Choosing a router (2022): tips, technical terms and advice

Everyone wants reliable and fast internet, and a good router can help. The trick is to figure out how the intricate jumble of standards, confusing acronyms, and sci-fi-sounding features translate to better Wi-Fi in your home. Join us as we tear open the curtain to reveal the pertinent facts about Wi-Fi, routers, mesh systems, and other jargon. Hopefully by the end you will be better equipped to buy a router.

Updated June 2022: We’ve added to the mesh systems section, linked to our router guide and Wi-Fi 7 explanation, and updated the latest broadband speeds.


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Who is your internet provider?

Internet service providers (ISPs) connect your home to the Internet, usually sending you a modem and router (sometimes in one device). The modem connects your home to the wider internet; the router connects to the modem and you connect all your gadgets – wired or wireless – to the router to access that connectivity. ISPs often charge you a rental fee for this equipment, and their routers are usually basic in terms of performance and features. The good news is that ISPs are no longer allowed by law to force you to use their equipment or charge you for using your own hardware, although you may still need to return their stuff to avoid costs.

We look largely at using your own router in this guide and using your ISP’s modem. Using your own may save you money in the long run, but you can also enjoy faster Wi-Fi, better coverage, easier setup, and extra features like parental controls and guest Wi-Fi networks. We’ll run through your router options, but whichever system you choose, check compatibility with your ISP before purchasing. You can also search your ISP’s forums for posts where people discuss using different routers and modems. A little research before you shop can save you a major headache in the long run.

What kind of router do you need?

Photo: Netgear

There are several ways to make your Wi-Fi faster, and buying a new router is one of the most obvious. To help you decide what type of router to use, calculate the rough square footage of your home before you begin.

single router

The easiest solution for most people is to choose a single router or a combination of router and modem. Please note that this device must be connected to your existing outlet or modem via an Ethernet cable, which limits your location. The Wi-Fi signal is strongest near the router and will gradually decrease and become slower as you get further away.

Routers should always declare square footage for coverage, but certain types of structures — thick walls, insulation, and other devices — can interfere with Wi-Fi signals, so don’t expect to enjoy full-speed Wi-Fi over longer distances. High-performance, wide-coverage routers are often large devices with multiple external antennas, but they tend to be very expensive.

Mesh systems

If you have a large house and want solid coverage in your yard, or if you have thick walls and specific blind spots with your current setup, mesh WiFi could be the answer. Mesh systems consist of a central hub, which connects as a single router, and additional satellites or nodes that you can place around the house.

Devices connect to the Internet through the closest node, so you can achieve wider Wi-Fi coverage and more reliable connection in different areas by adding a node. Keep in mind that each node needs an outlet. Mesh systems are typically more expensive than single-router setups (though not always), but they improve coverage and reliability, and they often come with additional features and control options. They are also usually smaller than regular routers and are usually designed to blend in with your decor.

Most mesh systems are expandable, and some manufacturers allow you to link individual routers together to create a mesh, so you can start with a single router and add more as needed. Make sure you understand which devices are compatible. For example, any Asus router that supports AiMesh can work as part of a mesh system, but TP-Link’s OneMesh technology only allows you to add compatible Wi-Fi extenders – you can’t link routers together.

Alternatives to a new router

Photo: Eskay Lim/Getty Images

If your problem is more about coverage and you have a single problem area where you want to improve Wi-Fi, or a particular device that needs a faster connection, you may not need to buy a new router. Try one of these alternatives. They each have their own technical challenges and potential issues. Even when deployed successfully, they don’t come close to the convenience of a good mesh system, but they are all much cheaper.

Wi-Fi repeaters

You can use WiFi repeaters to spread the WiFi of a single router a little further and possibly boost the signal in a dead spot. These devices are a good solution for some people, but they can be inefficient, prone to interference and often create a secondary network with a different name than your regular Wi-Fi.

Streamline Adapters

Sold in pairs, power line adapters carry an Internet signal through your electrical wiring. You plug one into an outlet near your router and plug it in with an Ethernet cable, while the other powerline adapter plugs into an outlet in the room where you want faster internet. They can be a good solution if you have a console or smart TV in your living room at the back of the house, but your router is in the front hall, for example. Unfortunately, the effectiveness depends a lot on your electrical wiring.

MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance)

If you already have coaxial cables installed in your home (perhaps for cable TV), you can use them to create a reliable wired network that offers high speeds and low 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 pass an Internet signal to a smart TV, game console, or desktop that isn’t getting a strong Wi-Fi signal.

Access Points

If you don’t mind taking on a challenge and you still have an old old router lying around, then you should consider setting it up as an access point or using it as a Wi-Fi extender. This can be especially effective if you can wire it to your main router, but configuration can be tricky.

Photo: Getty Images

There’s plenty to consider when trying to decide how fast your router needs to be. The maximum speed of your internet is determined by your ISP. Internet speeds are shown in Mbps (megabits per second). According to Ookla’s Speedtest, the average global fixed broadband speed is 64 Mbps for downloads and 27 Mbps for uploads. Most ISPs will state a certain speed or give you a range, such as 300 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload, but what you actually get is often lower than the maximum (especially upload speeds), and it must be shared between all your connected devices .

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