5 things to know before you buy a new router in 2020

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If you’re looking for more horsepower from your home network, a new Wi-Fi router might be in order. Problem is, shopping for an upgrade can get confusing in a hurry. What does all of the jargon mean? How fast is fast enough? Is it worth it to spend extra for a multipoint mesh router, or for one that supports the newest version of Wi-Fi, called Wi-Fi 6? Is it smarter to wait for Wi-Fi 6E routers due in stores in the coming year?

Don’t feel overwhelmed. There are certainly lots of specs and technical nuances that go with wireless networking, but if you’re just looking for a reliable router that you don’t need to think about too much, picking a good one isn’t as challenging as you might be expecting. Our full router buying guide has a wealth of helpful info, but for now, here are five key basics to keep in mind before you zero in on a purchase.

Speed ratings are basically bull

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: The speed ratings you’ll see on the packaging and as you scroll through router listings while shopping online are close to meaningless.

“Combined speeds” is a meaningless, misleading term. For instance, this router makes it seem like it can hit speeds of 2.2Gbps (2,200Mbps), but in reality, its fastest band has a top speed of 867Mbps — and that’s only in a controlled lab environment.


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I’m talking about figures like “AC1200” and “AX6000.” The letters there tell you what version of Wi-Fi the router supports — “AC” for Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac and “AX” for Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. The numbers give you a rough sense of the combined speeds of each of the router’s bands — typically 2.4 and 5GHz, and perhaps a second 5GHz band if we’re talking about a triband router.

The problem is that you can only connect to one of those bands at a time. When you add their top speeds together, the result is a highly inflated figure that doesn’t represent the speeds you’ll actually experience. If it’s a triband mesh router that uses that third band as a dedicated connection between the router and its extenders, then that band’s speeds don’t directly apply to your device connections at all. 

To make matters worse, those top speeds on the box are actually theoretical maximums derived from lab-based manufacturer tests that don’t take real-world factors like distance, physical obstructions or network congestion into account. Even at close range, your actual connection will be a lot slower.

None of that stops manufacturers from using those speed ratings to describe how fast their products are. For instance, that hypothetical AX6000 router might claim to support speeds of up to 6,000 megabits per second — which is nonsense. A router is only as fast as its fastest band. Don’t be fooled.

Your ISP sets the speed limit

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how fast your router is — if you’re pulling data from the cloud, then you’ll only be able to do so as fast as the plan from your internet service provider allows. If you’re paying for download speeds of, say, 100Mbps, then that’s as fast as your router will go when you’re browsing the web or streaming video. Period.

That’s a significant limitation these days. In our own top speed tests, we’re seeing a growing number of routers that can comfortably hit speeds of 1 gigabit per second or faster — but with the average fixed broadband speed in the US currently sitting at just over 100Mbps (or less, if your ISP throttles your connection), few of us can hope to surf the web as fast as that anytime soon.

That isn’t to say that fast routers aren’t worthwhile. For instance, you’ll still be able to hit those top speeds during local transfers — when you’re using the router to pull files from one computer to another on your local network. Your ISP speeds don’t matter at all for transfers like that, because you’re not sending or receiving data beyond your local home network. 

Beyond that, upgrading to a faster, more powerful router can help you get the most out of your home’s internet connection, especially when you’re connecting at range. To that end, be sure to keep an eye on our latest reviews as you shop around to get a good sense of the specific routers that might be the best fit for your home. We’re constantly testing new models and updating our best lists with new test data.

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New routers that support Wi-Fi 6 like the Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien are available now — but for most, it isn’t a priority upgrade just yet.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Wi-Fi 6 is here — but Wi-Fi 6E is coming

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi, and it’s the main reason we’re starting to see so many new routers capable of hitting gigabit speeds with ease. You can read more about the way the speedy new standard works in my full Wi-Fi 6 explainer, but the quick gist is that it lets your router send more information more efficiently to multiple devices at once.

There are all sorts of new routers available this year that support Wi-Fi 6, including ones that cost a lot less than you’d expect — but there are still relatively few Wi-Fi 6 client devices outside of early flagships like the iPhone 11 or iPhone SE and the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Fold. Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, mind you, so a new Wi-Fi 6 router still work with your existing, older-gen Wi-Fi devices. It just won’t do anything to speed them up, because those older devices don’t support the new features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster than before.

Eventually, we’re going to start seeing Wi-Fi 6 support in things like media streamers, tablets, smart home gadgets and other common client devices. As you fill your home with devices like those, a Wi-Fi 6 router will become a more meaningful upgrade (and, again, it’ll help if ISP speeds can play catch-up in the next few years, too). For now, though, it’s more of a future-proofing extra than a must-have.

On top of that, it won’t be long before we start to see routers that support Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 routers equipped to tap into new, exclusive bandwidth in the 6GHz band recently opened up for unlicensed use by an FCC vote. Access to that massive swath of open bandwidth will make Wi-Fi 6E routers some of the most advanced routers you can buy, and they’re expected to start hitting stores by the end of 2020, with Wi-Fi 6E compatible devices like phones and tablets expected to follow suit in 2021.

A mesh router like the three-piece Eero setup tested here can help spread a stronger signal throughout your home.


Steve Conaway/CNET

Don’t forget about coverage

We tend to fixate on speeds when we talk about routers, but the truth is that there are really only two Wi-Fi speeds that matter in most cases: “fast enough,” and “not fast enough.” After all, having a blazing fast connection in the same room as the router is great, but it means little if you can’t get a strong signal when you’re trying to stream a late-night Netflix binge in your bedroom on the other side of the house. That’s especially true these days, when most of us are staying home and depending on our home network more than ever before.

That’s why, for most people, the most meaningful move you can make for that home network is to upgrade from a standalone, single-point router to an expandable mesh system that uses multiple devices to better spread a reliably speedy signal throughout your house. Mesh systems like those typically won’t hit top speeds that are quite as high as a single-point router, but they make up for it by delivering Wi-Fi that’s “fast enough” to all corners of your home.

For the past few years, upgrading to mesh has been an expensive proposition, with most options costing at least $300 or even $500. Thankfully, that’s starting to change with a recent influx of new, second-gen mesh systems that cost a lot less than before.

Testing these systems out is currently one of my top priorities on the Wi-Fi beat. I’ve already found a couple of strong mesh options, including some multidevice setups that you can get for less than $200. And, if you’re willing to spend more, there’s something else worth considering…

Mesh and Wi-Fi 6 could be a killer combo

Remember how I said that it’s a bit early for Wi-Fi 6, since relatively few devices support the speedy new standard? There’s an exception that’s starting to emerge — Wi-Fi 6 mesh setups.

The reason is simple. In a mesh setup, you’ve got multiple devices slinging signal throughout your home. If the devices in that mesh setup all support Wi-Fi 6, then they’ll be able to move that data around your home faster and more efficiently. In the best cases, that means that you’ll see speeds near the satellite devices that are almost as fast as when you’re near the router itself — and that’s true even if you don’t have a single client device in your home that supports Wi-Fi 6.

Read more: The best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody  

For the most part, the Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers I’ve tested in my home have all been able to hit impressive average speeds in each room. None of the Wi-Fi 5 mesh systems I’ve tested have been able to average speeds higher than 200Mbps in that back bathroom.


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That’s exactly what we saw with the AX6000 version of Netgear Orbi, a recent mesh system with full support for Wi-Fi 6. In my home, with that 300Mbps internet connection I mentioned earlier, I saw average speeds throughout my entire home of 289Mbps. Speeds barely dipped at all as I ran tests from the rooms farthest from the router.

Much of that is thanks to the fact that the AX6000 Orbi is a triband system that includes two separate 5GHz bands, one of which the system uses as a dedicated backhaul band for transmissions between the router and its satellites. That triband approach doesn’t come cheap, with the AX6000 Orbi ringing in at a hefty $700 for a two-piece setup.

I also recently tested the the triband Asus ZenWiFi AX, another new, two-piece mesh system that supports Wi-Fi 6. It wasn’t quite as fast as the AX6000 Orbi, but it was pretty darned close — and at $450, it costs a lot less. That was good enough to make it my top-rated mesh router to date, and an easy Editors’ Choice winner. And, hey, wouldn’t you know it, now Netgear has its own $450 triband version of Orbi, too, an AX4200 system that just arrived in stores. That’ll be one of the next systems I test out.

This year will also mark the debut of a number of new Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems, including several dual-band options that ditch that dedicated backhaul in order to bring the price down. One such system, from TP-Link, will debut at just $190 for a two-piece setup later this spring.

I doubt any of those dual-band systems will be quite as impressive in my tests as the triband systems were, but I’ll know better once we’ve had a chance to try them all out. If any of them can deliver a meaningful boost in speed and coverage at an appealing price, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.