In the market for a new router and don’t have hours to catch up on modern router technology? Don’t worry: with the eight questions we’ve listed and explained below, you should easily be able to find a router with all of the features you need in your price range. Let’s dive into it!
1. Does the router have Wi-Fi 6 or another high-speed Wi-Fi standard?
First of all, let’s make sure your router is up to date on the hardware front. Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is the latest version of Wi-Fi at the time of writing and offers superb speeds and low latency. With Wi-Fi 6E, you also get the benefit of operation in a faster, more reliable 6 GHz band, compared to the 5 and 2.4 GHz limits on older Wi-Fi standards.
If you happen to be a gamer or streamer, you’ll definitely want to opt for a router that supports 5 or 6 GHz networking to reduce latency and disruptions.
2. Does the router support 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or 6 GHz Wi-Fi?
If you’re shopping around for a new router, it’s important that you understand how wireless bands work.
2.4 GHz is the older Wi-Fi band, supported by nearly all devices, and with the longest range. It suffers from high latency and poor reliability compared to the newer bands, though, especially on congested networks.
5 GHz is the modern Wi-Fi band, supported by newer devices. It has less range than 2.4 GHz but dramatically improves both speed and latency in return. The 5 GHz spectrum is also much less cluttered than 2.4 GHz.
6 GHz is the latest, cutting-edge Wi-Fi band. At the time of writing, the main benefit offered by 6 GHz over 5 GHz on supported devices is less network congestion and interference – until everyone’s on 6 GHz, and we start all over again.
Most modern routers should support both 2.4 and 5 GHz operation. If yours doesn’t, it’s probably time for an upgrade.
3. Does the router support QoS (Quality of Service)?
QoS (Quality of Service) refers to a feature in modern routers that enables the router to prioritize different forms of network traffic. For instance, if you’re in a video call and a loved one is watching Netflix in the other room, QoS will ensure that your latency-sensitive call is prioritized over the long, static video file being loaded by Netflix.
Using QoS, you can prioritize communication and gaming on your network, preventing problems with latency-sensitive applications while still allowing big data hogs (like YouTube and Netflix) to run on your network. You’ll definitely want QoS for something like gaming with Steam Link or a cloud gaming service, since it combines the latency sensitivity of gaming with the high bandwidth demands of streaming media.
4. Does the router support MU-MIMO?
MU-MIMO is a feature that allows a router to send data to multiple devices at the same time. This reduces latency and network interference when more than one person is using the network at a time. Unless you live alone, that should make a reasonable difference.
5. Does the router have multiple antennas?
If you’re hoping to extend the range and reduce latency, a high-end router with multiple long-range antennas could be just what you’re looking for. If the router in question also supports MU-MIMO and beamforming (a technique that focuses a wireless signal toward a specific receiving device), those extra antennas are being put to good use. Beamforming, in particular, makes good use of extra antennas.
6. Does the router support mesh networking?
A Wi-Fi mesh network has multiple routers sharing the same name and information, allowing seamless travel and high speeds within. This is an alternative to the much-cheaper but inferior solution of Wi-Fi extenders.
In contrast to mesh networks, a network built on Wi-Fi extenders will have an extra visible network and will be much more prone to lag and latency since they’re only repeating signals from a single, original router. While you can save a lot of money by expanding a network with Wi-Fi extenders rather than a full-blown mesh setup, mesh is still better in every way except price.
While mesh networking is a fairly cool feature, it most likely isn’t necessary for most of our readers. If you’re in a multi-floor home or a larger residence, though, mesh networking has great appeal as a simple solution for extending your network.
7. Does the router have enough Ethernet and USB ports for your needs?
While a lot of consideration goes into choosing the right features in a wireless router, it’s important to remember what your actual wires have to offer, especially if you’re a gamer or power user.
Ethernet ports can be used to route to gaming PCs and game consoles to minimize latency in game, for instance. Even on fast networks, this level of reliability may be necessary, especially for streamers and competitive gamers.
USB ports can be used to connect printers or external drives to a network as well as enable (custom) firmware updates if the router supports the feature. You usually can’t get online via a USB connection to a router, though. That’s what Wi-Fi and Ethernet cables are for. Even if you could, a USB cable is inherently much slower than Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
8. Does the router support custom firmware? (Optional)
If you enjoy tweaking your tech to your heart’s content, a router with custom firmware support may be just what you’re looking for. Routers with custom firmware support can be updated with software features the original router may not have had, such as QoS or VPN integration.
While custom firmware is far from a necessity on high-end routers, it’s a great way to take an old or cheap router and turn it into something genuinely worth using. Adding QoS to a router that otherwise doesn’t have it through custom firmware can greatly improve things like your gaming experience, especially if you’re on a slow connection and don’t have much bandwidth to spare.
If taking control of your router and pushing it further than intended sounds interesting to you, check out our DD-WRT vs. Tomato vs. OpenWrt article where we stack up the most popular router firmware head to head!
With the above questions, you now know what to look for when buying a new router. In addition, you may also want to know how to buy Ethernet cables if you are planning to use an Ethernet connection.