You often play online games and think it’s time to get the best gaming router to reach the next level. You’re onto something there! But have you ever asked yourself what exactly constitutes one?
If you’re new in the game — a noob — and don’t even know what “noob” or “DPS” means, this post is an excellent place to start. You’ll learn what it means and won’t run into any more silly lingo.
For street cred, among other things, I was once part of a group of friends who shared a passion for online gaming. All of us lost at least a real-life relationship and a huge chunk of our youth due partly to World of Warcraft. Some still play that game today, albeit with a more measured dedication.
It was worth it, I guess.
Based on my assessment and extended experience, I’ll explain what a gaming router entails and the things you should look for in one. Remember, though, that even the best router won’t give you many advantages in online gaming. In the end, getting owned is almost always all on you.
But a well-functioning router can genuinely give you an edge. Sometimes, that’s exactly the little extra you’d need. In most cases, having one means you’d be certain what happened in the last game was your best, even though, clearly, it wasn’t good enough.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on September 20, 2020, and updated it on February 23, 2023, to add more relevant information.
What is a gaming router?
Each time I review a “gaming” router, especially a self-claimed one with little extra to offer gamers, I ask myself this question.
No official definition
There’s no official definition of what a gaming router is. You can play most, if not all, games via any router.
For this reason, some vendors paint a router bright red and call it a gaming machine for marketing purposes, like the case of TP-Link above.
And truth be told, you’ll experience many games the same no matter which router you use.
For example, if you lose an online Poker tournament, you probably only have yourself to blame. That’s because poker doesn’t require a lot of dexterity or crazy timing — the skills are in your head, not your hand-eye coordination.
So, no, we can’t necessarily fault the marketing ploys. Who am I to say this router or that one is not a gaming router?
But with games that require real-time interactions — all those qualified as online gaming these days — a router can play a significant role in your scores.
Here’s a simple fact: Lag kills. And I don’t mean your enemy.
Lag, or latency, is the delay in a network connection. The higher the lag, the longer you must wait for things to happen.
In online gaming, lag is the amount of time it takes for the effect of the command you give — via a mouse click or a press on a controller — to appear on the screen. And you want that to be instantaneous.
For example, if your console has a terrible lag in a combat game, chances are your opponent’s face has moved when your fist arrives, even if you had impeccable timing on the controller. In this case, lag will adversely affect or kill your damage per second (DPS) stat.
DPS is often used to measure a player’s skill level.
Or, on the flip side, your character might stand there to be blown into pieces by a grenade, despite how you have repeatedly ordered it to duck behind a wall while screaming angrily at the screen.
Low latency is also critical in real-time strategy games like StarCraft, which, by the way, is your truly’s first video game. To be good at this type of game takes more than just strategizing. You also need to be excellent with the keyboard and mouse — your hands practically have to fly on the keyboard — and you want a matching broadband connection to transfer those commands instantly.
The point is high latency is frustrating in online gaming. All players want their commands to take the least time to reach the game server.
What ping means in gaming
To visualize lag, we use ping in milliseconds (ms) to measure the delay of a network connection. For gaming, keep in mind these ping values:
- 100 ms or higher: The latency is horrendous. You probably can’t play any real-time interactive effectively. Find a new hobby.
- 40-60 ms: Acceptable. Still not ideal for shooting games, especially in competitions.
- 30 ms or lower: Good. All games are a go.
- 10 ms or lower: Excellent. You have only yourself to blame.
Wondering what ping you’re rocking right now? Hit the Go button below for an Internet test to find out.
How does a router manage ping?
It’s important to note that every broadband plan comes with a certain lag determined at the Internet service provider’s end — almost all connections have a certain level of latency. And then, there’s the latency between your ISP and the game server.
There’s nothing you can do about these. And there’s no router that can give you a literal latency-free experience.
Most land-based connections — fiber or cable — have low lags of 15 ms or even lower. Wireless broadband connections — satellite, 4G, disk, etc. — tend to have higher pings, around 25 ms and more.
The latest 5G cellular is supposed to have low latency, too, though that depends on the service and locale.
Whatever this lag is, it’s the base of your connection. A router can’t lower it. In other words, that’s the best possible latency level a good router can give you — in most real-world cases, it will be slightly worse.
So, when it comes to lag, the router’s job is to eliminate any extra. In gaming, a router tries to reduce pings by:
- When applicable, Figuring out the best-performing server to use — a geographically closer server might not always have lower lag than a farther one. Or
- Creating a virtual network of remote parties with the best connections.
- Manages the local network effectively so that there’s no lag in the connection been your gaming console and the router itself.
The last item on the list above is crucial. Lag is a common issue within your local network, especially if you use Wi-Fi to connect your game console.
Wi-Fi and gaming: The important connection rules
After that, connect your gaming rig to your network via a cable. No matter how fast, Wi-Fi is always less ideal and will put a few extra milliseconds, or even a lot, on your broadband’s latency.
Reliability and low latency are more critical than fast speeds in gaming or any real-time communication applications. So it’s more a question of wired vs Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 7.
But we can’t use wires all the time. That said, the rule in Wi-Fi for gaming is to avoid multiple hops.
Specifically, here is the order of best practices when connecting your gaming device to the network via Wi-Fi:
- Use a single broadcaster — just one Wi-Fi router or access point.
- If you must use multiple broadcasters (like a mesh system), then:
- Use a network cable to link them together (wired backhaul).
- If you must use a wireless mesh, then:
- Connect the game console directly to your home’s first broadcaster — the primary router. Or
- Connect the gaming device to the first mesh satellite node using a network cable. Also, in this case, it’s best to use tri-band mesh hardware.
- Avoid the daisy-chain mesh setup.
- Avoid using extenders. If you must use one, make sure it’s a tri-band.
Again, the idea is that the Wi-Fi signal should not have to hop wirelessly any additional time before it gets to your device — you’ll get significantly worse latency after each additional hop.
Gaming routers: QoS is essential
Again, the latency, which is ultimately at the mercy of your Internet provider, is just part of the equation. A congestion-free local network plays a big role, too.
Specifically, your gaming gear — a computer, a mobile device, or a console — must get the first dibs on the Internet before all other devices, especially your BitTorrent seeder.
And that’s where the router’s Quality of Service (QoS) comes into play. It’s a feature that allows you to prioritize Internet traffic and comes in various flavors and customization — the more robust QoS you have, the better.
Most routers have QoS to a certain extent and allow you to set priority to a few specific connected devices.
A good (gaming) router should at least be able to prioritize based on applications. A game needs prioritizing no matter what computer you use to play it.
Gaming routers: The bling
Finally, the look seems to matter.
The flashing lights can help boost morale or get you pumped up at a gaming party. Or it’s just marketing. But you’ll note that all gaming gear tends to have excessive lighting or specific designs to look different.
Though it’s not my cup of tea — I care more about the function of a router and hate unnecessary distractions. But if weird designs, crazy paint jobs, or color-changing lights tickle your fancy, I’m nobody to judge.
(Seriously, I find all those colorful lighting extremely distracting. Decorating your rig can be an art, but I don’t see how that’d help with game-playing.)
So, a gaming router is…
In conclusion, in my opinion, to be qualified as a gaming gear, a router needs to first be excellent for general purposes. And then it must have at least two of the following:
- It regularly updated pre-programmed settings for a good selection of popular games. Pick a game, and the router will adjust its settings for you accordingly.
- A robust application-based and client-based QoS feature ensures games get the bandwidth they need at any given time.
- The ability to keep the Internet latency as low as possible, including automatically picking the best game server or creating a private gaming network.
- The appealing look.
The QoS, specifically the customizability and effectiveness of this feature, is an essential element for gaming on a router.
In most games, you don’t have the luxury of picking a server since there are only many. In this case, the best QoS setting is the only thing at your disposal.
However, for games with multiple custom servers (like Fortnite), a router that can manage pings or ability to the ability to select servers within certain parameters will also come in handy.
A gaming router is a matter of nuance. A fitting one can enhance your gaming experience — by a little or a lot, depending on how your existing (non-gaming) router works out, given your Internet connection and the status of your local network.
At the end of the day, getting a gaming router is not a guarantee that you’ll win, but the right one sure will give you an edge.
Are you looking for one right now? Check out this list for the best options you can buy today.