8 things to consider when buying a wireless router (for beginners)

Buying a wireless router that delivers good WiFi, in a reliable way, and which is easy to configure and use, is not an easy task. Especially not if you are a beginner. To make things harder, manufacturers describe their wireless routers using lots of acronyms and marketing terms that have little connection to the real-life experience you get. They brag about AC, bandwidth, weird things like MU-MIMO, QoS, Beamforming, Smart Connect and more. Here's what matters when choosing your next wireless router:

1. AC naming conventions don't matter. However, don't go below AC1200!

Wireless routers brag about their total maximum bandwidth in their name. You have AC1200, AC1900 or even AC5400 routers. This naming convention is meaningless in real-life, and it doesn't tell you the real speed you get from a wireless router. We have explained why, in this article: What does AC1200, AC1900, AC3200 or more, mean and what's the difference?

However, DO NOT BUY A ROUTER BELOW AC1200. If you see a router with AC750, AC900 or anything lower than AC1200, it means that you are dealing with an old router, with dated technology and you should not buy it. That router is not a good choice for a modern smart home where you need speed, stability, and security, for an increasing number of connected devices.

2. Your wireless router should be dual-band or more

You must buy a wireless router that it is at least dual-band. What does this mean? It means that the router broadcasts the wireless signal on two frequencies (if it is dual-band) or more (if it is tri-band or more). As a result, you will see two or more wireless networks in your home or office space, with different names and, if you want, different passwords.

One of these frequencies is always the 2.4 GHz frequency which works only with old wireless standards like 802.11n. The benefit of this band is that it is compatible with old networking devices and that it has a wide coverage area. However, it is also slow, and congestion is always a problem, especially in blocks of flats and office buildings, where everyone has WiFi on the 2.4 GHz band.

Dual-band or tri-band routers also emit their wireless signal on the 5GHz frequency, which is a lot faster and benefits from the use of modern standards like 802.11ac or 802.11ac Wave 2 (an improved version of the initial 802.11ac standard). Congestion tends to be less of a problem because this frequency is used less than the 2.4 GHz frequency and the coverage area is a bit shorter. If you want a modern smart home with a fast wireless network for Full HD or 4K streaming, you must get a dual-band or tri-band wireless router. Single-band routers are stuck in the past and cannot offer fast and stable WiFi for many wireless clients.

3. Support for MU-MIMO or 802.11ac Wave 2 is a must

MU-MIMO, Multi-User MIMO or Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output is the ability to transmit to several wireless clients simultaneously or to transfer data to a network client using multiple data streams at once. With this transfer method, a wireless router can "talk" to more than one client at a time on a single wireless radio channel or to one client using multiple data streams on the same channel. We explained this wireless technology, in detail, here: What is MU-MIMO WiFi? Do you need it on your router?.

MU-MIMO is part of the 802.11ac Wave 2 standard, which was issued by the Wi-Fi Alliance in the summer of 2015. When you buy your next wireless router, you must ensure that it offers MU-MIMO or support for 802.11ac Wave 2, depending on what the manufacturer chooses to brag about.

This choice ensures that your router can provide faster WiFi to your existing devices and that it can deal with more wireless clients at the same time. Choosing a wireless router with MU-MIMO is one of the best choices you can make.

4. Fast processor and plenty of RAM

Manufacturers of wireless routers don't tell you this, but the hardware inside your router matters a lot, especially the processor and the quantity of RAM. Smart homes have many devices that require wireless connectivity. Now we do a lot of video streaming, online gaming and other activities during which lots of data is transferred through the network. To cope with everything, wireless routers need a lot more processing power than they used to.

When choosing a wireless router, you must know whether it has a single-core, dual-core, or quad-core processor and its operating frequency. Naturally, a dual-core processor can deal with more data and more clients than a single-core processor. Also, a processor running at 900 MHz is less powerful than one at 1.2 GHz. The same rules apply as is the case with computers, smartphones, and other computing devices.

When buying a wireless router, the processor should not be lower than a single-core running at 800MHz. For modern standards, this is the minimum required to deal with the load you get in a small smart-home. If you could afford to buy a router with a dual-core or quad-core (usually reserved for expensive routers) processor, the better.

Also, your router should not have less than 128MB of RAM. This is to make sure that it can process everything as fast as possible. If money is not a big issue, you should seek for a wireless router with 256MB of RAM or more.

5. USB (preferably USB 3.0)

Having at least one USB port available is a must in modern homes. We have all kinds of USB devices that we need to connect to our wireless router: external hard disks, printers, USB modems, etc. Your newly purchased router should have at least one USB port, preferably one that it is USB 3.0.

6. Your router should have a smartphone app (preferably one that you can use when you are not near the router)

Convenience is more important than ever. A couple of years ago, people could manage their wireless routers only by accessing their firmware through a web browser, on a computer that was connected to the router. Many people are intimidated by such user interfaces, and they want something that is easier to use. As a result, many manufacturers have recently developed smartphone apps that people can use to set their wireless routers.

If you want convenience, you should check that the router you are buying has a smartphone app. You should be able to use it to view the working state of the router and manage the main features, when you need to.

Unfortunately, router manufacturers have different approaches when it comes to mobile apps: some offer basic apps where you can set only simple things like the WiFi password, while others offer advanced apps where you can configure most features. You should verify the approach used by the manufacturer of the model that interests you.

Another important aspect is that most mobile apps for wireless routers work only when the smartphone is connected to the WiFi that is broadcast by the router. This means that you can use the mobile app only when you are not near the router. If remote management from anywhere on the internet is important to you, you should check whether it exists for the router you are considering buying. As a rule of thumb, remote management from the internet is offered on mid-range and premium routers. Low-end routers do not usually get this feature.

7. Real-life speed

When reading the specifications of a wireless router, you are not told the real-life speed you get when using it. You are shown theoretical numbers that are measured in specialized labs that are very different from your home or office. That's why you should read reviews: user reviews and reviews made by specialists, like our team at Digital Citizen. Look for reviews where people use real-life computers and devices to make measurements, not "lab-like" equipment. For example, some publications use other routers to measure the speed offered by the routers that they are testing. They do this because manufacturers want this, to look good in product reviews. You want to read publications that use everyday computers and gadgets, like those you will have in your network. This is the only way to know what you get when buying a wireless router or another, regarding real-life speed.

8. Demystifying "advanced" features like QoS, Smart Connect, and Beamforming

When describing their wireless routers, manufacturers use lots of acronyms for "advanced" features. Sometimes they don't even use the same terms as the rest of the market and they invent their own version of a term. However, some of them don't matter because they are meaningless. For example, all modern routers feature QoS or Quality of Service. However, on most routers, this feature is pointless, because it is a manual tool to set rules regarding how much bandwidth you give to each device in your network. Average users will never configure this feature. It's too much work; they don't understand the principles involved and the results they get are poor. It's just a way to frustrate yourself.

However, some wireless routers have Adaptive QoS, or Intelligent QoS or Dynamic QoS. The way manufacturers name it doesn't matter much. What is important is that it is not plain QoS. These more advanced forms of QoS are useful because they manage how the bandwidth is split automatically, based on smart algorithms, with little to no user involvement. Also, the results you get from them are great, especially when dealing with many large network transfers at once. Advanced QoS services are a positive feature that you want on your router.

Smart Connect is another feature that, in theory, can be useful to you. It allows you to use the same network name on all bands. Instead of having a different network name for the 2.4 GHz frequency and the 5 GHz frequency, you have the same network name for both. What Smart Connect does is to automatically assign each device to "the best band" that it is capable of working with. Usually, Smart Connect relies on an algorithm that automatically determines which frequency is best for each device, and also continuously monitors the overall status of each device to determine if and when a particular device would benefit from being automatically reassigned to a different frequency. The theory sounds perfect for this feature. However, many users complain that Smart Connect does a poor job at detecting the capabilities of each device and tends to connect fast devices to the slower 2.4 GHz frequency, instead of the fast 5GHz one. Therefore, most users end up disabling Smart Connect and manually choose the best wireless frequency for each of their devices.

Beamforming is included on all modern dual-band (or more) wireless routers. It is part of the 802.11ac standard, and it allows the router to focus the wireless signal to the area(s) where devices are, instead of broadcasting it in all directions. Focusing the wireless signal where your devices are placed, tends to improve the stability and the speed you get on your wireless devices. Beamforming is something that you want on your wireless router.

What matters to you, when buying a wireless router?

Now that you know the criteria that we believe are the most important when buying a wireless router share your opinion with us. How do you choose a wireless router? What is important to you, when purchasing one? Use the comments form below and let's start a conversation.