The Best Wireless Networking Buyer’s Guide – Summer 2023
With so many devices relying on wireless networking these days, having an up-to-date home network is a must. That’s because many previous-gen routers simply aren’t up to the task of supporting multiple high-speed devices. While it may be tempting to leave well enough alone once a network is up and running, a lot has changed in terms of broadband service and home WiFi demands over the past few years.
Simply put, if you have high-bandwidth requirements, such as 4K streaming, video conferencing, or game streaming, it’s probably time for an upgrade. The same is true if you have multiple smart devices in the home, such as smart speakers or a security system. In short, there’s plenty of new networking technology to take advantage of, and it will be put to good use in the modern home environment.
What’s the Latest WiFi Standard?
For the Summer 2023 edition of this guide, we list plenty of great WiFi 6 and 6E products, which have reset expectations for the performance that WiFi can deliver. Technically known as 802.11ax, it has been given the friendlier “WiFi 6” name to help consumers know what they’re getting, 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 while 802.11ax sounds cool and all, it doesn’t tell us much about performance.
In case you’re wondering, WiFi 6E unlocks extra performance by using the 6GHz band (all previous WiFi standards used 2.4GHz or 5GHz). It’s a bit confusing that WiFi 6 doesn’t use 6GHz and only WiFi 6E does… so much for making sense! Alas, even 6E isn’t the fastest spec for WiFi. That honor goes to WiFi 7 (802.11be), which has been announced by several manufacturers, although only TP-Link is shipping products as of our latest update. We list one WiFi 7 option in this guide, but be forewarned: it’s strictly for early adopters, because you won’t have any devices that can connect at WiFi 7 speeds for a while.
Speaking of connecting, if you’re a desktop PC user with a slightly older WiFi setup, you can upgrade to WiFi 6 with a PCIe-based adapter, which we list in this guide. There’s now even a USB option, which means you can update laptops, although it is a bit bulky. You can learn more later in this guide.
One last thing: you’ll need a fast Internet service to take advantage of the speed of any of the offerings in our guide, and that means cable or fiberoptic. The latter always has proprietary modems, but for cable you can buy your own cable modem, and we offer our recommendation in this guide, getting you out of paying monthly rental fees, while getting you into true Gigabit broadband service!
What If I’m On a Budget?
There’s still a place for 802.11ac devices (now rebranded as WiFi 5). For mainstream users, these still very-fast products will be more than sufficient… heck, consumers were happy with them for a decade! Given that most older client devices (i.e., any PCs, TVs, phones, or Smart Home devices that are more than a few years old) still don’t use WiFi 6, the budget-conscious shopper is going to want to stick with 802.11ac.
What If I’m Tired of Dropping the Signal Across My Home?
If you have a medium to larger home (say, over 2000 sq. ft.), speed ratings won’t tell you all you need to know about network performance. This is when it’s time to think beyond a single router (or node) sitting on one side of your house, and move to multi-node “mesh” network!
A system like the Netgear Orbi pictured here will fill those dead spots faster than you can say “where’s my signal?!?” 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. And anyone who wants the best of all worlds can actually pair two Asus-branded routers using the innovative Asus AIMesh system to create a truly out-of-this-world mesh network that has extreme speed and extreme range!
One last thing: we utilize Amazon links throughout this guide, and your use of these links helps support future development of the guide!
The High-End 802.11ac Router –
TP-Link Archer A7$53If you want to get the most from your fleet of older 802.11ac devices, this is the perfect option. It’s a cost-conscious choice for a multi-user household that isn’t using bleeding-edge PCs or smart TVs. And TP-Link offers one of the best prices on an AC1750-rated model, which offers up to 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band, and 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band.
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 M5 3-Pack$140Back 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 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$152Ready 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!
Compared to the mesh option listed above, this router won't have quite the range (since it has no mesh node), but its straight-line speed at close distance will be much higher. And the great news is that Asus allows you to build your own mesh network using its AIMesh system, so you can add another of these routers down the road and get far superior performance!
The High-End 802.11ax Router –
Asus RT-AX86U AX5700$220No, 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, for the rated total of 5700Mbps, it’s the real deal. It even allows you to extend your network with a true Asus-based mesh system should you need more range! We particularly like that this model is unique among nearly all high-end routers in being vertical, giving it a much smaller footprint then competing models.
As with other Asus models, the AX86U allows you to pair additional Asus routers together using the AIMesh system to create a powerful mesh network in your home. They don't even have to be the same model of router, although two AX86U models will work great together, and it's the exact setup that TBG uses to power its network!
The Extreme 802.11ax Router –
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE16000$600With the ROG Rapture AXE16000, Asus takes everything that made the AXE11000 great and added yet another 5GHz radio, so you get four routers in one! The “16000” in the name refers to the following massively-impressive specs: up to 1148 Mbps on the 2.4GHz AX band, plus dual radios providing 4804 Mbps each on the 5GHz AX band, and a fourth radio providing 4804 Mbps on the 6GHz AX band. This allows you to run three high-end gaming PCs on the same network, each with their own dedicated router, while all your older devices connect on the still very fast 2.4GHz band.
Here's a pro-tip if you're looking to create the most insanely-overpowered mesh system on the planet: go with two of these routers and connect them using Asus' proprietary AIMesh system. Harnessing the extreme WiFi 6E speed and using one of the three 5GHz radios as dedicated backhaul, this setup will absolutely obliterate any mesh system on the market in terms of speed, including the very competent pre-packaged Netgear Orbi system below.
The Ultra-High-End Mesh Network –
Netgear Orbi RBK852$625What 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! And if you have a really large home (up to 7,500sf) or more than two floors, you can go with the three-node version, available on the same product page.
The Extreme 802.11be Router –
TP-Link Archer BE800$600If you want to go completely over the top with your new router, get the Archer BE800. This monolith, which looks like it might as well have come from another planet, is the first WiFi 7 (802.11be) router on the market. It offers simply insane specs: speeds of up to 11,520 Mbps on the 6GHz band, 5760 Mbps on the 5GHz band, and 1376 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. Add that up and you get nearly 19,000Mbps of simultaneous bandwidth.
There's just one catch with this router - there are no WiFi 7 clients as of our latest update, so this is absolutely an investment in the future. Luckily, even its WiFi 6 speeds are from the world beyond!
The 802.11ac USB 3.0 Adapter –
TP-Link Archer T3U$20 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, so be careful about off-brand options.
The High-End WiFi/Bluetooth Card –
TP-Link Archer TX55E$40 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 TXE75E$60 The Guru’s Tip
If you have the extra cash to spare, we definitely suggest you go with this option over the AC-based model above for the sake of future-proofing!
The WiFi 6E USB 3.0 Adapter –
Netgear Nighthawk AXE3000 WiFi 6E USB 3.0 Adapter$79 The Guru’s Tip
It's no mean feat to pack this much speed into a compact adapter, so don't trust off brands to get the job done.
Cable Modem –
Netgear Nighthawk CM2000 Cable Modem$254 The Guru’s Tip
While we used to recommend the CM1000 rated at 1Gbps, Gigabit+ cable service is becoming much more common, and buying a slower cable modem at this point will lock you out of upgrading to faster service in the near future.
- The High-End 802.11ac Router – TP-Link Archer A7 ($53)
- The Mainstream Mesh System – TP-Link Deco M5 3-Pack ($140)
- The Mainstream 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX3000 ($152)
- The High-End 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX86U AX5700 ($220)
- The Extreme 802.11ax Router – Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE16000 ($600)
- The Ultra-High-End Mesh Network – Netgear Orbi RBK852 ($625)
- The Extreme 802.11be Router – TP-Link Archer BE800 ($600)
- The 802.11ac USB 3.0 Adapter – TP-Link Archer T3U ($20)
- The High-End WiFi/Bluetooth Card – TP-Link Archer TX55E ($40)
- The High-End WiFi/Bluetooth Card – TP-Link Archer TXE75E ($60)
- The WiFi 6E USB 3.0 Adapter – Netgear Nighthawk AXE3000 WiFi 6E USB 3.0 Adapter ($79)
- Cable Modem – Netgear Nighthawk CM2000 Cable Modem ($254)