The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Router
Table of Contents
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Learn the difference between a modem and a router, and what exactly you need to get connected to the internet.
Before you start the buying process, it's important to assess your situation to find a router perfect for your needs.
Router technology can be complicated. Find out how many bands, which Wi-Fi standard, and which router class you'll need.
Routers can come equipped with a whole host of other features that may be important to you, especially if you're a gamer, worried about security, or live in a big house.
We have recommendations for all different use cases—from casual internet browsing to gaming routers and everything in between. See some of our favorites.
Since the dawn of dial-up, the internet connection ecosystem has exploded, with each decade bringing new technologies and faster connections to households around the world.
Now, in the era of instant communication, the internet has become an essential part of everyday life. Almost as essential as food and shelter. (Okay, not THAT essential.)

Add to that the boom in internet connected devices—from smartphones and tablets to smart TVs and video game consoles—and it's clear that we, as a society, have become dependent on fast and reliable internet access. But with all the changes and developments in the industry, it can be difficult to determine what exactly you need to get connected.

The short answer is that you need an internet service provider (ISP), a router, and a modem. The long answer is a little more complicated, but luckily we've outlined everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide so you can find the right equipment for you.
If you consider yourself a casual internet user, with the bulk of your internet activity consisting of light browsing, and checking email and social media, click here. We have a number of recommendations for basic routers.
If you find yourself downloading bigger files and streaming media from 1-2 devices at a time for moderate internet use, click here for upgraded recommendations.
For online gamers and media enthusiasts that require sophisticated and speedy connections, you'll need the right equipment to handle your complex internet needs. Click here for our recommendations.
So, What is a Router?
Before we dive into features and capabilities that characterize different routers, it's important to understand the technology behind getting connected to the internet.
If you've ever dealt with setting up an internet connection (with an internet service provider, for example), then you've probably heard of two pieces of equipment: Modems and Routers.

Modems connect you to the internet by plugging into either your cable provider's infrastructure (cable modems) or your telephone line (DSL modems). The modem interprets the signal from your internet provider through a process of modulation and demodulation (i.e., MOdulator-DEModulator). If you're curious, this means the device modulates incoming analogue signals from telephone lines, while also demodulating outgoing signals from your computer. This converts analogue signals to digital signals and vice versa, so that the internet and your computer "speak" the same language. Usually, you are provided a modem from your ISP, either for free, for rent, or to purchase.
A wireless router connects to your modem via Ethernet cable and creates a wireless access point, or Wi-Fi network.
As a reference, you can plug your computer directly into a modem via Ethernet cable and connect to the internet. However, this can be limiting—because you can only connect devices with an Ethernet plug to the internet and you can only move as far as the cable will allow. The better choice is to use a wireless router. A wireless router connects to your modem via Ethernet cable and creates a wireless access point, or Wi-Fi network. The purpose of a router is to distribute (also known as "routing") the internet signal from your provider outward and share it with other devices that connect to the Wi-Fi network.

So, in order to create a home or office Wi-Fi network, you need both of these devices. It's possible to purchase a combined modem and router in one box, which creates added convenience. To be clear, this article is focused exclusively on wireless (i.e. Wi-Fi) routers.
What Should You Consider Before Buying a Router?
Routers and the features they come with are highly complex. To better ground yourself before diving in, ask yourself these questions.
Does your ISP provide a router? Should you use it?
Many internet service providers will give you a router with purchase of service through them. If your ISP offers a free router, take it. You can always purchase something else if that router isn't enough for you. If you have to buy or "rent" a router from your ISP, you're better of purchasing your own. Spend the $80-$100 upfront, rather than paying monthly (which will add up over time) to rent one. If you plan to buy your own device, ask your ISP for a list of approved third-party brands or devices just in case.

If security is a major concern for you, it's best to purchase your own router with complex security features. More often than not, ISP-provided routers are equipped with remote access for service representatives to update settings or troubleshoot connection problems, thus making your network more vulnerable and reducing how secure it is.
What do you or your household use the internet for?
Before you assess router features, you should audit what activity you conduct on the internet. Are you using it for casual browsing and basic use? Does anyone in your household play online games? Are you streaming audio or video? Downloading/uploading files (to DropBox, for example) or torrents? The answers to these questions will determine what kind of router you need.

For example, gamers may require a router that's able to prioritize certain traffic (more on that later). Or they may want to connect directly into the router's gigabit Ethernet port. If either feature is a requirement for you, you may need to pay a little bit of a premium for a router equipped with these capabilities. In that same vein, if you purchase a particularly fast internet connection for whatever reason, you'll need a router that transmits equally as fast (and again, more on that later). Basically, your router is only as fast as your internet speed and your internet is only as fast as your router's speed. These are all things to keep in mind as you shop for routers.

Another use case in which you might need a router with more capabilities (and thus, a higher price tag) would be home offices. If you work from home, reliable, fast, secure internet will keep you from pulling your hair out. Make note of features such as dual-bands, higher router class, Gigabit Ethernet ports, and antennas with beamforming, explained in full detail later on.
What's your budget?
As with any technology purchase, it's important to go into your research with a budget. Routers can range from $50 to $400, but a good, mid-range router (with basic features and nothing high tech or fancy) will cost you about $80 to $100. High internet use and speeds, increased security, the latest Wi-Fi standard, and higher router classes will end up costing you more, so if you find that you need those features, expect to pay more than that.
How comfortable are you setting up a router?
Unfortunately, most routers aren't plug and play. They do require some initial setup. For a more tech savvy person, this is probably no big deal. But if you think you'll need assistance, buy from a brand that has good reviews for tech support and customer service.

Also, the more complicated the features (such as security settings and extended networks), the more complicated the setup.

One advantage of taking a device provided by your ISP is the simplicity of setup. If you aren't comfortable with the technology, ISP-provided routers usually work straight out of the box and require little to no technical configurations.
What distance does the router need to cover?
The environment you need to cover with your Wi-Fi network will also determine both the router you buy and whether you need additional devices to extend your network, such as a Wi-Fi extender or paired routers for longer range. As you will learn later, routers can have low and high frequency signals. Higher frequency connections have a smaller range and are more easily obstructed by walls and furniture, so bigger homes or homes with a lot of obstacles may need additional assistance to cover the entire area.

If you've never set up a wireless network in this environment before, you may have to discover what exactly you need through trial and error. Start with one router and go from there. Since connection speed can often be improved by eliminating interference, try moving your router to a more central location or your devices closer to your router. If none of that works, you may need to expand your network.

Also, make sure you buy from a brand with a good return policy in case you do need to make changes.
How many devices will be connected simultaneously?
The number of devices you plan to connect to your wireless network will determine what Wi-Fi standard you need and the number of brands required to maintain a decent connection speed. For regular home use, you probably won't need to worry much about this, unless you have a particularly large number of devices (computers, tablets, phones, TVs, etc.). For a small in-home business, you may want to take stock of how many devices will be connected at one time. The more connected devices, the smaller the range and the more crowded your network becomes, slowing it down for all users. This is where multi-band routers and higher router classes will help free up space.
Technical Specs
When browsing routers, it may seem like their names are a bunch of nonsense—a jumble of letters and numbers with no apparent rhyme or reason. Well, believe it or not, this is not the case. These letters and numbers tell you very specific capabilities of the router that you need to know so you understand what exactly you're buying.
Bands and Frequency
To better understand how many bands you need, it helps to think of your wireless network like a highway. The more devices you have connected to your wireless network, the more "cars" on your "highway" and the slower your connection speed (like being stuck in traffic).

A single-band router has one road, technically called a 2.4GHz frequency band. Many devices, such as cordless phones, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and wireless security cameras, operate on this frequency and can cause interference (making the highway even more crowded). However, if you live alone, have only 1-2 devices, and just want to connect to the internet for light activity, a good, single-band router will do just fine.
Most people in this day and age have more than 2 devices, so you'll be better off with a dual-band router. Dual-band is like adding express lanes to your highway. Your router has two roads: The 2.4GHz frequency band and a 5GHz frequency band. In a crowded wireless network, this helps by splitting your devices between the two bands to make traffic run more smoothly and improve speeds.

In addition to having two bands, dual-band routers can also be selectable or simultaneous. Selectable dual-band routers can only operate on one band at a time, either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Meaning cars can only travel on the regular lanes OR express lanes, not both. Simultaneous dual-band routers allow you to use both bands at the same time, allowing traffic to flow on both roads simultaneously.

An important note about dual-band routers is that higher frequencies (the second band is a higher frequency at 5GHz) lose more of their signal strength when passing through obstacles, such as walls and furniture. Your Wi-Fi range won't be as good on this band. Lower frequencies, on the other hand, have much farther range since they can more easily pass through objects.

When setting up your network, it would help to keep high-use devices, like gaming laptops or video streaming devices, closer to your router so they can use the 5GHz frequency band with minimal interference. Your other, more casual devices, like smartphones and tablets, will work on the 2.4GHz band at a greater distance.

Finally, tri-band routers are rare and only necessarily if you have an abundance of devices (like you would in a small home office). They have an additional 5GHz frequency band (even more express lanes) to accommodate more connections. Few people actually need these routers, but they are available if you think you might be one of them.
Speed Grade/Wi-Fi Standard
Let's start making sense of all that jargon in router names. You'll notice all names contain the number 802.11. That refers to the Wi-Fi standard, which is designated by the letters and numbers that follow. The letters B, G, N, and AC (listed oldest to newest) indicate the version.

So, the latest Wi-Fi standard is 802.11AC. Previous versions were limited to a data transfer rate of 300Mbps (Mbps = Megabits per second) and "Fast Ethernet" at 100Mbps. This new standard is much faster and supports Gigabit Ethernet at 1,000Mbps (1,000 megabits = 1 gigabit).

To enjoy the benefits of this latest Wi-Fi standard, both your router and your device must support the highest performance. For example, if your laptop, tablet, or smartphone supports the latest Wi-Fi AC standard, but your router is Wi-Fi N, your experience will only be as good as your Wi-Fi N router.
However, all devices are backwards and forwards compatible, so your Wi-Fi AC devices can still connect to a Wi-Fi N router (and vice versa). You'll just be limited to the Wi-Fi N standard and won't enjoy the speed or features of Wi-Fi AC.
Router Class
Following the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard, you'll see a three- or four-digit number. This number indicates maximum link speed in Mbps. The higher the number, the faster the router.

In dual- or tri-band routers, this number is the combined speed (in Mbps) of all bands. For example, an AC1900 router class has a maximum of 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band, adding up to a total of 1900Mbps.

Remember, in the real world, link speed is affected by a number of environment factors, such as walls, furniture, and appliances, so take manufacturer-reported speeds with a grain of salt. Also, like Wi-Fi standards, your router's speed is only as good as the speed provided by your ISP. If your internet speed is 150Mbps, that's the maximum speed you get regardless of the equipment you have. In that case, you probably don't need to waste your money on the fastest router on the market.

An exception to this would be for those who have fiber optic internet, which is becoming increasingly popular. Fiber optic networks have much faster speeds, can transmit across greater distances, and include a dedicated line for your residence, so you don't have to share with a cable provider. They also require investing in a router (and the right cables) that can handle this technology. In this case, it would be in your best interest to get a faster router.
Note: Mbps is different that megabytes per second, or MB/s, which denotes download and upload speeds (and is often reported by ISPs). It's important not to get these numbers mixed up. Since there are 8 bits in a byte, Mbps is eight times the speed in MB/s. Keep this in mind during your research to avoid confusion in units of measurement.
What Else Should You Consider?
Some routers come equipped with premium features that differentiate the less expensive, basic options from the higher end devices. Keep these in mind as you assess your needs.
Number of LAN Ports
The advantage of using a LAN connection (via an Ethernet cable connecting your device directly to the router) is that you'll enjoy far greater connection speeds with minimal interference from environmental factors. If you think you'll want to connect devices to your router with an Ethernet cord, you'll want to be conscious of how many LAN ports are on the router. Also, note what speed the LAN connections can handle. Cheaper routers are rated at only 100Mbps, but a little extra dough will get you a model with a Gigabit (1000Mbps) connection.
Number of Antennas
The number of antennas determines the number of streams of data a router can transmit at once. Some routers may not have any external antennas—that most likely indicates a single input/single output configuration (where the router only has one transmit antenna and one receive antenna). Multiple antennas indicate multiple radio channels, or multiple input/multiple output configuration, and can be moved and directed to project signals towards specific destinations to improve connectivity. If you want to learn more, this article does a spectacular job of explaining this technology.
USB Ports/SD Card Slots
The advantage to these extra connections is two-fold. First, these ports can be used to add NAS (network-attached storage) by plugging in a USB drive into your router. All devices on your Wi-Fi network can access this storage, similar to the experience you'd have with a server. However, some USB ports on routers aren't equipped for NAS, so check the fine print to see what exactly is supported by the USB connection. Second, you can plug a printer into your router so that all devices on your Wi-Fi network can access the printer. Still, many new printers come equipped with Wi-Fi capabilities and don't need a wired connection to your router. Regardless, it's still handy to have.
Beamforming
The latest Wi-FI AC standard includes advanced signal transmission for wireless networks. Rather than emitting a spherical signal in all directions, beamforming transmits directional signals towards devices, typically resulting in a higher range (as long as there are minimal obstacles in the way).
Guest Access
Setting up a guest network allows others to access your Wi-Fi temporarily without a password. The benefit to this connection is that guests do not have full access to your network (thus protecting your network's security), but allows them to conduct basic online activity in your residence.
Network Security
There are three versions of Wi-Fi network security: WEP, WPA, and WPA2. WPA2 (version two of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol) is the best, but the connecting device must also support WPA2 for it to be most effective. The lowest security protocol connected to your entire network determines how secure it is. Be conscious of the security protocols for your devices and router. You wouldn't want someone hacking your network, using your Wi-Fi without your permission, installing viruses on your system, or accessing your data/files.
Quality of Service
This advanced router feature allows you to prioritize certain traffic on your Wi-Fi over others, which is especially helpful for gamers and video streaming enthusiasts. Prioritizing traffic reduces lag and ensures your connection won't be interrupted by programs and downloads that can operate in the background. But not every router supports good QoS, so you'll have to pay special attention to this capability during your research.
Dynamic DNS
To understand Dynamic DNS, you must first understand IP addresses. An IP address is a series of numbers used by your ISP to connect your computer to the internet. Your IP address is unique to your computer and it is changed frequently by your ISP, making it "dynamic." This makes accessing your computer remotely difficult because your number can change at any time. This is where Dynamic DNS comes into play. It gives your computer a hostname, such as mycomputer.dyndns.com, that updates when your IP address changes.

If you chose to use such a service, you will need to program your router to recognize that hostname. Dynamic DNS is most useful for things like hosting a web server, remote desktop access, hosting a gaming server, or using your router as a VPN connection.
Cloud Service
Many brands support cloud services allowing you to access and control the devices connected to your home Wi-Fi network from anywhere. Conversely, regular routers require you to be connected to the local network (and therefore within the network's geography) to access connected devices.
VPN Service
VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, are becoming increasingly popular due to their security features and the ability to connect to networks from any location. If you plan to use your router to host a VPN, you'll need a router with a powerful CPU. The specification to look out for is 1400MHz dual-core.
Home Automation Support
There is tons of technology out there to automate activities within your home—your AC/heat, lights, security cameras, appliances, and more. But all of these devices are Wi-Fi enabled. Fortunately, you can purchase "smart" routers, some of which double as home automation hubs, to setup, connect, monitor, and access all of your devices.
Firmware Upgrades
If you're particularly tech savvy, you may want to up your router's security game by installing the DD-WRT firmware. DD-WRT allows you to be in full control of everything that goes through your router, including monitoring network activity, checking speed, prioritizing traffic, and more. This handy article does a great job explaining what DD-WRT is and how to set it up.
Future Proofing
Figuring out the highest capabilities of your current network is one thing. Deciding what you may need in the near future is another. While a single-band router may do the trick right now, if you plan on expanding your network and adding more devices anytime soon, it would be smarter to invest in a dual-band router. The same goes for Wi-Fi standards. If your phone, computer, or tablet currently supports Wi-Fi N, but you think you might be getting new ones in the next year or so, it'd be best to invest in a Wi-Fi AC router.

However, if you think it will be more than a year before you update anything in your network, you're better off buying a cheaper version now. By the time you upgrade your devices, the higher-end router will have dropped significantly in price. (As is common with any technology.) As of right now, an AC1900 router will support the fastest devices on the market (unless you have a large amount of devices). Anything more than that is overkill.
What Kind of Router Should You Buy?
Because every person's environment is unique, there's no one good answer for which router to buy. Plus, as we've mentioned before, you won't know just how well a router will perform for you until you install it in your own home or office. You may find that your particular environment has certain limitations that require different features than what you think you need. Keep this in mind as you browse our recommendations
Our Recommendations
Casual Internet Users
D-Link Wireless AC750
Surf the web, play games, and stream HD movies—that's what this router says it can do for you. Which is usually enough for casual internet users. It is a dual-band router, has Gigabit Ethernet, and Guest Network capabilities, so it's still pretty equipped. For the price, that's a pretty good deal.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Ports: 4 LAN
Peak: 300Mbps (2.4GHz) or 433Mbps (5GHz)
Size: 4.92 x 8.5 x 4.05 inches
View Deals
Moderate Internet Users
Linksys EA6350
Moderate internet users don't need all the bells and whistles of a fancy router. Just something that lets them browse the internet, watch Netflix, and maybe do a little bit of work from home. This Linksys router has all the necessities without the fancy features. Two antennas with beamforming technology. Dual-bands. Gigabit Ethernet ports. And wireless security protocols to protect your network.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 2 with beamforming
Ports: 4 LAN, 1 USB
Peak: N300 Mbps + AC867 Mbps
Size: 6.92 x 8.9 x 1.11 inches
View Deals
Heavy Internet Users
TP-Link Archer C7
Dubbed "the best router for most people," this device is fast and reliable. Its dual-band, has 3 antennas for directional connectivity, 4 LAN ports, 2 USB ports, and a whole host of other awesome features. Including Guest Network Access and easy setup. It really is great for most people.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 3 (but no beamforming)
Ports: 4 LAN, 2 USB
Peak: Up to 1750 Mbps
Range: 50-150ft (depending on obstructions)
Size: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
Compare to Other Models
Large Homes
Linksys WRT AC1900
If eliminating dead zones is a big concern for you, big home owner, you'll love this Linksys router. Four antennas with beamforming technology provide greater coverage, plus a powerful dual-core processor and dual-bands ensure fast speeds and minimal interruptions. And you can control your Wi-Fi from anywhere with the Linksys app.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 4 with beamforming
Ports: 4 LAN, 2 USB
Peak: Up to 1900 Mbps
Size: 9.8 x 7.7 x 2 inches
View Deals
Connected Homes
Securifi Almond Wireless Router & Home Automation Hub
For a reasonably price "smart" router, you can't go wrong with this product from Securifi. It features enhanced security, long-range Wi-Fi, remote access, and home automation support for the connected home. It even has a touch screen for simple setup.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11n
Ports: 2 LAN, 1 WAN, 1 USB
Peak: 300Mbps (2.4GHz) or 867Mbps (5GHz)
Range: 50-150ft (depending on obstructions)
Size: 4.8 x 1.9 x 4.3 inches
Home Automation: ZigBee HA 1.2
Compare to Other Models
Gaming
D-Link AC3150
This powerful router is perfect for gamers. It includes all the necessary features to optimize your gaming experience—intelligent Quality of Service, four antennas with beamforming, a powerful dual-core processor, and more. The features boast the ability to host online gaming on up to 10 devices. Care to give it a try?

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 4 with beamforming
Ports: 4 LAN, 1 USB
Peak: 1000Mbps (2.4Ghz) and 2165 (5GHz)
Size: 14.45 x 4.13 x 10.24 inches
Supports multiple input/multiple output, QoS, and DD-WRT
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Video Streaming
D-Link Systems AC1750
If media streaming is your main internet activity, you don't need a super router built for online gaming or tons of users. You'll be happy with a mid-range, average router. This D-Link router gives you high distance and maximum performance for moderate internet use and streaming HD video. It's great for home networks.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 3
Ports: 4 LAN, 1 WAN
Peak: 450Mbps (2.4GHz) or 1300Mbps (5GHz)
Size: 12.5 x 6.5 x 1.25 inches
Supports QoS and Guest Networks
View Deals
Multiple Users and/or Multiple Devices
TP Link Archer AC3200
This TP Link router has everything you'll need if your have a lot of users or a lot of devices (or both): three bands, 6 antennas with beamforming, VPN services, a dual-core processor, and more. You'll pay a premium for it, but it's worth it to get uninterrupted internet connection for all users and all devices.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 6 with beamforming
Ports: 4 LAN, 1 WAN, 2 USB
Peak: 600Mbps (2.4GHz) and 1200Mbps (on two 5GHz bands)
Size: 9.45 x 12.4 x 2.76 inches
View Deals
Commercial Use
NETGEAR Nighthawk X6 AC3200
Netgear has always been a huge player on the router scene, and this product is no different. To support the needs of a small business, you'll need speed, security, coverage, and much more. All of which is covered by this high-end, super router. Just check out the Amazon page for all its amazing specs.

Specs:
Wi-Fi Standard: 802.11AC
Antennas: 6 with beamforming
Ports: 4 LAN, 2 USB
Peak: 3.2Gbps
Size: 11.54 x 14.41 x 3.58 inches
Supports VPN and PC Backup
View Deals
Conclusion
As is demonstrated by this guide, buying a router is no small feat. But hopefully after reading through our detailed explanations and recommendations, you feel confident in your future purchase.
Article by Bre Bush

Bre is a Chicago-native, avid writer, travel enthusiast, and untamed soul who helps build comprehensive content marketing strategies that span every channel, including blogs, articles, emails, social media, digital marketing, and even traditional ads. On her off days, you'll find her planning her next international vacation, reading on her Kindle, or binge watching Netflix.
Article published on 24 Jan 2017

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