A big part of the questions galore I get daily includes those asking for a specific router or mesh recommendation. Some readers even sent me a detailed sketch of their home — you know who you are! Everyone wants to pick up that perfect Wi-Fi router.
I hate ignoring people and entertain many of those emails. And that generally works out. Sometimes it doesn’t, though.
A while ago, I got a message from John — not his real name — telling me semi-jokingly that he blamed me for how his wife was unhappy. “Your recommended router didn’t work as we had hoped, and I’m now in big trouble!” he said.
Dong’s note: I first published this lengthy piece on May 17, 2020, and updated it on January 13, 2021, to make it even longer by adding more relevant information based on additional questions and requests.
It’s all about networking
And with that, it just reoccurred to me something I’ve always thought of getting a Wi-Fi router: It’s like finding a partner — as in dating. Both are networking, after all.
So, I’m going to try to set the right expectations in this post while offering some tips on how to pick the best Wi-Fi router. There’s no guarantee, but when you’re through, you will likely be able to choose the right one, by yourself, on the first try.
A closer look at a home Wi-Fi router
To pick the right Wi-Fi router, you first need to understand its capabilities and its limitation.
But there’s one thing all routers have in common: Each creates a local network for multiple devices to work together. How many exactly?
The total devices a home router supports: It’s wired vs. Wi-Fi bandwidth
Technically, a home router can host 254 devices, including itself.
(That’s because IPv4‘s subnets max out at 255 with one address being used for a special purpose. But that’s too much unnecessary technical detail, don’t you think?)
So generally, you can connect up to 253 devices to a home router. Realistically, though, this number is significantly lower. It’s a matter of bandwidth.
A home router tends to have just a few (usually four) LAN ports. This number of ports translates into the total number of wired devices the router can handle concurrently.
You add more devices to the network via a switch. But in this case, the switch itself adds more bandwidth. Two devices connecting directly to a switch will use that switch’s resources, and speed grade, for the connection between them. In this case, other than providing the IP addresses, the router doesn’t do much more.
(Note: The above — and below — mentioned is about equal bandwidth which only exists in theory. In a home network, chances are all devices are getting Internet (and possibly other things) through the router. So, the router and your broadband connection are, selectively, the bottleneck. Keep that in mind.)
That said, if you choose to run network cables and are willing to add a couple of switches, your network can indeed host all 253 parties at the same time. And each will connect at their max possible speed — each network port on a switch has its own bandwidth that’s not shared with others.
The wiring inside a cable is in a somewhat controlled environment, separate from the elements. As a result, a network cable can almost always deliver the speed of the connection standard in full, with maximum efficiency.
Here’s a rough analogy: If your data is water, using network cables is like hooking a garden hose to a faucet to get water directly to an inflatable pool. You know for sure that 100 percent of water coming out from the source will get to the destination.
The thing is we don’t have that many wired devices. In fact, a home Wi-Fi router nowadays mostly serves as a Wi-Fi broadcaster.
You can read more on Wi-Fi bandwidth in this post about dual-band vs. tri-band. However, the gist is that each Wi-Fi frequency band’s ceiling speed is its total bandwidth, shared between connected clients. And Wi-Fi has terrible efficiency.
Wi-Fi suffers significantly from the elements.
Re-using the inflatable pool example above, it’s now like you hook a spray nozzle into the hose and pump water into your pool through the air from a distance.
In this case, even when you use the most focused setting, chances are you’ll lose some water due to wind, splash, and evaporation. But in return, you can use this technique to (inefficiently) fill a few pools simultaneously.
That said, a 5 GHz 4×4 Wi-Fi 5 band caps at 1733 Mbps theoretically. And you’ll get that cap speed when there’s only one connected client. If you have ten active clients, each will cap at 173.3 Mbps, or 86.65 Mbps with twenty active clients, and so on. And, then the sustained real-world speed of each will be even (much) lower.
As a result, a router can handle only so many active wireless clients at a time, and you cannot add more Wi-Fi bandwidth to it — more below.
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to get a top-tier or tri-band router even though you might have all mid-tier clients. That’s especially true when you have super-fast Internet.
Generally, a single home Wi-Fi router, even a top-notch one, can handle no more than 100 active clients — most vendors recommend 50 or fewer. Note, though, that only active devices use up the router’s wireless bandwidth.
Does using a mesh system mean more bandwidth and more client support?
No. Or at least, not necessarily.
You can find out more in this post about mesh systems, but generally, the acceptable total number of active devices depends on the mesh’s hardware and the way you set it up.
Similar to a switch, each mesh hub does have Wi-Fi bandwidth of its own. However, all devices connected to a mesh point share the same single backhaul link, which connects the hub to the network.
In a wireless setup, the backhaul of a dual-band mesh system has much less bandwidth than that of a tri-band system. And a mesh system using wired backhaul generally has the most bandwidth.
Assuming we’re using the same Wi-Fi grade hardware, and if your clients are spread out equally in between the mesh points, then your mesh network sure can handle more concurrent clients than when you use a single router.
However, keep in mind in this case, all clients still have the total bandwidth of one hardware unit (likely the router). That’s because due to wireless connection’s inefficiency, Wi-Fi clients mostly work as receivers and not as hosts. So, more broadcasters don’t necessarily increase the total bandwidth, but just the total coverage.
That said, when Belkin claims that the Velop MX10600 can deliver up to 10600Mbps of total bandwidth because it includes two AX5300 tri-band routers, that’s a marketing ploy. In reality, you’re lucky if you could get the bandwidth of just one unit out of the system at any given moment.
(In this regard, Netgear is slightly more honest in calling the 2-pack Orbi RBK852 an AX6000 system.)
But a mesh system, which is essentially a router with a few extenders, still has a cap of 253 devices. And how many devices you can use concurrently depends on many different factors, including what you use them for and how fast your Internet is.
How can I limit the amount of clients in a local network?
Each router comes with a fixed IP address pool that determines the number of clients that can connect to the network. By default, some routers set this at 50, others at 100, or even all 253.
But you can change this value via the router’s DHCP server setting.
Just log in to the router’s web interface (or use its mobile app), navigate to the LAN section, and change the value of the IP Pool Starting Address and IP Pool Ending Address accordingly. Note that the wording of these two might vary slightly between networking vendors.
These values are the last group of digits in the router’s IP address pool, which ranges between 2 and 254. Subtracting the starting number from the ending number, then adding 1 to the result will give you the number of total clients that can connect to the router.
So, pick the number that works for your situation. It’s generally a good idea to have a significantly larger pool size than the total amount of clients — sometimes a client might use two IP addresses for a short time. Just make sure the starting address is lower than the ending one and the range of the two must not include the address of the router itself.
IP address assignment: Dynamic vs. manual
Note, though, that this address pool is not super strict and only applies to clients that get an IP address dynamically via the router’s DHCP server function, which happens right after you plug a cable into a device or enter the Wi-Fi password. It doesn’t affect manually assigned addresses.
So, for example, if you set the IP pool in the 192.168.2.100 and 192.168.2.200 range, you can manually set an IP of a client to be 192.168.2.99. That client will still connect to the router successfully, as long as there’s no other device already with that IP address.
Unless there’s a specific reason, it’s a good idea not to assign an IP manually, which is quite a pain to do anyway. If you need to make sure a device always gets the same IP address, you can use the router’s IP reservation feature instead.
What if I want to provide the Internet to more than 253 devices?
While you can’t use more than 253 devices in a local home network, you sure can share a single Internet connection to unlimited parties.
It’s quite simple, just add more routers to the network, using double NAT setups. You can connect multiple routers to the existing one or daisy-chain them. Either way, each additional router can host another 253 devices.
While members of a local network hosted by one router can’t talk to those belonging to the network of another router, they all can share the Internet access from the very first router.
Keep this trick in mind in case you need to provide Internet access to a large party. Just make sure your broadband connection is fast enough for everyone.
Dual-band vs. tri-band: If I combine two dual-band routers, via a network cable, would that be the same as having a tri-band router?
While this seems to make sense, unfortunately, no, it wouldn’t. In fact, you shouldn’t do that at all. That’s because the same Wi-Fi band uses the same channels.
More on bands and channels are available in this post, but if you can quickly imagine a Wi-Fi band as a freeway, then channels are the lanes on the road.
A dual-band Wi-Fi router consists of two distinctive sets of channels. One set belongs to the 2.4 GHz band and the other to the 5 GHz band.
Depending on your locale and hardware, the number of available channels on each band will vary. But generally, the 2.4 GHz band includes 14 channels from 1 to 14 (the last three are not available in the U.S.), and the 5 GHz has channels from 36 to 165. Again, not all of these channels are available due to one reason or another.
A tri-band router, which has an additional 5 GHz band, arranges its 5 GHz channels in two distinctive groups — lower channels and upper channels — one for each band.
The lower group belongs to the first 5 GHz band and generally consists of channels 36, 40, 44, 48, 52, 56, 60, and 64. The second 5 GHz band has the upper channels, generally including 149, 153, 157, 161, and 165.
So in a tri-band router, the two 5 GHz bands don’t duplicate each other, they work side by side. It’s like when you widen a freeway by adding more space and doubling the width of each lane.
On the other hand, all dual-band Wi-Fi broadcasters’ 5 GHz band uses the same set of channels. As a result, putting two together is like putting one freeway right on top of another.
You can’t do that with a real freeway, but that often happens in the world of radio frequencies, like when there are many routers or access points in a small area. The result is interference and congestion; there are no benefits at all.
So having multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters clumped up at a spot is something we want to avoid.
Do I need to care about Wi-Fi routers’ antennas?
All Wi-Fi routers — any radio broadcasters or receivers, for that matter — have antennas. If you don’t see them, that’s because they are hidden inside or blended in with the device’s other hardware parts.
The antennas convert data signals into radio waves and vice versa. Without them, there’s no Wi-Fi. And that’s likely all you need to know about them.
Do more antennas mean better Wi-Fi speeds?
Not necessarily. Generally, a router needs one antenna for each of its bands – so a dual-band router will have two antennas. After that, the additional antennas are for extra features, such as MU-MIMO, Beamforming, and so on.
But even then, more antennas don’t necessarily mean more features. Also, the number of antennas doesn’t change the range of a router.
In other words, they change the type of coverage but not the coverage itself. So more antennas might mean faster speed grades, but not always so.
That’s because ultimately, it’s how the router’s firmware handles its antennas that matters — something end-users can’t interfere. And a Wi-Fi connection’s speed takes two; the client also needs to support the feature and speed grade of the router for the goodness to happen.
In short, there’s no need to get too hung up on the number of the little poles sticking out of our Wi-Fi box.
Standard antennas vs. directional antennas
All home Wi-Fi broadcasters use standard omnidirectional antennas. Each antenna broadcasts signals outward somewhat equally like a sphere. For this reason, you want to place the router as central as possible to get the best coverage.
There are directional antennas. These are special ones that direct the signals toward a certain angle. Most of these are outdoor devices designed to deliver Wi-Fi over a vast open space.
It sure seems like a good idea to get a directional antenna for a sprawling home, but that doesn’t always work well, if at all. That’s because, among other things, you need to get antennas designed for the specific router.
Most vendors don’t make directional antennas for their home routers, and third-party ones don’t usually work as you might hope. That’s not to mention these antennas tend to be bulky and require to be mounted in a specific way.
How to I angle the antennas for best performance?
It seems that if you set the antennas at certain angles that would affect the router’s coverage. Well, that’s kind of true technically, but in reality that doesn’t make much of a difference, if at all, in consumer-grade broadcasters.
The reason is if changing antennas’ position creates an effect, that effect would take place at the end of the router’s range. There, the signal is already too weak, the little fluctuation, therefore, results in no meaningful Wi-Fi experience.
So when it comes to a router’s antennas, just don’t remove or collapse them — keep them opened up. After that, feel free to put them at any angles you’d like. What’s more important is making sure you place your Wi-Fi broadcaster well — at a high up, open place.
How to pick the best wi-fi router for your home
Now that we’re clear on Wi-Fi routers, let’s find out how you can find exactly what you need.
Set your priorities straight
The first thing you should do is understand the fact your Wi-Fi router is by far the most important gadget in your home. Without a well-functioning one, all other fancy and expensive toys — TVs, tablets, laptops, etc. — are kind of useless.
That’s not to mention a good router can also keep you safe from hackers, malware, phishing, etc, 24 hours a day, 7 days week.
Having a good router means you will not need to tend to it regularly. So it’s a good idea to pay adequate attention upfront. Think of the router as running water or the foundation of your home.
In short, don’t be cheap, invest where it matters! Considering your Wi-Fi equipment’s essential (and often underrated) role, however much you pay for it, it’s already really affordable.
Don’t expect magic!
I mean it. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about which router will “solve the dead zone issues” or “will, for sure, cover my entire place.” Some of you watch too many commercials.
Getting your home blanketed with Wi-Fi is not easy. Here’re a couple of things to keep in mind when getting a new or replacement router.
A new router is not necessarily better in terms of Wi-Fi coverage
Wi-Fi range has more to do with the frequency band (5 GHz vs. 2.4 GHz). So, broadcasters of different router tiers or standards only differ slightly in terms of coverage.
In other words, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, in and of itself, won’t bring about a huge change in coverage. In fact, a mid-tier Wi-Fi 6 router might have a shorter range than a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 one.
On the flip side, if your existing (old) router is working out to some extent, getting a newer one (of a higher standard or tier) sure will make things better.
Better Wi-Fi won’t make your Internet better
Internet and Wi-Fi are two different things. If you have a super-fast broadband connection — like Gigabit-class one — then faster Wi-Fi will definitely help. But if you have a modest plan, something of 100 Mbps or slower, chances are upgrading your Wi-Fi won’t bring about any difference in your online experience.
A wireless connection takes two
That’s right. You need devices of the same standard to enjoy a new router’s performance grade. Keep in mind that when talking about a Wi-Fi standard, the vendor always assumes all devices involved are of the same Wi-Fi tier.
That said, if you use a bunch of old Wi-Fi 4 clients, a brand-new top-notch Wi-Fi 6 router won’t make things better. In fact, it might make things a bit worse.
Key to pick a Wi-Fi Router: Figuring out what you need
This is the critical part of getting the right Wi-Fi equipment.
One reader wrote:
“We don’t need a super-duper one. We’re basic users. We just surf the web, stream movies, kids play games, and make video calls once in a while. The usual stuff, nothing special.”
Well, hello, that’s almost all there is to home networking needs.
The point is, you might need a better router than you think you do. That said, there are three things to consider when getting a Wi-Fi router: Coverage, speed, and features. (Note how I didn’t include the cost.)
Picking a Wi-Fi router with the right coverage: How big is your place?
The bigger your shindig, the larger Wi-Fi coverage you’ll need.
If you live in a small home of 1000 ft² (93 m²) or so, congratulations! Your situation is super easy since almost any router will be able to blanket it. You likely won’t need to worry about where to place it, either.
With a home twice the size, of around 2000 ft² (186 m²), things start to get complicated. If there are not many walls and the house is in a somewhat round or square shape, a single router might still do.
But if there are thick walls, perhaps it’s time to think of additional hardware units. Walls are hugely problematic for wireless signals.
If your home is of 3000 ft² (279 m²) or larger, a Wi-Fi system is a must. It’s now a question of which system and that depends on how fast you want the network to be.
By the way, in any home, running network cables is by far the best way to extend your network. It gives you a lot of options in terms of hardware and costs.
The shape and content of your home
Again, if a home is somewhat round or square, a single Wi-Fi broadcast, placed in the middle, can likely deliver signal to every corner. But if the place is sprawling, has an L shape or with a few floors, chances are you’ll need multiple hardware units.
Apart from walls, large objects are problematic, too. Generally, more walls and large objects equal reduced coverage, meaning you’ll need more broadcasters.
By the way, again, there’s no or little difference in Wi-Fi coverage between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 when you use a single router. As a mesh system, however, the latter is far superior.
Picking the Wi-Fi router with the right Wi-Fi speed: How fast is our Internet?
Once you’ve got the coverage down, the next item is the speed. More specifically, the speed you can afford because faster is always better.
Since most of us use Wi-Fi as a convenient way to access the Internet, it makes sense to use the broadband connection as the base requirement of this speed.
A couple of years ago, with a typical residential internet connection averaging around 30 Mbps or slower, you didn’t have to worry much about Wi-Fi rates.
Nowadays with broadband connections being available at hundreds of Mbps, or even Gigabit (1000 Mbps), finding a Wi-Fi solution capable of delivering that can deliver that can be a challenge.
Here’s the truth, you have to pick a top-notch Wi-Fi 6 router with a Wi-Fi 6 client to get the sustained Wi-Fi speed of more than 1 Gbps. The majority of existing routers and especially clients can achieve real-world Wi-Fi speeds of 800 Mbps at most. Again, that’s the total bandwidth of a Wi-Fi band.
How to figure out the Wi-Fi speed you need
So here’s the rough calculation: I’d give each person a base required speed of 30 Mbps — that’s the rate needed to stream a 4K movie smoothly. Now, assume that you have unlimited Internet bandwidth; your Wi-Fi needs to deliver 30 Mbps to everyone in the house simultaneously.
That said, if you have five people in the house (let’s assume they are always getting online at the same time,) you’ll need 150 Mbps Wi-Fi; 10 people, you now need 300 Mbps, and so on. Of course, you can adjust the base speed, making it higher or lower than 30 Mbps depending on your situation.
Now compare that needed Wi-Fi speed against a router’s real-world Wi-Fi performance.
(By the way, all test scores on Dong Knows Tech are real-world sustained speeds. Each review will give you an idea of what’s you can expect from a Wi-Fi solution in terms of its bandwidth. Also, using an app, or the Internet, to test Wi-Fi never shows the correct bandwidth of your router.)
Things to note in picking Wi-Fi routers’ features: What do you want from your network?
The final item is the features of Wi-Fi routers. Geeks like me probably like one with tons of features, while some home users just want something they can plug in and forget about it. The rest is somewhere in between.
Here’s the thing, you can get a feature-rich router and choose to use it with the simple default settings. But if you get a spartan one, there’s no way to add more features or settings to it when need be.
At the simplest level, though, all Wi-Fi solutions allow you to change the Wi-Fi network’s name and password. After that, the following are popular features and settings to consider. They are not all you can collectively find in Wi-Fi routers but relevant to most home’s needs.
Wi-Fi routers’ basic and necessary features and settings
These are settings that will come in handy in all home networks. Most, though not all, routers have these.
- A web user interface: A web page that allows access to the router’s in-depth settings and features. Any routers without a web interface will be lacking in features and settings.
- User-accessible DHCP server: All routers have the DHCP function, but only on those allowing users to access it you can customize the IP address, as well as the address pool, as mentioned above.
- IP reservation: This allows a connected device always to get the same IP address. Some clients and applications need this to work correctly.
- In-depth Wi-Fi customization: Users have the option to customize the router’s Wi-Fi network to their liking.
- Guest network: A type of virtual Wi-Fi network that has access to the Internet but not your local resources.
- Quality of Service (QoS): This is a handy feature that allows users to prioritize Internet bandwidth.
Wi-Fi routers’ advanced and desirable features
These features are generally available in high-end routers.
- Dynamic DNS: A necessary tool for any remote access applications.
- Port forwarding: This allows users to open specific ports for individual clients or applications. It’s a must if you run any server in your home network, including certain types of IoT devices.
- Mesh-ready: This allows turning the router into a mesh system. The most prominent example is the AiMesh of Asus, or Synology Mesh, or TP-Link’s limited OneMesh.
- VPN server: The ability to work as a VPN server. When coupled with Dynamic DNS, this feature is a boon for frequent travelers who want to dial home or just want to keep their device safe when using a public network.
- Web-filtering: Commonly known as Parental Controls, this feature allows users to filter certain (types of) websites for a (group of) computers. Most routers have some flavor of web-filtering, but the level of robustness can vary a great deal from one to another.
- Online protection: The ability to detect and filter out online threats (malware, phishing, virus, etc.). Typical examples are Network Protection (part of AiProtection, available in all Asus routers), Antivirus (part of HomeCare, found in many TP-Link routers), and Armor (available in some Netgear products).
- USB-related features: Available in routers with a USB port, these features include the ability to turn the router into a mini NAS server.
- Game-related features: You can play the game with any router, especially one with QoS. However, some routers have even more to give pro-gamers an edge.
What you should avoid in a Wi-Fi routers
Not all features and settings are useful. The following are those I’d think twice before using.
Vendor-assisted remote management
This feature requires you to registered an account with the vendor and attach your router to that account. In return, you can manage our home network when you’re out and about.
This type of remote access is getting more and more popular with more vendors, such as TP-Link, Linksys, or Netgear, offering it as an option.
These devices are by far the worst in terms of features. They have very few of those listed above, if at all.
What makes them even less attractive is the fact that you have to have an account with the vendor, and you also have to sign in before you can control the router.
In other words, both your mobile device and your home network are connected to the vendor at all times, and you manage your home network through the vendor.
Privacy risks aside, this type of management means you do not truly own your router. When there’s no Internet connection, you can’t make changes to your home network. Or if for some reason, the vendor decides to no longer support the device, you’ll lose access to it.
Best Wi-Fi solutions to consider
Below are the links to the regularly updated lists of best Wi-Fi routers and mesh systems I’ve reviewed. Check them out against what you’ve learned here, especially the performance numbers. Chances are you’ll find one that makes you happy.
How to pick the best Wi-Fi router: The takeaway
There you go. This post includes the answers to all the popular questions I’ve gotten so far about picking the right Wi-Fi router. Hopefully, from now on, I won’t need to make that exciting yet often challenging decision for anyone.
But finding that perfect Wi-Fi router is no doubt a particular task that requires knowing yourself first. And even then, just like in relationships, some of us might still end up with a couple of wrong choices before getting lucky.
One thing is for sure, though, it’s OK to take chances in home networking. Worse comes to worst; it’s comparatively painless to make a complete replacement. Take my word for it.