Everyone wants to be safe And fast internet, and a good router can help. The trick is to work out how the complicated maze of standards, confusing acronyms, and sci-fi features translate into better Wi-Fi in your home. Join us as we tear back the curtain to reveal important information about Wi-Fi, routers, mesh systems, and other terminology. Hopefully by the end you’ll be better equipped to buy a router.
Updated April 2023: We’ve added information on Ethernet, Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7, updated the latest broadband speeds, updated our small recommendations and added an SSID explanation.
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Who is your internet service provider?
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connect your home to the Internet, and often ship you a modem and router (sometimes in a single device). The modem connects your home to the Internet, the router connects to the modem, and you connect all your gadgets—wired or wireless—to the router to access that connection. ISPs often charge you a rental fee for this equipment, and their routers are basic in performance and features. The good news is that ISPs are not legally allowed to force you to use their equipment or charge you to use your own hardware, although you may have to return their equipment to avoid a charge.
In this guide, we’re looking at using your own router and using your ISP’s modem extensively. By using your own, you’ll save money in the long run, but you’ll also enjoy faster Wi-Fi, better coverage, easier configuration, and more features like parental controls and guest Wi-Fi networks. We’ll run through your router options, but whichever system you decide to use, check compatibility with your ISP before purchasing. You can also search your ISP’s forums to find posts where people are discussing using different routers and modems. A little research online before you buy can save you a big headache.
What kind of router do you want?
There are various ways to make your Wi-Fi faster, and buying a new router is one of the most obvious. Calculate the rough square footage of your home before you start to help you decide on the type of router to go for.
For most people, the easiest solution is to choose a single router or a router and modem combination. Keep in mind that this device must be plugged into a socket or modem via an Ethernet cable, which limits where you can place it. The Wi-Fi signal will be strongest near the router and will gradually drop off and slow down the further away you get. If you can, keep your router in a central location in your home and leave it out in the open.
Routers should always specify a square footage for coverage, but certain types of construction—thick walls, shielding, and other devices—can interfere with Wi-Fi signals, so don’t expect to enjoy full-speed Wi-Fi over long distances. Powerful routers with wide coverage are large devices with many external antennas, but they are usually very expensive.
If you have a large house and need solid coverage in your garden, or if you have thick walls and some dead spots in your current setup, a Wi-Fi network could be the answer. Mesh systems consist of a central hub that connects to a single router, as well as additional satellites or nodes located in the home.
Devices connect to the Internet through the nearest node, so by adding a node, you can get wider Wi-Fi coverage and a more reliable connection. Just remember that every node needs a power outlet. Mesh systems are typically (though not always) more expensive than single-router setups, but they offer increased coverage and reliability, and often boast more features and control options. They are also smaller than standard routers and are typically designed to blend in with your decor.
Most mesh systems are expandable, and some manufacturers allow you to connect individual routers to create a mesh, so you can start with one router and add more as needed. Make sure you understand which devices are compatible. For example, any Asus router that supports AiMesh can act as a mesh system, but TP-Link’s OneMesh technology only allows compatible Wi-Fi extenders—you can’t link routers together.
Options for the new router
If your issue is more about coverage and you have a single problem area where you want to upgrade your Wi-Fi, or if you have a device that needs a different, faster connection, you may not need to buy a new router. Try one of these options. Each has its own technical problems and potential problems. Even when successfully deployed, they don’t come close to matching the comfort of a fine mesh system, but they’re all much cheaper.
Before Wi-Fi became ubiquitous, we relied on Ethernet cables to connect computers and other devices to routers. Ethernet connections are much faster, more stable, and more secure than Wi-Fi (or any other option we suggest here). The downside is that the device you want to connect must have an Ethernet port and you have to run a cable from your router to the device. If you need to run Ethernet cables to multiple locations, use an Ethernet switch. With a switch, you can plug one cable into your router and run multiple cables to different devices. Anyone looking to get better performance from a mesh system can consider running Ethernet cables between the main router and nodes to create a wired backbone, freeing up Wi-Fi bands for your devices to connect to.
Power line adapters
Sold in pairs, powerline adapters route the Internet signal through your electrical wiring. You plug one into a power outlet near your router and connect it to an Ethernet cable, while the other powerline adapter plugs into a power outlet in the room where you want fast Internet. They can be a good solution if you have a console or smart TV in the living room at the back of the house, but your router is in the front hall, for example. Unfortunately, its effectiveness depends a lot on your power line.
MoCA (Multimedia Beyond Cox Alliance)
If your home has coaxial cables installed (perhaps for cable TV), you can use them to create a reliable wired network that offers higher speeds and lower latency compared to Wi-Fi. You can buy routers, network adapters, or Wi-Fi extenders that support the MOCA standard. Like powerline adapters, this can be a great way to get an internet signal to a smart TV, game console, or desktop that doesn’t have a strong Wi-Fi signal.
You can use Wi-Fi repeaters to spread Wi-Fi further from a router and boost the signal in dead spots. These devices are a good solution for some people, but they are inefficient, prone to interference and often create a secondary network with a different name than your regular Wi-Fi.
If you don’t mind a challenge and have an old router left over, you can set it up as an access point or use it as a Wi-Fi extender. This can be especially effective if you can connect to your main router with a cable, but configuration can be difficult.
There are many factors to consider when trying to decide how fast your router should be. The maximum speed of your internet depends on your ISP. Internet speed is expressed in Mbps (megabits per second). The average global fixed broadband speed is 79 Mbps for download and 34 Mbps for upload, according to Ookla’s Speedtest. Most ISPs will specify a certain speed or give you ranges such as 300 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload, but what you get is usually less than the maximum (especially upload speed) and has to be shared between all of you. Connected devices.