What is a Wi-Fi router?

Once upon a time, computers needed to be wired up to one another in order to communicate. That’s inconvenient, though, and in 1999 Wi-Fi launched as a way for computers to wirelessly connect to each other — or, more commonly, to the internet.

Through your internet service provider (typically referred to as your ISP), a cable or DSL line finds its way into your home and connects to a modem — a small device that decodes the incoming internet signal into something your computer (and other devices) can read.

That signal then goes to a router — which connects to your modem through a wire — that ensures any email (or pictures of cats) you clicked on displays on the right device in your home, whether it’s your smartphone, laptop or otherwise. You can even find modem/router combo units that unite both of these functions into one device.

ARRIS SURFboard Modem, left, and TP-Link AC1750 Smart WiFi Router.

Should I buy my own Wi-Fi router?

When you sign up for internet service — with companies like Verizon’s Fios, Comcast’s Xfinity or otherwise — your ISP will often offer you a modem and a Wi-Fi router for a small monthly rental fee, usually anywhere from $8 to $12 a month. (Comcast is NBC News’s parent company.)

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That’s just one of your options, though: You don’t have to rent your router from your ISP. There are plenty of routers you can buy on your own, and they’re available at most major retailers. What’s more: Buying your own router is almost always a better financial decision compared to renting. It’ll usually pay for itself after about a year of service.

How to choose the best router?

Wi-Fi has been around for a while now and it’s come a long way. The router you bought 10 years ago is almost certainly slower than one you’d buy now, and it may not be able to reach every corner of your home as efficiently as newer models.

A Wi-Fi router’s speed is measured in Megabits per second, or Mbps — it denotes how fast the router can move incoming data — like an internet signal — from one computer (like your modem) to another (like your smartphone or TV). For the past few years, the fastest Wi-Fi routers on the market used a standard called “802.11ac,” or “Wireless AC.”

  • The fastest AC routers might boast up to 5,300 Mbps of blazing-fast speed.
  • However, that’s the total combined speed available to any and all devices feeding off of that router — an individual device will only reach about 2,167 Mbps.
  • Most routers won’t ever reach their theoretical maximum speeds anyway, given real-world conditions.

In other words, there’s a lot of complicated technobabble behind the numbers on the box, but there’s also not much reason to worry about it too much: It’s mostly a benchmark that allows you to determine a router’s overall capabilities. Think of it like the available horsepower a car has — it’s less about utilizing that power each time you drive and more to categorize the general strength of the car’s engine.

You’ll see other features on a router’s product page, too. For example, “dual-band” routers are the norm now, which use two different frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz — to get a better signal to your devices.

  • 2.4GHz is better at penetrating walls but has some limitations.
  • It’s slower than 5GHz and can get congested with other non-Wi-Fi devices (like a cordless phone system).

Having both allows you to get the best connection, no matter where you are in the house. Some modern routers even sport the label “tri-band,” which allows more devices to communicate with the router at one time, eliminating congestion when the whole family’s using the web at the same time — whether Tik Tokking, streaming Netflix shows, blasting a Spotify playlist or checking for the latest sports reruns.

Wi-Fi routers at every price point to consider in 2020

1. TP-Link AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Smart WiFi Router (budget-friendly)

TP-Link offers some of the best bang for your buck with their Archer A7. It’s dual-band, comes with some handy features like parental controls, and even works with Alexa, if you have an Echo in your house.

2. Asus AC1900 Dual Band Gigabit WiFi Router (mid-range)

While some people prefer to set their router up once and forget it, others (like myself) prefer to tweak settings and make use of advanced features to get the best experience possible. Asus’ feature set and excellent settings interface (not to mention its higher speeds) make it a great choice if you have more to spend.

3. TP-Link AC4000 Smart WiFi Router (high-end)

TP-Link’s Archer A20 kicks it up a notch with tri-band antennas, so you can connect more devices without the congestion. It also comes with Trend Micro antivirus on the router for extra security.

All that said, renting from your ISP does come with one major benefit: free tech support when something goes wrong. That’s certainly worth considering but still — as is the case with most tech — you will be getting a limited warranty of some sort by purchasing your own, and it’ll likely be a superior model with more features to what your ISP is renting out.

With a better router, you can make the most of your Wi-Fi in your house rather than relying on a baseline configuration meant to work for everyone’s house.

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