The Best Wireless Networking Buyer’s Guide – Winter 2022
With so many people working (and playing) from home these days, having a solid wireless home network is a must. But many previous-gen routers simply aren’t up to the task. While it may seem like you should 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.
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.
What’s the Latest WiFi Standard?
For the Winter 2022 edition of this guide, we list plenty of great next-generation WiFi 6 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.
And amazingly, WiFi 6 isn’t even the fastest standard out there… that title goes to WiFi 6E, which 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! Note that the 6GHz band was probably supposed to be part of the WiFi 6 spec from the start, but regulators in various countries only recently approved its use in consumer applications, so everyone, including the Wi-Fi Alliance that develops new WiFi standards, was stuck waiting.
By the way, you’ll of course need a WiFi 6-enabled client to take advantage of this new tech, and if you’re a desktop PC user, you can upgrade to WiFi 6 with a PCIe-based adapter, 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 top pick among cable modems in this guide, which is how you can get out of paying monthly rental fees, while taking advantage of true Gigabit broadband service!
What If I’m On a Budget?
There’s still a place for 802.11ac devices (now known 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 year 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 A9$90If 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 M5 3-Pack$170Back 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$170Ready 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-AX82U AX5400$222No, it’s not cheap, but honestly, given the performance the Asus RT-AX82U provides versus previous-gen routers, it’s an absolute bargain. With maximum speeds of 4800Mbps on the 5GHz band and 575Mbps 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.
As with other Asus models, the AX82U 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 AX82U models will work great together!
The Extreme 802.11ax Router –
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000$546
With the Asus ROG Rapture 6E, you’re getting the best of the best: the fastest standard (6E), the fastest speeds, and a tri-band system for three routers in one! The “11000” 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. Yes, that’s two 5GHz routers in one box! The allows you to run dual high-end gaming PCs on the same network, each with their own dedicated router.The Guru’s Tip
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 two 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$700What 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$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.
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 –
Asus PCE-AX58BT AX3000$66 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!
Cable Modem –
Netgear Nighthawk CM2000 Cable Modem$242 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 A9 ($90)
- The Mainstream Mesh System – TP-Link Deco M5 3-Pack ($170)
- The Mainstream 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX3000 ($170)
- The High-End 802.11ax Router – Asus RT-AX82U AX5400 ($222)
- The Extreme 802.11ax Router – Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000 ($546)
- The Ultra-High-End Mesh Network – Netgear Orbi RBK852 ($700)