There are literally thousands of Wi-Fi routers on the market. Look through the catalog of an office supply or local computer store, and you'll be faced with a plethora of choices. And some vendors make it hard to compare models by giving marketing-based names to features that are really the same as competitors. This is our guide to the must-have features in a home Wi-Fi router today and five of the best to choose from.
What makes a good home Wi-Fi router?
Choosing a router can be challenging. Standards are updated every couple of years and local conditions can make a lot of difference in the performance of one model over another. The router that works well at your friend's place might not work so well at your depending on building substrates, local RF radiation and other environmental factors.
What's the frequency Kenneth?
Unless you're shopping at the bargain end of the market, ensure the router you choose offers 802.11ac communications with support for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. Even though 802.11ac only support 5GHz, it can fall back to the older 802.11 a/n and b/g standards. But it can't drop back to all those options unless it has a 2.4GHz radio.
The 5GHz frequency generally offers much better performance but on the off chance you need to support an older device or one that doesn't support 5GHz comms - many multifunction printers only work with 2.4GHz networks - then make sure you have full compatibility with both frequencies.
Today's homes can easily run a couple of dozen connected devices. As well as computers, tablets and smartphones, there are printers, home automation systems, VoIP phone systems, connected appliances, security cameras, media centres and all sorts of other gizmos that want to slurp from the Wi-Fi fountain.
There will times when certain devices and applications will need to have their traffic prioritised. Make sure those options are easily accessible so you can tweak things. And watch out for routers that carve off bandwidth. I once had a router that said it was prioritising but was actually squirrelling away bandwidth for an application even when it wasn't running.
I told the router to ensure an application had access to 10Mbps of traffic. But that 10Mbps was made unavailable to all apps even when the service I wanted to prioritise wasn't operating.
If you're a gamer, ensure the router has preset for all the games you prefer so you don't have to spend hours hunting down the right settings to prioritise your gaming traffic. No one wants to get fragged because of latency.
Have you checked the children?
Most home routers offer features to protect the kiddies from net nasties and blocking sites with content you might prefer they didn't see or hear.
But they can also be handy for forcing kids to get off their devices from time to time or ensuring they can't connect to the internet to check Instagram at 3:00AM.
If parental controls are important to you - look into what options are available on your preferred router.
You got the look
Many of the high-end routers look like they were designed by someone from Lucas Arts as props for the latest Star Wars trilogy. Sharp lines, gloss black and colourful detailing are quite common. Some models are made to sit flat and others upright. make sure you choose a model that fits where you plan to put it.
And a spot of port
While the world is increasingly wireless, there are some devices that just work better when wired. And, if you're a gamer, life is much faster on a wired connection and less susceptible to momentary comms glitches.
If that's important, ensure you have plenty of gigabit ethernet ports available. Four is usually the minimum you see but there are some models that offer as many as eight ports for hooking up devices.
So, lets look at five great routers for your home:
The Asus AC3100 Dual Band Gigabit WiFi Gaming Router with MU-MIMO offers 802.11ac with support for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The four antennae deliver great range and it support's Asus' AiMesh so it can connect to other compatible ASUS routers to create a whole-home Wi-Fi network. It also boasts eight Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Management is through the ASUS Router App so there's no need to fire up a PC and hit the web browser for config changes. It lets you control your network anywhere, without needing to boot up a PC and it has a built-in game accelerator from WTFast that lets you enjoy smooth gameplay in supported multi-player online games.
Asus recently announced a deal with Trend Micro for malware protection and there are Parental Controls and privacy protection to keep the family safe.
This is a pretty powerful device and it comes with a price tag to match. Street price is around $430.
If your needs or budget are a little more modest, the Netgear's R6400 AC1750 Smart Wi-Fi Router might be more your thing.
Most of the settings can be controlled through the NETGEAR genie App which lets you see what's happening from the router even when you're not home. And there are Parental controls web filtering for all your connected devices. that's important as you could potentially stop connected devices from connected with external servers if they don't need to.
It's also got a couple of USB ports (one USB 3 and a USB 2) for connecting and sharing storage or a printer with that storage also accessible remotely, giving you a quick and easy cloud storage service all of your own.
At around $200 it offers a good blend of features at a reasonable price.
I have to admit some affection for this router. The WRT line of routers are a favourite for enthusiasts as they support OpenWRT and other open source firmware making them super customisable. I had an early model, back in the 1990s and really enjoyed tinkering with the kinds of settings and options most router-makers hide from users.
The WRT1900ACS ticks all the boxes with four gigabit Ethernet ports, a USB port, eSata port and support for 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections. It's managed using a mobile app, as well a web browser, and even looks pretty good with its blue front.
At around $280, it's not cheap but of you're looking for a router that you can configure to be perfect in your environment then the WRT1900ACS can be made to suit your needs.
Synology Router RT2600ac
While Synology is mainly known as a NAS maker, they have created a couple of great routers that are worth a look. The Synology Router RT2600ac delivers solid dual-band performance with two USB ports and an SD Card reader built into the device.
Unlike most routers, Synology has taken the desktop-style GUI from their NAS range and ported it their routers. This makes them easy to set up and, through their marketplace of apps, you can extend the functionality of the RT2600ac with a VPN so you can remotely connect to your home network, as well file-sharing, download, security and other apps. This makes it really flexible and easy to customise.
The street price is around $340 - which is quite a bit lower than when we reviewed this model last year.
If you're on a budget, there are still some great options. The TP-Link AC1200 is a dual band router that will best suit smaller homes, offices and apartments.
It boasts four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a USB 2 port, and Bandwidth Controls so you can limit usage by individual users. Like all the others, there's also a Guest Network mode, so you can let friends enjoy some of your sweet megabits without getting access to all your network goodies. And there are Parental Controls so you can look after the kids.
At just $130 or so, the TP-Link AC1200 will suit the needs of the budget conscious.