The wireless router is something we tend to take for granted, at least so long as our Wi-Fi networks are humming along smoothly. And that’s okay. The best routers don’t require regular tinkering.
But when Wi-Fi starts to bog down, its time to look at the causes. In many cases, it’s a wireless router that hasn’t been replaced in years. It still works, but doesn’t support newer standards, lacks power and is no longer the best router for the job.
The landscape has changed in the world of wireless gear over the past five years. Cisco Systems (CSCO) sold its Linksys home router business to Belkin and Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Asus has become a force in the market. Apple (AAPL) continues to impress the plug-and-play crowd with its Airport line of wireless gear, which is now a mainstream offering that attracts Windows PC users as well as Mac fans.
There have been considerable technical advances as well, most notably the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard (also known as Gigabit Wi-Fi), which blasts data at triple the speed of the previous champ 802.11n — if your gear supports it.
If your Wi-Fi is chugging under a load of iPads, smartphones, game consoles, smart thermostats and PCs or you bought a new device like the Samsung (SSNLF) Galaxy S5 that could take advantage of Gigabit Wi-Fi speeds, then it’s time for a network upgrade.
Here is our list of five of the best routers available today.
5 of the Best Routers Available Today: Linksys AC1900
If you’re looking for a new wireless router that can handle loads of Wi-Fi traffic, offers easy set-up and smart configuration tools, looks elegant and offers compatibility with 802.11ac, then this may well be the best router for you.
The Linksys AC1900 is one of the best routers I’ve tested (you can read the full review here), and it’s being called the best router Linksys has released since being sold by Cisco. And with dual-band support, it’s capable of blasting data at the rate of 1900 Mbps (1300 Mbps on the 5GHz band and 600 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band).
At $249, it is a tad on the expensive side compared to some of the other best routers on the list.
5 of the Best Routers Available Today: Linksys WRT 1900AC
This is a wireless router that goes to 11.
If you’re looking for something subtle to blend in to your decor, the WRT 1900AC is about the furthest thing imaginable from being the best router for you.
Linksys designed it as a retro throwback to the iconic Linksys WRT54G line (which sold 50 million units). That means it’s blue and black, big and adorned with four prominent antennas. The entire front panel is a mass of flashing LED indicator lights and it’s equipped with a fan to get rid of excess heat.
The WRT 1900AC is a dream for Wi-Fi tinkerers. It supports open source firmware like Tomato, and Linksys is planning to release special high-gain antennas if the supplied ones aren’t cutting it. It can also be wall-mounted.
But this is without any doubt the fastest Wi-Fi router I’ve ever tested, even without 802.11ac devices. It offered improved reception to all areas of my house and yard and when measuring performance of an Apple TV streaming HD video in a problem area with poor Wi-Fi reception, speed increased a remarkable 80%.
If you don’t mind the aggressive look and steep $279 price tag, the Linksys WRT 1900AC is easily one of the best routers on the market today.
5 of the Best Routers Available Today: Apple Airport Extreme
Apple has quietly been making some of the best routers for plug-and-play fans for over a decade. Like so many Apple products, the Airport Extreme “just works.”
There’s not much exaggeration in that statement. Apple’s configuration tools are very lightweight, so it’s not the best router choice for someone who wants to micromanage their Wi-Fi network. There are no adjustable antennas either (they’re all built into the minimalist white vertical case). If you want to get fancy, you can add $100 for a 2TB hard drive, turning the Airport Extreme into an Airport Time Capsule for networked data backup.
But if a high-performance wireless router that handles 802.11ac, lets you plug in external hard drives or printers for network sharing and will work with a Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox without having to mess with port forwarding is your goal, then the Apple Airport Extreme is one of the best routers available. And at $199, it’s reasonably priced.
5 of the Best Routers Available Today: Asus RT:AC66U
Asus is the Taiwanese consumer electronics company that’s grown from a manufacturers of somewhat sketchy quality PCs to offering some of the coolest convertible Ultrabooks around, as well as making high-profile gear like Google’s (GOOG) Nexus 7 tablet.
Asus is also in the wireless router game, and the Asus RT:AC66U is gaining a reputation of being one of the best routers on the market.
With streaming media friendly features like DLNA compatibility, an integrated BitTorrent client and a built-in iTunes server (something even Apple doesn’t offer) the Asus RT:AC66U is a great choice for video and gaming junkies. And with 802.11ac support, ports for connecting networked drives and three adjustable external antennas for tweaking performance, PC World called the Asus RT:AC66U the best router it had tested among Gigabit Wi-Fi models.
This stylish back box goes for $190.
5 of the Best Routers Available Today: NetGear AC1900 Nighthawk
NetGear (NTGR) is one of the old-school players in the networking market, although it bounced around for a while and was owned by Nortel until 2002. The company makes some of the best routers for enterprise and home use, as well as switches and security gateways.
The NetGear AC1900 Nighthawk looks like a piece of stealth technology and offers performance that matches its high-tech appearance.
Apple owners will appreciate support for Time Machine backups and AirPlay, small business owners or remote workers will make good use of its built-in VPN (that enterprise expertise comes in handy), but hardcore gamers are the ones that NetGear has firmly in its sights with the AC1900 Nighthawk. It supports Nvidia’s (NVDA) GameStream technology, which enhances wireless gaming performance on dozens of top PC titles.
The $200 NetGear AC1900 Nighthawk is one of the best routers when it comes to Wi-Fi performance and taking advantage of 802.11ac, but for gamers especially, it deserves a spot at the top of the list.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.