A Strong Wi-Fi Network Is More Critical Than Ever. A Good Router Is The Key

A Strong Wi-Fi Network Is More Critical Than Ever. A Good Router Is The Key

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A wireless router is the cornerstone of your home network. If your router is old, underpowered or malfunctioning, you’ll feel it: You’ll struggle to get a good connection in some parts of your house, your video conference will start to flake out if someone’s watching Netflix in the other room, and you may find yourself unable to take advantage of your expensive high-speed internet plan, wasting your money and causing unnecessary frustration.

While larger homes or those with complex layouts, or plaster or concrete walls, are better served by mesh networks, a single router is all you need in many homes. We tested seven highly rated routers in a 2,000 square-foot, single-story home and a 1,100 square-foot, two-story townhouse, evaluating their range, single- and multi-device speeds, features and ease of use. We found two great picks: one best suited for a midsize house packed with gadgets, and a less expensive one that still has great range and speed for apartments and smaller homes.

The best Wi-Fi router overall

The Asus RT-AX86U has excellent speed and range, and can handle several people streaming 4K video, playing online games, working from home and taking video calls at the same time. It’s a great Wi-Fi 6 router for small- and average-sized homes with demanding networks.

The best Wi-Fi router on a budget

For smaller spaces and less-demanding workloads, the TP-Link Archer AX21 is a great Wi-Fi 6 router for under $100. Its speed and range rival routers twice as expensive, though it can’t handle as many high-bandwidth devices at the same time.

The Asus RT-AX86U delivers incredible performance for a reasonable price. It had some of the best speeds at the longest range on our hardest tests, and it handled multiple devices better than any other router we tested. It also takes up less room. And it includes advanced features like 2.5Gbps Ethernet, link aggregation, guest networks, Wi-Fi scheduling and an OpenVPN server for those who need them. It’s the best router we found for large homes with lots of devices, especially if you have an internet plan above 200Mbps.

Key specs WiFi version: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) Number of streams: 3×3 (2.4GHz), 4×4 (5GHz) DFS channels supported: 52–64, 100–140 Ethernet ports: 1GbE WAN, 2.5GbE WAN or LAN, 4 GbE LAN USB ports: 2x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Mesh-compatible: Yes, Asus AiMesh Other notable features: OpenVPN server, guest networks, scheduling In our long-range testing at a 2,000-square-foot house, the RT-AX86U beat the combined average of its competition by 47%–138% on the 5GHz band. And it was 11% faster than the TP-Link Archer AX6000 at close range.

When we moved the routers to a two-story townhouse and slammed them with a workload that mimics the needs of a bandwidth-hungry home — a 4K Ultra HD Netflix stream, a 4K HDR Apple TV+ stream, a 16.6GB wireless file transfer, a bandwidth test between two WiFi 6 smartphones and a World of Warcraft session all at the same time — the RT-AX86U won without question. It gave the lowest game latency, the fastest file transfer time, the highest average download and upload speed on the wireless benchmark and the best speeds and lowest lag on our Cloudflare internet tests.
The RT-AX86U’s performance on the 2.4GHz network was occasionally slow, but that band can be cluttered with interference from neighboring Wi-Fi networks. Devices that need lots of bandwidth, like computers, phones and streaming boxes, should use 5GHz whenever possible. (2.4GHz is still useful for older devices, and many Wi-Fi smart home devices use 2.4GHz exclusively.)

Unlike most of the Wi-Fi 6 routers we tested, which eat up shelf space with their large rectangular designs, the RT-AX86U can stand vertically. You can leave its three antennas pointed straight up or tilt them slightly; either way, the RT-AX86U’s design saves a lot of space and the vertical orientation makes it even easier to reach the router’s rear ports.

Setting up the RT-AX86U is a breeze. Its browser-based configuration portal prompts you to pick an SSID and password for your Wi-Fi network, and asks whether to use the same SSID for both networks. It also prompts you to download the latest version of the router’s firmware, which is an important security feature.

The RT-AX86U has almost all the features a router at this price should have: guest networking on 2.4GHz and 5GHz; schedule-based parental controls for websites and applications; quality-of-service rules (QoS); a built-in traffic analyzing tool for games and apps; and an OpenVPN server so you can safely connect to your home network from outside. It also has two USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports (read: USB 3.0) for connecting external storage that you can then access using any device within your home network. The RT-AX86U also supports highly robust WPA3 encryption and DFS channels — which can help avoid interference from your neighbors’ 5GHz networks.

We were thrilled to see Asus throw in an extra 2.5Gbps Ethernet port alongside the typical Gigabit WAN and four Gigabit LAN ports. While most people will never need that much speed, it’s a critical addition for those lucky enough to already have access to gigabit-plus internet plans or desktop computers with 2.5Gbps ports. It can be used as either a WAN port (to connect to your modem or network box) or LAN port (to connect to your Ethernet devices). The RT-AX86U even supports link aggregation, which lets you combine the connections of two LAN and two WAN ports into one of each, in case you need the extra speed or redundancy. One of the router’s Gigabit LAN ports is a “gaming port,” and the RT-AX86U can prioritize traffic from whatever device is plugged into it.

Even if you don’t have gigabit-plus service now, the 2.5-Gigabit WAN/LAN port helps futureproof the RT-AX86U. It also has two other features that should help keep it in service for many years, even if you end up needing a more complex network setup: It can be used as a wired access point attached to your main router, and it supports Asus’s AiMesh technology, which lets you build a mesh Wi-Fi network out of supported Asus routers and extenders.

Some of the RT-AX86U’s features are confusing to use, or at least poorly described in the documentation. You can, for example, enable Adaptive QoS to prioritize your gaming devices, or enable a specific “Gear Accelerator” for gaming. The latter only turns on a simplified version of the former, but we had to turn to Google to figure that out. The RT-AX86U also lacks VLAN support, which lets you keep less-secure IoT devices (for example) isolated from the rest of your network, but this feature isn’t common on consumer routers.

We didn’t use the Trend Micro-supplied AIProtection feature, which claims to keep your network safe from malicious sites, nor any of the other Trend Micro features, like Traffic Analyzer, Apps Analyzer, Game Boost or web history. These feel unnecessary at best, and sending your data to a third party can be sketchy — it seems more a potential security problem than a real solution (Trend Micro is the company that Apple busted in 2018 for collecting users’ browser histories with its various security-themed apps).

A $250 router is overkill for many homes. If you don’t have a lot of bandwidth-hungry devices using your network at once, and you just want a Wi-Fi 6 router with more throughput and better range than the one your ISP rents you, the TP-Link Archer AX21 is an excellent upgrade for under $100.
On our hardest, long-range benchmarks, the Archer AX21’s 5GHz speeds were neck-and-neck with the Archer AX50, a router with a much higher speed rating (AX3000 compared to AX1800). The only routers that beat the AX21 in this benchmark cost more than twice as much.

Key specs WiFi version: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) Number of streams: 2×2 (2.4GHz), 2×2 (5GHz) DFS channels supported: None Ethernet ports: 1GbE WAN, 4 GbE LAN USB ports: 1x USB 2.0 (480Mbps) Mesh-compatible: Yes, OneMesh Other notable features: Scheduling, VPN When we moved the routers to a central location in our 2,000-square-foot test house, the AX21 outperformed AX50 on all of our upload and download tests across both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands — a clean sweep. Its average 5GHz performance was 30% to 40% slower than the Asus RT-AX86U and its closest competition, the TP-Link Archer AX6000, but it was still an excellent showing given its much lower price.

The performance gap between the $250 routers and the $100 AX21 was only apparent when we slammed them with simultaneous gaming traffic, HD streaming and file transfers. The AX21 easily outperformed its direct competition, the TP-Link AX50, on nearly all of our tests, but it was noticeably slower than the RT-AX86U and TP-Link Archer AX6000. We recorded higher maximum game latency, the file transfer took nearly twice as long and both our wireless benchmarks and Cloudflare connection benchmarks crawled.

What does this mean for your home network? The AX21 is a great fit for smaller households. If you live by yourself or with a roommate, and you do reasonable, everyday activities on your wireless network, you’ll be fine. Even for gaming, this router delivers great speed and range on a budget for a solo adventurer or small party. It’s not the best choice if you live with a family full of gamers, streaming aficionados, work-from-homers and people who are constantly hammering the network with high-bandwidth activities. Under those circumstances, the AX21 will meet its match far sooner than the Asus RT-AX86U.

The Archer AX21, like most TP-Link routers, is not complicated to set up, but a few steps in the process could be confusing. Most people won’t know if they need to select something other than the default of “Dynamic IP” for the connection type, or if they need to change their router’s default MAC address, and most competing routers don’t include those in initial setup. Aside from that, it’s standard stuff, including the option to assign a single SSID to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and enable automatic firmware updates.

After initial setup, you can enable WPA3 encryption (which we recommend), assign guest networks and dig into advanced options like scheduling, parental controls and a VPN. There’s no support for DFS channels, nor a VLAN, but a budget router can’t have everything.

We like that the AX21 supports TP-Link’s OneMesh system which, like Asus’ AiMesh, lets you set up your own DIY mesh Wi-Fi system by cobbling together other compatible TP-Link routers and extenders. It’s a great way to reuse older gear and get a mesh system that can intelligently hand off devices to the best access points. However, OneMesh won’t let you connect your mesh nodes back to your primary router via Ethernet cables. It’s a wireless connection or nothing, which will be slower than Asus’ solution.

The AX21 has a single USB 2.0 port on the rear for network-accessible storage. It’s a feature most people probably won’t play with. Even if they do, USB 2.0 is old and slow compared to USB 3.0, which we typically find on new routers nowadays.

You can control the AX21 via Alexa, but you shouldn’t. Nor should you set up your router with a TP-Link ID so you can adjust its settings from anywhere via the company’s Tether app. Most people don’t need that much access to their routers, and it’s a practice that potentially poses plenty of security problems.

Features aside, since you’re unlikely to use most of them, the AX21 performs where it counts: great speeds and range for its incredibly low price. As long as you’re not inviting the router into a home that’s going to push it to the brink, the AX21 is a solid choice for a simpler online life.

If you are buying a new router in 2022, get one with Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 has been around since 2019, and it’s faster, more secure and can support more devices than Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). Most new phones, tablets and laptops come with Wi-Fi 6, and the older devices in your house will work fine with a Wi-Fi 6 router too. (Wi-Fi 6E, on the other hand, is too new and too expensive, and there are almost no devices yet that can take advantage of its tech.)

If you have a Wi-Fi 5 router that’s working fine, there’s no rush to upgrade, but if that’s the case you’re probably not reading this article. If your router’s not cutting it, it’s worth figuring out why, since that’ll help you figure out what to look for.

If your router struggles to keep up with the number of devices on your network, a Wi-Fi 6 router can help. If you have a bad connection in parts of your home, there are a few steps you can try before buying a new router.

First, make sure your router is located as close to the center of your living space as you can. You can use an app like WiFiman (free, for iOS and Android) to test signal strength, throughput and latency around your home.

If you’re happy with your Wi-Fi except in one or two trouble spots, a Wi-Fi extender can fix it. If there are multiple rooms that need better signal, a new router can help, but for large (above 2,500-3,000 square feet) or complex spaces you may need a mesh Wi-Fi system, like Eero, Netgear Orbi or Google Wi-Fi. If you do get a new router, make sure to test its performance throughout your house as soon as you get it, so yo

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