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Wi-Fi Router Replacement or Upgrade: When Is It Time?

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Is it time to replace my Wi-Fi router? I receive questions like that regularly. Folks have been worried about Wi-Fi hardware replacement, sometimes for the wrong reasons. They think that their router is “dated” or “no longer relevant”, especially those who still use Wi-Fi 5 hardware that “no longer have firmware updates.”

And that’s understandable. You might have noticed that I’ve reviewed a dozen Wi-Fi 7 broadcasters, and there will be more soon. And Wi-Fi 7 is two generations after Wi-Fi 5 β€” two and a half if you include Wi-Fi 6E. The marketing hype and the online clickbait can create a huge FoMO, at the very least.

But just because there’s a new standard doesn’t mean older Wi-Fi devices are automatically obsolete. (Not everyone needs a Tesla, so to speak.) Getting a new router never means existing clients also magically get updated, and many devices will remain on Wi-Fi 5 for the rest of their lives. Conversely, all new Wi-Fi devices work with any existing router.

Generally, you shouldn’t replace a Wi-Fi broadcaster β€” router, access points, extender, or mesh system –just because of the Wi-Fi standard they support. No standard is obsolete if you can still use it. So, the real question is when it makes sense to upgrade or replace your networking hardware 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 March 18, 2023, and updated it on December 20 to add up-to-date, relevant information.

Wi-Fi router replacement: My Synology RT2600ac Wi-Fi 5 router literally ran out of life β€” at least partially β€” after half a decade of working nonstop.
Wi-Fi Router Replacement: This Synology RT2600ac Wi-Fi 5 router is still available to purchase today because it will remain relevant for a long time.

Wi-Fi hardware replacement: It’s always case by case

I’m still using or managing many Wi-Fi 5 routers at various locations, including an Asus RT-AC86U, a Netgear Nighthawk XR500, and a Synology RT2600ac.

The reason is simply because they have worked well. Restarting each of them occasionally and upgrading them to the latest firmware when applicable have been all the necessary maintenance. So, despite having a garage half-full of practically-new hardware I used for the reviews, I’ll keep these old routers in their place for the foreseeable future.

But at the same time, I’ve also replaced many routers in the past few years for one or more of the following five reasons.

1. Broken hardware

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

When it comes to networking hardware, stuff often breaks on the inside. A router can look fine physically, but its internal memory or circuitry is damaged for one reason or another β€” a botched firmware update is often enough to render it useless.

My latest experience of a router going bye-bye was another 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-old TP-Link Archer C5400X that stopped working properly one day for no apparent reason.

So, if your hardware is broken, you have no choice but to replace it. But this applies to everything and could happen to a brand-new piece of hardware.

Asus RT AC86U Wi Fi 5 RouterNetgear 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, keep this in mind: WPA with AES encryption method is the minimum requirement, WPA2 is generally the norm, and WPA3 is required for all Wi-Fi 6E and newer devices. In this case, a replacement is generally recommended when the current router doesn’t support WPA2.

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 β€” those from the outside world via the Internet connection β€” 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 β€” hence the users β€” is in danger of being taken advantage of by a remote party. 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.

3. Broadband speed grades

We generally use local networking devices to access the Internet. So, if you upgrade your broadband to a significantly faster grade, such as from a sub-Gig to a full Gig or to multi-Gig, then it’s likely time to upgrade the hardware.

That’s if you want to enjoy the new speed. If you just want to have a connection fast enough for the application at hand, in most cases, upgrading is still unnecessary. 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 SpeedMinimum Wi-Fi Standard to Consider for a Single Broadcaster
(Router / Access Point)
Minimum Wi-Fi Standard to Consider 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
Wi-Fi Router Replacement: How to pick 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, it’s worth noting that Wi-Fi 6 and 6E devices sustain Gig+ at best, and Wi-Fi 7 will be about 20% faster in real-world applications using 2×2 at 160MHz specs. The point is no Wi-Fi connection can deliver over 5Gbps in full. Most importantly, 500Mbps is about as fast as anyone would need on a device.

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 speedy enough to qualify as Multi-Gig or multi-Gigabit. Intel coined the term to call its Wi-Fi 6E client chips β€” the AX210 and AX211 β€” to describe their real-world speeds.

Gig+ generally applies to the sustained speeds of Wi-Fi 6 or 6E β€” via a 2×2 at 160MHz connection, which has the 2402Mbps theoretical ceiling speed β€” or Internet speed. It’s generally not used to describe wired network connections.

4. Moving from wireless to wired networking

Wi-Fi is always wireless, but to have the best Wi-Fi around a large property, running network cables is a must. With physical wiring, your Wi-Fi network benefits from a strong backhaul link. In this case, with the help of Multi-Gig hardware, you can even get multi-Gigabit bandwidth.

So if you’ve always used your Wi-Fi mesh system in a fully wireless setup, getting your home wired might necessitate a network hardware upgrade, where you move from Gigabit-class hardware to multi-Gigabity. This is especially true if you want to use Wi-Fi 7 hardware, in which Multi-Gig ports are the norm.

The other way around is also applicable. If you move from a wired home where low-end Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 or Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E mesh hardware has worked well to a large home without wiring, better hardware might be needed for a fully wireless setup.

Top Wi-Fi 7 hardware comes in all shapes and sizes
Networking hardware replacement: These Wi-Fi 7 routers and mesh systems are currently the fastest networking devices you can find. But to get the most out of them, getting your home wired is a must. And even then, your Wi-Fi 6 and older devices will likely see no tangible benefits.

5. 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 β€” so, if you’re using one, 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.

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.

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 on the 6GHz band, but that remains to be seen.

That said, the range of a band β€” 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz β€” is generally identical on broadcasters of the same hardware tier. However, a good router will deliver faster or more stable connection speeds further out. After all, the range is meaningless without usable data rates.

Open the cabinet below if you want to learn 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.

Wi-Fi range in brief

Wi-Fi range in theory: It’s “clean” and generous

The way radio signals work is that the lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in kilohertz and megahertz β€” 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 β€” all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That’s especially true when considering the broadcasting power of Wi-Fi broadcasters is limited by regulations.

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, physically larger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones β€” they use all the allowed broadcasting power and have enough processing power to deliver the most bandwidth at the far end of the signals. Still, it’s impossible to accurately determine each’s actual coverage because it fluctuates wildly and depends heavily on the environment.

That said, here are my estimates of a home Wi-Fi broadcaster’s ranges in the best-case scenario, specifically:

  • Outdoor environment
  • On a sunny day
  • No interference or broadcasters in close proximity
  • Maximum broadcasting power (30 dBm)

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, which also depends on hardware and Wi-Fi standards β€” a Wi-Fi 7 router is not better than a Wi-Fi 5 one, in range and whatnot, if the network consists of mostly Wi-Fi 5 and older clients.

  • 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200 ft (β‰ˆ 60 m). However, this is the most popular band. It’s 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, maxing out at around 150 ft (β‰ˆ 45 m).
  • 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 approximately 115 ft (β‰ˆ 35m).

(*) 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: The devil is in the little and big details

In real-world usage, Wi-Fi broadcasters in 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.

Your router’s Wi-Fi range is always much shorter than the theoretical number mentioned above. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interference and obstacles.

While the Wi-Fi range doesn’t depend on the channel width, the wider a channel and higher the frequency, the less stable it becomes β€” it’s more susceptible to interference and obstacles, and its range is more acutely hindered. So, within the same standard, more bandwidth generally equals higher fragility.

Below are the items that will affect Wi-Fi ranges.

It’s worth noting that the new 6GHz band generally doesn’t suffer from same-band interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands have a long list of other non-Wi-Fi applications that can harm their ranges, and there are always many broadcasters in close proximity using these bands when you live in an urban neighborhood.

Common 2.4 GHz interference sources: Impossible to measure
  • Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
  • 2.4GHz cordless phones and other appliances
  • Fluorescent bulbs
  • Bluetooth devices
  • Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources: Impossible to measure
  • Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
  • 5GHz cordless telephones and other appliances
  • Radars
  • Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Measurable, albeit challenging, walls and large objects

Physical objects, such as appliances or elevators, hinder all Wi-Fi bands. However, among 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.

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

  • A thin, porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals β€” a router’s range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
  • A thick porous wall: 20% to 40% β€” the case of most walls.
  • A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50% β€” the case of most walls.
  • 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, and generally, a single wall will reduce the signal by approximately 30%.

That said, in real life, when all adverse elements are taken into account, and depending on the situation and where you stand from the broadcaster, we need to discount the theoretical ranges mentioned above between 40% and 90% to get a broadcaster’s realistic coverage.

Extra: Three bad excuses for Wi-Fi router replacement

And there are “bad” reasons to purchase things you don’t need. Here are 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 β€” when supported clients are widely available, which is not soon β€” 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.

Wi-Fi Router replacement: The takeaway

You can replace your router at any time β€” 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 your needs or provides tangible improvements you expect.

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. And 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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16 thoughts on “Wi-Fi Router Replacement or Upgrade: When Is It Time?”

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  1. Brilliant. This has really helped me think things out. My biggest challenge is connectivity, not speed. My xmas lights has put RSSI of some of my devices to the edge of operating.

    My reason for purchasing would be to put another mesh node but in reality, a 50Euro extender would do the job of a 300Euro mesh node for the need of a couple mbs for a 2.4GHz device.

    Reply
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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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