The Best Wireless Networking Buyer's Guide

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. The truth is, however, that a lot has changed in terms of Internet use over the past few years. If you have high-bandwidth requirements, such as 4K streaming, video conferencing, or game streaming, and your current hardware is more than a couple years old, 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 2020 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's resetting expectations of the WiFi performance you can achieve. 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 households in the year 2020 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 client devices (i.e., the PCs, TVs, phones, and Smart Home devices you can actually buy today) still don't use WiFi 6, the budget-conscious shopper is going to want to stick with 802.11ac.

    The best PCIe WiFi 6 adapter

    But wait, there's more! Not only do you have to make a decision between current-gen and next-gen speeds, you also have decide between a single-node or multi-node "mesh" network! If you have a big home, you really need to ditch the single monolithic router and go with mesh, like the Orbi system pictured at the top of this page. 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 awesome new TP-Link TX3000E adapter shown here. 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, earning back the purchase price in less than a year!

    Note that we utilize Amazon links throughout this guide, and your use of these links helps support further development of the guide, so please use them!

    Wireless Networking Buyer's Guide - Winter 2020

    Routers

    • The Basic 802.11ac Router:

      TP-Link Archer A6 Gigabit Smart WiFi Router

      The 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.

      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 is the perfect match for such devices.

    • The Mainstream 802.11ac Router:

      TP-Link Archer A9 Smart WiFi Router

      If you want to be on the cutting edge, you want to step up to a triple-stream AC router. With all of the latest devices coming with 802.11ac networking built-in, 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.

      The Guru's Tip:

      This router includes a USB 2.0 port that allows you to set up file sharing via a USB drive.

    • The Mid-Range Whole-Home System:

      TP-Link Deco M4 3-Pack

      Back 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." Recently, the big players have 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.

      The Guru's Tip:

      A lot of readers have asked us about Google's WiFi mesh product. It runs at "first-gen" despite a decidedly "next-gen" price, and should absolutely be skipped. It operates at an extraordinarily slow 433MHz. It was released in late-2016 when no other big names were in the mesh business, and yet Google is still raking in the bucks on this backwards-looking product. Don't be fooled by the "Google" name on it - as with a lot of Google products, it's not very good.

    • The Mainstream 802.11ax Router:

      TP-Link Archer AX50 WiFi 6 Router

      Ready for next-gen speeds? Then jump on board with the new AX50 from TP-Link, 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 Guru's Tip:

      The AX50, 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 Whole-Home System:

      Netgear Orbi RBK50

      No, it's not cheap, but if you want the ultimate in speed, functionality, and ease-of-use, the Orbi RBK50 is the system to buy. With independent backhaul to provide seamless roaming without the halving of bandwidth that traditional extenders and even lower-cost mesh systems impose, it's the best wireless system on the planet.

      The Guru's Tip:

      This powerful system is rated to cover up to 5,000 sq ft., and can be expanded to 6,000 sq ft and beyond with additional nodes. It can even be controlled via Amazon's Echo, allowing you to turn on and off services with a single voice command. That's perfect for parents who need to kick kids off the 'net!

    • The Ultimate Whole-Home System:

      Netgear Orbi RBK852

      What 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 4x4 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?

      The Guru's Tip:

      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 2020!

    Adapters

      The Bargain 802.11ac USB Adapter:

      TP-LINK Archer T4U V3

      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. Also, anything stuck on USB 2.0 will actually be a bottleneck to the average home wireless system.

    • Wireless Card:

      TP-LINK Archer T6E AC1300

      Offering even better performance than the T4U above, the T6E is the perfect choice for owners of desktop PCs who are comfortable installing expansion cards inside their PCs. Offering dual-stream 802.11ac networking on the 5GHz band, plus legacy 2.4GHz networking on 802.11n, it offers tremendous performance for the price.

      The Guru's Tip:

      Need Bluetooth too? Then check out the option below!

    • The 802.11ax/Bluetooth PCIe Adapter:

      TP-Link Archer TX3000E WiFi 6 / Bluetooth 5 PCIe Adapter

      Folks, the future is here! It used to be that we had to list a bunch of different PCIe-based cards that had either great speeds or combo Bluetooth functionality, but now we can have it all! The new TX3000E from TP-Link offers up true next-gen WiFi 6 speeds (hitting 2400Mbps), along with Bluetooth 5.0 functionality. And the price is simply amazing, undercutting just about every last-gen product on the market.

      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!

    Optional Components

      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 Powerline/Extender Combo:

      TP-Link AV1300 Powerline WiFi Extender

      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. And with the newest Powerline kits, like this high-end AV1300 model, not only do you get speeds above 1Gbps, but you also get a built-in WiFi extender, allowing you to use your wireless devices off of your expanded wired network!

      The Guru's Tip:

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

      Cable Modem:

      Netgear CM700 Docsis 3.0

      If you're on cable Internet (like the vast majority of people who have truly high-speed service), then do yourself a favor and stop paying your cable provider a monthly rental fee for an old modem! Buy yourself one with the latest upgrades and start saving money! This model uses the fastest iteration of Docsis 3.0, 32x8, which will be able to keep up with plans up to 500 Mbps.

      The Guru's Tip:

      If you're one of the lucky ones with access to true Gigabit cable service, then go for Netgear's CM1000 Docsis 3.1 model.