With today’s proliferation of wireless technologies in home consumer markets, a plethora of home WiFi router products have been created to fill this ever hungrier niche.
Many do decent jobs at providing reliable and fast wireless data transfers for improved audio and video streaming, and rapid downloading of huge files. With all the new technologies, features, and terms, it can be difficult choosing the best home Wi-Fi router. Here, we discuss the current features that should be present in any wireless router that is deemed, “the best.”
Radio interference sources affect them far less today, with advanced systems such as built in multiple adjustable antennas and the introduction of the 5 Ghz. band for wireless AC, that avoids many of the crowded conditions often encountered on 2.4 Ghz. by older Wifi routers and access points. The latest 802.11 AC dual band routers support wireless data rates of greater than 1 gigabit per second, and can handle several busy Wifi connections at a time without noticeable loss of speed.
With the advent of dual core microprocessors, today’s Wifi access points have become quite smart in how they prioritize data via adaptive quality of service (QoS) technologies, and they can provide sustained high speed data throughput with all that on-board CPU power. Today’s routers aren’t just routers anymore, but qualify more as powerful, specialized and intelligent network computers.
Firmware stability has improved such that routine router rebooting need not be so routine these days. Automatic firmware updates seen in the state-of-the-art routers today guarantee that you always have the latest, and presumably least buggy software running in your router. Performing these updates no longer requires a computer to first download the firmware and then upload it to the router. Today’s routers can check for and download updates directly from the Internet without any PC intervention needed.
Finally, you get many of these exciting enhancements in even the cheapest wireless routers of recent design. Prices range from $30 up to well over $300 for the most feature-packed, high capacity units. Yet you need not spend top dollar to get exceptional wireless performance. Routers priced in the $100 range, over all, work about as well for use in typical home environments, as those $300 Cadillac’s. The expensive routers however, can be better at addressing specific environmental and network conditions in particular installations. However, to novice wireless network consumers, we recommend starting off with a cheaper router, learning about its deficiencies that affect you (if any), and then upgrading to a more advanced (and more expensive) unit that addresses your specific needs if you must. Buying the most expensive Wifi unit is not always the best solution, unless money is no object.
To find the performance you need from cheaper Wifi routers, it’s handy to know what sorts of features and benefits to look for. Generally speaking, the most expensive routers offer most if not all of these. But by picking and choosing what you need from among cheaper units, you can usually find a router that does a way adequate job, without having to spend so much money for top-of-the-line models. Below, we list the features that we’ve found most helpful and cost effective in Wifi routers.
Highest Quality Wireless Router Features, Pros, and Benefits
Works right out of the box. For the typical home Internet computer user, many of whom are novices when it comes to setting up wireless networks, a router that requires no initial manual configuration prior to use takes much of the fear out of establishing a home-based wireless network.
All metal enclosure case. Some of the more expensive units feature an all-metal enclosing case. E.g. The Netgear MR314 802.11b router. Metal cases are hard to come by these days, but offer ruggedness and electrical shielding against stray signals entering or leaving the unit, which enhances connectivity speed sustainability.
Plenty of status LEDs. Only buy a router that allows you to see at a glance, how it’s doing. The Linksys WRT300N (pictured below) has indicator lamps for power, Internet, Wifi, and security (which illuminate when each particular function is enabled and ready), and one light for each of its four local Ethernet ports that light up solid (no flashing) when a device is connected, and blink when data is being transferred. The Asus router pictured above, features nine front panel lamps that provide status for both Wifi bands (2.4 and 5 Ghz.)), the local ports, the Internet port, power, and WPS status.
Comes with a hefty switch mode power supply. Today’s switching power adaptors are much smaller and lighter than traditional, transformer-based linear power supplies. They offer better voltage regulation and protection against power surges and spikes. Wireless routers operate best from clean power, DC that is free from noise, ripple, and power fluctuations. Routers in all price brackets generally come with switching power supplies, but you’ll want to verify this before buying.
All connections on back panel. To minimize wires tangling, and to keep the front panel status LEDs visible at all times, all ports and power connections should be located on the back of the router.
Gigabit network ports throughout. All Ethernet ports, including the WAN port, should be capable of gigabit data speeds, making this router capable of handling today’s high-bandwidth Internet services throughout both its wired and wireless networks. These ports should also be backwardly compatible with slower devices, and so, should slow down to either 100 Mbps or 10 Mbps as required, without throttling back the rest of the system.
Save / restore system configuration. You should be able to save the current router configuration parameters to a file on your computer, and restore it if you subsequently make changes to the router that “break” it. You’ll be thankful you had a backup, given the great number of parameters and settings that today’s routers incorporate; especially if you’ve changed many of them to customize the router to your local environment.
Print server support. Better routers also feature USB ports that you can plug USB printers into, and then the router can act as a print server for that attached printer. It essentially adds wireless printing capability to a hard-wired printer.
Configurable local IP address, subnet mask, and other LAN parameters. While not an absolutely necessary feature, the ability to set the base local IP address is handy, particularly when you’re replacing a router that has a different base address. In this case, helpful it would be for preserving the accuracy of any network documentation that you’ve prepared, to configure the new router to use the same local IP addresses as the old one.
Minimal switch compliment, all of which are on back of unit. We prefer that any power on / off, or Wifi enable / disable switches be located somewhere on the back or underside of the router, to prevent accidental activation, which could potentially bring down your whole network. The only switch that belongs on the front is the WPS button.
Fanless operation. There’s no fan inside to wear out, create needless noise, or draw in dust; accumulation inside of which can degrade router performance and shorten its life. The router should run no hotter to the touch than perhaps a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, even with no fan. In close quarters especially, you want your wireless router to run silently.
Automatic time setting from Internet. At power up, and if the router is connected via its WAN port to the Internet, it automatically sets its internal clock from Internet time servers. Most routers feature an internal clock these days that provides current time for numerous local network functions. It’s convenient not to have to ever manually adjust this clock, and there’s really no reason to have to, since network time protocol (NTP) servers are numerous on the Internet and guarantee accurate time to within a second or so.
Reasonably fast boot time. Typical wireless routers boot from cold start in between 45 seconds and one minute. Some are faster, but many are slower. You don’t want to wait several minutes for complete boot-up, particularly in situations that mandate frequent rebooting. Choose a router with fast internal processors (500 Mhz. or higher), to keep boot times reasonably short.
Plenty of onboard processing power. The best wireless routers today feature at least one dual core processor, and many offer more than one, to minimize latency and throughput slowdowns. You’ll want a multi processor router if your network will be used by more than a couple users at the same time, or if two or more will be streaming lots of video simultaneously.
5 Ghz. support. With the 2.4 Ghz. Wifi band becoming so overcrowded with other routers, and non networking devices that operate on those frequencies such as cordless telephones and microwave ovens, you’ll want a wifi router that also offers connectivity in the far less crowded 5 Ghz. band. Connections in this frequency range also provide faster wireless data throughput.
IPv6 Support. Can function in an IPv6 network environment. You’ll want this as the Internet migrates to IPv6. Buying a router without the ability to handle IP version 6 addressing, will limit its useable life as Internet standards, practices, and software evolve to accommodate IPv6.
Wifi Protected Setup (WPS) support. WPS is standard on practically all wifi routers intended for the typical consumer. It grants Wifi access to devices that also have WPS, without having to manually enter SSIDs and network passwords. Once a device has been authorized to connect, it can then automatically reconnect to the router without going through the WPS procedures again. For maximum convenience and fewest errors, we recommend only routers that offer WPS ability.
Backward compatibility with most previous consumer Wifi standards. So that your router will work with all your older wireless devices, choose one that is compatible not only with the current 802.11 AC protocols, but also the older 802.11 B, G, and N standards. As 802.11 B is nearly obsolete now, finding routers that support this very slow, short-range, and insecure standard will become increasingly difficult, and increasingly unnecessary. Of the standards that you can afford to do without, this one is it.
Offers access-point-only mode. If you’re adding JUST wireless access to your already-established home network, then you’ll want a router that allows you to disable its routing and firewall functions, and can function as a wireless access point (WAP) exclusively. In access point only mode, functions like an internal firewall, network address translation (NAT), and dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) server, are disabled as they’re done elsewhere in your network. Most medium-grade and top-notch routers allow you to disable these functions either as a group or individually. If you’re sure that you will never need routing features, then save yourself some dollars and purchase JUST a wireless access point, such as the Netgear WN802T Access Point, pictured above.
802.11 AC standard supported. To prevent your Wifi router from becoming a speed bottleneck in your network, choose one that supports the fastest speed wireless protocols. Most of even the cheapest routers these days support 802.11 AC, the fastest Wifi standard widely available as of this writing.
Adjustable power output. Select a router powerful enough to provide full-speed Wifi connections throughout your home, but that you can also adjust downward if you do not need its full power output to achieve this. The maximum Wifi power output allowed by the FCC is 1,000 milliwatts. However, most routers transmit anywhere from 50 to 200 milliwatts, with only a few of the highest end models offering full 1-watt power. A hundred milliwatts is generally sufficient to adequately cover small to medium-sized homes, constructed of moderately dense materials such as wood, drywall, and small bricks. But if your home is larger, made of higher density materials, including concrete, steel, and thick sheet rock, the full-power routers and access points may be needed.
Adjustable and upgradable external antennas. For routers that do not provide beam forming, it may be helpful to substitute higher gain antennas the ones that came with the router, for increased range and Wifi stability. Better routers and access points in fact, offer removable antennas, such as the Bountiful Wifi BWR1000G, pictured above. Internal antennas, such as found on many cheaper routers, cannot be repositions for best reception in a given location, without moving the whole router around, which may not be practical.
The more antennas, the better. Bean forming routers, like the Asus RT-AC87R pictured above, sport two, three, or four aerials, which improves network speeds and operational range. The more antennas, the faster and more reliably the router is likely to perform, and the less susceptible to interference it will likely be.
Wireless WPA2 security enabled by default. In the “old days,” wireless routers shipped with the network security options disabled by default. If left that way, anyone could connect to their “open” Wifi networks, without needing a password or security key. But today, the preferred practice is to ship routers with a security mode enabled by default, with a default, router-specific password. Each router has a unique default SSIDs and passwords so that a decent level of wireless security is turned on by default. Some devices still require the old and flawed WEP security. So for maximal compatibility, the router you select should offer this security mode, but only use this if you’re absolutely certain that you need it. Using WEP creates serious vulnerabilities in your security scheme. So only employ it if WPA or WPA2 security does not work for one or more of your wireless devices.
Parental web controls. Supports blocking of Internet access to specific local devices, according to predefined or customizable schedules. Each local device has its own configurable schedule. Should also be able to block specific web sites from the entire local network based on specific URL or keyword lists.
Guest networks. Features at least one guest wireless network, that allows people to wirelessly access your Internet while preventing them from accessing your local devices (hard drives, printers, et al). Access to local network devices can be switched on or off.
Built in firewall. Any router you’re considering should offer some level of firewall protection. Even the cheapest ones do. That firewall should support port forwarding, MAC address filtering, DMZ, Dynamic DNS, and WAN Ping Blocking. It should also resist denial-of-service attacks and provide some sort of monitoring for malware downloads in progress, and stop any that are detected.
Quality of Service (QoS) traffic prioritization. This technology enables the router to detect the different types of Internet traffic it carries (voice, video, raw data, email, text, and so on), and prioritize it to provide the most stable, jitter free streaming. Less time sensitive data is delayed more than more time sensitive information such as streaming video packets. QoS is found mid-priced as well as high-end wireless routers, and the most advanced machines like the Asus RT-AC87R, also provide adaptive QoS, in which the router adjusts it packet prioritization rules dynamically based on network conditions and current traffic profiles.
Future proof. Choose a current-technology router that is not likely to become obsolete during the next three to five years. Verify that a router under consideration is still being supported by the manufacturer, and that firmware updates are still being produced. Do not pay retail price for older routers that will not be enhanced further through the firmware update process.
Avoid “draft standard” routers. Often, to place themselves at the very leading edge of wireless technologies (bleeding edge), manufactures often release routers that conform to PROPOSED wireless standards; standards that have not been officially released yet. Such devices typically do not implement all of the standard, and can be unreliable, particularly in the early years of the standard. So unless you have a compelling reason to use a proposed but not standard protocol on your home network, stick with officially released standards and technologies. You’ll save yourself many headaches when you do.
Look for a decent manufacturers warranty. Many cheap to moderately priced wireless routers come with a 90-day warranty, and the higher end ones come with a one, two, or greater year warranty. Pick the longest warranty period you can find, particularly if you’re paying better than $200 for a router.
Web administrative interface provided. Most any router made recently, especially the best quality ones, feature a web site you can access, to set wireless network router parameters.
Hopefully, having these listed features in hand will help you select the best router not only for your budget, but for your network needs as well.
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- 2017-01-26: Updated tags list. Changed post title to: How to Choose the Best Home Wifi Routers.
- 2016-01-12: Added appropriate tags.
- 2015-07-16: Originally published.