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The Best Wi-Fi Router (So Far)

By David Murphy, The Wirecutter

If you need to pick up a new router today, you should get the Asus RT-AC56U. It’s not the absolute fastest router on the market, so why do we like it? It turns out that most Wi-Fi tests are performed using technology that even the absolute latest laptops won't see for years, and the speeds touted on the box and in many reviews don't actually reflect real-world speeds.

If you need to pick up a new router today, you should get the Asus RT-AC56U. It’s not the absolute fastest router on the market, so why do we like it? It turns out that most Wi-Fi tests are performed using technology that even the absolute latest laptops won't see for years, and the speeds touted on the box and in many reviews don't actually reflect real-world speeds. Most of us don’t own devices that would take advantage of that extra technology—even if you own the latest MacBooks, Lenovos, or iPads, according to our (light) tests—so you'd be paying extra for performance you're not likely to experience. Future-proofing yourself at twice the cost (or more) today is not only a bad idea—specs often drift over time—it's also more cost-effective to just upgrade your router again in the future when you get newer technology.

According to our research, the RT-AC56U offers the best overall performance for the price, and it has an easy-to-use interface to boot.

Picking a wireless-ac router

We’ve spent months poring over benchmarks, pondering testing setups, reevaluating assumptions…you name it.

Routers are a lot more complicated than you might think. We’ve spent months poring over benchmarks, pondering testing setups, reevaluating assumptions, assessing reviewers, calling in product: you name it. We’ve taken quite a bit of time to get our “Best Wi-Fi Router” piece going, but that’s because of the sheer amount of research and data we’ve had to consider.

Here’s the best piece of router buying advice we can give: you need to match the capabilities of your devices (laptops, tablets, streaming boxes, gaming consoles, smartphones, etc.) to your router.

There are plenty of reviews praising $200 routers for their speed and performance, which does appear to be far greater than what you can get from a $100 router. However, very few current-generation devices can actually tap into the extra bandwidth these $200 routers dish out. If your laptop supports two-stream wireless-ac, but you purchase an expensive three-stream wireless-ac router, you simply aren’t going to see the performance you were expecting. In this case, your device is the bottleneck; you can’t tap into more than what it can handle.

We’ll go more into the intricacies of wireless-ac in our upcoming full guide, but that’s the general gist behind why our recommendation for most people isn’t the router with the most impressive numbers on the box. There isn’t much of a point to splurging $200 on a router when a $100 router will give you everything your devices can handle at the moment.

And don’t buy that expensive router to futureproof, either. The wireless world is always evolving, and you’ll just be wasting your money right now; by the time you have enough devices to benefit from AC1900 connectivity, for example, there will likely be more inexpensive (or more powerful) routers to pick from.

Why the Asus?

It's not the router with the fastest numbers on the box, but our testing showed that it offers the best overall performance for the price.

The two-stream RT-AC56U delivers a lot of performance for its price. While it is the most expensive of all the AC1200 routers we checked out ($120), it sits right around the $100 range our friends at SmallNetBuilder recommend as the “sweet spot” for wireless-ac routers. Additionally, the RT-AC56U sailed through that site’s benchmarks, delivering the best overall wireless performance of all the AC1200 routers it tested.

Most routers in this price range come with only one USB 3.0 port, but the RT-AC56U adds an additional USB 2.0 port that you can use for a printer (or some other device where speed matters less), in turn freeing up the faster 3.0 port for use with portable storage or even a 3G/4G modem. More importantly, the RT-AC56U’s USB ports were twice as fast as the competition’s in SmallNetBuilder’s benchmarks.

There’s more to a router than just raw numbers. Asus’ RT-AC56U has a user interface that’s as easy to navigate as it is packed with useful options and features. We especially like the router’s focus on security. Users are asked to provide new passwords for the router’s wireless networks and administrator account the moment they log into the Web configuration screen for the first time. Many other router interfaces never prompt you to change these settings, which makes your network much more vulnerable.

…we were able to stream full, 1080p movies directly from our router-connected storage to our smartphones and tablets…

Other features that reviewers like TrustedReviews’ Gordon Kelly particularly enjoyed include Asus’ AiDisk and AiCloud, which allow you to easily access the contents of any USB-attached storage via FTP, your Web browser, or apps for both iOS and Android. We especially liked how we were able to stream full 1080p movies directly from our router-connected storage to our smartphones and tablets using the AiCloud app.

Devices on your home network with DLNA support (like your gaming consoles) will benefit from the RT-AC56U’s built-in DLNA server for streaming. This also helps you stream movies and music from your USB-connected storage device around your home network, eliminating the need to fire up your warehouse of media on your desktop, laptop, or NAS box. Asus’s Web interface also allows you to download files and torrents directly to your connected storage.

PCMag’s Samara Lynn, when reviewing the Asus RT-AC66U, praised the full-fledged VPN server that both it and the RT-AC56U offer. Most home routers allow VPN passthrough, which let you tap into a VPN network from your home computer, but Asus’s router will actually host a VPN server for you. Tunneling into a VPN when you’re on a public Wi-Fi network is a great way to keep your browsing secure, and we applaud Asus for including the feature. Finally, if you’re interested in flashing your own firmware on the router—to unlock new features, tweak speeds, or just monkey around—DD-WRT is supported on the Asus RT-AC56U.

Asus packs plenty of longevity into the RT-AC56U. Even when you’ve upgraded to a new router, you can re-enlist the RT-AC56U as an access point, helping you to extend the “bubble” of your home Wi-Fi network. Or you can use it as a wireless bridge and connect wired devices up to your existing home network without running Ethernet cables across the house.

Wrapping up

Asus’ $120 RT-AC56U might not be the fastest router per se, but unless you have a brand new MacBook Pro or other device that can take advantage of its three data streams, you’re paying for performance you’re never likely to see. We might still change our minds as we run our router finalists through some additional testing, but we feel pretty confident that based on its features, positive reviews, and benchmark performance, the ASUS RT-AC56U is a great wireless-ac buy.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 3/28/14 and is republished here with permission.