Every year there are a lot of new, more expensive routers coming out with “extreme gamer” marketing, but behind the advertising, what does that all really mean? In this guide we’re going to break down the actual differences in performance, features, and design, and whether or not they’re worth the price.
“X-treme to the Max”
Like many companies these days, router manufacturers have learned that the “gamer” market is one that’s willing to pay a lot of extra coin for only a moderate boost in actual performance. As a result, major companies like Netgear, Linksys, and D-Link have all released their own gamer-focused routers which supposedly offer better performance than your standard router.
But how much performance do you actually need? Realistically, it all comes down two things: signal strength, and features.
How Much Bandwidth Does Gaming Need?
The thing about gaming is that long ago – way before broadband was the norm and 56K modems ruled the ‘Net – game designers learned how to highly optimize the amount of traffic and bandwidth required to communicate moves in multiplayer games. This means that even in today’s more complex games, on average you likely won’t need more than about 20Kbps of free bandwidth to game at full speed.
Any router, gaming-centric or otherwise, can handle a measly 20Kbps of bandwidth. Even if you add voice communication on top of that, you likely won’t ever go above the 100Kbps mark. So what is it that gaming routers actually bring to the table?
It’s All About the Features
Although total bandwidth isn’t so important when reading through the list of features that makes a gaming router better than any other, the true value is found in additional features like QoS. QoS, or “Quality of Service,” is an automatic service that can prioritize bandwidth to particular devices, or even applications, depending on how much bandwidth they need on the network.
For example, if you’re trying to get in a match of Counter Strike at the same time your roommates are watching Netflix, downloading files, and loading up on BitTorrent requests, your gaming session might suffer as a result. Gaming routers have highly-customizable QoS options that will let you put your gaming PC at the top of the pile, guaranteeing that you always get first pick of the good bandwidth.
Other important inclusions are newer technologies like MU-MIMO beamforming, or “Multiple-In, Multiple-Out.” MU-MIMO allows for simultaneous data streaming rather than sequential. What does this mean?
Well, think of it like this. Traditional routers work sort of like a machine gun strapped to a carousel, with devices placed at every corner. One bullet hits a device (one packet of data), the carousel rotates, and the next device after that gets its packet. The more devices attached to the network, the more stops the carousel needs to make before it completes a full rotation. (Of course routers do this much, much faster with data.)
MU-MIMO routers have one machine gun for every device, which means a constant stream of unbroken bullets (packets) can be shot at every device simultaneously. What does this all mean for gamers, though? All in all, it breaks down to latency and ping, which are drastically reduced when your device gets a simultaneous data stream rather than a sequential one.
So Are Gaming Routers Worth the Extra Cost?
Features like QoS and MU-MIMO already exist on dozens of available non-gaming routers, and often you can get the same router with just as many features and as much power for hundreds less than the gaming version. With gaming-centric routers, you’re not paying for much more than a unique design and some marketing nonsense on top of that; even this bargain basement ASUS router comes with extensive QoS options and MU-MIMO for less than $70.
If you want a router that looks like it’s straight out of the future and matches your gaming PC in aesthetics, by all means drop the extra coin, but if you’re just on the hunt for something that works and gets the job done, you’re much better off just grabbing a router that has the features you need at a cost point you can reasonably afford.