Every time I have to reboot my wireless router, I cross my fingers and hope nothing will go wrong. Superstitious, sure, but anything to avoid the personal technology hell that is tinkering with that mysterious box at the core of my home’s Wi-Fi network.
Plugging and unplugging cords, going cross-eyed reading manuals with more acronyms than the military—it’s no wonder I haven’t upgraded my router in four years.
But trying to avoid that little blinking machine turns out to have been my gravest tech mistake in years. I’ve been missing out on faster speeds, better security protection, new networking features—even some awesome-looking new router hardware designs.
Yes, I just used “awesome-looking” and “router” in the same sentence. D-Link’s Corvette-red $310 AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi is a cross between an alien spaceship and an upside-down crab. Netgear’s $300 Nighthawk X6 AC3200 looks like it could speed out of the Bat Cave. Both promise the fastest Wi-Fi speed available.
But why should you mess with a box that still works—or was handed to you by your cable provider? Well, are there rooms in your house where Wi-Fi can’t be accessed? Can only one person stream Netflix at a time? Ever wonder who else is using your network? If you answered “yes” to any of those, it’s time to upgrade.
And while you may not need a fancy $300 model, in an age when everything from our TVs to our toaster ovens are connecting to the Internet, it’s best not to cheap out on that all-important hub.
For the past week, I’ve been living a networking nightmare, testing 10 routers in both a one-bedroom city apartment and a big suburban house. Now that I’ve done the hard work, it’s time for you to learn (the easy way) the best approach to upgrading your home Wi-Fi network.
If you remember anything from this article, it should be this: Buy an “802.11ac” router.
Those who haven’t upgraded a router lately probably have an 802.11n or 802.11g router. AC is the newest and fastest wireless standard available. (Even a kindergartner would be insulted by the nonsensical alphabetic ordering on these things.)
Many of the latest phones, tablets, laptops, TV set-top boxes and other connected devices in your home now have faster, more finely tuned AC radios and antennas inside, but they’re only better when connected to an AC wireless network. (If you have an older desktop or laptop, AC wireless USB adapters sell for under $50.)
Bear in mind, you won’t get faster Internet speeds from a new AC router—that depends entirely on your Internet service plan.
What you will get, provided you have AC-equipped devices, is less degraded speeds at longer distances, and better performance when transferring data from one device to another. When I tossed out my ancient N router this week for an AC router, surfing the Web on the latest-generation MacBook Air from two rooms away was twice as fast.
Deciding what type of AC router to get can make your brain hurt. Router makers still confuse shoppers with speed claims we’ll never get and terms we don’t understand. And service providers try to rent you combo modem-routers that lack flexibility and—in many cases—power, while quietly adding up in cost, month after month.
To help make sense of it all, I enlisted Tim Higgins, managing editor of SmallNetBuilder, a router reviews site. You should consider AC routers that range in classification from AC1200 at the lower end to AC3200 at the high end, he said. In larger homes, the pricier models should deliver faster speeds at greater distances.
As you might expect, in my New York City apartment, I saw no performance difference between three AC routers: a $100 model, a $180 model and that “Ultra” $310 model. The space simply wasn’t big enough.
But in my parents’ larger home, the top-of-the-line D-Link AC3200 and Netgear’s Nighthawk AC1900 routers provided better speeds—and smoother, higher-quality Netflix streaming—than the competition at various points around the house, especially when I got farther away from the boxes.
Even with six multi-directional antennas, however, the D-Link’s range wasn’t greater than lower-grade AC models (though AC range was, across the board, noticeably better than older routers). Think of it this way: With AC3200 routers, the data highway gets wider but not longer. In my mom’s office, a known dead zone 75 feet from the router, there was still no Wi-Fi signal.
One way to avoid dead zones like that is to find a better home for the router. “Router placement is going to buy you the best performance improvement,” Mr. Higgins told me. Place your router in the middle of the house, he says, in an area where it isn’t obstructed by, say, a cabinet or closet.
For spots that still don’t get signal, you need a network extender—a second wireless router or a pair of plug-in-the-wall “powerline” networking boxes such as the $65 Linksys PLSK400 powerline adapter set.
Beyond speed, the other big benefit of the priciest AC3200 routers is that they were designed with lots of connected devices in mind. Behind the scenes, they operate three separate networks, while cheaper (and older) routers only have two. This means your devices don’t have to compete. That bandwidth-hogging Xbox could live on one network, the new smart TV on a second, and various laptops, tablets and phones on a third.
Those faster speeds and smarter connections won’t do you any good if you can’t set the darn thing up. The second thing you should remember from this article: Pick a router that’s easy to set up and manage.
That’s why I don’t recommend TPLink. The Chinese company has great deals on AC routers, making it one of the most popular buys on Amazon. But its setup tool looks like it was designed in the early ’90s, and you have to have networking experience even to change the network password.
Netgear and Linksys, on the other hand, were the easiest to set up and manage on a Windows PC, while Apple’s AirPort Extreme was dead simple on a Mac—or even an iPad or iPhone, using the Airport Utility app.
The torturous psychodrama of setting up a router is no more. It’s as simple as connecting your computer, tablet or phone to the router’s network, then following guided steps in any Web browser. You don’t have to download any additional software, though some apps can be helpful.
My favorite routers from Linksys, Netgear, D-Link and Apple all let you easily set up security, manage guests and see what devices are on your network. The Linksys Android and iPhone apps even let you check in on your home network while you’re away. Netgear has also begun rolling out the feature.
Let’s stop right here a second: Do you have a password protecting your Wi-Fi network? If not, then don’t complain when you get hacked.
Fortunately, all the new routers come password protected out of the box. In fact, Netgear, Linksys and D-Link told me that every router comes with a unique name and password. While this is relatively safe, security experts do recommend picking your own name and strong password during setup.
When you’re in the security settings, always make sure that AES/WPA2 encryption is selected. Also, stay on top of updating your router’s firmware. This may mean logging into your router every month or two. Netgear’s Genie app alerts you when a new security update is available, and Linksys gives you the option to install updates automatically at night.
So, which router did I upgrade to? For my apartment, I decided to go with Netgear’s $180 Nighthawk AC1900. It’s more than enough for my wireless needs. If you have a larger house with lots of connected devices, clear a landing pad for D-Link’s AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi router. Sure, it looks ferocious, but I promise, there is no reason to be scared of the blinking box in the corner anymore.
Written by: Joanna Stern