Welcome to The TBG Forum, Tree!
It's funny, every time I look at the current offerings in the router world, I'm taken aback by how many different approaches you'll find even within a single product line. I'll get back to your specific model selection in a moment, but first, I'll share with you a conversation I had with Linksys engineers at CES this year. I asked them point blank what the true speed of their new Velop AC6600 Mesh Network
is versus their very best single router, the Linksys EA9500 AC5400
, which is what I use and think is simply unbeatable. In the end, they didn't have a direct answer, but said the goal of the Velop was to provide whole-home coverage, not necessarily faster speeds. But then I said to one of the engineers that the EA9500 already provides whole-home coverage due to its powerful radios, and he admitted that it's so powerful that it's being used by ranches and other similar businesses that need coverage over extremely large outdoor spaces. You can't do that with a bunch of indoor "nodes," of course.
Point being, there are a lot of "best" options out there, even within a single company. They are pitching everything they've got and seeing what sticks. As for the Linksys WRT3200ACM
you've identified, I'm not convinced it's actually the best router for everyone, but for you, it might just be ideal. That's not because of MU-MIMO, however. The WRT3200 has another unusual feature, which is its three 867Mbps (dual-433Mbps stream) radios on the 5GHz band, plus a 600MHz radio on the 2.4GHz band, which adds up to the 3200Mbps rating. That sort of makes up for the fact that MU-MIMO doesn't really work in today's environment. You see, MU-MIMO, which divides a single radio among multiple clients simultaneously rather than quickly switching between them as standard routers do, is most definitely the future of wireless routing. But clients must be MU-MIMO compatible, and most clients are not. That includes most phones, tablets, consoles, laptops, and desktop adapters. Basically, it's a great feature to have for the future, but it doesn't work today. Which is where all those somewhat slow 5GHz radios come into play in the WRT3200: in the absence of MU-MIMO clients, you have multiple radios communicating with the devices in your home, which means there's a greater chance that one will get a dedicated connection at any given instant, even if they aren't MU-MIMO compatible.
That is pretty nice, and it's something that the EA9500
I use has, but in a more robust configuration: two 2166Mbps (penta-stream) 5.4GHz radios and a single 1000Mbps 2.4GHz radio. Now, some hyper-inflated marketing is going on here too, as there are no clients that can truly take advantage of either of those ratings, but the brute force required to drive such speeds also means the radios have great range and reliability, even at slower speeds.
One thing that concerns me about the current WRT series is that it's meant to channel the iconic WRT54G
, and Linksys has practically admitted that you're paying more for the styling. Alas, if you want those triple 5GHz radios, it's your only option, and in an apartment setting like yours with lots of users, it's actually better than having one or two faster, longer-range radios. I've poked around a bit and don't see any similar configurations from Netgear and Asus, which means Linksys may well be going it alone with the unique attributes that the WRT3200ACM provides.
By the way, I'm on CenturyLink Gigabit Fiber, and it's pretty darn awesome, but I'm not sure how it would work in an apartment building. I live in a house, but previously lived in an apartment, and my Comcast Cable was split in the utility room of the building to service all the residents. It was clear that at peak viewing hours, my internet service absolutely tanked. Before upgrading your CenturyLink, make sure you're not getting slowdowns during prime time hours, because a faster connection may not fix that. Use Speedtest.net to check your internet speeds during those hours, preferably not when every other device in your home is being used (in order to pinpoint whether you're getting slowdowns prior to the feed entering your unit). Then check it in the early morning and see if it comes to the same speed. If it does, an upgrade in your service may be worthwhile.
Alas, I can tell you about a lot of things, particularly hardware-related, but VPNs are a bit outside my area of expertise. I'm afraid you'll have to research that on some other helpful website!