I revisit the topic of what to look for in a router every six or seven years. As important as it always was, I think it’s even more important today, as there are a number of underpowered routers on the market and it’s best to avoid them.
This post originated in 2010. I revised it for 2017 needs, and by the time I was done, I’m not sure much of my 2010 text was left. But that’s OK.
First and foremost, look for a router with gigabit capability. I know we’re a long way from having gigabit Internet in most of the country, but the problem with sub-gigabit routers is they top out at 100 megabits. There’s no point in paying $75 a month for a 120-megabit Internet connection and then wasting 20 percent of it because your router only connects at 100 megabits. Worse yet is paying $90 for gigabit and wasting 90 percent of it.
So get a gigabit router, and then as your ISP increases speeds, your router will adjust to it without any problem.
Plus, many wireless connections are faster than a gigabit, let alone 100 megabits now too. So you don’t want your wired connection to be a huge bottleneck.
Not all devices are 802.11ac capable. But increasingly, many are. And if you get 802.11ac capability, you get lots of other nice things, like a 5 GHz band that’s faster and less prone to interference. Put your streaming video devices on the 5 GHz band and you’ll get smoother video, regardless of whether they connect with 802.11ac or slower 802.11n speed. Older devices can still connect via 802.11g or even 802.11b if need be.
Fortunately, most gigabit routers also are 802.11ac capable by default these days.
Third party firmware compatibility
I still like to load third party firmware on my routers to get more power and capability. AsusWRT-Merlin is my favorite these days, which only works on select Asus routers. I really like the Asus RT-AC66U, as it’s fairly reasonably priced, capable, and well built.
Memory and CPU cores
A router is really a computer, and it has memory and a CPU just like the computer you’re using to read this. Many older routers had 1990s-like memory and CPUs in them. When you connect set-top boxes and an army of laptops, phones and tablets to them, they strain under the load. I’ve had more than one person tell me they thought they needed a faster Internet connection until they upgraded their router.
Most routers won’t advertise specs like their memory and CPU. But if a router says it has a dual-core CPU in it, that’s definitely a plus.
If your router has USB ports, you can plug a printer into it and let it print over your network, which is nice if you have an old, cheap printer that lacks network capability. Or you can plug a flash drive or USB hard drive into it and use it as a cheap NAS. If the router has two USB ports, you can do both. Not everyone needs this capability, but you know if you do. Since your router is always on, it’s as logical of a place to build in this capability as any other.
Last and least, let’s talk about brand. I like Asus and TP-Link best. I’ve been less than thrilled with other brands in recent years, as I haven’t found anything else that matches the reliability of the super-solid Linksys WRT54G. I don’t normally recommend extended warranties, but when buying a router, I’d actually consider one.
What to do with your old router
Don’t throw away your old router after you get a new one. Your new router will probably have better range than your old one, but if you still have dead spots, repurpose your old router as an additional access point to extend your wireless signal. In my example I used a cheap TP-Link router, but if your old router can run DD-WRT, you can use it just as well.