What We Looked For in Router Reviews
We consulted a variety of sources when conducting our research, including wireless router reviews by experts on sites such as PC Mag and CNET. These authorities are familiar with the vast selection of routers on the market, have conducted hands-on testing, and are aware of the capabilities of the best affordable routers.
Speed.The routers on our list of top picks support the wireless-N standard. Wireless-N is available with a variety of theoretical maximum speeds, commonly 300 megabits per second, or Mbps, (labeled N300) and 600 Mbps (N600). In the real world, however, speeds are quite a bit slower -- typically about 40 Mbps to 100 Mbps. The Linksys E1200 (starting at $38), an N300 router that blew away a PC Mag reviewer with its speed, topped out at just 60 Mbps in the site's testing. When an expert at CNET tested the same model, the speed reached about 38 Mbps -- a more down-to-earth number for an N300 router. Still, wireless router reviews confirm that that's more than fast enough for basic home networking.
The Buffalo AirStation WHR-600D (starting at $30) and D-Link DIR-826L (starting at $50) are N600 models and among the fastest affordable routers we found. That said, experts have found their speed lackluster relative to pricier N600 routers. For example, a reviewer from Trusted Reviews comments that the D-Link router's performance doesn't keep pace with other N600 devices.
Although experts have found that even N600 routers are not terribly speedy at the budget end of the market, the models we recommend are still plenty fast enough to meet the needs of typical Internet users, including video streaming. The TP-Link TL-WDR3500 (starting at $40) is another example of a cheap N600 router. The Netgear WNR2500 (starting at $55) may be a bit slower due to its 450 Mbps maximum speed, but an expert reviewer from Small Net Builder is still pretty impressed by its swiftness. The On Networks N150R (starting at $15), on the other hand, is the slowest among the routers we researched. It's technically a wireless-G router (an older standard) with "some N features" and runs at a theoretical maximum speed of 150 Mbps.
Long Range and Reliability.In an ideal world, a wireless router would be able to maintain a constant connection with a laptop, Nintendo Wii, or iPhone from every corner of a home at maximum signal strength. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic. Even dual-band-router reviews indicate that the extra antenna doesn't always perform as well as users might like. Furthermore, the farther away the device gets from the router, the weaker the signal becomes, which can reduce the speed of the connection significantly.
A wireless router's range, which typically falls between 150 and 300 feet, is only partially dependent on the router itself. The environment in which a network operates has a big impact on range -- the more walls, floors, and ceilings the signals must pass through, the shorter the effective range of the router. Therefore, expert testing under controlled conditions provides the most valuable feedback. Small Net Builder, for example, employs a standard testing method and gives the Netgear WNR2500 high marks for its range (as do buyers posting reviews at Newegg, for the record). With a dual-band router such as the D-Link DIR-826L or Buffalo AirStation WHR-600D, keep in mind that the 5 GHz band has shorter range than the 2.4 GHz band.
A router's reliability is just as important as its range, if not more so. Most routers can maintain a strong signal within 40 or 50 feet, and dropped connections should be a rarity. The routers we picked are not inclined to drop connections, according to the expert and user reviews we read. However, some Wi-Fi router reviews reveal that this can be a problem for other models. The Trendnet TEW-731BR (starting at $18), in particular, draws complaints on Newegg and Amazon due to frequent dropped connections.
Simple Setup and Management.In most cases, setting up a wireless router is a no-hassle affair. Many routers use a wizard to assist with setup and a simple interface to manage it. Some routers, including the models we picked, also include a Wi-Fi Protected Setup button that lets users quickly and easily connect a WPS-compatible device, such as a printer, to the network. Our comparison found that this is a common feature among modern routers. Some routers stand out from the crowd because they have apps available for monitoring router security and network traffic remotely. The D-Link DIR-826L router is one example, with apps that are easy to use, according to an expert at Gadget Review.
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