It's hardly surprising that sales of routers and mesh WiFi systems have soared in the last year or so. The 'new normal' has seen many of us working and studying at home, and making Zoom calls on a daily basis. And, of course, the long months of lockdown have meant that we're all spending more time than ever streaming music, video and playing games online.
And now, just as things seem to be settling down a little, there's another reason to think about buying a new router. For many years, our computers, routers and other devices have all used a WiFi standard known as 802.11ac. But, after a bit of a slow start, the latest version of WiFi has finally hit the mainstream. The technical term for this new standard is 802.11ax, although the companies that make routers and mesh systems have put their heads together and come up with the more user-friendly brand name of WiFi 6 (and, just to confuse matters even further, the older 802.11ac has retro-actively been renamed as WiFi 5).
WiFi 6 has actually been around for more than a year, but hardly anyone was using it until relatively recently, so a WiFi 6 router really wasn't an essential purchase. However, the latest Macs, iPhones and iPads are all now equipped with WiFi 6, as well as computers, smartphones and tablets from many other manufacturers too. So, with more and more devices now equipped with WiFi 6, it only makes sense to consider WiFi 6 when buying a new router. And, for larger homes that need more than a single conventional router, there are also new 'mesh WiFi' systems available that use WiFi 6 as well.
The benefits of WiFi 6 are obvious. It's seriously fast, with a theoretical top speed of 10Gbps, which is more than twice that of WiFi 5. However, WiFi 6 is also designed for the future, and the Internet Of Things (IoT), and includes features such as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access) that make routers much more efficient when transmitting data to lots of different devices at once. That includes your computers and mobile devices, of course, but also other types of smart devices, such as speakers, light bulbs and security cameras too.
Not everyone will need WiFi 6, though. You really don't need to spend £400 for a 10Gbps WiFi 6 router if your home broadband tops out at just 100Mbps. And, of course, you don't need a WiFi 6 router if - like me - you're still using older Macs and iOS devices that only have WiFi 5 (although WiFi 6 routers are still backwards-compatible with Macs and other devices that have WiFi 5). If you're on a budget and only need modest speeds from your home WiFi, then you can certainly save some money by sticking with an older WiFi 5 router. You can also opt for a less expensive 'dual-band' router that transmits on the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz frequency bands, or pay a little extra for a 'tri-band' router that adds an additional signal on the 5.0GHz band.
There's no doubt, though, that WiFi 6 is the new standard for the future, and prices are coming down all the time, so it's certainly worth considering WiFi 6 if you're thinking about a new router. With that in mind, we've rounded up a combination of affordable WiFi 5 routers, and more advanced WiFi 6 models that will meet the needs of all Mac users.
D-Link DIR-X1560 - best for beginners/ease of use
It's a bit basic, but if you shop around online you can probably pick up D-Link's DIR-X1560 for just under £100, so it's a good option if you want to upgrade to WiFi 6 without spending too much money.
The DIR-X1560 is a dual-band router that transmits on the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands, running WiFi 6 with a top speed of 1500Mbps. That's not going to win any awards, but if - like me - you have home broadband that tops out at 100Mbps then the DIR-X1560 will provide all the speed you need for web browsing and streaming music and video.
The router also includes five Gigabit Ethernet ports - which is pretty good at this price - with one being used to connect to your existing broadband modem or router, while the others provide wired connections for laptops, games consoles and other devices that need it. We were pleased to see that the router comes with a two-year warranty, and there's also an option to get it professionally installed for £67 if you're not too keen on tackling it yourself.
You shouldn't have too much trouble getting started, though, as the D-Link WiFi app is very easy to use. You can simply scan a QR code provided with the router, and the app will set everything up for you. There's also a web browser interface provided for more advanced users who prefer to set things up for themselves.
The app provides a decent set of basic features, providing a network map that shows all the devices connected to your network. You can set up a guest network, and there's an option to create schedules to control your children's access to the Internet, or to simply pause Internet access for a while when you need to get them round the dinner table.
Asus RT-AX56U - best for larger homes
The RT-AX56U is an affordable WiFi 6 router, offering dual-band WiFi on the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands, with a top speed of 1800Mbps. That's a relatively modest speed for WiFi 6, but should still be perfectly adequate for streaming music and video, and at just £115.00 it's a good way of stepping up to WiFi 6 without spending too much money.
It doesn't cut too many corners, though, despite the low price. There's one Gigabit Ethernet port for connecting to your existing broadband modem or router, and four additional Ethernet ports that can be used to connect a laptop, games console, or other devices that work better with a lag-free wired connection. It even has two USB ports - one each for USB 2.0 and 3.0 - that will allow you to connect USB storage devices that you can then share on the network.
That's all straightforward enough, but it's the router's versatile software and features that really provide good value for money. Newcomers can use the Asus Router app, which helps you to get started quickly and easily, but there's also a web browser interface provided for more advanced users who want to fine-tune their network settings for themselves. The app can monitor your network to watch out for attempted cyber-attacks and also provides some useful parental controls, such as the ability to block unsuitable web sites.
Some of Asus' rivals require an additional subscription for security and parental controls (Netgear, we're looking at you…) so it's good to see that Asus provides these features at no extra charge. The RT-AX56U also supports Asus' AiMesh technology, which allows it to form a mesh network with other Asus routers, so you can easily upgrade and extend your home network in the future if you need to.
Netgear Nighthawk RAX70 - best for power users
Believe it not, the 6.6Gbps speed and tri-band streaming of Netgear's Nighthawk RAX70 isn't anywhere near being top-of-the-range for WiFi 6 - in fact, high-end WiFi 6 routers can go right up to 10Gbps. But that should still be more than fast enough for streaming music and 4K video, as well as gaming, and even for business users who need high-performance for their office network.
It's a tri-band router too, broadcasting on 2.4GHz and two 5.0GHz bands. As well as providing extra speed, this also increases the router's capacity, and Netgear states that the RAX70 can cope with 'dense environments' with up to 40 different devices connected all at once. That will make it ideal for modern homes and offices that have lots of smart devices, such as lights and speakers, as well as Macs, iPhones and iPads.
The design of the RAX70 is pretty distinctive too, with two large wings that make it look like something out of Star Wars. Tucked around the back you'll find five Gigabit Ethernet ports - one for connecting to your existing modem or router - and four to provide wired connections for laptops, games consoles or other devices. You can also 'aggregate' ports, linking two ports together to provide a super-fast Internet connection, or faster file transfers across your home or office network.
There's also a USB 3.0 port that can be used to connect a hard drive, SSD or memory stick in order to share files with other people on your network. Netgear's Nighthawk app makes it easy to get started and set up your new network.
The only disappointment is that the app doesn't provide much in the way of parental controls. Netgear has recently announced a new Smart Parental Control service, but that requires an additional monthly subscription (TBC, but probably £6.99) which, to be honest, seems a bit mean when many of its rivals provide at least some basic parental controls for free.
Linksys MR8300 - Best for WiFi 5
Apple doesn't sell many routers on the Apple Store since it discontinued its own Airport rang, but one of the few to earn that privilege is the Linksys MR8300 (which is just as well; we had trouble viewing the main Linksys website in Safari, so the Apple Store is your best bet). And, miraculously, Apple has the lower price too - charging just £149.95 / $179.95 for this high-end tri-band router.
It's not, admittedly, the most elegant design we've come across - the MR8300 is essentially a large slab of black plastic, with four big antennae sticking up out of it. The router provides strong performance, though, transmitting 802.11ac Wi-Fi on 2.4GHz and two separate 5GHz bands. That allows the MR8300 to provide a top speed of 2200Mb/s, and it also supports MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input/multiple output), which helps it to stream efficiently to several devices at once.
There are five ethernet ports on the back of the router for wired connections - although one of those ports will be needed to connect it to your existing broadband modem or router - and a USB 3.0 port that allows you to share a hard drive or printer on your home network. The MR8300 is also compatible with Linksys' Velop range of mesh routers, so you can extend your Wi-Fi network over a larger area by buying a Velop and placing it in part of your home that has trouble getting a good signal.
The Linksys app is easy to use, and provides a guest network and basic parental controls, but watch out as the company requires a subscription for the router's more advanced parental controls, such as 'age-appropriate blockers'.
TP-Link Archer C6 - Best budget buy
The Archer range of routers from TP-Link is always good value for money, and the company's Archer C6 is one of the most affordable 802.11ac routers currently available. It's been one of TP-Link's top sellers in recent months, and we've seen it available online for as little as £66/$56; it'll be a good upgrade for anyone that's struggling with an old router provided by their ISP.
You're not going to get top-of-the-range speed at that price, and the Archer C6 is just a dual-band router offering 802.11ac Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Its top speed is rated at 1200Mb/s, which is certainly modest compared to more expensive routers, but most UK homes only have broadband speeds of 100Mb/s or less, so it should still be more than adequate for streaming Netflix or a spot of online gaming or Zooming.
Its four large external antennae - and a fifth antenna hidden inside the shiny black case - also support MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output), which helps to stream data smoothly to several devices simultaneously when everyone is online in the evenings.
The C6 also has five ethernet ports for wired connections - with one being needed to connect it to your existing broadband modem or router - and the only real sign of cost-cutting is that there are no USB ports for sharing a printer or hard drive on your home network. And, if you're on a really tight budget, there's a model called the Archer A5 that provides similar speed and features for half the price. However, the A5 model lacks MU-MIMO, so it will only really be suitable for homes with just a few connected devices that are using the internet at the same time.
Netgear RAX20 - Best for Wi-Fi 6
Netgear was one of the first companies to launch new routers based on the latest 802.11ax technology - also known as Wi-Fi 6 (with existing 802.11ac routers being retroactively renamed 'Wi-Fi 5').
Admittedly, it's only the latest iPhone models that currently support Wi-Fi 6, so this isn't a must-have upgrade right now. However, more and more devices will be supporting this new standard in the coming months, so buying a Wi-Fi 6 router now will ensure that you've future-proofed your home network for years to come. And while some of Netgear's AX range of Wi-Fi 6 routers are really expensive, the entry-level RAX20 provides an affordable Wi-Fi 6 upgrade for less than £150/$150.
In some respects the RAX20 is fairly conventional - it's a dual-band router that transmits Wi-Fi on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, with a total speed of 1800Mb/s. It also includes four ethernet ports for wired connections, and a handy USB 3.0 port that can be used for connecting a hard drive for back-ups or storing music, photos and videos. It doesn't include a modem, though, so you'll need to connect it to your existing router.
Of course, that 1800Mb/s speed isn't much faster than existing routers that use 802.11ac, but the great strength of Wi-Fi 6 is that it introduces new features such as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access) that help to improve performance when streaming data to lots of devices all at once. Netgear claims the RAX20 is ideal for homes with up to 20 connected devices, and other models in the AX range are designed to work with 50 or more devices all connected at once.
We've listed our favourite choices and explained why they're worth your consideration. But speaking more generally, what features should you be looking for in a router?
Speed vs capacity
Speed is always an important factor, of course, and it's certainly worth buying the fastest router you can afford without totally busting your budget. You don't need to get too obsessed about speed, though.
Bear in mind that home broadband services - particularly in the UK - tend to run at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mb/s) or less, so you really don't need to spend £300/$300+ on a top-of-the-range router specced at several gigabits per second. A router like that will just sit there twiddling its thumbs most of the time, waiting for your internet connection to keep up.
But there's a catch when figuring out how much speed you need from your router. Just as important as speed is capacity - the ability to stream data efficiently to several computers or other devices at the same time. That's especially important now that entire households are spending so much time indoors with several family members or flatmates all computing for bandwidth on Zoom, Netflix, Spotify and all those new streaming video services.
There are several factors that can affect the performance of a router when it's streaming data to lots of different devices simultaneously.
Cheaper routers tend to be 'dual-band' models, which means they actually transmit two Wi-Fi signals on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. However, more expensive models may offer 'tri-band' Wi-Fi, which adds a second 5GHz band. As you'd expect, having that extra frequency band available helps the router to stream data to lots of devices more efficiently, as each individual band gets less cluttered than it would on a comparable dual-band router.
It's also worth checking the spec sheet of any new router to see if it supports features such as 'beamforming' or MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output), which are specifically designed to improve performance when streaming data to several devices at the same time (when in doubt, just look for lots of big, pointy antennae sticking out all over the place).
And just as important as the router's hardware design is the app that each manufacturer provides with its routers. As well as helping you to set up the router, a good app will provide additional features, such as parental controls that allow you to keep an eye on your children's internet use, or additional security features to prevent evil hackers from gaining access to your home network and vital personal data.
A big change has now come to Wi-Fi technology that it's worth knowing about. For the past few years, most routers have used a form of Wi-Fi technology known as 802.11ac - with many routers having model numbers like 'AC1500' written on the box, indicating that it's using 802.11ac Wi-Fi that is capable of running at 1500Mb/s.
However, we're now seeing devices that support the new 802.11ax standard for Wi-Fi. But, just to make things confusing, the marketing people at all the router companies have decided to call this new standard 'Wi-Fi 6' instead (which, admittedly, is easier to remember than 802.11ax).
New Wi-Fi 6 routers can be expensive, but they promise to earn their keep by providing incredible speeds - as much as 10 gigabits per second on faster models. More importantly, the new Wi-Fi 6 standard is specifically designed for the 'Internet of Things' - connected homes where dozens of devices are all online at the same time, including smart lights and speakers, as well as more conventional devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets.
It's still relatively early days for Wi-Fi 6, and unless you've bought yourself a new iPhone, iPad and Mac in the last year then you probably don't need a Wi-Fi 6 router right now. However, Wi-Fi 6 will become increasingly important in months and years to come, so it's worth thinking about if you've got a little extra cash to spend on a future-proof Wi-Fi 6 router for your home or office.
No matter how fast your router is, there are many larger homes, and older buildings with thick walls that can block the signal, where a conventional router simply can't provide good Wi-Fi that reaches every single room.
If that's the case in your home then you might want to consider a 'mesh networking' system, which uses two or more routers that link together to create a wider and more reliable network. However, mesh routers are really a different category, so we cover those in a separate article for people that need them: pop over to Best mesh routers for Mac to browse our advice.