. They’re so useful, in fact, that if you have one but it’s old, that qualifies as a major reason to consider upgrading your router.
In this article, we’ll explore the essential features to look for in a Wi-Fi router, the unnecessary features you may or may not need, and three recommendations for all budgets.
Essential Router Features
For us, an essential router feature is one that benefits everyone no matter who you are or what you use internet for. Not only are these standard features widely available, but you’ll sorely miss them if you buy a cheap or outdated router that lacks any of these.
- Dual-band: A dual-band router can transmit data on two frequencies: 2.4GHz (older) and 5.0GHz (newer). The 2.4GHz band is compatible with older devices, has longer range, uses less power, but is slower and prone to wireless congestion. Not all devices support the 5.0GHz band, and it has shorter range but is faster and more reliable. Learn more about how dual-band routers can improve your internet.
- 802.11ac: This is the latest mainstream Wi-Fi standard (compared to 802.11n, 802.11g, and 802.11b), which brings faster Wi-Fi speed, longer Wi-Fi range, and backward compatibility. That means an 802.11ac router will work fine with older devices that don’t support 802.11ac! Learn more about wireless AC routers.
- MU-MIMO: A router without MU-MIMO can get bottlenecked because it has to serve data to connected devices one at a time (like a dealer who deals cards to a table). With MU-MIMO, the router can serve connected devices simultaneously, which improves data transfer speeds. Learn more in our overview of wireless MU-MIMO.
- Quality of service: Sometimes called Bandwidth Control, quality of service is a feature that allows the router to prioritize certain devices (e.g. your PC) or certain kinds of traffic (e.g. Netflix streams) over other internet traffic. This comes in handy when someone on the network is hogging bandwidth. Learn more in our quick guide to quality of service on routers.
- Guest networks: Don’t want to give out your Wi-Fi password to one-time guests? Modern routers can create a separate “guest” network with a separate name and password, and it won’t interfere with the router’s “main” network.
- Gigabit Ethernet ports: For maximum performance, switch from Wi-Fi to Ethernet. But don’t settle for a router with Fast Ethernet ports, which caps out at 100Mbps. Opt for Gigabit Ethernet ports, which support speeds up to 1,000Mbps.
- External antennas: Generally speaking, external antennas provide a more reliable Wi-Fi connection than internal antennas, which means farther range and stronger signals.
With all of that said, we recommend sticking to a select number of reputable router brands when shopping for a Wi-Fi router.
Unnecessary Router Features
For us, an unnecessary router feature is one that’s either situationally useful, risky, or downright negligible. It’s ultimately up to you to decide whether or not you want these features in your router, but we think most people will do just fine without them.
- Parental controls: While some routers allow you to set up time restrictions and web filters, you can do this for free on a per-device basis: Windows 10 parental controls, Mac parental controls, Android parental controls, and iOS parental controls.
- USB ports: A router with USB ports lets you plug in a flash drive or external drive and access that data from any device connected to the network. This is useful, of course, but you can always use free cloud storage and NAS storage instead.
- Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS): WPS lets you connect devices to a router without having to enter a password. Turning on WPS on both the router and smart device establishes a Wi-Fi connection. But WPS is terribly insecure, so you should never really use it.
- Universal Plug and Play (UPnP): UPnP allows connected devices on the same router to find each other for network-related purposes. For example, two computers can share files or a computer can print to a wireless printer. Though this sounds convenient, UPnP is a security vulnerability and should not be used.
- Mesh network: Mesh routers are useful for huge homes that are too big for a single router’s coverage, but they’re expensive. If you live in an apartment or a relatively small home, you may just need a better router. Going to get one anyway? See our comparison of Google Wi-Fi vs. Eero vs. Orbi.
To help you decide, be sure to check out these key questions to ask before buying a Wi-Fi router. We also recommend ignoring the so-called “gaming router” label as they tend to be unnecessarily marked up in price. A non-gaming router works at least as good for gaming online.
Best Router for Most Users: Linksys AC1900
The Linksys AC1900 is a solid router for any home. It comes with MU-MIMO support so it provides unimpeded performance for multi-device households, supports dual-band Wi-Fi (up to 1,300Mbps on the 5.0GHz band), and comes equipped with four Gigabit Ethernet ports, one USB 3.0 port, and one USB 2.0 port.
Other notable features include bandwidth control and prioritization, a separate guest network, and parental controls. Its three external antennas give it enough range for medium-sized homes. Plus, it’s robust and reliable. You can’t beat it for the price.
Best Netgear Router for Performance: Netgear Nighthawk X6S
The Netgear Nighthawk series consists of top-shelf consumer routers on the market. The Nighthawk X6S isn’t the most expensive, but it is the highest you’ll want to go because the value-per-dollar plummets if you spend any more than this.
Notable features include MU-MIMO for performance, tri-band support (which means one 2.4GHz band and two 5.0GHz bands), a blazingly fast 1.8GHz CPU so traffic processing never becomes a bottleneck, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, six external antennas, and voice commands with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
Best Router on a Budget: TP-Link Archer C7
If you can’t stomach spending more than $100 on a router, consider the TP-Link Archer C7. You get plenty for your money: dual-band support, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 2.0 ports, three external antennas, bandwidth control and prioritization, support for a guest network, and parental controls.
What’s missing? MU-MIMO. That’s a downer for households with lots of internet-connected devices, but that’s the cost you pay for such an affordable option. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a quality router in this price range that also offers MU-MIMO.
Having Trouble With Your Wi-Fi Router?
After buying and setting up your new router, you need to configure it. Because sometimes routers don’t work properly at first.
We recommend checking out our tips on why your Wi-Fi is slow and ways to boost router speed. And while performance is important, don’t forget about security! It takes less than 10 minutes to secure your router and prevent disaster.
What are your favorite router features? Which router are you using right now? Share with us down in the comments below!