How to choose a wireless router: 10 things to consider!

Picking a wireless router that delivers fast and reliable Wi-Fi, as well as excellent coverage, is not an easy task, especially if you are a beginner. To make things harder, manufacturers describe their routers using lots of acronyms and marketing terms that have little connection to the real-life experience you get. Also, the product name doesn't tell you much about how good a router is, and neither does the price you pay. To help you pick the best router for your needs and budget, read this guide, and learn what to look for in a router:

1. Your router should have a multi-core processor and at least 128MB of RAM

The hardware inside your router matters a lot, especially the processor and the quantity of RAM. People use Wi-Fi for video streaming, file downloads, data backups, online gaming, and other activities during which lots of data is transferred to and from the internet. Because of that, wireless routers need a lot more processing power than they used to.

When you pick your next router, you must know whether it has a single-core, dual-core, or quad-core processor and its operating frequency. If you want a fast network that can cope with several network clients at the same time, we recommend that you stop buying routers with single-core processors. Your next router should have at least a dual-core processor that can deal with more data and more clients than a single-core processor. A processor running at 900 MHz is less potent than one at 1.2 GHz, while the bigger the number of cores, the better the router performs. The same rules apply as is the case with computers, smartphones, and other computing devices.

The Broadcom BCM43684 processor for Wi-Fi 6 routers

Also, your router should not have less than 128MB of RAM. The ideal would be 256 MB of RAM or more. This is to make sure that it can process everything as fast as possible. If money is not an issue, you should seek a wireless router with 512 MB of RAM or 1 GB.

2. The router that you choose should be dual-band or more

Single-band routers are a thing of the past. Your new router should be 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). One of these frequencies is always the 2.4 GHz band, which works with old wireless standards like Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) or new ones like Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) - if you have a router that works with Wi-Fi 6.

The benefit of the 2.4 GHz 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 Wi-Fi on this GHz band.

Netgear Nighthawk AC3200 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Router

Dual-band or tri-band routers also emit their wireless signal on the 5GHz frequency. It is a lot faster than 2.4 GHz and benefits from the use of modern standards like Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) or Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). Congestion tends to be less of a problem because the 5 GHz band is used less than the 2.4 GHz one, 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, get a dual-band or tri-band wireless router.

Another benefit is that you can connect to Wi-Fi using two or more standards, with different network names and passwords. To learn more on this subject, read: The advantages of using different network names for each Wi-Fi band!

3. Router naming conventions should NOT be taken into account when making your buying decision

Wireless routers brag about their total theoretical maximum bandwidth in their model name. You have AC1200, AC1900, or even AC5400 routers. New generation routers with support for Wi-Fi 6 have AX in their name followed by even larger numbers, like this ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AX11000. The problem is that when you ask "What kind of router do I need?", these naming conventions are meaningless.

How AC naming conventions are used for AC routers

That's because they don't tell you the speed that you are going to get. In real life, there are cases when an AC1900 wireless router can outmatch an AC2500 router, because of differences in hardware configuration, when it was manufactured, by whom, Wi-Fi technologies, firmware updates, and the space where you use it. We explain why naming conventions don't help much in this article: What does AC1200, AC1750, AC1900 or more, mean and what's the difference?

Don't buy an AC1750 wireless router instead of an AC1200 router just because of its naming convention. Other factors are more important, and you should do some research. However, no matter what you choose, 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. Such a router is not a good pick for a modern home where you need speed, stability, and security for an increasing number of connected devices.

4. Verify online the real-life speed of the router that you buy

When you read the specifications of a wireless router, you are not told the real-life speed you get when you use it. You are shown theoretical numbers that are measured in specialized labs with the ideal networking equipment.

The maximum speed you get with an AC1900 Wi-Fi router

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 of the routers they are testing. They do this because manufacturers want to look good in product reviews. You want to read publications that use everyday computers, like those you have in your network. This is the only way to know what you get when buying a wireless router, before deciding to buy it.

5. Your router should have a smartphone app, preferably one that you can use from anywhere on the internet

A decade ago, users 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 want something easier to use. As a result, router manufacturers have 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 Wi-Fi password, while others offer advanced apps where you can configure most features.

The ASUS router app for Android

Another issue is that some mobile apps for wireless routers work only when the smartphone is connected to the Wi-Fi 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 that you want to choose. As a rule of thumb, remote management from the internet is offered for mid-range and premium routers. Low-end routers do not usually get this feature.

6. The router should have a USB port, 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 is USB 3.0. More expensive routers like the TP-Link Archer AX6000 also bundle a USB-Type C port for connecting modern mobile devices.

The USB 3.0 ports on the TP-Link Archer AX6000

7. Advanced QoS instead of plain QoS (Quality of Service)

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 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 never configure this feature. It's too much work, they don't understand the principles involved, and the results they get are poor. However, some wireless routers have Adaptive QoS, Intelligent QoS, or Dynamic QoS. The way manufacturers name it doesn't matter. What is important is that it is not plain QoS. These 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.

Configuring Adaptive QoS on an ASUS router

8. Smart-home integration

Many people have smart devices and sensors in their homes. To manage them better, it is a good idea to purchase a router that is integrated with Amazon's Alexa smart assistant, or with task automation services like IFTT (If This, Then That). This helps your apps and devices work together in new ways. For example, if your router has such integration, you can control it through voice commands sent to Alexa and do things like enable or disable the Guest Wi-Fi, turn off the LEDs on the router during the night, or prioritize gaming traffic.

Some Netgear routers have Amazon Alexa Skills

Some vendors have taken this integration with Alexa to the ultimate level and built it into the router themselves. An exciting example of this is the ASUS Lyra Voice router.

9. Support for Mesh Wi-Fi

Mesh Wi-Fi systems are getting popular, and all router vendors also sell mesh Wi-Fi systems. However, the approach differs from vendor to vendor. Some manufacturers, like Netgear, prefer to keep things separate and sell mesh Wi-Fi systems and routers as different products. Others, like ASUS with its AiMesh and TP-Link with OneMesh, prefer to add mesh Wi-Fi capabilities to many of their routers, letting you use them together with other products in their ecosystem to create mesh Wi-Fi systems.

The approach used by ASUS with its AiMesh platform

10. VPN, antivirus, firewall, and other advanced features

Many routers offer useful advanced features like VPN servers, antivirus, and other security features that can protect your Wi-Fi network from malware and outside attacks. The problem is that such features are also found on routers with weak hardware that can't run them well. If you want advanced features like the VPN server to work well, don't buy an affordable AC1200 wireless router with low-end hardware. Look for a more expensive router, with powerful hardware and lots of RAM, that has the resources to run advanced services well, alongside the standard Wi-Fi broadcasting.

The VPN server settings on a TP-Link router

As a rule, if you want advanced features, your router should have at least a dual-core processor and 256 MB of RAM - preferably 512 MB or more.

What matters to you the most when buying a wireless router?

Now that you know the basics about how to choose a router, please share your questions and opinions with us: What is important to you when purchasing a router? What kind of router do you need? How do you get information before buying a router? Do you normally take the time to consult product reviews? Use the comments form below and let's start a conversation.

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