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Router Replacement: When Is It the Right Time to Ditch Your Old Wi-Fi Machine?

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Daily, I receive questions about Wi-Fi router replacement — whether it’s time to replace a particular piece of networking hardware.

Specifically, folks have been wondering if their Wi-Fi 5 router — such as the Asus RT-AC86U, Netgear XR500, or others — is “dated” or “no longer relevant” and if a replacement is a must. Others were worried because their current router seemed to “no longer have firmware updates.”

And that’s understandable. You might have noticed that I’ve reviewed a couple of Wi-Fi 7 broadcasters, and there will be more soon. And Wi-Fi 7 is two generations after Wi-Fi 5 — two and a half if you include Wi-Fi 6E.

But just because there’s a new standard on the horizon doesn’t mean older Wi-Fi devices are automatically obsolete.

For one, getting a new router never means existing clients also magically get updated — many are still on Wi-Fi 5 (or even older). And generally, you shouldn’t replace a router just because of the Wi-Fi standard they support — no standard is obsolete if you can still use it.

While we talk about routers, the idea applies to other Wi-Fi broadcasters, including access points or extenders.

So the real question is when it makes sense to make an upgrade or replacement beyond the desire to stay on the cutting edge. And this post is the long and complete answer you’ll find.

The short answer: the cutting edge is narrow, and you won’t last long counting on it. Don’t bother!

Dong’s note: I first published this post on Mar 18, 2023, and updated it on July 11 to add up-to-date, relevant information.

Wi-Fi router replacement: My Synology RT2600ac Wi-Fi 5 router literally ran out of life -- at least partially -- after half a decade of working nonstop.
Wi-Fi router replacement: My Synology RT2600ac Wi-Fi 5 router literally ran out of life — at least partially — after half a decade of working nonstop.

When to replace a Wi-Fi router: It’s always case by case

I picked the Asus RT-AC86U and Netgear Nighthawk XR500 above as examples for a reason: I’ve been using both since I published their reviews years ago. And they have been problem-free.

Restarting each of them occasionally and upgrading them to the latest firmware when applicable have been all the maintenance with these two. (The XR500 got a major update in late 2021 to share the same OS version as the newer XR1000.)

So, despite having a garage half-full of practically new reviewed hardware, I kept these old routers in place because they work, as simple as that.

But at the same time, I’ve also replaced many routers in the past few years — for my day job — all due to one or more of the following four reasons.

1. Broken hardware

This is the most obvious. If something is broken, then you need to replace it.

When it comes to a Wi-Fi router, stuff can be broken on the inside — the router itself might look fine physically. Its internal memory or circuitry can get damaged for one reason or another. A botched firmware update is often the culprit.

If your router doesn’t turn on, keeps rebooting incessantly, or won’t give you IP addresses even after a hard reset, chances are it’s “bricked,” as we often call it.

My latest experience was a Synology RT2600ac. After five-plus years of working nonstop, one day, it started to reboot constantly. As it turned out, its internal flash memory’s endurance ran out and could no longer hold the information necessary for the boot process. Another is a 3-year-used TP-Link Archer C5400X that stopped working properly one day for no apparent reason.

So, if your router is broken, you have no choice but to replace it. But this applies to everything and has nothing to do with Wi-Fi standards. It could happen to a brand-new router, too.

Asus RT AC86U Wi Fi 5 Router Netgear XR500 Wi Fi 5 Router
Wi-Fi router replacement: The Asus RT-AC86U and Netgear Nighthawk XR500 are two of many Wi-Fi 5 routers that still work well today and for years to come for many homes.

2. Security risk

Security risk is probably the most important factor determining whether a router is worth keeping. But not all risks are equal.

Specifically, there are two sides of a router where security applies differently: the local network (your home) and the Internet (the outside world.)

Security on the local network (LAN) side

Within your home, the router’s security keeps connected clients in check. In most cases, you want to keep unwanted devices from your network. Consequently, here are the considerations:

  • If your situation doesn’t require restriction, such as an intentionally open SSID (a Wi-Fi network without a password), then security doesn’t apply. In this case, any Wi-Fi standard or security level is a go.
  • If you need to keep your network private, WPA with AES encryption method is the minimum requirement, WPA2 or WPA3 is recommended. A replacement is necessary when the current router only supports WPA with TKIP and less secure protocols.

So on the home front, security can be optional. It depends on if or how much you want to keep your devices safe against local threats, which are generally limited by physical proximity.

Security on the Internet (WAN) side

On the other hand, the security against online threats — those from the outside world via the Internet connection — is more severe since geophysical boundaries do not limit them.

This is the side you don’t want to overlook or compromise when applicable.

If a router has a known vulnerability on the WAN side and has no security patch, you must let it go. However, note that “known” is the keyword.

That’s because all devices are vulnerable to a certain degree when they connect to the Internet. It’s a matter of keeping that secret, or unknown, to interested parties.

It’s only when a vulnerability becomes known that the device — hence the users — is in danger of being taken advantage of by a remote party.

If you wonder how a vulnerability becomes known: You’ll hear about it in the media. Plenty of security “experts” are waiting to hype it up to get their name recognized — fear attracts attention. Vulnerabilities are also not equal. Some are worse than others.

So, when you hear about a vulnerability, and it’s not yet patched or will not be fixed (soon enough) via firmware updates, it’s time to get a different router model (better yet, from another vendor.)

Security is nuanced. By default, every device connected to the Internet is vulnerable, much like as long as you live, you’re at risk of dying, to a degree. Absolute security exists only when you’re unplugged or cease to exist.

Not all routers have vulnerabilities, and those that do often have fewer and even not at all the longer they have been on the market. Plus, the older a router is, the less of a target it becomes since fewer people have it.

In other words, newly released routers might have more vulnerabilities than older ones. That is partly why Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have firmware updates less frequently the older their models become.

Router and firmware updates

Firmware updates, or the lack thereof, should not be used as a decisive factor in getting or getting rid of a router.

While some vendors add new features or improvements with updates, most new firmware revisions contain required security patches. So no update can mean there’s no credible vulnerability, which is a good thing. (Firmware updates to routers are like recalls to cars. Having a lot of them is not necessarily a good thing.)

The lack of firmware updates also doesn’t mean the router is no longer supported. That’s case by case. And many routers work fine when declared out of support by the vendor. (You don’t need to get a new car just because the model you’re driving is no longer in production.)

Again, security is about nuance. Just because a router no longer has firmware updates doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to replace it.

TP Link Archer BE800 BE19000 Tri band Wi Fi 7 Router Out of BoxTP-Link Deco BE85 Wi-Fi 7 Mesh System comes in a nice packaging
Wi-Fi router replacement: Wi-Fi 7 solutions are currently the fastest in the market. However, they don’t necessarily give you any tangible benefits over older Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 counterparts. That depends.

3. Speed grades

Faster performance is generally the first you consider when upgrading a home Wi-Fi router.

Remember, though, that a router can only improve your local network’s performance, and if you use Wi-Fi to deliver Internet, then you only need a network fast enough for the broadband connection.

Conversely, the currently fastest possible Wi-Fi connection (2×2 Wi-Fi 6/6E) sustains Gig+ at best. So far, Wi-Fi 7 has been largely in the ballpark, though that might change. A wired Multi-Gig connection is generally required for a true multi-Gigabit experience.

What is Gig+

Gig+, or Gig Plus, conveys a speed grade faster than 1Gbps but slower than 2Gbps. So, it’s 1.5Gbps, give or take, and it’s not fast enough to be qualified as Multi-Gig or multi-Gigabit.

Gig+ generally applies to the sustained speeds of Wi-Fi 6 or 6E — via a 2×2 at 160MHz connection which has the 2400Mbps theoretical ceiling speed — or Internet speed and is not used to describe wired network connections.

I wrote about broadband in detail in this post on Gigabit Intenet, but the table below breaks down the Wi-Fi standard applicable to certain Internet speeds.

Broadband SpeedApplicable Wi-Fi Standard for a Single Broadcaster
(Router / Access Point)
Applicable Wi-Fi Standard for a Mesh System
50Mbps or slowerAny Wi-Fi StandardAny Wi-Fi Standard
Up to 150MbpsWi-Fi 4Wi-Fi 4
(via wired access points)
Up to 250MbpsWi-Fi 4 (top-tier)
Wi-Fi 5
Wi-Fi 5
Up to 500MbpsWi-Fi 5Wi-Fi 5 (wired backhauling)
Wi-Fi 6
Up to GigabitWi-Fi 6 or 6EWi-Fi 6 or 6E
(top-tier, preferably via wired backhauling)
Up to Gig+Wi-Fi 6 or 6E
(top-tier)
Wi-Fi 6 or 6E
(top-tier with Multi-Gig wired backhauling)
2Gbps or FasterWi-Fi 7Wi-Fi 7
Picking Wi-Fi standards based on broadband-based speeds

All Wi-Fi standards work with all Internet plans, but the higher standards can deliver faster broadband speeds in full.

So if your Internet is 500Mbps or slower, you only need a Wi-Fi 5 router. Getting a Wi-Fi 6 or newer router doesn’t hurt, but that’s unnecessary.

On the other hand, even if you have 10Gbps broadband, a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 router works, too, since you won’t need more than 500Mbps at the device anyway. That’s not to mention there are no Wi-Fi clients that can handle faster than Gig+ sustained speeds — most existing Wi-Fi devices are much slower.

Google Nest Wifi Pro front and backeero routers
Wi-Fi router replacement: Google Nest and eero are two Wi-Fi solutions you should ditch immediately if you care about features and privacy.

4. Features and privacy risks

Over the years, routers have gotten more and more sophisticated. Many routers can work as mini NAS servers or have built-in practical features such as online protection, QoS, or Parental Controls.

So if yours doesn’t have the feature you’d like, maybe it’s time to consider one that has.

Note that some routers have all these features for free, while others might sell them as premium add-ons.

Another thing to note is online privacy risks.

If the router requires a login account, it will collect your information to sell to advertisers. If you’re uncomfortable with that, avoid routers from known data miners such as eero or Google Nest Wifi. (Hint: It’s time to replace it!)

Other routers won’t collect anything by default, but once you’ve turned on a certain feature, your traffic will be passed to a third party. But that’s a given since, for example, you must be exposed to the party that protects you if you want to be protected.

***

And that’s it. If you find yourself in one of the situations above, it’s time to get a new Wi-Fi machine. You’re justified. And in this case, you can get the latest and greatest or the just-right one that delivers the best bang for your buck.

How about range? Isn’t a new router supposed to offer wall-to-wall coverage?

If you’ve read somewhere that a new router would offer “wall-to-wall coverage,” that’s utter nonsense. How close are those walls to each other?

Range, or coverage, is the most nuanced notion of Wi-Fi, breading all sorts of nonsensical ideas and claims. Here’s the deal:

The range of a Wi-Fi broadcaster depends on the radio frequency and the broadcasting power. The latter is generally limited due to regulation, so typically, only the former counts.

Wi-Fi 7’s AFC might allow for more broadcasting power, but that remains to be seen.

That said, on the same band — 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz — the range is generally the same no matter the broadcaster. However, a good router will deliver faster speeds further out, making it seem to have a longer range. After all, the range is meaningless without usable data rates.

Wi-Fi range in brief

Wi-Fi range, in theory

The way radio waves work, a broadcaster emits signals outward as a sphere around itself — the range is the radius of this sphere.

The lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in Megahertz — you can listen to the same station in a vast area, like an entire region or a city.

Wi-Fi uses 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies — all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That’s not to mention a home Wi-Fi broadcaster has limited power.

But, regardless of Wi-Fi standards, these bands generally share the following: The higher frequencies (in Hz), the higher the bandwidth (speeds), the shorter the ranges, and the more bandwidth progressively lost over increasing distance.

Generally, bigger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones. Still, it’s impossible to accurately determine the actual content of each because it fluctuates a great deal and depends heavily on the environment.

That said, here are my estimates of home Wi-Fi broadcasters’ ranges determined via personal experiences:

These were determined in the best-case scenario, i.e., open outdoor space on a sunny day. Also, note that Wi-Fi ranges don’t die abruptly. They degrade gradually as you get farther away from the broadcaster. The distances mentioned below are when a client still has a signal strong enough for a meaningful connection.

  • 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200ft (61m). However, this is the most popular band, also used by non-Wi-Fi devices like cordless phones or TV remotes. Its real-world speeds suffer severely from interference and other things. As a result, for years, this band has been considered a backup, applicable when the range is more important than speed.
  • 5GHz: This band has much faster speeds than the 2.4GHz band but shorter ranges that max out at around 175ft (50m).
  • 6GHz(*): This is the latest band available, starting with Wi-Fi 6E. It has the same ceiling speed as the 5GHz band but with less interference and overheads. As a result, its actual real-world rate is faster. However, due to the higher frequency, it has just about 70% of the range, which maxes out at about 130ft (40m).

(*) Wi-Fi 7 has a new feature called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) that, when implemented, increases the broadcasting power of the 6GHz band enough to make its range comparable to that of the 5GHz.

Some might consider these numbers generous, and others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.

Wi-Fi range in real life

Wi-Fi broadcasters of the same frequency band and broadcasting power generally deliver the same coverage.

Specifically, they are all the same if you measure the signal reach alone. What differentiates them is their sustained speeds and signal stability, or how the quality of their Wi-Fi signals changes as you increase the distance. And that generally varies from one model or Wi-Fi standard to another.

In real-world usage, chances are your router’s Wi-Fi range is much shorter than you’d like. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interferences and obstacles.

While the Wi-Fi range doesn’t depend on the channel width, the wider a channel, the less stable it might become — it’s more susceptible to interference.

The new 6GHz band generally doesn’t suffer from interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz have a long list of things that can harm their ranges.

Common 2.4 GHz interference sources
  • Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
  • 2.4GHz cordless phones
  • Fluorescent bulbs
  • Bluetooth radios (minimal)
  • Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources
  • Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
  • 5GHz cordless phones
  • Radars
  • Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Walls and large objects

As for obstacles, walls are the most problematic since they are everywhere. Different types of walls block Wi-Fi signals differently, but no wall is good for Wi-Fi. Large objects, like big appliances or elevators, are bad, too.

Here are my rough estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals — generally use the low number for the 2.4GHz and the high one for the 5GHz, add another 10%-15% to the 5GHz’s if you use the 6GHz band:

  • A thin porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals — a router’s range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
  • A thick porous wall: 20% to 40%
  • A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50%
  • A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.

Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to know how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a specific spot in your home. A simple rule is that more walls equal worse coverage.

Open the drawer above if you want to read more about the Wi-Fi range, but the gist is that starting with Wi-Fi 5, a new router, doesn’t necessarily improve the coverage. That depends.

Extra: Three bad excuses for Wi-Fi router replacement

And there are “bad” reasons to purchase things you don’t need. Here is a few examples when it comes to Wi-Fi routers:

  • I want to stay on the cutting edge and “future-proof” my home: There’s no such thing as future-proofing. Even if you get into Wi-Fi 7 today, by the time you can truly enjoy it — when a supported client is available, which is not soon — there’ll likely be Wi-Fi 8 or something similar on the horizon.
  • Because I find a great deal: It’s only great if you need a new router. If your current one works well, getting a new one, even as a deal, only means money down the drain. Plus, the act is bad for the environment.
  • I’ve used mine for a few years already: A Wi-Fi router has no expiration date.

Again, as long as your current router works for your needs, there’s no need to replace it. Not until your situation changes and requires more bandwidth, features, or both.

Router replacement: The takeaway

You can replace your Wi-Fi 5 router, or any router, at any time — it’s up to you to handle your money and time however you see fit. But it only makes sense to spend resources on stuff that works for you — it’s supposed to serve you, after all.

Getting a new Wi-Fi router just because you feel compelled or pressured to do it, for no practical reason, is a waste of precious resources.

But you’ve made up your mind? These posts on how to pick the perfect Wi-Fi routers or a mesh system will almost guarantee success. After that, here’s the link for the up-to-date best routers and mesh systems you can confidently bring home today.

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14 thoughts on “Router Replacement: When Is It the Right Time to Ditch Your Old Wi-Fi Machine?”

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  1. I completely agree with this article. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found it necessary to upgrade my Apple Airport Extreme router to a mesh one, ensuring a stable signal for video conferencing in my garage. Although I opted for a WiFi 6 router, I now realize that a WiFi 5 router with better specifications would have been a more cost-effective choice. The majority of my IoT devices still operate on WiFi 4, and only a few use WiFi 6. Additionally, enabling WPA3 on those older devices prevents them from connecting to the router.

    Reply
  2. You are the most down to earth and practical human I have ever read about in my years of engineering. You have the common sense of not glorifying technology to the point where common folk are fooled into buying technology they don’t understand.
    Keep it up

    Reply
  3. Hello, this was a good and easy to read article.
    But I’m still debating which one to purchase the ac86u for 110$ or the 140$ ax58u. I’m just so on the fence, with on my Mac air thats wifi 6

    Reply
  4. Regarding your statement “A Wi-Fi router has no expiration date,” there effectively is an expiration date due to eventual lack of patching, right? I have a TP-Link Archer C9 v1 which I bought in 2016 and is still working great, but it hasn’t had a FW update in over 2 years — I’d find it hard to believe it doesn’t have any security vulnerabilities (though hopefully minor). Would be nice to have guidelines such as X days after last FW release, etc. or if manufacturers gave EOL notices like software software companies do.

    Enjoy reading your site!

    Reply
      • {…} It seems we can pretty confidently “know” that any firmware older than 2021 is full of vulnerabilities. Router companies aren’t going to test/publicize that older routers are vulnerable unless they’re forced to. Whether anyone’s interested in exploiting those vulnerabilities in our home router is another thing. Wish there was an easy way to independently validate a firmware, or that routers had monthly security update schedules like Android and Windows do.

        Reply
        • Give this post a serious read, and feel free to get a new router or two if you want. I’m not here to debate stuff you read elsewhere on the Internet. πŸ™‚

          Reply
  5. Bought two used AirPort Extreme 6th gen. Wifive or ac works flawlessly with these even connected to FITH 1.5 GB. Wireless
    connection as mesh. I still remember your review at their release.

    Time flies!

    Reply

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