The wireless router is the brain, the central hub if you will, of your network. Aside from providing you with wired and wireless connectivity, a worthwhile router will provide you with advanced Internet security, parental controls, device sharing, and few other features that make them more than just an intuitive way to connect to the Web. Yet, choosing the model that’s right for you can be a chore, one that can leave you incredibly frustrated and completely broke should you make the wrong decision.
To make things much easier, here’s our roundup for the best wireless routers that will guarantee the most bang for your buck. Shop around and check out our wireless router buying guide if you have any further questions.
A note on all these “AC” numbers
In most router models you’ll notice the letters AC in the name, followed by a number, such as 1900. This is actually a router spec, which is why it’s so common. The “AC” part refers to the Wi-Fi standard the router meets, in this case one of the latest standards. The number is actually a sum of the top speeds that a router can reach. A common two-band router, for instance, may be able to reach 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, as well as 1.3Gbps on the lesser used 5GHz band. If you combine these two speeds, you reach 1,750Mbps, or AC 1750.
You can immediately see that this number has limited value, however. It doesn’t tell you the speeds of individual bands, and it can be inflated with the addition of a second 5GHz band, which the average household likely won’t use. We suggest that you use this number as a way to quickly classify routers into different performance tiers, but always look at more detailed specs when making a purchase.
Asus RT-AC88U AC 3100 ($280)
We know, asking you to pay $300 for a wireless router sounds like a stretch, but this beast is all the router you are going to need for a long time into the future. It’s dual band, of course, but not just any dual band – Asus has boosted the technology used to transmit wireless data and proclaims that the 5GHz band can go as fast as 2,100Mbps, while the 2.4GHz band can go as fast as 1,000Mbps. Now this doesn’t technically improve your bandwidth, but it does help with Wi-Fi network speeds and certain slow-down issues.
Perhaps more practical for the everyday household or business is the smart connection tech, which can choose the best band based for your device and location – a location that can span across 5,000 square feet thanks to the antenna design.
Connections also include eight Gigabit LAN ports, a USB 3.0 port, and a USB 2.0 port – all those LAN ports indicate that the router is ready for a business environment, but it can also be used in homes, dorms, and apartments with ease.
Security is a growing concern for Wi-Fi networks these days as well, which is why the RT-AC88U comes with AiProtection, Trend Micro software that searches for vulnerabilities, detects threats, blocks suspicious sites, and offers the level of parental control that has become a must-have for growing families.
Related: What is MU-MIMO?
Finally, this Asus model is MU-MIMO prepared, which helps explain some of its boasts about speed and dependability. MU-MIMO is a new type of wireless standard that allows a router to communicate with several compatible devices at the same time. Traditional routers actually can’t do that — it merely feels as if they can, because a router can switch between devices so quickly.
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Linksys Smart WRT AC 1900 ($210)
This smart Linksys router is a great pick if you found $300 way too much to pay for a router, but still want one of the best around your home or office. Except for MU-MIMO, this router shares many of its capabilities with our top Asus pick. It’s a dual band router with a 600Mbps 2.4GHz band, and a 1,300Mbps 5GHz band. It also has smart technology that can focus reception on particular devices that seem to be having a tough time connecting. The processor is a 1.2GHz dual core ARM, and it includes ports for both Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0 and 3.0.
Unfortunately, there isn’t the same level of control or parental security here, however. Linksys does offer an interesting alternative – an “open source ready” router that can be customized via a number of different applications to help improve components such as security. Obviously, that is going to be more useful for people who like to tinker with their networks, instead of those who want a fire-and-forget router.
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TP-Link Archer C7 AC1750 ($90)
TP-Link proudly notes that the New York Times called this model “the best router for most people,” and we admit that the Times has a point. This router is very affordable, but it still manages to offer a solid set of specs for a home or small office. The 2.4GHz band has speeds up to 450Mbps, and the 5GHz band offers speeds up to 1,300Mbps.
Dual USB ports give you some connectivity options for sharing or printing, and the Guest Network features lets you set up walls for security purposes. There’s no smart beaming here, but there is bandwidth control so you can adjust the focus on particular devices that really need it. Just remember that you’ll have to spend some time in settings if you want it to imitate the automatic smart tech that more expensive routers come with.
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D-Link AC3200 Ultra ($270)
You may have seen this D-Link model before – it’s been making the rounds due to its unique spaceship design and its set of cutting edge features (which are, admittedly, more common now than they used to be). It’s another model that sports a second 5Ghz band to push up speed numbers and handle heavy device loads, but nevertheless, 600Mbps on 2.4GHz and 1,300MBps on 5GHz is as fast as you are likely to see.
The smart beam tech on this router finally gives the Asus some competition in reaching devices with poor reception, too. Router management is done via an app that you can access and monitor from anywhere. Only the 1GHz processor is a little slow, and those six antennas may need a little extra space than a router typically requires.
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Netgear Nighthawk X4S ($174)
If you love gaming or need a powerful and dependable router for other streaming needs, this Netgear options is perfect for you. It comes with a particular focus on cutting edge tech, as it includes MU-MIMO for faster results and more reliable Wi-Fi, along with an eSATA connection for linking up an external hard drive more easily. It also offers a 1.7GHz processor and boosted speeds with an 800Mbps 2.4GHz band and a 1,733MBps 5GHz band.
This Nighthawk model also comes with smart beam features that can lengthen the range of the router. Built-in ports include two USB 3.0 connections and five Gigabit Ethernet ports, thus allowing for even the craziest, multi-device gaming setup.
Really, the only awkward thing about this gaming router is the shape. Netgear tried to make it look cool, but you may have trouble finding a good place to put this wedge.
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This article was originally published on June 3, 2013, and updated on March 31, 2016, by Tyler Lacoma to reflect recent offerings.