Quantcast

The Best Wi-Fi Router (for Most People)

By David Murphy, The Wirecutter

If you have a laptop or smartphone that uses wireless-ac technology and you're ready to upgrade your router, you should get the Netgear R6250. The R6250 has the best combination of speed, price, stability, and features of any router in its price range.

If you have a laptop or smartphone that uses wireless-ac technology and you're ready to upgrade your router, you should get the Netgear R6250. The R6250 has the best combination of speed, price, stability, and features of any router in its price range. It can make your new device's Wi-Fi connection up to three times faster than a wireless-n router could. It's a smidge more expensive than the sweet spot for a router of its class (hovering around $130-$145 on Amazon), but we feel the benefits are worth the slightly higher cost.

A $200 router can be faster, but only if your devices can take advantage of the improvements it provides. If you don’t have anything that can (like most people), you’d be paying for performance you’ll never use. And don’t buy more than you need with the idea of futureproofing your network. Prices will drop over time and networking tech will improve before you know it. On the flip side, if you pay less than $100 for a wireless-ac router, you’ll lose out on features, speed, or range (or all three). The best combination of price and performance right now is in the $100 to $130 range.

If the Netgear R6250 sells out or skyrockets in price, consider the Asus RT-AC56U. It’s as good as the R6250 in a lot of ways and was a strong contender for top pick. But we, and many people who bought it, encountered stability issues when connecting up to one of its bands. Asus says they have fixed the issues with firmware patches, and plenty of users report no issues. If you buy the RT-AC56U, do so from a store with a good return policy in case something goes wrong and you have to return it.

The RT-AC56U will be about the same speed as the R6250 for the devices most people currently own. Asus’ router is less expensive, but it has one fewer spatial stream on the 5 GHz band. That doesn’t matter if you, like most people, have devices that top out at two spatial streams. (If you have a brand-new Macbook Pro, the Asus isn’t the router for you.)

The RT-AC56U has a good user interface, though some parts are confusing. It has a few great features that the R6250 lacks, like an iTunes server, a built-in VPN, and a stronger initial emphasis on security.

The RT-AC56U has a good user interface, though some parts are confusing. It has a few great features that the R6250 lacks, like an iTunes server, a built-in VPN, and a stronger initial emphasis on security.

If you just need range and speed, and you don’t mind a complicated user interface and lack of features, get the $94 TP-Link Archer C7. It lacks an iTunes server, QoS, cloud accessibility, robust parental controls, and a good way to pull up connected storage in File Explorer. It also doesn’t adhere to standard wireless coexistence rules, but it makes up for those omissions with raw speed and range—and the price is around $30-50 less than our pick. Just make sure you’re picking up the second version of the router (or talking to TP-Link to RMA yourself a replacement), as users have reported issues connecting up to v1 with their MacBooks.

If you need more range and speed than our main pick can give, and you want powerful, easy-to-use software, get the $192 Netgear Nighthawk R7000. But, as we mentioned above, a $200 router is overkill for most people. Onlyone Wi-Fi adapter can take advantage of its four-stream wireless-n capabilities, and it’s for desktop PCs only. People with three-stream wireless-ac devices may see some speed improvements over our main pick (likely due to the faster processor as much as anything), but the router’s overall performance isn’t enough to justify its increased cost.

That’s why we aren’t recommending these ultra-expensive routers for most people, even though they’re technically the fastest routers you can get your hands on right now. You’re more likely to be limited by the connective capabilities of your wireless-n and wireless-ac devices. If you buy a $200 router because you hear it’s fast, you might be wasting your money for a lot of overhead that you won’t be able to use.

Should I Upgrade?

If you’re happy with the speed and the range of your current router, you don’t need to upgrade. But if you’ve read this far, you probably aren’t.

First, it’s important to remember that a new router won’t make your Internet connection faster. The average broadband speed in the US is under 30 Mbps (Akamai says it’s even lower, at 9.8 Mbps). Even a cheap, less-capable router should far exceed that—at least when you’re close to the router. Unless you frequently move data or stream movies from one part of your home network to another, you will be fine with a less expensive router. Our updated guide to cheap routers is coming soon.

A quick way to test your Internet speed is to go to Speedtest.net and run the bandwidth test there. Try running it from a computer with an Ethernet connection to your router, and then from a computer or phone connected by Wi-Fi. If your Wi-Fi speeds are a lot slower than your Ethernet speeds, it may be time to upgrade. Alternately, the bottleneck could be in your devices. If your laptop or phone is more than a few years old, either could be the problem instead of the router.

If you have very fast Internet, like Verizon FiOS or Google Fiber, if you spend a lot of time moving data between computers on your home network, or you stream a lot of movies from a PC or NAS to your TV, it’s could be worth spending the extra money to make sure your router isn’t holding you back.

If you don’t plan to buy new gear this year, it’s better to wait. Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder warns against trying to futureproof your network.

You should buy the R6250 if you need a new router and you own a laptop, smartphone, or tablet with wireless-ac connectivity. That includes MacBooks from 2013 or later, many new Windows laptops, and smartphones like the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5, Moto X, and Nexus 5. You should expect to see wireless-ac on most high-end and mainstream devices that come out this year. If you don’t plan to buy new gear this year, it’s better to wait. Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder warns against trying to futureproof your network. Prices will drop and technology could improve by the time you’re ready for a new router. If your current router works, it’s better to wait until you actually have wireless-ac gear.

If your current router is broken and you need a new one right now, take stock of the tech you have now and think about when you plan to update. If you don’t plan to upgrade your phone or laptop in the next year, consider a cheaper wireless-n router that meets the needs of your devices.

If you already have a wireless-ac router, you don’t need to upgrade.

You only get the best wireless performance when your router supports all the spatial streams your devices can use. If you already have a wireless-ac router, you don’t need to upgrade to the R6250 unless your devices support more spatial streams than your router does. The vast majority of wireless devices, both -ac and -n, support two streams at best.

How We Picked

A good wireless-ac router supports at least two-stream connectivity on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Networking experts like Tim Higgins, as well as representatives from Asus and Lenovo, told us that most new wireless-ac laptops support two streams at most. Older phones, laptops, tablets, and consoles often have two-stream wireless-n. Newer smartphones have one-stream wireless-ac (the Galaxy S5 has two). Three-stream devices are rarer, and there’s only one quadruple-stream adapter right now. A two-stream, dual-band router gives the best options for the greatest number of devices.

A router should be stable. You should be able to get a consistent connection without suffering from performance loss or signal drops. Support for Wi-Fi coexistence is also important as it allows the router’s signal to play well with other Wi-Fi routers in the area. This is essential for anyone who doesn’t live far, far out in the country.

The interface should be easy to use. It shouldn’t be packed with complex options, and it certainly shouldn’t force you to jump around too many sections and menus to get key features working. We also like routers that will check for firmware updates instead of forcing you to hunt them down.

Finally, it’s good for a wireless-ac router to have USB 3.0 connectivity (for faster file transfers to and from attached storage), support for DLNA and iTunes streaming, and a way to easily access the contents of your USB-connected device from outside of your network. (Note: A USB 3.0 drive connected to your router is likely going to be slower than the same drive plugged into your computer.)

We began our hunt for the best Wi-Fi router by consulting wireless guru Tim Higgins. He runs SmallNetBuilder, a site that has been called the “gold standard” and “the goto site” for network product testing and analysis. He’s a 24-year veteran of hardware engineering and testing. Tim says you should buy the cheapest wireless-ac router you can get your hands on, as long as your devices’ spatial streams and router’s compatibility match up. He suggests spending around $100.

“You’re just wasting your money by buying these $200 routers.” – Tim Higgins

“You’re just wasting your money by buying these $200 routers. It’s a sucker’s play, because you’re not going to get any better output, and if your hope is to buy a router for the next couple years, you have at least two or three different iterations of routers that are going to come out in the next two or three years,” Higgins told us via email.

We decided not to set a price limit just yet. A hard cap of $100 would rule out routers, like Netgear’s R6250, which outperform many $100 routers by more than the difference of their costs. We don’t mind spending a little more as long as the performance boost is worth the price.

We narrowed the field to 13 semifinalists by looking through SmallNetBuilder’s reviews and selecting the top three devices in each router class between AC1200 and AC1900. You can read about Higgins’ detailed testing process here and here; it’s much more scientific than the standard, “transfer files” tests we’re used to seeing.

We narrowed down the field by comparing the routers’ prices and performance across six measurements by class. This left us with four finalists.

Our four test routers on display. We can only imagine the kind of wireless insanity that’s happening with all four blasting signals out so closely to one another.

We called in these routers for hands-on testing because SmallNetBuilder’s tests, though consistent, don’t necessarily represent real-world conditions. We wanted to see how each router would deal with competing wireless signals, having to bounce connectivity around the corridors of a house, and sending a signal through walls. We put the finalists to use in a real environment to see if we would replicate the performance differences Higgins found in his synthetic testing.

How We Tested

We set up one router testing spot and four client test stations around a 2,700-foot, one-story house, and we disabled the primary wireless router in our home to eliminate as much wireless interference as possible. We also manually set the routers to operate on channel 1 of the 2.4 GHz spectrum and forced channel bonding so they could achieve their maximum link rates of 300 Mbps.5 In the case of TP-Link’s Archer C7, this was unnecessary, as the router doesn’t obey coexistence rules—not ideal.

Our four test spots. Quick line of sight performance, closer connectivity without line of sight, a long-range test with one wall separating the router and client, and a more complicated test at medium length with more walls and rooms in the way.

We tested the routers using Jperf. The client laptop was a MacBook Air using Asus’ USB-AC56 two-stream wireless-ac adapter, and the server was a desktop PC connected to each router via Ethernet. We generated 32 different data points on our first run of the routers’ tests, then recreated these 32 tests a second time to give us another data set for comparison.

We’re not just interested in speed. We were more interested in seeing how the routers compared. Would one exhibit much stronger performance than another? Would routers with external antennas crush the internal-antenna competition? How would each router handle our different testing locations?

Our Pick

The Netgear R6250 has the best balance of speed, price, stability, and features compared to the competition. If your devices are from (around) 2013 or newer, it could transfer data up to 3x faster than your existing router.

Based on our hands-on testing, expert reviews, and user feedback on sites like Amazon and Newegg, Netgear’s R6250 is the best router for most people. We like its price-to-performance ratio, overall stability, easy-to-use features, and hardware design. It delivers the best combination of desirable features, though at $145 it’s a bit more expensive than Higgins’ recommended price for a wireless-ac router ($100). That said, we’ve seen it go for as low as $130 throughout the course of our research, which makes us happy.

TrustedReviews’ Gordon Kelly described the R6250 as “one of the fastest routers we have tested” in his 4.5-star review. The R6250 beat its closest competition, the Asus RT-AC56U, on all of his wireless-ac benchmarks, and (by smaller margins) 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wireless-n performance.

It’s a little tough to access the ports of Netgear’s R6250. There’s also no way to turn off that bright, front-facing Netgear logo.

The R6250 is the top-ranked AC1600 router SmallNetBuilder has tested. While the Asus RT-AC56U showed better wireless-n performance on Tim’s benchmarks, we didn’t see a significant performance gap in our tests. Each beat the other in about half of our wireless-n and wireless-ac tests. Same for the Asus RT-AC66U: Higgin’s tests have it almost twice as fast as the R6250 in wireless-n performance and running about 20 MB/s faster for wireless-ac. That’s a big difference, but as you can see in the graph below, it wasn’t borne out in our testing. There was a slight improvement over the R6250 on the 2.4 GHz band in the farther locations, but wireless-ac performance was about the same across the board, so it’s not worth the extra $65.

(We’ve switched to talking in MB/s, or megabytes per second, instead of Mbps [megabits per second] because file transfer speeds are more conventionally measured in MB/s. One MB equals eight Mb.)

The Archer C7, which also has external antennas, performed better than the R6250 at almost all test locations, but it is held back by its complex, unintuitive software.

Since we initially tweaked the routers to deliver maximum throughput on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, we re-ran the tests with default settings to see what a typical user might experience when having to deal with another nearby router.

On these, the R6250 beat the RT-AC56U at five out of eight test locations. The much more expensive RT-AC66U again performed well at range for wireless-n, but was as fast as (or slower than) the R6250 on wireless-ac. TP-Link’s Archer C7 remained the standout device for performance by anywhere from 2 MB/s to 13 MB/s.

And don’t forget: the R6250 supports one more spatial stream on the 5 GHz band than the RT-AC56U. These tests were done with a two-stream adapter, but if your laptop has a three-stream adapter, you’ll see a definite performance boost with the R6250. The upgrade is well worth the price difference between the two.

The R6250’s single USB 3.0 port hit the second-fastest throughput of our wireless-ac router finalists on SmallNetBuilder’s read and write file transfer tests: 25.7 MB/s for an NTFS-based read and 17.6 MB/s for an NTFS-based write. That’s roughly half the performance of the RT-AC56U on SmallNetBuilder’s tests, but double that of our step-down pick, TP-Link’s Archer C7.

In our testing, the R6250 produced the least variability between our original tests and its retests among our four router finalists, differing by anywhere from -5% to +3%. TP-Link’s Archer C7 varied anywhere from -15% to +11% across its tests and Asus’s two routers varied from -7% to +30%.

Features

The R6250 splits its user interface into “basic” and “advanced” modes, which we preferred to the overwhelming text-based interface on TP-Link’s Archer C7 or the pretty but unintuitive Asus RT-AC56U.

Standout features include the router’s OpenDNS-based parental controls, which block categories of sites based on four severity levels, but also allow you to install an app on your computer to whitelist your way to unrestricted Web surfing. Other routers’ parental controls aren’t so great. The RT-AC56U can only block a device’s Internet access entirely, and the Archer C7 only allows you to whitelist eight sites per “rule” that you create for a client. Yuck to both.

Netgear’s Parental Controls don’t let you block specific sites, but they let you pick from a ton of different categories that OpenDNS (and its community of users) have previously classified.

NetGear’s ReadyShare service is a convenient way to access the contents of a USB-connected piece of storage from a PC or mobile device (via an iOS or Android app). The router also makes it easy to connect up to the drive through Windows’ File Explorer. You can change the share name for your USB-connected storage, which you type into File Explorer to access the networked drive (\\sharename). TP-Link’s Archer C7 forces you to memorize a default share name that you can’t change, which is annoying.

The R6250 was able to stream 1080p movies from USB-connected storage to a PlayStation 3, HTC One, and MacBook Air.

The R6250 was able to stream 1080p movies from USB-connected storage to a PlayStation 3, HTC One, and Macbook Air. The Netgear Genie app for streaming to Android and iOS isn’t the fullest-featured, but it’s better-designed than TP-Link’s Tether app and less error-prone than Asus’ AiCloud app.

It’s easy to set up guest networks on the R6250. It’s also easy to turn the router into an access point or a network extender—a feature the RT-AC56U also has but the Archer C7 does not. You can even schedule schedule on/off times for wireless networks, which might not be the most interesting feature for home users, but one that’s handy for cafe owners who don’t want to provide free Wi-Fi to people outside all night.

Finally, the R6250 can check for new firmware from within the web interface. The Archer C7 can’t. We’d rather our router tell us that an update is available instead of having to consult the manufacturer’s website on a semi-frequent basis.

The R6250’s four LAN Ethernet ports and single WAN port are all Gigabit connections, which is standard. We appreciated the button on the router’s side that allows you to turn the wireless radios on and off without having to shut down the router itself. The R6250 also supports the installation of third-party firmware (DD-WRT) for those who want a bit more customization, advanced features, and potentially speedier performance. The RT-AC56U and Archer C7 do that as well, but wireless-ac connectivity on version one of the Archer C7 doesn’t work in OpenWRT.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Like most routers, the Netgear R6250 isn’t perfect. The router’s 88 Amazon reviews (as of this article’s writing) average out to 3.5 stars, with 64% assigning the router a four- or five-star rating. Those praising the R6250 commented that the device’s “great range” and “unbelievable speed” are “amazing.” Among those criticizing, five mentioned wireless-n instabilities (6%), five mentioned wireless-ac instabilities (6%), and ten (11%) panned the router’s range. These feel like a normal amount of complaints for a router (not everyone will have an ideal experience with their device, depending on where they’ve placed it, the prevalence of competing wireless signals in the area, and so on).

For example, Netgear’s percent of complaints are right around the same percent of Amazon reviewers who panned the overall range (6%) and speeds (4%) of Asus’ RT-AC56U. What sets the latter apart, however, are the 13 (25%) who complained about issues with the RT-AC56U 2.4 GHz connectivity specifically. That was a bit eye-opening to us, especially when we also began to experience the very issues they were talking about (as did 41% of the router’s 24 Newegg reviewers at the time we were researching these stats).

General router complaints? Typically fine. A good percentage of complaints panning a specific issue with the device across a large time range? Problematic, especially since we would assume that Asus’s many firmware fixes would have patched up these issues for everyone at some point since the router’s release.

It would be nice if Netgear was more proactive about security. The Asus RT-AC56U prompts you to change your administrator and Wi-Fi passwords on initial setup, while the R6250 never requires you to change from the default admin credentials and pre-generated Wi-Fi password. This means that, unless you make an active effort to change that information when you first install the router (which many average people do not do), your router could be vulnerable to even the simplest of “hacks” from neighbor kids or a malicious driver-by.

The router defaults to using 20 MHz channels for its two wireless-n spatial streams, giving you a maximum total throughput of 150 Mbps. You have to manually set the router to run at 40 MHz if possible—per coexistence rules—in order to achieve better wireless-n throughput, which you can adjust via a simple setting within the router’s options. We would prefer the router default to full speeds and dial things back as needed.

Unlike some routers (like the Archer C7 and the RT-AC56U), you can’t tell your 2.4 GHz network to run in wireless-n-only mode, which can prevent older wireless-g devices from slowing down the performance of a mixed-mode network in certain situations. You also don’t get a chance to set a schedule for the router’s two guest networks. They’re either on or they’re off. The RT-AC56U at least lets you schedule a countdown timer for how long you’d like your guest networks to remain online.

…you’ll have to spend a bit of time with if you want the router to automatically prioritize the traffic of certain applications over others.

The router’s quality of service settings are a bit complicated—no more so than the Archer C7 or the RT-AC56U, but you’ll have to spend a bit of time if you want the router to automatically prioritize the traffic of certain applications over others. For example, QoS can help you keep your BitTorrent downloads from lagging up your online gaming or interfering with Netflix.

Read and write access to any USB-attached storage is all-or-nothing. You can’t assign user accounts with differing amounts of access, so your files are either completely open to everyone on the network or restricted to the admin account. Better have a good Wi-Fi password!

We’re also a bit bummed the R6250 can’t act as an iTunes server. Neither can the Archer C7, but Asus routers include the capability.

Again, the R6250 isn’t the fastest of the three-stream wireless-ac routers, nor is it the fastest for the lowest price (see TP-Link’s Archer C7). It does have the best combination of ease-of-use, features, and performance for a great price.

The runner-up: Asus RT-AC56U

The Asus RT-AC56U almost became our main pick, but we found some stability issues during our testing. Still, it’s a great runner up and a little cheaper than our pick.

We liked the Asus RT-AC56U. In fact, we declared it the likely winner before we tested our finalists. However, our hands-on testing and research into others’ experiences made us uncomfortable recommending it as our top pick, in part due to potential instabilities with its 2.4 GHz band.

At the time of our research, the RT-AC56U had a four-star rating, with 64% of reviewers assigning it a four or five-star rating. That’s better than our main pick. However, one-fourth of its 51 reviews complained about connection issues on the 2.4 GHz band. Every router gets some bad reviews, but to see so many reports of the same problem is a big red flag that something might actually be wrong.

Asus acknowledged via email that the RT-AC56U had had a 2.4 GHz problem but said that a firmware update last year fixed it. However, we encountered the same 2.4 GHz issues with our RT-AC56U, which had up-to-date firmware. At one point, our wireless-n connectivity ground to a near-standstill. The 5 GHz connection worked just fine, but the 2.4 GHz band, though connected, couldn’t even access the router’s Web interface in a timely manner. We power-cycled the router and even returned it to factory default settings with no success.The issue only fixed itself after we turned off the router off for a while and then turned it on again. Asus has offered to send us a replacement router, and we’ll update this piece once we’ve had a chance for some longterm testing.

Asus’ RT-AC56U comes with a simple, elegant design. A button on the router’s skinny side allows you to flip the wireless signals on and off without power cycling the router.

That 2.4 GHz issue isn’t the only reason we opted for the Netgear R6250 for our main pick. Although the RT-AC56U beat the Netgear R6250 on SmallNetBuilder’s wireless-n benchmarks, the R6250’s extra spatial stream meant it was much faster than the RT-AC56U for wireless-ac performance with three-stream clients. TrustedReviews gave the R6250 the win on all of its benchmarks: two-stream wireless-n performance on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and wireless-ac performance (again, thanks to that extra spatial stream). On our two-stream testing for wireless-n and wireless-ac, the routers performed pretty similarly.

We like the RT-AC56U’s setup process, which prompts you to pick passwords for your administrator account and wireless networks rather than let you stick with the defaults…

We like the RT-AC56U’s setup process, which prompts you to pick passwords for your administrator account and wireless networks rather than let you stick with the defaults, like most routers. We also like that its parental control options are based on time limits, that the router comes with an iTunes server, and that it’s easy to transform the router into an access point or wireless bridge when you outgrow it. A built-in VPN server gives you a secure way to access your home network from afar (a rare feature for the RT-AC56U’s price), and the router supports a number of DDNS services for transforming your external IP address into a static Web address.

We weren’t so impressed with features that didn’t quite work. The router’s quality of service functionality (specifically, “automatic” mode) didn’t do anything to prioritize our BitTorrent, HTTP downloads, or gaming traffic. The router’s “Download Master” slowed the router to a crawl during a standard BitTorrent download to our USB-connected storage. We couldn’t access Download Manager to stop said transfer, nor could we even pull up the router’s main settings; we had to reset the router and physically disconnect the Internet connection in order to disable the offending service.

SmallNetBuilder’s Scott Deleeuw found some of Asus’s features more complex to set up than other cloud-based router services. While we enjoyed the look and feel of the RT-AC56U’s interface, we found it a bit confusing to navigate. Asus’s UI isn’t always that clear: We had to go online and research what the router’s semi-interrelated storage-based features actually did, as well as the router’s ability to tap into an Android smartphone’s Internet connectivity via USB tethering.

Finally, the router’s AiCloud app would sometimes find the router and not identify it as an Asus device, which caused it to download our video files to our phone instead of streaming them. Argh.

The occasionally confusing UI and unpleasant Download Manager are two of our few sticking points with the RT-AC56U. We’re still a little worried about the 2.4 GHz band issues even though Asus says they’ve fixed those issues. Absent the 2.4 GHz problem, the RT-AC56U is a good alternative if our main pick is out of stock. Just make sure you test the router’s speed and stability, especially on the 2.4 GHz band, while you’re still within your retailer’s return period, just in case you get a lemon.

The fast, cheap, complicated option: TP-Link’s Archer C7

The TP-Link Archer C7 is where it’s at if you only need range and speed. It has a complicated user interface and doesn’t have many of the features of our pick, but it’s still a solid choice for under $100.

If you just want the fastest, cheapest wireless-ac router you can get for right around $100 and don’t mind messing around with complicated, text-based menus, get the (v2 iteration) of the TP-Link Archer C7. It has the best price-to-performance ratio of any of our 13 router finalists, and it’s faster than our main pick in every test (delivering a stronger signal at longer ranges, too). However, that power comes with a price: an absurd amount of options, settings, and details packed into the router’s overwhelming, text-based UI.9 Additionally, its key features don’t feel very comprehensive or well-designed; this router is for speed and pretty much just speed. We think the R6250 is better for most people.

The Archer C7’s UI is a pain in the butt to use.

The Archer C7’s UI is a pain in the butt to use. For example, common router options like denying devices wireless access or admin privileges, IP address reservation, and parental controls can only be assigned via a client’s unique, 12-digit identifier (the MAC address). You have to manually type in a client’s MAC address for these settings; a drop-down menu or a table of connected clients would be much better.

TP-Link’s Archer C7 is super-speedy router; it’s also fairly bulky, at 9.6 by 6.4 inches in total size.

More UI missteps: you don’t share the folders on a connected USB drive via the router’s “Storage Sharing” option, you do it via the less obvious ”Media Server” section. Also, you can also only share eight volumes per drive—not a big deal if you want people to be able to access the whole drive, but limiting if you want to pick specific folders to share.

“C7′s NAS and print services are sufficient but not quite as rich as what Netgear offers,” writes PCMag.com’s Samara Lynn in her 3-of-5-star review of the Archer C7.

The router’s parental controls feel limited. You can only whitelist eight websites per “rule” (a system can have more than one rule applied to it). You can’t deny access to sites by keyword or URL; you can only whitelist. You also can’t set the times that you want to whitelist said sites within the parental control section itself. You have to jump out to a separate configuration screen, Access Control, to first set up your “schedules.”

The Archer C7 can only limit total outgoing or incoming bandwidth — no quality of service settings. The Archer C7 also lacks an iTunes server. It doesn’t obey 2.4 GHz coexistence rules, which is sure to thrill your neighbors, and it doesn’t let you change the name it assigns to your USB storage — you have to type in an annoying TP-Link designation within File Explorer to access your drive.

If you’re looking for something even cheaper, an update to our cheap router guide is in the works.

The step up: Netgear’s R7000

If you need more range and speed than our main pick, the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 may suit you. It’s almost $200 though, so it may be overkill for most people’s needs.

If you do have the hardware to take advantage of an AC1900-class router—say a bunch of late-model MacBook Pros or a room full of desktops with wireless-AC networking cards—and you want a router that’s as full-featured as it is fast, you should get the Netgear Nighthawk R7000.

The AC1900-class Netgear R7000 is our step-up pick because it’s one of the fastest routers with the best features for most users. It’s also less expensive than its direct competition, Asus’ RT-AC68U.

SmallNetBuilder found that Netgear’s router beat the performance of the Asus RT-AC68U, its direct competitor, on wireless-n and wireless-ac when tested with a three-stream client. When benchmarked with Asus’ PCE-AC68 AC1900 adapter, SmallNetBuilder’s tests indicated that the routers performed similarly on wireless-n, but the R7000 was four percent slower. We feel that’s acceptable given the 9 percent price difference between the two routers as of this article’s writing.

“Overall, despite higher specs, the R7000 (powered by a 1GHz processor) is slightly slower than its Asus counterpart (powered by a 800MHz processor), but only within the margin of error. The two routers are by far the fastest on the market,” wrote CNET’s Dong Ngo.

Ngo also highlighted the R7000’s support for Time Machine backups, its ReadyShare Vault backup software, iTunes streaming support, and built-in OpenVPN server — all features you won’t find in the R6250. TrustedReviews’ Kelly also praised the router’s DDNS support, which simplifies your ability to connect up to the router’s built-in FTP and OpenVPN servers remotely.

…we want to be upfront when discussing these step-up routers: users on Amazon and Newegg have reported connectivity issues with both routers…

PCWorld’s Michael Brown commented that the R7000 and the RT-AC68U match up feature-for-feature, save for the R700’s exemplary QoS and “better parental control features.” Although he wrote that the RT-AC68U had more business-friendly features than the R7000, Netgear’s speedier USB 3.0 connectivity makes it “the clear winner” if that matters to you.

However, we want to be upfront when discussing these step-up routers: users on Amazon and Newegg have reported connectivity issues with both routers — one-fourth of Newegg comments for the R7000 and around one-fifth of all Newegg comments for the RT-AC68U.

Roughly the same percent of all Amazon and Newegg reviewers expressed satisfaction with the R7000 and RT-AC68U: 73% rated Netgear’s router with a 4- or 5- star review, and 75% rated Asus’s similarly. As for Newegg, 63% of reviewers in total rated both routers with 4 or 5-star reviews.

Care and maintenance / setup

Setting up a router is fairly easy. Make sure that you’ve changed the default password for your primary administrator account to something that can’t easily be guessed by others on your network. Additionally, enable WPA2 security for your wireless networks and assign them lengthy passwords that aren’t easily guessed. Leaving your wireless network unsecured opens you up to problems, from Wi-Fi leeching to spying to malware to unauthorized access to your home network. If you do want to give away Wi-Fi, open up a guest network.

The 2.4 GHz band is prone to interference from other wireless routers in your neighborhood. To help get the best speeds possible, use an app like Wi-Fi Analyzer (Android) or Wi-Fi Explorer (OS X) to see which channels are in use near you, and then set your 2.4 GHz band to use a channel with the least interference. (Scanning apps don’t exist for iOS, as Apple restricts access to wireless APIs on its phones and tablets.)

The best bands to use for your wireless-n network are 1, 6, and 11, since those are the ones that don’t overlap with each other. If you find a channel that doesn’t overlap with any of your neighbors’ signals, your 2.4 GHz speeds could double. The 5 GHz band has much more room, so you’re less likely to run into trouble, but it’s worth checking too, just in case.

Above all else, you’ll want to make sure that you’re running the most up-to-date firmware for your router.

Above all else, you’ll want to make sure that you’re running the most up-to-date firmware for your router. This gives you the best possible protection against hardware exploits and, in some cases, will fix issues with your router that could otherwise cause you grief (like random dropped connections). If your router can’t check for updated firmware via its web UI, you’ll want to check the manufacturer’s website for firmware updates at least once every couple of months.

Finally, be sure that you’re purchasing a router from a retailer with a good return policy in case you get a router that isn’t working as expected. As with most electronics, sometimes you get a lemon. Warranties are important too. Our finalist comes with a one-year hardware warranty, as does the R7000 and Archer C7, but other routers have better warranties. The Asus RT-AC56U, for example, has a two-year manufacturing warranty.

The Competition

The last of the four routers we called in, Asus’s RT-AC66U, didn’t give us the all-around performance boost we were hoping to see when we compared it against the R6250, especially given its three external antennas and $200 price tag. While it did well at longer ranges on wireless-n compared to the R6250, its wireless-ac performance with our two-stream client didn’t impress us at all. For most, this is just too expensive a router for its performance.

We expected way better overall performance given the three, bulky external antennas that jut out of Asus’ RT-AC66U. We didn’t see much that impressed us on our two-stream client testing.

As for the nine routers that didn’t make our list of finalists:

D-Link’s $140 DIR-868L was bested by the price-to-performance ratio of the $100 TP-Link Archer C7 and the $170 Asus RT-AC66U.

The $145 Netgear R6250 either matched or beat the $116 Linksys EA6300 and $150 Linksys EA6400 for wireless-n performance and bested them all for wireless-ac performance.

Buffalo Technology’s $99 WZR-1166DHP and Edimax’s $70 BR-6478AC beat the RT-AC56U on price, but their performance differences weren’t worth the trade-off. (Edimax’s came close, but its measured wireless-ac throughput at a longer distance was less than half that of the RT-AC56U.)

D-Link’s three-stream wireless-n and two-stream wireless-ac DGL-5500 (a $145 AC1300 device) held its own against AC1750 routers for wireless-n performance (and was smoked on range), but couldn’t match up against AC1200 routers for wireless-ac performance and range.

We didn’t select any of the three AC1900 routers for our “Best Wi-Fi Router” pick (Asus’s $220 RT-AC68U, Linksys’s $177 EA6900, or Netgear’s $192 R7000) mostly because of the price, but also because only one adapter exists as of this article’s writing that can tap into the routers’ 600 Mbps wireless-n connectivity.

As an aside, we also didn’t consider the R6250’s bigger brother, the Netgear R6300, as it didn’t even make SmallNetBuilder’s top-three list of highest-performing AC1750 routers.

Why no Apple routers?

We get it. Apple’s Airport Express and Airport Extreme routers are beloved by a certain group of router users. We’re not saying they’re bad choices; in fact, they’re excellent choices if you’re an Apple loyalist. For example, you might use an Airport Express if you’ve filled your house with speakers that you’d like to stream music to over Airplay. And, of course, there’s also Apple’s Time Capsule to consider — the company’s version of a NAS/router hybrid that’s ready to accept all the Time Machine backups you want to send its way.

We didn’t consider Apple’s $99 Airport Express for our article because it’s a wireless-n router. The wireless world — spearheaded, in many ways, by Apple’s own efforts — is moving to wireless-ac. Fun as Airplay might be, you would be doing yourself an extreme disservice, performance-wise, to run your brand-new Macbook Pro laptop on a wireless-n router. An Airport Express might make sense if you have an older Apple laptop (or just iPhones or iPads), but that kind of an analysis is best reserved for our (in-progress) Best Cheap Router article. If you just care about performance and you own wireless-ac devices (or are planning to buy any in the next year or so), then picking up an Airport Express as your primary router makes no sense.

Apple’s Airport Extreme is the company’s $199 push into the wireless-ac router market. However, it didn’t make our initial list of contenders because its speeds simply weren’t fast enough to make it worth looking at. On SmallNetBuilder’s benchmarks for AC1750 wireless-ac routers, the Airport Extreme sits in sixth place as of this article’s writing. Just to put its speeds in perspective, when we averaged together SmallNetBuilder’s uplink and downlink benchmarks for wireless-ac performance, Asus’ less-expensive RT-AC66U beat the pants off the Airport Extreme: 197 MB/s versus 116 MB/s. The Asus router also showed much better performance at longer ranges, hitting an average wireless-ac throughput of 114 MB/s on SmallNetBuilder’s range test versus the Airport Extreme’s 22 MB/s. Ouch.

As for Apple’s $299 Time Capsule, this device is a bit like a router mashed together with a network-attached storage device. It’s not a bad product—it might make the most sense for your home configuration if you really need those two features fused together in a single product. However, we wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending the very expensive Time Capsule as a general “Best Wi-Fi Router” choice, because it’s much more of a storage box with built-in wireless connectivity than something we’d suggest for those simply looking for a high-performing, feature-packed wireless router for their homes or apartments. Wireless connectivity is the goal here; not system backups. And if the Time Capsule performs as well as the Airport Extreme, we wouldn’t want it as a router anyway.

Wait, what’s wireless-ac?

Let’s step back for a second. Wireless-ac, or 802.11ac, is the latest version of the Wi-Fi specification. It’s much faster than wireless-n, the previous standard. Although you can use older devices with a wireless-ac router, to see any speed increase your devices have to be wireless-ac compatible.

Most modern routers can run wireless networks on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Wireless-ac runs on the 5 GHz band, which allows it to use more wireless channels for higher-speed connections. The 5 GHz band is also used for 802.11n, while the 2.4 GHz band can run in wireless-n mode or a more common mixed mode for compatibility with older devices. If a router or gadget only supports one band, it’s 2.4 GHz; only dual-band wireless-n and -ac devices can connect to the 5GHz band.

The 5 GHz band is less crowded than the 2.4 GHz band, which is also used by Bluetooth devices, cordless phones, and your neighbor’s router…

The 5 GHz band is less crowded than the 2.4 GHz band, which is also used by Bluetooth devices, cordless phones, and your neighbor’s router (to name a few). The 2.4 GHz band is more prone to wireless interference, which can disrupt your connections and kill your speeds. However, the 5 GHz band can deliver a shorter working range than the 2.4 GHz band.

Wireless-n and wireless-ac routers also support multiple spatial streams (data streams) on each band. Using a technology called MIMO, wireless-n and -ac devices can combine these spatial streams to get faster data rates—as long as both the router and the device each support the same number of streams.

Our pick, the Netgear R6250, supports two streams on the 2.4 GHz band and three on the 5 GHz band. Each wireless-n data stream on the 2.4 GHz band has a theoretical top rate of 150 megabits per second, and each wireless-ac data stream on the 5 GHz band has a theoretical maximum of 433 Mbps. That gives the router a total maximum Wi-Fi speed of 300 Mbps for wireless-n and 1.3 Gbps for wireless-ac — over four times faster.

The late-2013 MacBook Pro is one of the few devices with three-stream wireless-ac connectivity built in. Most wireless-ac laptops (like the MacBook Air) have two-stream Wi-Fi, as does the Samsung Galaxy S5. Many phones have one-stream wireless-ac, like the HTC One (both last year’s and this year’s) and Samsung Galaxy S4. There’s no iPhone on that list; wireless-ac connectivity is expected on the iPhone 6.

Even one- and two-stream wireless-ac devices are much faster when connected to the 5 GHz band on a wireless-ac router than when connected to a 2.4 GHz or 5GHz wireless-n router.

Routers are split into marketing categories based on the combined maximum bandwidth of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, even though you can’t connect one device to both bands. For example, the Netgear R6250 is an AC1600 router (300 Mbps maximum for wireless-n plus 1.3 Gbps for wireless-ac equals 1,600). Other common categories are AC1200 (two -n streams, two -ac streams), AC1750 (three and three), and AC1900 (four and three).

Wrapping It Up

Netgear’s R6250 surprised us for its consistency, its speed for the two-stream devices that are the fastest most people are likely to have, and its ease of use. While there are still features we wish we could have, and a few we’d like to tweak, it’s extremely difficult to find a router that does it all — especially around the $100 mark. And the fact that the R6250 also supports three-stream wireless-ac clients is a bonus (if you can make use of it). The R6250 isn’t the best router in every category, but it’s the best all-around wireless-ac router for most people.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 6/15/14 and is republished here with permission.