As 2015 begins, the job of choosing a wireless router has gotten a lot simpler since our 2014 guide. You'll most likely be choosing an AC class router; the only question is, which one.
If you want to skip the advice and just have us choose for you, hit the Router Ranker right now and save yourself some time.
As I said, whether you're buying your first router or trading up from an old one, you'll want to look at AC class routers. Class abbreviations come from the IEEE 802.11 standard products are based on, i.e. 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. I'll explain "class" more in just a bit.
All AC routers are dual-band, meaning products operate in both the 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequency bands. You can tell if a product is dual-band if it lists 802.11a/b/g, a/b/g/n or a/b/g/n/ac in its specs.
The main variations within each router class are:
- Port Speed - WAN and LAN ports are Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) or 10/100 Mbps. Most top-end AC routers come with Gigabit Ethernet ports, as do many of the devices that still support Ethernet. But if you're buying an AC1200 class or lower router, check the specs, it might have 10/100 ports.
If you are running an all wireless network, the only reason you need Gigabit ports on your router is if your internet connection is > 100 Mbps. If you have wired devices with Gigabit Ethernet ports, you can add a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch (~ $35), plug it into one of your router's LAN ports and plug all your Gigabit Ethernet devices into the switch.
The router's 100 Mbps port limitation only comes into play when devices reach out to the internet. But since your internet connection is less than 100 Mbps, you won't see any effect from 10/100 ports on internet throughput.
- USB Ports - USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports can share storage and /or printers. Printer sharing is still pretty basic. If it works at all with your printer, you'll find that anything other than printing on a multifunction printer won't work. And things like ink status and paper out messages probably won't make their way back to your computer.
Compatibility is better for storage sharing. Most USB hard, flash and solid state drives will work fine. Top-end routers now support file transfer speeds better than some entry-level Network Storage (NAS) products and have built-in media servers and even BitTorrent downloaders. So if you've been looking to centralize your storage, you might be able to do it with a new router!
There are four older product types—A, B , Gand N—that aren't in the list above that are considered "legacy" products.
802.11a defined the original 5 GHz-only Wi-Fi products and 802.11b defined original 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi gear. 5 GHz only routers never caught on and today you find references to 802.11a only in dual-band products. B only routers were long ago replaced by G routers, which were replaced by N types, which are now being replaced with AC routers.
G routers are still required to support B devices and N routers are required to support both B and G devices in order to be Wi-Fi Certified. AC routers are also required to support B, G and N devices. But because your shiny new router can support these older, slower device types doesn't mean that they should.
In heavy use, "legacy" devices can slow down your faster N and AC devices. You may also need to change the mode settings on your router to get certain "legacy" devices to work. So you may be better off keeping your old router and adding a new one. See How Well Do AC Routers Handle Mixed Networks? for more details.
We call sub-types of each major type classes, for lack of a better term. Class denotes the maximum total link rate that the product supports. Class designations consist of the router type, plus a number indicating maximum link rate, i.e. AC1750, N300, etc.
This number is supposed to trick you into thinking that it's the actual speed your wireless devices will run at. But it's really an indication of the technology used in the product and only good as a relative speed indicator.
Classes are defined in SmallNetBuilder's Classification System for Wi-Fi Products - 2015, with Table 1 copied below for your convenience. Note that link rate is the number reported in Windows Wireless Network Connection Status or other utilities that report wireless connection link rates.
|"Class" designation||2.4 GHz N Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
|5 GHz AC Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
Table 1: Wi-Fi Device classification table - routers / APs and clients
Actual real-life throughput will be at best 50% of the "N/AC number" you see in marketing material and can be as low as 20 - 25%. We'll dig into this more, next.