You play online games a lot and think it’s now time to get the best gaming router so you can move to the next level. You’re onto something there! But have you ever asked yourself what exactly constitutes one?
This post explains what a gaming router is and what you should look for in one. Keep in mind, though, that the router won’t give you that much of an advantage. In the end, getting owned is all on you — I’m sure you already know that.
But a good router does give you an edge. At the very least, you know that for sure what happened in the last game — it was just you.
What is a gaming router?
Each time I review a “gaming” router, I ask myself this question, especially a self-claimed one with little to offer gamers. If you read the review of the TP-Link Archer AX11000, you’d note how Iamented how it was such a “fake.”
No official definition
There’s no official definition of what a gaming router is. You can play most games via any router. For this reason, vendors can just paint a router bright red and calling a gaming machine for marketing purposes, like the case of the 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.)
So, no, we can’t necessarily fault the marketing ploys. Who can say this one 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. That’s because of 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 the delay.
In online gaming specifically, it’s 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 shooting game, chances are your target has moved when your bullet arrives, even if you had impeccable timing.
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. That’s because this type of game requires your hands to fly on the keyboard, and the connection needs to transfer the commands instantly.
What ping means in gaming
High latency sure is frustrating. Again, in online gaming, you want your command to take the least amount of time to reach the game server.
We use ping in milliseconds (ms) to measure that time — the latency — of a connection. For gaming, keep in mind these ping values:
- 100 ms or higher: 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: Excellent. All games are a go.
- 10 ms or lower: Ideal. You have only yourself to blame.
Wondering what your ping is 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 each Internet connection comes with a certain lag determined at the provider’s end. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Most land-based connections — fiber or cable — have extremely low lags of 15 ms or even lower. Wireless broadband connections — satellite, 4G, disk, etc. — tend to have higher pings, around 30 ms.
(The new 5G cellular is supposed to have extremely low lags.)
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.
So, when it comes to lag, the job of the router is to eliminate any extra. In gaming, a router tries to reduce pings by:
- Figuring out the geographically closest or best-performing server to use. Or
- Creating a virtual network of remote parties with the best connections.
On top of that, it can also manage the local network effectively.
Extra: Important Wi-Fi notes on gaming
For the best gaming experience — or whenever you want to make sure the connection is the most reliable and with the lowest latency, for that matter — getting your home wired is the key.
Wi-Fi, no matter how fast, is always less ideal than using network cables. In gaming or any real-time communication applications, reliability and low latency are actually more important than fast speeds. So it’s more a question of wired vs. Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6.
But we can’t use wires all the time. That said, here’s the rule in Wi-Fi for gaming: Avoid multiple hops.
- Connect the game console (or PC or a mobile device) directly to the very first broadcaster of your home. The signal should not have to hop through one extra hub before it gets to your device — you’ll get significantly worse latency after each hop.
- If you must use a mesh system, try to connect the gaming device with a wired connection to the mesh node.
- Avoid using extenders. If you must use one, make sure it’s a tri-band.
Gaming routers: QoS is important, too
Again, the latency, which is ultimately at the mercy of your Internet provider, is just part of the equation. It would help if you also had a congestion-free local network.
Specifically, your gaming gear — be it a computer, a mobile device, or a console — must get the first dibs of the Internet before all other devices, especially your BitTorrent seeder.
And that’s where the router’s Quality of Control (QoS) comes into play. It’s a feature that allows you to prioritize Internet traffic.
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 also have the ability 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.
In a gaming party, the flashing lights can help boost morale or get you pumped up. Or it’s just marketing. But you’ll note that all gaming gear tends to come with excessive lighting or certain designs to look different.
Though it’s not my cup of tea — I care more about the function of a router and hate unnecessarily distractions. But if weird designs, crazy paint jobs, or color-changing lights tickle your fancy, I’m nobody to judge.
(OK, seriously, I find all those colorful lightings extremely distracting. Decorating your gig can be an art, but I don’t see how that’d help with playing games.)
OK. 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.
- 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 QoS feature to make sure games get the bandwidth they need at any given time.
- The ability to keep latency as low as possible. Bandwidth doesn’t mean much if the game can’t get it timely.
- Looks the part (optional).
That said, the QoS is the most important feature for gaming in most cases. That’s because, in most games, you don’t have the luxury of picking a server since there are just so many worlds. In this case, just set the QoS to prioritize gaming or the game console, and you’re set.
However, if you play those with lots of custom servers (like Fortnite) or hosted by your friends, a router that can manage pings will also come in handy in helping you pick the best server to connect to.
So, a gaming router is a matter of nuance. A real one can enhance your gaming experience — by a little or a lot, depending on how your current router works out for your Internet connection and the status of your local network.
Getting a gaming router is not a guarantee that you’ll win, but the right one sure will give you an edge. Looking for one right now? Check out this list for the current best options that you can buy today.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on September 20, 2020, and updated it on April 12, 2021, to add more relevant information.