Your router might just be the most under-appreciated but essential part of your home. Without it, you couldn’t stream Netflix or HBO Now to your smartphone, tablet or laptop without cumbersome Ethernet cords or weird workarounds. When it’s doing its job well, you never give it much thought, but when it isn’t… well, you notice.
Thankfully, routers have come a long way, and the best can easily cover the largest home. Whether you’re looking to jump into the Google Home ecosystem, or blast unencumbered high-speed Wi-Fi through your home or office, chances are we know a router that will get the job done.
Why you should buy it: You’re not just looking for a high-end router, you’re looking for a long-term investment.
Who it’s for: Anyone looking to supercharge and future-proof their home network.
How much will it cost: $200
Why we picked the Google OnHub:
It works, and it works well. Your router should be something you can plug in and forget about, and the Google OnHub delivers on that promise by offering up rock-solid Wi-Fi connectivity and a fully-featured Wi-Fi ecosystem. The OnHub replaces those awful 192.168.1.1 menus you used to have to navigate with a slick, easy-to-use app that offers complete control over your Wi-Fi router.
Sure, the OnHub is a little spendy. But it’s a good investment. Earlier this month, Google unveiled another Wi-Fi router, the aptly named Google Wifi. Immediately, users who had purchased the first generation Google OnHub were worried that the router would be abandoned.
Google reassured those users by rolling the OnHub into the new Google Wifi family. That’s right, the OnHub can act as a node in the Google Wifi mesh network. So if you find you need more Wi-Fi coverage someday, you’ll be able to pick up a Google Wifi node and set it up with your existing Google OnHub router – right through the same app, Google On.
That means you get a future-proof device when you invest in the OnHub. Not only are you getting one of the best routers on the market, you’ll be in a position to take advantage of Google’s future plans for its Google Wifi line of products.
The OnHub does, however, only feature one Ethernet port, so it might not be the best choice if you need a bunch of wired connections alongside wireless connectivity. If you do, you might be interested in something a little more… heavy duty.
The best high performance router
Why you should buy it: You have a big house, or just really need 5.4Gbps Wi-Fi blasted in every direction.
Who it’s for: Families, small businesses, cattle ranchers, anyone who needs to blanket a large area with fast Wi-Fi.
How much will it cost: $350
Why we picked the Linksys EA9500:
Sometimes you need more than just a router. Sometimes you need the Wi-Fi equivalent of a neutron bomb, and that’s what the Linksys EA9500 offers. It looks more like a heavy-duty octocopter than it does a router. It blasts out 5.6Gbps of high-speed wireless connectivity, and on the backside it boasts nine Ethernet ports, and two USB ports.
This router is not cheap. Coming in at $350, it’s the most expensive router on this list. But it’s worth every penny if you need to have Wi-Fi in every corner of your house. It’s a little overkill for your average three-bedroom apartment or house, but if you’re trying to network your mansion, well, here’s your pick.
The Linksys also offers massive compatibility. It supports 802.11ac/n/g/a/b wireless connectivity, which ultimately means that if you have a Wi-Fi device, it can connect to this router without any issues or difficulties.
And it’s the only router on this list that can offer multi-band capabilities. You can essentially partition off your bandwidth, setting up two wireless networks under separate SSIDs (just like those coffee shops that have Guest and Private wireless networks). That means you can separate your gaming bandwidth from your streaming bandwidth, so you can be watching Netflix in one room, and playing Battlefield 1 in the other, without much impact on your up/down speed.
Despite its impressive technical chops, this router is not all that hard to set up. With Linksys’ Smart Wifi setup, getting this guy up and running is a breeze. But if you’re looking for something a little more plug-and-play, we have you covered.
The best easy-to-use router
Why you should buy it: You just need a Wi-Fi router that works without fussing with settings.
Who it’s for: Families, students, anyone tired of acronyms like NAT, WPS, and MTU.
How much will it cost: $200
Why we picked the Portal Wi-Fi Router:
The Portal Wi-Fi router is the solution to every Wi-Fi problem you’ve ever had. If you’re just bone-tired of messing around in Wi-Fi settings, fighting with your router, and just want something simple, easy and reliable, then the Portal is your best bet.
The first thing you probably noticed about the Portal is its unconventional appearance. It doesn’t look like a router, it just looks like a white plastic blob, and it’s honestly a little forgettable – in the best way. The Portal is designed to get out of your way, and provide a Wi-Fi experience so good, so seamless, you just forget it’s there at all.
It can do all of that in part because of an integrated antenna design which hides its Wi-Fi transmitters under a sleek plastic shell. Don’t let its appearance fool you though, it has some serious horsepower underneath that cute exterior. The Portal is capable of pumping out a powerful wireless signal in part because of a system of “FastLanes” which allow your Portal router to temporarily hop into radio bands commonly reserved for military and aircraft traffic, so your signal is unobstructed by interference from your neighbors, or devices in your own home.
The Portal accomplishes this by using “Dynamic Frequency Switching” to hop around in radio bands depending on local and ambient traffic. Naturally, if your Portal router detects any active radar signals it will jump out of those military and aircraft bands for a set period of time, so it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s safety.
For years DFS has been an interesting concept, but the Portal is the first router to really bring it to life in the consumer market. Still, the Portal isn’t cheap. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive, read on.
The best cheap router
Why you should buy it: You just need a router that’s going to work without any hiccups or headaches.
Who it’s for: Anyone who just needs reliable no-frills Wi-Fi, and doesn’t have a Chromecast.
How much will it cost: $100 or less
Why we picked the ZyXel NBG6815:
Maybe you don’t need a mesh network, dynamic frequency switching, or nine Ethernet ports. If you just need a router that serves up a fast, reliable, wireless network and you don’t want to spend more than $100, the ZyXel NBG6815 is a good bet. Before we get into specifics let’s be clear, the ZyXel NBG6815 is a good, solid router and one of the best you can buy under $100, but it has a few quirks.
Right up front it’s important to mention that the ZyXel NBG6815 has issues with the Google Chromecast. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get the ZyXel to cooperate with our Chromecasts. There are scattered reports that the ZyXel NBG6815 might be incompatible with some protocol required by the Google streaming device.
That aside, the ZyXel is a rock-solid router for the price. You get some serious bang for your buck here, even if the router itself isn’t particularly attractive. It doesn’t have to be, it’s a router that looks like a router, and it gets the job done. The ZyXel NBG6815 is capable of offering up Wi-Fi connectivity around 2.2Gbps, which is pretty fast considering the price.
In fact, chances are it’s faster than your home internet connection, unless you’re lucky enough to be on fiber. But it doesn’t offer any external antennae, which can limit the signal strength in a multi-room house or large apartment. However, unlike the Google OnHub, it does offer four wired Ethernet ports in the back. So if you really need to, you can plug your highest-priority devices directly into the router.
How we test
Router reviews, more than most other consumer electronics, can be very subjective. The conditions in your home or office are unique, and any number of factors can impact how the router will perform out of the box. Local interference, crowded radio channels, and even the composition of your walls can severely degrade Wi-Fi performance.
It’s with that in mind that we’ve run each of these routers through a barrage of tests, bringing to bear all manner of indignities and stress to tease out just how they’ll perform once they’re out there in the wild.
Deciphering router specs
When you’re in the market for a new router, you’re going to see a lot of different specs thrown around, but the one that will have the greatest effect on your router’s Wi-Fi reliability is frequency.
You’re going to see a lot of figures like 2.4GHz, and 5GHz, but they don’t mean the same thing they do for, say, your computer’s processor or your monitor. For routers, those figures don’t translate to speed or performance, they represent radio frequency – the spectrum of the radio band on which your router is transmitting information.
Most mobile devices these days exist on the 2.4GHz band, which means that frequency is very crowded. If your router can only broadcast on 2.4GHz, you might have some congestion and interference from your neighbors. Your internet speed is going to slow down a little because of traffic jams.
That’s where 5GHz comes in. Some new routers, including all of the routers in this list, are capable of broadcasting on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz. These are dual-band routers. The 5GHz spectrum is a lot less congested, as it’s not used by as many devices, so your internet connection will be a little faster most of the time. That said, 5GHz does not penetrate obstructions as easily as the 2.4GHz spectrum does, so range might be worse.