If you are confused by the vast number of Wi-Fi home router options on the market, you are not alone! Home Wi-Fi has been a consumer pain point for quite some time. As companies like Sail Internet increase internet speeds at home and as numerous new Wi-Fi products flood the market, we’ll help you break it down so you can make the right router choice for your home.
First, we start with just enough information about the technical standard. The most widely-used version of the Wi-Fi today is called 802.11ac, or just “ac”. Most of the products on the market today will have the letters “ac” somewhere in the name or product description. It’s very important that you choose a Wi-Fi home router that supports the “ac” version of the standard. Earlier versions were called 802.11a, b, g and n. If you have an older router that does not support 802.11ac, you will want to upgrade. Also realize that your personal devices (laptops, smartphones, streaming media players, etc.) will need to support the “ac” version of the Wi-Fi standard to get the full benefit of your new router. If you do a web search of the model number for your device, it’s should be fairly easy to see which devices support “ac”.
The second decision you need to make is the type of “ac” router to purchase. If you are buying one router to cover your entire home, we recommend that you get a model with three or more external antennas. By moving the antennas outside the enclosure, the router will usually get much better range for the Wi-Fi signal. And by having multiple antennas, the router can do a better job of beaming the wireless signal towards your device.
External antennas do increase the cost of the unit to some extent, but prices have come down as the market has matured. Decent models are available in the $150-$200 range.
As a rule of thumb, we recommend that you use the “AC1900” class of product or higher. The “1900” label provides some indication about the peak speed the router supports. While a higher number is generally better, don’t take this number literally. You will never see 1900 Mbps from an AC1900 router.
These higher-end routers will typically be called “dual-band” or “tri-band”. This is an indication of the number of radios inside the router, so that each of the Wi-Fi bands has a dedicated radio. Having two or three radios will enable multiple devices to simultaneously achieve the top-rated speed of the router, but doesn’t have much impact on either range or peak speed. For the most part, this can be a secondary factor in your decision.
For a significant percentage of homes, a single higher-end 802.11ac router with 3 or more external antennas will provide decent coverage. But the single-router solution has range limitations for larger homes as each interior wall knocks down the wireless signal significantly. And putting two or more standard (non-coordinated) 802.11ac routers in your home is complicated to manage in practice, as you will need to manually switch back and forth between the routers as you move throughout your home. Powerline home networking adapters are another option, but are also complicated to manage in practice.
Multi-unit Router Solutions
A new category of high-end “coordinated” multi-box Wi-Fi home router products has recently hit the market. Instead of investing lots of engineering into a single high-end router with external antennas, these multi-device solutions provide several small coordinated routers (with internal antennas) that you can distribute throughout the home. These coordinated routers automatically beam the wireless signal between each other and to/from your devices to give you seamless Wi-Fi coverage throughout your home, with only one of the routers needing a “wired” Ethernet connection to your modem.
The best known of these multi-router products today is by a company called Eero, with more products hitting the market every day (Google WiFi, Orbi and others). For the most part, the Eero product really works and the other options are quickly maturing as well.
But if you go down this path, don’t skimp. We recommend that you get a pack of 3 units (or maybe more when offered) to avoid disappointment. With a 3-pack selling in the $300-$500 range, these products are not cheap. If this price is too much for your budget, then stick to the single router solution.
Once you have your new router, placement inside your home is the next consideration. If you go for the multi-router solution, you can distribute the three units throughout your home and experiment by moving them around and running speed tests to get the best speed/coverage.
For a single-router solution, the placement decision is all about tradeoffs. Placement in a central location of your home is usually best for maximizing the Wi-Fi coverage, but in many cases this is not practical due to aesthetic considerations (router not attractive in the living room) or the cost/complexity of running an Ethernet cable to the middle of your home (crawl space, attic, etc.). An exterior wall (near the entry-point of your internet service) that is still centrally located in your home is often the best option.
Placing the router higher on the wall is usually better, as it gets the wireless signal up above the furniture. But once again, this is all about tradeoffs. Mounting on the wall may be unattractive or impractical. Once the router is positioned, you can experiment with moving around the antennas to see if it improves speed and coverage.
As a rule of thumb, the achievable speed will largely be determined by the number of walls the Wi-Fi signal needs to penetrate. The faster 5GHz Wi-Fi band works best if you are in the same room as the router, or maybe one room over. The slower 2.4GHz WiFi band can better penetrate walls, but also slows down after 2 or 3 walls. And because the 2.4 GHz signal can do a better job of penetrating walls, there’s also a greater chance you will experience 2.4GHz Wi-Fi interference from your neighbor’s home.
Your Wi-Fi router is an important component of your internet experience. Choosing the right Wi-Fi router can solve many Wi-Fi woes and keep everyone in your home happy and cruising along.