Five things you should know before buying a new router in 2020

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If you are looking to have more power in your home network, a new Wi-Fi router could be the solution. The problem is that buying a more modern version can be very confusing. What does all the technical jargon mean? How fast should it be? Is it worth spending more on a multipoint mesh router, or in one compatible with the new version of Wi-Fi, called Wi-Fi 6?

First of all, don’t get overwhelmed. It is true that there are many specifications and technical details related to wireless networks, but if you are just looking for a reliable router that you do not have to worry about, just understand some essential key points. This is what you should know before concentrating on the topic of purchase.

Speed ​​ratings are silly

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: the speed ratings you’ll see on the gearboxes. routers as you stroll down the store aisle there is no point.

“Combined speeds” is a meaningless and misleading term. For example, it would seem that this router can reach speeds of 2.2 Gbps (2,200 Mbps), but in reality, its fastest band has a maximum speed of 867 Mbps, and that only in a controlled laboratory environment.

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I mean codes like “AC1200” and “AX6000”. The letters indicate which version of Wi-Fi the router supports: “AC” for Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11ac and “AX” for Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. The numbers give you a rough idea of ​​the combined speeds of each of the router bands, typically 2.4 and 5 GHz, and perhaps a second 5 GHz band if it is a tri-band router.

The problem is that you can only connect to one of those bands at a time. When you add up your top speeds, the result is a very inflated figure that doesn’t represent the speeds you will actually experience. If it is a tri-band mesh router that uses that third band as a dedicated connection between the router and its extenders, then the speeds in that band do not apply directly to your device’s connections.

To make matters worse, those top box speeds are actually theoretical highs derived from manufacturers’ lab tests, which don’t factor in real-world factors such as distance, physical obstacles, or network congestion. Even at close range, your actual connection will be much slower.

None of that prevents manufacturers from using those speed ratings to describe the speed of their products. For example, it could be said that the hypothetical AX6000 router supports speeds of up to 6,000 Mbps, which does not make sense. A router is only as fast as its fastest band. Don’t be fooled.

Your provider sets the speed limit

Keep in mind that no matter how fast your router is, your connection speed will only be as fast as the plan of your Internet service provider allows. If you pay for a download speed of, say, 100 Mbps, that’s the maximum speed at which your router will transmit data from the cloud. And period.

This is an important limitation currently. In our top speed tests, we see that an increasing number of routers can comfortably reach speeds of 1,000 Mbps or more, but given that the current average fixed broadband speed in the United States is just over 100 Mbps (or less, if your provider limits your connection speed), few of us can expect to surf the Web at those speeds in the near future.

That does not mean that fast routers are not worth it. Upgrading to a faster and more powerful access point can help you make the most of your Internet connection, especially when connecting remotely. Therefore, before buying, make sure review this note to get an idea of ​​the specific routers that could best suit your home. We constantly test new models and update our recommendations with new test data.

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New Wi-Fi 6 compatible routers, like the Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien, are out now, but for the vast majority, buying one isn’t a priority yet.

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Wi-Fi 6 is here, but it’s still too soon

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest and fastest version of Wi-Fi, and it is the main reason why we are starting to see so many new routers capable of easily reaching speeds measured in gigabits. You can read more about how the new and fast standard works in this article about Wi-Fi 6But the bottom line is that it allows your router to send more information more efficiently to multiple devices at once.

This year, all sorts of new Wi-Fi 6 compatible routers are available, including some that cost much less than you might expect, but there are still relatively few devices that work with Wi-Fi 6 outside of iconic models like the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10. Please note that Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible with Wi-Fi, so it will still work with your existing devices. However, it won’t make them faster, because those older devices don’t support the new Wi-Fi 6 features.

Over time, we will begin to see Wi-Fi 6 support on streaming devices, tablets, smart home devices, and other common client devices. As you fill your home with devices like these, it will make more sense to have a Wi-Fi 6 router (even more so if the speeds offered by Internet service providers also increase in the coming years). For now, however, it is more a product that will allow you to be ready for the future than an essential one.

A mesh router like the three-piece Eero configuration we tested can help spread a stronger signal throughout your home.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Don’t forget about coverage

Usually when we talk about routers we look at speeds, but the truth is that in most cases there are only two Wi-Fi speeds that matter: “fast enough” and “not fast enough”. After all, having an incredibly fast connection in the same room where your router is located is great, but not so much if you can’t get a strong signal when you’re trying to watch a Netflix night marathon in your room on the other end. from the house.

So the most important thing you can do to improve your home network is to change your stand-alone single-point router to an expandable mesh system that uses multiple devices to better spread a fast signal throughout your home. Mesh systems typically don’t reach top speeds as high as a single-point router, but they make up for it by providing you with “fast enough” speed Wi-Fi in every corner of your home.

In recent years, moving to a mesh technology router has been expensive – most prices start at around $ 300 or even $ 500. Fortunately, that is starting to change thanks to the recent entry of new second-generation mesh systems that cost much less than previous ones.

Testing these systems is currently one of my top priorities when it comes to Wi-Fi. I’ve already found a couple of good options, including some multi-device setups that you can buy for under $ 200. And, if you are willing to spend more, there is something else worth considering:

Mesh system and Wi-Fi 6 can be a great combination

Remember how I said that it’s still a bit early to switch to Wi-Fi 6, as relatively few devices support the new standard? Well, there is one exception that is starting to come up: Wi-Fi 6 mesh settings.

And the reason is very simple: in a mesh configuration, multiple devices emit signals throughout your home. If devices in that mesh configuration support Wi-Fi 6, they can move that data more quickly and efficiently. At best, that means that near the system’s satellite devices you’ll get speeds almost as fast as you get when you’re close to the router, and that works even if you don’t have a single Wi-Fi 6 compatible device on your home.

For the most part, the Wi-Fi 6 compatible mesh routers I tested in my home achieved impressive average speeds in all rooms. None of the Wi-Fi 5 compliant mesh systems I’ve tested have managed to achieve average speeds greater than 200 Mbps in the furthest rooms.

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That is exactly what I was able to verify with the Netgear Orbi 6, a recently released mesh system fully compatible with Wi-Fi 6. In my house, with a 300 Mbps internet connection, I had average speeds of 289 Mbps throughout the house. . Speeds were barely slowed when I tested from rooms farthest from the router.

This is largely due to the fact that the Orbi 6 is a tri-band system that includes two separate 5 GHz bands, one of which uses a dedicated backhaul (return) band for transmissions between the router and its satellites. However, this tri-band approach doesn’t come cheap: the Orbi 6 costs $ 700 for a two-piece setup.

That said, this year they will go on sale a series of new Wi-Fi 6 compatible mesh systemsincluding several dual band options that are leaving out dedicated backhaul band in order to lower their price. One of these systems, de TP-Link, will hit the market at a price of just $ 190 for a two-piece setup, during the first half of this year. I doubt any of these systems is as impressive as the Orbi 6, but I’ll know better once I’ve had a chance to try them out. If any of them can offer a significant improvement in speed and coverage at an attractive price, rest assured that I will let you know by this means.

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