Shopping for a new router can feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t really understand what you’re looking for. There’s lots of jargon to wrap your head around, plenty of hyperbolic claims about speed and coverage to sift through, ISP limitations to take into consideration — and that’s before you try to comprehend the newfangled features that come with emerging, next-gen Wi-Fi tech.
But there’s no need to feel paralyzed if it’s time for an upgrade. If you understand some key basics, you’ll have no problem finding the right router for your family. Here’s a primer to help you do just that.
Wi-Fi was developed and standardized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which classifies the technology within the 802 family of standards for local area networks. The IEEE’s full code for Wi-Fi is 802.11, pronounced “eight-oh-two-dot-eleven.” The “.11” distinguishes Wi-Fi from other standards in the family, including Ethernet (802.3), Bluetooth (802.15.1), and Zigbee (802.15.4).
Over the years, the IEEE has done quite a bit to certify new improvements to Wi-Fi and standardize them for widespread use. That’s where those confusing letters that come after “802.11” come into play. Each of them denotes specific generations of Wi-Fi. For instance, the first version of Wi-Fi that was widely used was released in 1999 and called 802.11b; shortly after that came 802.11a, then 802.11g in 2003 and 802.11n in 2009. 802.11ac, the current-gen version of Wi-Fi that most devices use today, was first introduced in 2013.
If your eyes glazed over a bit just now, I’ve got some good news for you. The Wi-Fi Alliance, the nonprofit trade organization that holds the Wi-Fi trademark, finally realized that Wi-Fi nomenclature had gotten too confusing for consumers. With a new version of Wi-Fi called 802.11ax launching this year, the group decided to market the standard as “Wi-Fi 6,” and to retroactively refer to previous Wi-Fi generations in the same way. So now, current-gen 802.11ac is called Wi-Fi 5, 802.11n is called Wi-Fi 4, and 802.11g is called Wi-Fi 3.
Tell me more about Wi-Fi 6
In a nutshell, it’s faster and better at connecting lots of devices and users to a single access point all at once. That means it’ll probably make the biggest impact in public places like airports, stadiums and shared offices, but it also represents a marked improvement for busy homes with lots of family members and smart home gadgets competing for bandwidth.
New routers that support the standard are already starting to pop up on store shelves, but don’t rush out to buy one just yet. While Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, the new features that make it better and faster than Wi-Fi 5 only work with devices that have Wi-Fi 6 radios of their own. And apart from a handful of gadgets — namely the iPhone 11 lineup and Samsung’s Galaxy S10 and Note 10 — there simply aren’t very many of those devices on the market yet.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll save you the specifics beyond that — but if you’re curious, check out my full Wi-Fi 6 explainer for a better understanding of how it works, why it’s better than Wi-Fi 5, and when it might make more sense to make the upgrade.
What does that number in the router name mean?
Along with each manufacturer’s internal naming schemes, most of today’s routers will typically also come with designations like “AC1900” or “AC3150.” The point is to give you a quick, comparative sense of which version of Wi-Fi each router supports (“AC” for Wi-Fi 5, “AX” for Wi-Fi 6, and so on), along with a rough sense of its speed capabilities.
I say “rough” because those numbers after the “AC” or “AX” part indicate the sum total of the maximum theoretical transfer rates across each of the router’s bands. That’s not useless info as you’re comparison shopping, but it’s more than a bit misleading, since that sum total will almost always be significantly higher than the fastest speeds you’ll experience as a user.
For instance, the D-Link DIR-867 is listed as an AC1750 router. It’s a dual-band, Wi-Fi 5 router with theoretical maximum transfer rates of 1,300Mbps on the 5 GHz band and 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. Add those two numbers together, and you get 1,750, hence AC1750.
The problem is that you can’t actually add those bands together — you can only connect to one at a time. That means the fastest speed you could theoretically get from the DIR-867 is 1,300Mbps, not 1,750Mbps. And I say “theoretically” because those top speeds are measured by the manufacturer in optimized lab conditions, not in real-world environments. When we tested the thing out, we measured max speeds of 163Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 802Mbps on the 5GHz. Solid results for a budget-friendly router, but nowhere close to 1,750Mbps, even if you add them together.
Things get even more inflated once you start looking at tri-band routers that add in an extra 5GHz connection. For example, Asus now sells a tri-band Wi-Fi 6 gaming router in its ROG Rapture lineup with the designation “AX11000.” The “AX” tells you it’s a Wi-Fi 6 router, and the “11000” indicates the combined top speeds of each band — 1,148Mbps at 2.4GHz, and 4,804Mbps on each of the two 5GHz bands.
That’s a lot of concurrent bandwidth, but don’t start thinking your computer, phone, or gaming console will connect at anything close to 11,000Mbps. The fastest figure you’d ever possibly see from a single device is 4,804Mbps, and today’s ISP connections are nowhere near that fast yet. In fact, the average internet speed in the US currently sits at 119Mbps.
What else should I look for as I shop?
You’ll see all sorts of Wi-Fi jargon as you shop for a new router. Here’s a rundown of the terms you’ll see the most, and what they actually mean for your home.
Mesh: A mesh Wi-Fi network is one that uses multiple access points to provide better coverage throughout large homes. You’ll start with one that wires to your modem like a traditional router, then add in satellite units around the house that act like repeaters for the signal. If you have a pesky back bedroom that struggles to stay connected, then move mesh routers up to the top of your list.
MU-MIMO: Short for “multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output” (and pronounced “multi-user-meem-oh”), MU-MIMO lets your router divide its signal between multiple streams. That, in turn, lets the router send data to multiple devices at once. If the receiving device supports it, MU-MIMO also lets the router use multiple streams at once to send data its way, which makes for faster transfers. Current-gen routers can support up to four simultaneous data streams (4×4), while next-gen Wi-Fi 6 routers will support up to eight streams (8×8).
MU-MIMO arrived as an upgrade for current-gen Wi-Fi 5 routers, though some early Wi-Fi 5 routers still use the single-user, one-device-at-a-time approach that preceded it. MU-MIMO is a fairly common feature at this point, which makes SU-MIMO routers like those totally skippable.
Band steering: Different brands have different names for the feature, but a growing number of routers will automatically move devices between bands as their positions change within the range of the router. So, if you’re using Wi-Fi to make a video call on your phone, and you’re sitting in the living room in close proximity to the router, it might automatically assign you to the 5GHz band, which is the speediest at close range. If you move into another part of the house during the call, the router might automatically “steer” your connection onto the 2.4GHz band, which offers a steadier connection at a distance.
Beamforming: A basic router will broadcast its signal more or less equally in all directions, but with beamforming, the router can focus its signal in the specific directions of the devices that are trying to connect to it. That can help it eke out slightly better range.
Quality of Service: Often abbreviated to QoS, Quality of Service is a feature that lets the router prioritize certain types of traffic above others. It’s a common feature for gaming routers.
Beyond basics like those, router manufacturers are turning more and more to extras like simplified, app-based setup, integrations with voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, VPN support, better parental controls, and optional cybersecurity monitoring. All are worth considering if you think you’d put them to use in your home.