Connecting your phone or laptop to the web is the easy part, but what about buying the perfect router to suit your needs? With dozens of products competing for your dollar, you’ve got plenty of options, but this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all scenario.
That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate buyers guide for anyone in need of a new router in 2021, complete with checklists for requirements, tech specs, key features, and extras galore.
Start from the top and work your way through our guide to find the perfect router for your home, business, or all the above.
Step 1: Consider Your Space
Choosing a router starts with knowing your own environment and assessing your needs based on coverage, capacity, and other factors.
Begin by analyzing the space in your home or small business that needs WiFi connectivity.
A quick study shows that most routers have an average range of 1,500 square feet, which should be sufficient to provide connectivity in most condominiums, apartments, dorm rooms, and smaller offices.
However, it can get a bit dicey when you venture beyond that 1,500-square-foot marker, especially if you’re dealing with a multi-level home or office space.
With that in mind, be precise with your requirements when shopping around for routers, considering the exact amount of square footage you need to cover.
We suggest running the numbers and comparing several routers based on range since this is a primary concern as you coordinate a WiFi network for your environment.
Bottlenecks and Dead Zones
Every space is different, and certain factors can prevent WiFi radio signals from being transmitted effectively throughout the area.
For instance, bottlenecks can occur in areas with many devices and limited radio transmissions, such as a personal office space in a corner of your home or a gaming room for the kids.
Dead zones are also an issue you must contend with in larger environments, where signals may not be as consistent or reliable. The router you choose will directly impact the strength and range of the signal throughout 100% of your environment - a top priority.
Do a walk-around in your home or office to get a clear picture of where WiFi signals are the strongest and where they may be lacking due to dead zones, bottlenecks, or other issues.
Once you have a mental map of your network and its range capabilities, you can make a smarter choice for your next router and any extra hardware you may need to fill in the gaps.
Changes and Moves
WiFi networks are always a work in progress, and you’ve got to be prepared for what’s to come when browsing routers.
This could mean moving to a bigger house or office (or downsizing) or making major upgrades to your space with new connected appliances, security systems, or other improvements.
There’s also the possibility that current events require greater at-home connectivity for work, school, entertainment, and communication. As we’ve learned, it’s better to be on the safe side with greater WiFi support and performance.
Step 2: Device Requirements
Nowadays, the average American has more than 10 devices connected to their home WiFi networks at a given time!
That number will only grow, so be sure to have a router that’s up for the job.
Account for All Devices
Don’t be surprised if you have more than 10 devices connected to your network at the moment.
We are constantly connected across multiple channels between desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, game consoles, and virtual assistant speakers – nowadays, that’s the norm.
Once again, find the exact number of devices you plan to connect to your new router and consider any new devices that may be added in the short or medium terms.
Speed and Stability
Routers are designed to handle a certain number of devices simultaneously, and exceeding that number can result in serious performance downgrades.
First off, make the most of your internet service by picking a router that meets your needs. Lower-tier routers are often designed for basic internet speeds (around 500 Mbps) rather than the 1 Gbps-plus speeds offered by fiber-optic providers.
Also, keep in mind that not all devices require the same amount of data volume when connected, and traffic trends will spike and subside throughout the day.
Working on a cloud-based spreadsheet, for instance, requires far less bandwidth than speaking at a video conference or a fast-paced multiplayer video game.
Keep a close eye on WiFi performance during peak hours – when everyone is home and online – to ensure you get a router that can handle that heavy traffic.
More Bands the Better?
For most families and businesses, a single-band router is outdated. At a minimum, you want a dual-band router – 2.4GHz and 5GHz – for multiple devices to stay connected and perform well across the board.
Some next-generation WiFi routers are built with tri-band technology (one 2.4GHz and two 5GHz signals), allowing more demanding devices to connect at once while maintaining speed and stability.
Not everyone needs simultaneous tri-band routers for small apartment and office setups, but once you start covering more ground and dozens of different devices, you’ll see the noticeable performance boosts that tri-band technology provides.
Another feature to seek out is MU-MIMO, or multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology. This is a long way of saying that a router can communicate with many devices at once and other mesh routers in the area for greater range and speed.
We’ll talk more about mesh routers later on, but for now, keep these features and terms in mind as you begin to navigate the router market.
Step 3: Security and Controls
As we become more dependent on digital identity, services, and more, security is a top concern for anyone with a WiFi network. Control over your network should be a priority and transparency into the activity therein, especially as children connect to the web.
Here are some security and control features you should look for when browsing routers in 2021.
Protecting Your Network
While countless firewalls and security software programs can be found online, most of these products do not function on a network level.
This means that a single device may be protected from intrusion, but there are still vulnerabilities in the network that connects and manages all your devices on one network.
If you’ve got dozens of devices, including security cameras and other sensitive channels, you can’t make any compromises when it comes to network protections.
Many routers come with basic security measures, but if you want to fortify your network fortress, be sure to choose a router with an advanced internet security system and protection for all your connected devices.
Home network security is just the beginning – look for routers that protect your data and use machine learning technology to fend off threats in real-time, based on intelligence from security databases like ESET.
Transparency and Parental Controls
When shopping for routers, parental controls might not be on your list of most-wanted features. However, if you’ve got kids connecting to the internet each day for education, entertainment, and general use, strong parental controls should be non-negotiable.
With constant connectivity comes so many variables that can impact the safety and well-being of your children, whether they’re using a tablet for the first time or attending high school.
Rather than setting up a third-party parental control service on your current router, look for hardware with built-in parental controls for more visibility and features to set boundaries where needed most.
Digital parenting is a practice to take seriously if you want to mitigate social media addiction, inappropriate content, excessive gaming, or other issues that parents deal with in this era. You should have full transparency regarding app use, browsing history, and more.
As more parents recognize the importance of these types of controls, you’ll want a router that gives you all these features in one place rather than using different software products that don’t offer comprehensive features.
Centralized App Management
We all relate to the frustration of managing complex networks, especially if you don’t have a background in IT or a tech-savvy mind in general.
Setting up a router should be simple, and you should be able to manage everything from a single, centralized app to keep things 100% within your control.
Routers with proprietary apps for your phone, tablet, or computer can give you that extra level of insight you need to maintain and manage networks without the complexity.
Step 4: Mesh vs. Standard Routers
By now, you’ve likely narrowed your selection down to a handful of products, knowing the specifications that matter most, from performance and coverage to security and controls.
This is where forks in the road may appear – is it smarter to buy a mesh router, standard router, or create a custom network with several different pieces of hardware in your space?
Let’s compare these popular options and see which one is best for your network’s demands and all connected devices.
Coverage and Performance
With a standard router, you get a reasonable amount of coverage and performance for your intended network area. But things can get complicated when you add square footage - and more devices - to the equation.
Here is where mesh routers can give you a distinct advantage over standard routers, effectively extending the network into new territory without compromising speed, stability, or device management.
That’s because mesh routers are engineered for maximum connectivity between units, which broadcast maximum signal strength while communicating with devices and the central router.
Keep in mind that many mesh routers can also function as standalone units – a smart investment if you someday plan to move into a larger space or increase the number of devices on your network.
Extenders, Boosters, and More
Why not just use a standard router and add extenders, boosters, or other hardware to broadcast the signal further?
There are plenty of products that serve this purpose, but they come with limitations that must be acknowledged.
The most glaring issue with hardware that claims to “extend or boost” network signals is that coverage comes at the cost of signal strength, speed, stability, or all the above.
This is because the hardware in this category only replicates the existing signal from the central router rather than amplifying and maintaining the same level of service from the core unit.
Don’t be surprised if you only get a fraction of the signal strength from a network extender unit and struggle to stay connected as you navigate certain areas of your home or office.
Some network extenders also complicate the process of device management, whether it means switching between networks depending on your location or struggling with service bottlenecks when many devices are connected at once.
Now that advanced network solutions are readily accessible and affordable, there is little reason to continue using extenders, boosters, or other hardware types from the last generation of network technology.
Why Mesh is Best in 2021
What is the preferred alternative to network extenders that simply don’t hold up in the current era of tech? Mesh routers are the answer, whether you need basic coverage for a small space or a large, multi-level network with dozens of devices.
Performance is the primary appeal of modern mesh routers, as they tend to deliver faster speeds, greater stability, and improved device management to avoid bottlenecks.
Top-tier mesh routers are equipped with all the features we’ve covered so far, including simultaneous tri-band radios, 4x4 MU-MIMO, network-level security, and more.
Since mesh routers are designed to work with proprietary hardware and software, you get the advantage of simplified management, security, and the parental controls required for smart digital parenting in 2021.
Plus, mesh routers are amazingly easy to set up and manage, whether you need a single central router or a set of four units coordinated across a large property.
It hasn’t been long since mesh routers came onto the market – 2015 was the first year they were made widely available. However, things have progressed rapidly in just a few years, and now this technology can be implemented in a fast, affordable, and convenient manner.
Remember – some of the best mesh routers work perfectly well as single, standard routers while granting you all the extra features you want.
Be sure to weigh all your options when comparing standard routers to mesh router hardware while considering the complete feature set - and overall value - of each one.
Step 5: Future Proof Your WiFi
Innovation happens at light speed these days, and before you know it, your current tech is a thing of the past. Avoid this common frustration by thinking three steps ahead and future-proofing your WiFi networks with next-generation routers now.
Here are some points to think about as the future of WiFi takes hold and raises the bar for networks at home, at work, and beyond.
WiFi 6 is Here
As of 2020, the official WiFi alliance brought us WiFi Certified 6, the long-awaited upgrade to the IEEE 802.11ax standard. In plain English, this translates to improvements in speed, capacity, coverage, and other key performance metrics we look for in today’s WiFi environments.
It won’t be long before WiFi 6 is the standard for networks everywhere. You must ask whether you want to make the leap with your next router or remain in the previous generation.
Because these broad industry overhauls only happen every few years, we recommend you make the upgrade now and secure a router with WiFi 6 capabilities before it’s universal.
The technology will hold up for years to come, and you’ll avoid compatibility and capacity issues down the line. Avoid dealing with obsolete hardware by leaping WiFi 6 now and get on board with the next-gen.
Internet of Things Evolves
Speaking of capacity, the Internet of Things represents a huge step up in terms of the sheer quantity of devices connected to the average WiFi network in 2021 and beyond.
What do we mean by IoT connectivity? It’s the concept of having everyday appliances and home electronics connected to your WiFi network 24/7, creating an ecosystem of technology that works in coordination for convenience, efficiency, and comfort.
These ideas may have been better suited for sci-fi shows in the past, but the IoT has officially arrived. Just look at how virtual assistants can interact with elements of the home like heating, air conditioning, lighting, refrigeration, security, and other essentials that make daily life easier.
Not everyone is on the same page regarding IoT, of course, and many of us must catch up to the cutting edge. However, you can expect widespread adoption of this technology to happen rapidly from now on, as prices drop and accessibility continues to rise.
In other words, it’s only a matter of time before smart homes are considered commonplace and networks take on huge workloads around the clock.
Be ready with a powerful router that’s up for the task - and get ahead of the trend sooner than later. That means more bands, more inputs, and greater control and visibility will be required.
New Router, Next-Level WiFi
So much progress has been made in the world of WiFi ever since wireless technology first came to the home. We hope this router guide helps you make a smart, informed decision as you pick out the best hardware for your needs.
Just remember to think ahead to a future that isn’t that far off – the routers of tomorrow will be even more powerful and capable than the top-tier tech of today.
How to Buy a Wi-Fi Router | Digital Trends
Wi-Fi Router Buying Guide | Gadgets Now
Choosing the Best Wireless Router | Consumer Reports