The Best Wireless Networking Buyer’s Guide – Winter 2021
With so many people working (and playing) from home these days, having a solid wireless home network is a must, but a lot of previous-gen routers people have relied on for years just aren’t up to the task. While it may seem like you should leave well enough alone once a network is up and running, you’re leaving a lot of potential network performance on the table if you’re using routers that are more than a few years old. A lot has changed in terms of broadband service and home WiFi demands over the past few years, so if you have high-bandwidth requirements, such as 4K streaming, video conferencing, or game streaming, it’s probably time for an upgrade. There’s plenty of new networking technology to take advantage of, and the latest products have advanced by leaps and bounds both in terms of performance and features.
For the Winter 2021 edition of this guide, nearly every single one of our recommendations is new, thanks to some massive changes that have come to the wireless networking market in just the past few months. Next-generation WiFi 6 is here in full force, and it has reset expectations for the WiFi performance you can experience. Technically known as 802.11ax, it has been given the friendlier “WiFi 6” name to help push consumers to adopt it, and frankly, we think it’s a great idea. It was hard enough for the average consumer to keep track of whether 802.11n or 802.11ac was faster, and 802.11ax sounds cool and all, but it doesn’t tell us much about performance. Well, WiFi 6 is the fastest, and most importantly, was built from the ground up to serve multiple clients, which is what modern households undoubtedly have. Whether its multiple users, or just multiple smart devices, it’s almost impossible to find a home where there isn’t more than one device pinging the network at any given time!
With that said, there’s still a place for 802.11ac devices (now known as WiFi 5): the mainstream arena. Given that most older client devices (i.e., any PCs, TVs, phones, or Smart Home devices that are more than a year old) still don’t use WiFi 6, the budget-conscious shopper is going to want to stick with 802.11ac.
But wait, there’s more! Not only do you have to make a decision between current-gen and next-gen speeds, you also have to decide between a single-node or multi-node “mesh” network! If you have a big home, you should consider ditching the single monolithic router and go with mesh, like the Orbi system pictured at to the left. With that said, gamers and streamers living in apartments and small homes should probably go with a single high-powered router at the same pricepoint. You get more straight-line speed at the expense of range.
By the way, we’re very excited to report that you can finally upgrade your desktop PC to WiFi 6 with the PCIe-based adapters, one of which we list in this guide. There still aren’t options in the USB form factor (it requires too much power at this point), but for any gamers and content creators out there who want to finally take advantage of their Gigabit fiberoptic or cable service without buying a new PC with WiFi 6 built-in, you now can! Speaking of cable, we also list our favorite cable modem at the end of this guide, which is how you can get out of paying monthly rental fees, while taking advantage of true Gigabit broadband service!
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Wireless Networking – Winter 2021
The Basic 802.11ac Router –
TP-Link AC1200 Archer A6$43The Archer A6 serves as a great introduction to 802.11ac networking, which we now consider the baseline for modern networking. Yes, you get a standard 802.11n radio for legacy devices, but what really matters here is the dual-stream 867Mbps 802.11ac radio, which will provide maximum throughput to just about any device. It also has four gigabit LAN ports, which is amazing given its ultra-low pricepoint. Its four antennae also give it an advantage over competing models.
Note that nearly all 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 is the perfect match for such devices.
The High-End 802.11ac Router –
TP-Link Archer A9$80If you want to get the most from your fleet of current-gen 802.11ac devices, you want to step up to a triple-stream AC router. Getting a high-powered AC router is definitely a wise choice for a multi-user household. And TP-Link offers one of the best prices on an AC1900-rated model.
This router includes a USB 2.0 port that allows you to set up file sharing via a USB drive.
The Mainstream Mesh System –
TP-Link Deco S4 3-Pack$130Back in 2016, a few small players entered the WiFi market with a unique solution: bundling multiple routers into a single, sleek package, branded as “wireless mesh networking.” But those early devices were really rough around the edges, being hard to set up and somewhat unreliable. Then the big players moved in, offering top-notch hardware backed by a refined user experience. This model from TP-Link will provide access across your entire home (3 nodes are good enough for 5,500 sq. ft), allow you to manage your whole home’s network via your smartphone, and set limits on individual users (i.e., kids!) by device, so all their connected products are cut off at dinner time or bed time.
A lot of readers have asked us over the years about WiFi extenders, and whether mesh is the same thing. It most definitely is not, and at this point we no longer recommend extenders, which provided more range at the expense of vastly-reduced performance. If you need more range today, simply replace your old router with a new mesh system like this one.
The Mainstream 802.11ax Router –
Asus RT-AX3000$160Ready for next-gen speeds? Then jump on board with the new RT-AX3000 from Asus, which offers speeds up to 2400Mbps on the 5GHz band, while still being backwards-compatible with the old 802.11n standard that legacy devices require. At this point, there’s no reason to spend more than $100 on a router unless you’re getting next-gen tech. Compared to the device above, it won’t have quite the range (since it has no mesh node), but its straight-line speed at close distance will be vastly superior. Choose your weapon!
The AX3000, like all next-gen routers, is being marketed as a "WiFi 6" router, which is the consumer-friendly name for 802.11ax. Previous iterations went simply by their technical name, but have been retroactively rebranded, so 802.11ac is referred to as WiFi 5 when it's being referenced in WiFi 6 marketing!
The High-End 802.11ax Router –
Asus RT-AX86U AX5700$250No, it’s not cheap, but honestly, given the performance the Asus RT-AX86U provides versus previous-gen routers, it’s an absolute bargain. With maximum speeds of 4800Mbps on the 5GHz band and 900Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, it is the real deal. It even allows you to extend your network with a true Asus-based mesh system should you need more range! Just make sure you have at least one 11ax device to take advantage of its speed.
How much do we believe in this router? We bought it for our own office, and have been enjoying 70MB/s download speeds ever since! Asus is the only networking manufacturer that also makes PCs, which helps explain why they do such a good job with high-end routers - they know how to design them to actually work with the high-end PCs that can take advantage of next-gen speed!
The Ultra-High-End Mesh Network –
Netgear Orbi RBK852$589What if you absolutely must have it all? The very latest, fastest solution with the longest range, the most features, the works?!? Then you get the Orbi RBK852 from Netgear. It is simply the pinnacle of home networking. It offers up insane AX6000 speed thanks to its 4×4 radios and dedicated backhaul between nodes. It’s rated up to a range of 5,000 sq ft and 60+ simultaneous device connections. What more could you ask for?
This is a huge step up from other WiFi 6 mesh offerings, thanks to its dedicated backhaul and 4x4 streams. Most others get by with 2x2 and no dedicated backhaul. This is the reference device for next-gen mesh performance!
The 802.11ac USB 3.0 Adapter –
TP-Link Archer T3U$17 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. Also, anything stuck on USB 2.0 will actually be a bottleneck to the average home wireless system.
Wireless Card –
TP-Link Archer T5E AC1200/Bluetooth 4.2$35 The Guru’s Tip
By adding Bluetooth capability to this card, TP-Link has made it a true 2-in-1 solution!
The High-End WiFi/Bluetooth Card –
TP-Link Archer TX3000E$45 The Guru’s Tip
Seriously, this is the first time a premium-level PCIe WiFi adapter also offers Bluetooth. It's been a long time coming!
Cable Modem –
Netgear CM1000 Docsis 3.1$170 The Guru’s Tip
While we used to recommend the CM700 rated at 500Mbps, true Gigabit cable service is becoming much more common, and buying a slower cable modem at this point only to be locked out of upgrading to faster service in the near future would be a bad investment, so we suggest going for a next-gen modem like this one.
Total Cost: $
- The Basic 802.11ac Router – TP-Link AC1200 Archer A6 ($43)
- The High-End 802.11ac Router – TP-Link Archer A9 ($80)
- The Mainstream Mesh System – TP-Link Deco S4 3-Pack ($130)
- The Mainstream 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX3000 ($160)
- The High-End 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX86U AX5700 ($250)
- The Ultra-High-End Mesh Network – Netgear Orbi RBK852 ($589)