When we last wrote about routers, we started off by admitting that they're not exactly the most exciting gadgets in the world. But sometimes the world changes, and those boring lumps of plastic and ugly aerials have suddenly become a vital part of our homes and lives.
As part of the 'new normal' many of us are now working from home every day and relying on Wi-Fi for Zoom calls with colleagues and clients, not to mention Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV+ for streaming video in the evening, while the kids muck about on YouTube, TikTok and dozens of other online services that fill the empty, echoing void where our social lives used to be.
But all that online activity really puts a strain on your broadband router, and if you've been using the same router for the last few years then it's a good idea to upgrade to a newer model to ensure you get a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection for all your devices and streaming services. You could, of course, just buy a new router from your usual internet service provider, but most service providers aren't really interested in selling routers so they don't offer very much choice.
It makes sense, therefore, to look around for newer and faster routers from specialist networking companies who really put all their focus on high-performance routers. Mind you, router performance can mean different things, which is why we've put together this buying guide to highlight the best options for a variety of customers, homes and lifestyles. Jump to our routers buying advice for the features and specs you should be looking for.
1. Linksys MR8300 - Best value for money
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'.
2. D-Link Exo AC3000 (DIR-3060) - Best for performance
The D-Link DIR-895 that we reviewed a couple of years ago was a seriously high-end router, aimed at gamers looking for lag-free Wi-Fi speeds and weighing in at around £300/$380. That model has now been discontinued, and D-Link's current top-of-the-range offering is the more affordably priced Exo AC3000.
The Exo is still an impressive piece of kit , though - not least because its array of six sharply pointed antennae make it look like a Cylon battleship from Battlestar Galactica. It's not just a scary face, though, as the Exo offers similar tri-band performance to its predecessor, transmitting 802.11ac Wi-Fi on 2.4GHz and two 5GHz bands, with a total speed of 3000Mb/s. (It's actually 2999Mb/s according to D-Link's datasheet, but who's counting?)
The router also supports MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output), which allows the scary antennae to more efficiently stream data to lots of devices around your home all at once. That makes it a good choice for families or flatmates who are all streaming on Netflix, Zoom and gaming consoles at home in the evening.
There are five ethernet ports on the back of the Exo for wired connections - although you'll need to use one of those ports to connect it to your existing broadband router or modem - and both USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports for connecting a printer, hard drive or other devices that you can share with other people on the network.
The price of the Exo also includes a 5-year subscription to the McAfee Secure Home security software, and two years of antivirus protection for all Macs, PCs and other devices. That's good value for money - although, of course, you'll have to decide if you want to continue the subscriptions at the end of that period.
3. Netgear Nighthawk AC3200 (R8000) - Best for larger homes
It's ugly as sin, with six big antennae sticking out and hogging plenty of space when you're setting it up, but Netgear's R8000 is about as good as current-generation 802.11ac routers get. It's also a good choice for homes that have got lots of devices competing for bandwidth on Netflix, YouTube and other streaming services.
The R8000 is a tri-band router, so it can transmit Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band, and two separate 5GHz bands, adding up to a total speed of 3200Mb/s, which should be more than enough even for busy homes with multiple computers, smartphones and mobile devices all fighting for a slice of your precious internet bandwidth.
Those six antennae are there for a reason too, as they support a feature called 'beamforming' which helps the router to focus the Wi-Fi signal for maximum range and signal strength. There are also four ethernet ports for wired connections if needed, and - as the R8000 doesn't include a modem - a fifth ethernet port that is used to connect it to your existing router or modem (which is providing the internet connection).
Netgear's Nighthawk app is a bit of a mixed bag, though. The app is easy to use, and guides you smoothly through the installation process. It also includes some handy features, such as the ability to set-up a temporary guest network. However, its more advanced parental controls and 'Armor' security features require an additional subscription, which is a bit irritating, and there are rival routers that provide better parental controls in their apps for free.
Online prices vary a lot too, so it's definitely worth shopping around.
4. 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.
5. TP-Link Archer C6 - Best budget option
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.
6. Eero Pro - Best for HomeKit
Eero is one of the few companies that supports Apple's HomeKit with its routers, allowing the company to provide additional security for other devices - such as smart lights - that also work with HomeKit.
If you're on a tight budget, or live in a smaller flat with only a handful of devices connected to your network, you might be able to get by with the entry-level Eero, a dual-band router that costs just £100/$100. However, we reckon it's worth spending a little extra for the tri-band Eero Pro, which can transmit 802.11ac Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band and two separate 5GHz bands in order to provide greater range and reliability when using lots of different devices.
Somewhat oddly, Eero is rather coy about the speed of the Eero Pro, although the info we've gleaned from its website suggests the speed of this tri-band model is around 1450Mb/s. That's certainly not top of the range, but that speed should still be perfectly adequate for most home users - especially in the UK, where few homes have broadband anywhere near as fast as that.
You also have the option of extending your network by buying additional Eero or Eero Pro routers and linking them together to create a wider mesh network for larger homes.
The Eero app is easy to use, and includes useful features such as the ability to create a guest network and control internet access for devices such as a child's tablet, but it's a shame that you have to pay for a subscription in order to get additional features such as filters for unsuitable adult content.
7. Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD - Best for future upgrades
Ubiquiti isn't a well-known name in the UK, but some of the company's founders used to work at Apple, and they clearly brought some of Apple's design expertise to the often mundane router market. The simple cube design of the AmpliFi HD reflects Apple's elegant, minimalist approach, but it's functional too, including features such as a touchscreen display that allows you to quickly check the router's performance and other settings without even having to look at the AmpliFi app on your iPhone or iPad.
Inside the little white cube is a fairly conventional dual-band 802.11ac router, which transmits Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and GHz bands, with a total speed of 1750Mb/s. There are five ethernet ports on the back panel for wired connections, although the AmpliFi HD doesn't include a modem, so you'll need to use one of those ports to connect it to the modem or router that provides your normal broadband internet connection.
The AmpliFi app is also well designed - quick and easy to use when getting started, with parental controls and features such as a guest network available within the app itself. However, there's a web browser interface also available for people who like to delve deeper into the router and network settings.
And, if you live in a large house, or have thick walls that may obstruct your Wi-Fi signal, you can extend the AmpliFi network by buying additional 'mesh points' - which are really just large Wi-Fi aerials that you can plug into a mains socket in another room in order to boost the Wi-Fi signal.
8. Asus Blue Cave AC2600 - Best for advanced users
Routers are generally pretty boring to look at - and some are just plain ugly - but the Blue Cave from Asus has to be one of the most eye-catching routers we've ever seen.
It gets its name from the hollow central section, which is highlighted by the glowing blue light that acts as a status indicator. In other respects, though, the Blue Cave is actually fairly conventional. It's a mid-range 802.11ac router, providing dual-band Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, with a top speed of 2534Mb/s (although Asus rounds it up to 2600).
There are four ethernet ports on the back panel for wired connections if you need them, and a USB 3.0 port that can be used to connect a printer or hard drive that you can then share with other people on your home network. The Blue Cave doesn't include a modem, though, so you'll still need to connect it to your existing broadband router or modem.
As you'd expect, there's an iOS/Android app that can help you to set the router up, and this includes basic parental controls and features such as a guest network. However, the Blue Cave also provides an extensive web browser interface, which will be ideal for more advanced users who want greater control over network security and other features.
You can't buy directly from Asus, but we've seen it online for as little as £135 in the UK - and just $100 in the US - which is a good price for a smartly designed router such as this.
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.
There's one other big change coming 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 starting to see devices like the latest iPhone 11 and SE models 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 really 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 early days for Wi-Fi 6, and unless you've bought yourself half a dozen new iPhones in the last few weeks 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.