Setting up a home or small office network can be a daunting challenge, so it certainly makes sense to leave well enough alone once things are up and running. But if you have new high-bandwidth requirements, such as streaming video or remote networking, and your current hardware is more than a couple years old, it's probably time to upgrade your equipment to take advantage of the latest networking technology, which has advanced by leaps and bounds recently both in terms of performance and features.

Linksys

To help you select the right product, we've grouped the various products into four distinct categories below, each arranged in order of price:

  1. Routers: these form the backbone of your home network, and we profile basic 802.11ac 750Mbps models all the way up to the amazing 802.11ac 5400Mbps model shown here.
  2. Adapters: this is how your PC connects to the network, and we have recommendations for both USB (external) and PCIe (internal) models.
  3. Wireless Extenders: these devices extend the range of your existing router to help you get a connection in every corner of your home.
  4. The Powerline Alternative: for homes where wireless just doesn't work well, networking over electric lines is often the best bet.

For our Fall 2016 edition of this guide, we've added a number of new products based on our recent 802.11ac wireless adapter shootout. We had already moved all of our routoer recommendations to the current 802.11ac standard, and now we've done the same for our adapter options. While it took several years, the market has now fully transitioned from the 802.11n standard to the newer 802.11ac protocol. But market segmentation continues, as 802.11ac is now divided into multiple tiers, with the top-of-the-line being the incredible quad-stream 5300Mbps MU-MIMO routers and 4x4 3100Mbps adapters that have recently hit store shelves.

Alas, technology never stops evolving, and the mind-blowing 802.11ad standard, announced in January 2016, promises transfer speeds faster than a wired network. But in the spirit of competition, wired-networking innovators are now in the testing stage for 10Gbps wired Ethernet, which will leapfrog 802.11ad, putting wired networking back out in front (where it belongs, honestly speaking!). 

Note that we use Amazon's real-time pricing engine, so prices displayed in this guide are always up-to-date. If you decide to purchase any of the products we list, please support this guide by using the links we provide. And before moving on to our recommended products, consider a couple of great tips to save you money. First, Amazon's fantastic trade-in program may give you cash for your old router, which could go a long way to getting you a new one. And if you're still renting a cable modem from your cable provider (Comcast, Time Warner, etc. charge about $8/mo.), please do yourself a favor and just buy the Arris Surfboard SB6141 and free yourself from the extra bills!

If you'd like to learn more about the various 802.11 standards and how their performance meshes with real-world needs, feel free to check out our Introduction to Wireless Networking article.

The Wireless Networking Buyer's Guide - Fall 2016

    The Entry-Level Router:

    Asus RT-AC52U AC750

    This is the minimum router we recommend to anyone - a basic, no frills 802.11ac dual-band 2.4/5GHz router. Yes, there are cheaper routers out there, but we've used many of them, and guess what - they are slower, have terrible range, and often overheat and suffer an untimely demise. Don't waste your time - start right here if you're going to buy a new router. It even includes a USB port for printer sharing! Note that its 802.11ac networking is limited to 433Mbps, far below the standard's maximum, but that's what keeps this model so sleek and affordable.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We used to suggest 802.11n for entry-level routers, but 802.11ac is now ubiquitous, and far faster, so there's no reason to buy a router today unless it features 802.11ac networking.

    The Basic 802.11ac Router:

    TP-LINK Archer C5 AC1200

    The Archer C5 serves as a great introduction to 802.11ac networking. With a standard 802.11n 300Mbps radio as well as a dual-stream 867Mbps 802.11ac radio, it will provide maximum throughput to just about any typical device. It also has gigabit networking and dual USB 2.0 ports, which less expensive routers, including the model profiled above, miss out on.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that nearly all current 802.11ac clients (as in smartphones, tablets, and laptops) use single- or dual-stream 802.11ac networking, which translates to 433Mbps or 867Mbps. The Archer C5 is the perfect match for such devices.

    The Mainstream 802.11ac Router:

    TP-Link Archer C9 AC1900

    If you want to be on the cutting edge, you want to step up to a triple-stream AC router. With more and more devices coming with 802.11ac networking built in, paying more for a high-powered AC router is finally starting to make a lot of sense. In our testing, the 802.11ac band provides up to 2x the speed of the best 802.11n routers. And TP-Link offers one of the best prices on an AC1900-rated model.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We've tested this router and found it to match the speed of the "big name" manufacturers without much difficulty. The only thing it was truly missing was a robust file server system for attached data drives.

    The High-End 802.11ac Router:

    Netgear Nighthawk X4S AC2600

    The potent Nighthawk X4S is our top pick among premium conventional routers. It uses cutting-edge quad-stream transmission transmission to reach a theoretical 1733Mbps using the 802.11ac protocol. Add to that the 800Mbps it gets on the 2.4GHz band, and you arrive at its staggering AC2600 rating (with a bit of rounding up!). This model packs in a 1.4GHz dual-core processor and beamforming technology, and beats out its competitors Asus and Linksys in terms of reliability. 

    The Guru's Tip:

    You won't get 1733Mbps on the AC band with many devices - this is a forward-looking router, as the maximum speed most clients currently hit is 1300Mbps.

    The Multi-User 802.11ac Router:

    Linksys EA9500 MU-MIMO AC5400

    If you want the ultimate router, the flagship model from Linksys is definitely the one! Dual 4x4 802.11ac radios with massive 2166Mbps throughput plus a high-powered 802.11n 2.4GHz 1000Mbps radio combine with MU-MIMO dedicated connections for a jaw-dropping 5334Mbps of theoretical throughput. We used it in our recent 802.11ac wireless adapter shootout, and it was able to feed our highest-end devices at over 35MB/s. Plus, it has absolutely phenomenal range, besting other high-end routers we've tested by at least 50%!

    The Guru's Tip:

    The AC5400 standard creates two simultaneous 5GHz networks, great for scenarios where you have many devices running concurrently, some using the 802.11n 5GHz protocol.

    The Bargain 802.11ac USB Adapter:

    TP-Link Archer T4U AC1200

    Have a laptop that's stuck on old wireless technology, or a desktop that you'd like to easily connect to your 802.11ac router without popping open the case? Then the T4U AC1200 is a strong contender for your next wireless adapter. It features dual-band operation, giving you the option of using the faster 5GHz AC band for modern devices, and its USB 3.0 interface will make the most of that capability!

    The Guru's Tip:

    We've found that wireless adapters that use only internal antennas typically don't have quite the same range as adapters with external antennas, but they're much more convenient to use with a laptop.

    The High-End 802.11ac Adapter:

    Netgear A6210

    The first thing you'll notice is that the A6210 is big. You might not like that. But Netgear knew that to pack in the high-powered transmitters required for true 802.11ac speed (in this case, dual-stream 867Mbps), the adapter simply couldn't be the size of a typical thumb drive. It had to be big. And it pays off - this adapter is so fast that it can actually exceed the bandwidth available in a USB 2.0 connection, which is why it's designed for use with USB 3.0 ports. We've tested the A6210 and found it capable of transferring data at up to 30MB/s. That works out to 240Mbps, faster than just about any Internet service in the U.S.

    The Guru's Tip:

    To get the most out of the A6210, you'll need a high-quality 802.11ac router, like those profiled earlier in this guide.

    The 802.11ac/Bluetooth Combo Card:

    Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I Bluetooth/Wireless PCIe Card

    Representing an absolutely amazing value among add-in cards, the Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I may not have a catchy name, but it has specs that make it a winning pick! Featuring both 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios, the latter supporting the 802.11ac protocol, along with a Bluetooth 4.2 radio, this adapter packs in a whole lot of goodness for the price!

    The Guru's Tip:

    If your motherboard is more than 5 years old, make sure it has PCIe slots by checking your user's manual. If you don't have PCIe slots, you will need TP-Link's TL-WN951N PCI card, which unfortunately only comes in a single-band version. 

    The High-End 802.11ac PCIe Adapter:

    TP-Link Archer T8E AC1750

    Featuring triple-stream 802.11ac networking good for a 1300Mbps rating, this add-in card offers truly high-end performance. And given that it installs internally and has an attached antenna array, it's also pretty sleek as adapters go.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The T8E was the winner of our recent wireless adapter shootout, even beating out its more expensive twin, the Archer T9E!

    The Ultra-High-End 802.11ac PCIe Adapter:

    Asus PCE-AC88 AC3100 PCIe Adapter

    Want the very fastest wireless adapter on the market? This new model from Asus is the one! Featuring a robust controller card with an external quad-antenna array, this adapter has the power to truly deliver on its AC3100 rating (including 2100Mbps over 802.11ac and 1000Mbps on 802.11n). Yes, it's harder to install than a USB-based device, but no other product on the market will even come close to this adapter, which is the only four-transmit, four-receive (4x4) 802.11ac adapter available!

    The Guru's Tip:

    We haven't tested this new model yet, but every other Asus adapter we've used has beaten the competition, so we're hoping to pair this up with our 4x4 router soon!

    The Media Bridge/Range Extender:

    Netgear EX6200 802.11ac Wi-Fi Range Extender

    This is the ideal product for pairing with a high-end dual-band 802.11ac router to provide high-speed wired "bridge" connections to up to four devices in a remote location, such as a home theater setup or separate office, while also extending your wireless network beyond the reach of your router. It operates at 867Mbps on the 5GHz AC band and 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz N band.

    The Guru's Tip:

    After a recent price cut, this extender is a true bargain, especially once you consider that the EX6200 is actually taking the place of the wireless adapter for four devices and enhancing your wireless network!

    The Compact 802.11ac Wireless Extender:

    Linksys Amplify RE6700 AC1200 Range Extender

    If you'd like expand the boundaries of your network, a wireless extender is the easiest way to do so, and the Amplify RE6700 is the very best model on the market. It resembles an over-sized "wall-wart" power adapter, and can be placed in any unused socket around the house. Note that it also provides a single wired connection to a nearby device like a TV, PC, or AV device, along with a power outlet pass-through and an signal strength indicator light.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We strongly recommend that you do not use the same network name (SSID) for the extended network as you do the original network created by your router. That's because the technology used to extend the network necessitates a halving of throughput, and if you use the same SSID, you'll lose half your performance throughout your network, not just in the extended area.

    The Powerline Alternative:

    TP-Link TL-PA8010P AV1200 Kit

    Whether it's the distance between the router and your PC, interference from other electronic equipment, or just plain bad luck, there will be times when wireless networking isn't going to work as well as you want it to. Enter the Powerline standard, which provides wired networking over a home's electrical system. If you have an outlet in your room, you can have a hard-wired network connection. Powerline is incredibly easy to set up - just plug one adapter into a socket near your router, and another near your PC, attach an ethernet cable to each one, and you're done. Of course, this isn't great for laptops, and won't work at all for tablets and smartphones, so you'll still need wireless. But for any device that doesn't move (e.g., a desktop PC or TV), Powerline just might be ideal. And this model from TP-Link features the fastest version of Powerline yet, AV1200, offering up to 1200Mbps throughput... that's faster than Gigabit Ethernet!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that you cannot plug Powerline adapters into surge protectors - they'll scramble the signal.

  1. The Entry-Level Router Asus RT-AC52U AC750 ($60.00)
  2. The Basic 802.11ac Router TP-LINK Archer C5 AC1200 ($75.00)
  3. The Mainstream 802.11ac Router TP-Link Archer C9 AC1900 ($120.00)
  4. The High-End 802.11ac Router Netgear Nighthawk X4S AC2600 ($239.00)
  5. The Multi-User 802.11ac Router Linksys EA9500 MU-MIMO AC5400 ($350.00)
  6. The Bargain 802.11ac USB Adapter TP-Link Archer T4U AC1200 ($30.00)
  7. The High-End 802.11ac Adapter Netgear A6210 ($51.00)
  8. The 802.11ac/Bluetooth Combo Card Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I Bluetooth/Wireless PCIe Card ($49.00)
  9. The High-End 802.11ac PCIe Adapter TP-Link Archer T8E AC1750 ($60.00)
  10. The Ultra-High-End 802.11ac PCIe Adapter Asus PCE-AC88 AC3100 PCIe Adapter ($124.00)
  11. The Media Bridge/Range Extender Netgear EX6200 802.11ac Wi-Fi Range Extender ($80.00)
  12. The Compact 802.11ac Wireless Extender Linksys Amplify RE6700 AC1200 Range Extender ($90.00)
  13. The Powerline Alternative TP-Link TL-PA8010P AV1200 Kit ($70.00)