If you’re shopping for a new computer like the recently updated MacBook Air or a new smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S4, you’ve probably noticed that many newer devices are so-called “802.11ac-ready” or “support Gigabit Internet.” Unless you have a router that also understands this AC standard, these devices won’t be much faster at streaming your movie or at moving files than your existing gear.
Of course, what will really make your Internet tick is if you have the fastest possible pipe, like the gigabit Google Fiber fueling your network, but even for most of us who aren’t lucky enough to get that service (or even the 100Mbps Verizon FiOS or 150Mbps Comcast), we can make the most of what we’ve got with new AC routers.
That’s because the new AC networking protocol is more equipped to move large amounts of data than the current standard, 802.11n. Not only is AC three times faster at transferring data and can cover a wider area than N, it can also do so with less network interference since it works on the less congested 5 GHz band (like your cordless phone or garage door opener). In fact, AC routers are capable of more “focused Wi-Fi” thanks to something called “beamforming,” which basically directs targeted streams at individual devices, rather than send out a “scattered Wi-Fi signal” to all devices on an N network. (You can read up on all the technical details about 802.11ac here.)
Many AC Wi-Fi routers have been in stores since 2012, but you’ve probably ignored them due to their high prices and lack of compatible gear. (We covered a couple in our Wi-Fi router round-up back in early June.) Now that more and more new devices are supporting this new protocol, and prices for AC routers have started to drop, it may be finally time to upgrade your network to AC. Don’t worry if you have a mix of 802.11n/g/b/a devices on your network though: AC routers are backward compatible with older standards, plus there are many affordable USB adapters that that add AC-support to older devices.
Here are some of the 802.11ac routers you should check out…
Introduced just last week, this is the first AC router from Netgear to hit the $100 mark. It shares the same sleek look of its more expensive Netgear AC router siblings, but only supports good ol’ Ethernet, rather than Gigabit Ethernet, which is probably good enough for most American households with a 100Mbps (or less) Internet connection. Although this particular model doesn’t support beamforming, it does work on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands that make it possible to simultaneously stream content on up to six devices, making it a decent AC solution for a couple or young family.
Besides its relatively low price, what makes this R6100 unique is its Ready Share USB 2.0 port that lets you plug in an external hard drive or printer to make either accessible to other devices on the network – even if your printer is not originally a Wi-Fi or AirPrint-compatible device, or your hard drive has no built-in Wi-Fi access. You can also configure this router using the Netgear genie dashboard on your PC or on your mobile device, making it easy to set up and troubleshoot. Available at J&R and Frys.com.
Securifi – the router upstart determined to make our Wi-Fi networking box beautiful rather than something to tuck away underneath our couches – is back with Almond+, an AC router with built-in smart home features that lets you control your lights and temperature via its 2.8-inch touchscreen. The Almond+ is a dual-band AC router that can blanket a 5,000 square foot home with wireless connection, and comes with four gigabit Ethernet ports and a USB 2.0 port. But it’s so much more than just a router.
Since it supports the ZigBee and Z-Wave home automation protocols, you can use the Almond+ to manage your Phillips Hue LED lights, and remotely tell your thermostat to turn on the air conditioning just as you’re on the way home. Designed to work as a smart hub to your home, you can hang Almond+ on the wall or stand on a flat surface like a photo frame, as pictured above.
After making its debut at CES and wrapping a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in March, the Almond+ is just about ready to hit retail stores. If you want to be an early adopter of the Almond+, you can still pre-order the device from Securifi’s website.
If you’re looking for faster ports in your next router and want to experience the benefits of beamforming technology, then you’ll need to spend a bit more than $100. If you don’t mind coughing up another $70, the newly discounted Linksys EA6400 for “video enthusiasts” has just what you’re looking for: a dual-band AC router that supports beamforming with one USB 3.0 and four gigabit Ethernet ports.
You’ll also have the option to set up your router through your NFC-enabled device. The Linksys device comes with a SimpleTap card that’s preloaded with all the necessary network settings, making it easy for the router to communicate with your compatible computer or mobile device. You can order the EA6400 direct from Linksys.com.
Taking after its tube-like gaming router brother in more ways than one, this D-Link AC1750 Cloud Router works on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, and supports beamform (the company calls it “SmartBeam”) for lag-free streaming and gaming.
In addition to four gigabit Ethernet ports, this D-Link AC1750 router also comes with a Share Port Plus USB 2.0 port that lets you share content stored on a USB drive between devices on the same network. Using the SharePort app for iOS and Android devices, you can stream videos, share presentations, and even transfer photos wirelessly. You can also remotely monitor your network cameras with mydlink Lite, which could be ideal for young parents who want to check on their kids or pets from the office.
Although the recently released AC-compatible AirPort Extreme router from Apple features all the same technologies as other mainstream routers on the market – simultaneous dual-band, beamform, SharePort USB 2.0 port for wireless printing and sharing content, and app and Web-based network management – it shares the same minimalistic aesthetic of Apple products. So if maintaining an Apple-only environment is important to you, and you don’t mind dropping $200 for the privilege, then by all means grab the AirPort Extreme that received a “thumbs up” from iFixit for repairability.
As long as a wireless router works and doesn’t get in the way between you and your Internet connection, any brand and model will basically do. Any additional feature, like the ability to manage the network remotely through your mobile device, is just icing on the cak.
What did you think of our 802.11ac router guide? Do you have a different router you prefer? Let us know how these AC routers work for you in the comments below!