Five things you should know before buying a new router in 2020 – CNET

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Tyler Lizenby / CNET

If you need more power on your home network, a new WiFi router may be fine. The problem is that buying for an upgrade can quickly become confusing. What does all the jargon mean? How fast is fast enough? Is it worth spending extra on it? a multipoint mesh router, or for one that supports the latest version of Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 6?

Don't feel overwhelmed. There are certainly a lot of specifications and technical nuances that come with wireless networks. However, if you're just looking for a reliable router that you don't have to think too much about, you'll be able to understand a few key basics. What you need to know before you make a purchase.

Speed ​​values ​​are basically bullsh * t

I have written about it before, but it's worth repeating: the speed values ​​you see on the packaging as you stroll through the aisle of the router are essentially meaningless.

"Combined speeds" is a meaningless, misleading term. With this router, for example, it looks like it can reach speeds of 2.2 Gbit / s (2,200 Mbit / s). In reality, however, its fastest band has a top speed of 867 Mbit / s – and that only in a controlled laboratory environment.

Ry Crist / CNET

I'm talking about numbers like "AC1200" and "AX6000". The letters there indicate which Wi-Fi version the router supports – "AC" for Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11ac and "AX" for Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. The numbers give you an approximate overview of the combined speeds of the router's individual bands – typically 2.4 and 5 GHz, and possibly a second 5 GHz band if it is a tri-band router.

The problem is, that You can only connect one of these bands at a time, If you add up the maximum speeds, the result is a heavily inflated number that does not represent the speeds actually experienced. If it is a triband mesh router that uses this third band as a dedicated connection between the router and its extenders, the speeds of this band do not apply directly to your device connections at all.

To make matters worse, these maximum speeds on the box are theoretical maximum values ​​derived from laboratory-based manufacturer tests, which do not take into account real factors such as distance, physical obstacles or network congestion. Even at close range, your actual connection is much slower.

None of this prevents manufacturers from using this speed information to describe how fast their products are. For example, this hypothetical AX6000 router could claim to support speeds of up to 6,000 Mbps – which is nonsense. A router is only as fast as its fastest band. Do not be fooled.

Your ISP sets the speed limit

Note that it doesn't matter how fast your router is – you can only connect as fast as your ISP's plan allows. If you pay for download speeds of 100 Mbit / s, for example, it is as fast as your router transmits data. Period.

This is a major limitation these days. In our own top speed tests, we see a growing number of routers that can be easily accessed Speeds of 1,000 Mbit / s or faster – but with an average fixed broadband speed in the US of just over 100 Mbit / s (or less if your ISP throttles your connection) few of us can hope to surf the internet soon.

That doesn't mean that fast routers aren't worth it. If you upgrade to a faster and more powerful access point, you can get the most out of your Internet connection, especially if you are connecting remotely. For this purpose, be sure to keep an eye on our latest reviews As you shop, you get a good overview of the specific routers that may be the best fir tree for your home. We constantly test new models and update our leaderboards with new test data.

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New routers that support Wi-Fi 6, such as the Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien, are now available. For most, however, this is not yet a priority upgrade.

Chris Monroe / CNET

Wi-Fi 6 is here – but it's still early

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest and fastest version of Wi-Fi. This is the main reason why we see so many new routers that can easily reach gigabit speeds. Read more about how the fast new standard works my complete wi-fi 6 explainerThe most important thing, however, is that your router can send more information more efficiently to multiple devices at once.

There are all sorts of new routers that support Wi-Fi 6 this year, including those that cost a lot less than expected – but there are still relatively few Wi-Fi 6 client devices outside of early flagships like that iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10, However, Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible, so it will continue to work with your existing older generation Wi-Fi devices. It just won't do anything to speed it up, as these older devices don't support the new features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster than before.

At some point, we'll see Wi-Fi 6 support for media streamers, tablets, smart home gadgets, and other popular client devices. If you fill your home with such devices, a Wi-Fi 6 router becomes a more sensible upgrade (and it also helps if ISP speeds have some catching up to do in the next few years). At the moment, however, it is more of a future-proof extra than a must.

A mesh router like the three-part Eero setup tested here can help spread a stronger signal around your home.

Steve Conaway / CNET

Don't forget the reporting

We tend to fix the speed when we talk about routers, but the truth is that in most cases there are only two Wi-Fi speeds: "fast enough" and "not fast enough". After all, a lightning-fast connection in the same room as the router is great, but it means little if you don't get a strong signal when you try to stream a nightly Netflix binge in your bedroom side of the house.

For this reason, for most people, the most important step for your home network is to upgrade from a standalone single-point router to an expandable mesh system that uses multiple devices to better distribute a fast signal across the house. Mesh systems like this generally don't reach the top speeds of a single-point router, but make up for it by providing "fast enough" WiFi in all corners of your home.

Upgrading to mesh has been an expensive undertaking in recent years, with most options costing at least $ 300 or even $ 500. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as new second-generation mesh systems have recently been added that cost much less than before.

Testing these systems is currently one of my top priorities in Wi-Fi. I've already found it a couple of strong options, including some multidevice setups that you can get for less than $ 200. And when you're ready to spend more, there is something else you should consider:

Mesh and Wi-Fi 6 could be a killer combination

Do you remember how I said it is a bit early for Wi-Fi 6 as relatively few devices support the fast new standard? There is one exception that is emerging: Wi-Fi 6-mesh setups.

The reason is simple. In a mesh setup, you have multiple devices that send a signal at home. If the devices in this mesh setup support Wi-Fi 6, they can transfer this data faster and more efficiently in your home. At best, this means that you can see speeds near the satellite devices that are almost as fast as near the router itself – even if you don't have a single device in your home that supports Wi-Fi 6.

The Wi-Fi 6-mesh routers that I tested at home were largely able to achieve impressive average speeds in every room. None of the Wi-Fi 5-mesh systems I tested were able to achieve an average speed of more than 200 Mbit / s in this rear bathroom.

Ry Crist / CNET

This is exactly what we saw with Netgear Orbi 6, a newer mesh system with full support for Wi-Fi 6. At home I have an average speed of 289 Mbit / s in with the 300 Mbit / s internet connection I mentioned earlier my entire house. The speeds barely dropped when I ran tests in the rooms farthest from the router.

Much of it is thanks to the fact that Orbi 6 is a triband system that includes two separate 5 GHz bands, one of which is used as a dedicated backhaul band for transmission between the router and its satellites. This triband approach is not cheap, as Orbi 6 starts out at a whopping $ 700 for a two-part setup.

That said, this year will be the debut of a range of new Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems, including several dual-band options that make the backhaul unnecessary to lower the price. Such a system by TP-Linkwill debut for a two-piece setup this spring at just $ 190. I doubt that one of them will be as impressive as Orbi 6, but I will know better when we have had the opportunity to test them all. If one of them can achieve a significant speed and acquisition boost at an attractive price, I will certainly tell you all about it. Stay tuned.