Best Wireless Routers
The best cheap wireless routers make use of high-speed connection protocols, have built-in security, and make it easy to connect multiple devices. We read expert reviews and user feedback to find the best buys for homes of all sizes. Picks include popular, and speedy, models from Asus, Netgear, and Linksys. Looking for a mesh network system? Google Wifi is our recommendation.
What We Considered
We consulted a variety of sources in our research, including wireless router reviews by experts on sites including PCMag, CNET, PC Verge, and Trusted Reviews, all of which conduct hands-on tests in making their assessments. We also noted feedback by consumers on retail sites such as Amazon, Best Buy, and Newegg.
We Looked At
Routers using the 802.11ac standard have an advertised maximum speed of 600 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 1.3 Gbps on the 5 GHz band. Real-world speeds are quite a bit slower in expert testing, however; typically around 100 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 550 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. But those speeds are perfectly sufficient for basic home networking, including video streaming, experts say.
A wireless router's range typically falls between 150 and 300 feet on the 2.4 GHz band, but that can be diminished by the number of walls, floors, and ceilings the signal must pass through. Range is typically reduced by about a third on the 5 GHz band. Also, the signal weakens as you get farther away from the router, significantly reducing the speed of the connection. Most routers can maintain a strong signal within 40 or 50 feet, and dropped connections should be a rarity. But the more devices using the Wi-Fi signal, the slower the overall data speed. Movies and games may stutter or stall and web connections may frequently drop out.
Wi-Fi mesh network systems are a good alternative for large homes and spaces that have a lot of dead spots, as well as heavy users. Mesh systems consist of a base unit and nodes that can be placed around the home to expand coverage. They’re still relatively new and can cost double the price of the best dual-band 802.11ac routers.
General network congestion also affects a router’s reliability. Dual- and tri-band routers aim to combat network congestion by using multiple frequencies. Some, usually more expensive, routers are capable of band steering: specifically, directing devices that can use the 5 GHz band in that direction and away from already crowded 2.4 GHz connections.
Some dual- and tri-band routers also use multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology. MU-MIMO enables devices to connect simultaneously, rather than sequentially, without sacrificing bandwidth. Another technology called beamforming, available in some AC routers, focuses the Wi-Fi signal directly toward connected devices rather than simply broadcasting a signal in all directions. Both of these technologies result in more consistent connection speeds across all Wi-Fi-enabled devices on the network.
Wireless routers use one of two security standards: Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). WPA2 is the current standard and most secure; new routers should arrive already configured for it. Most routers also include a firewall, which monitors data as it flows through an internet connection. Firewalls block attacks from malicious hackers and keep unwanted data from passing to your PC. All the routers on our list have a built-in firewall. You can also use a software-based firewall to increase security.
Netgear Nighthawk AC1750 (R6700v3) Review
Netgear's entire Nighthawk line of routers gets positive reviews, especially from gaming enthusiasts and expert testers. The AC1750 (now in its third generation) is the entry-level model, but compared with other cheap dual-band routers, it's got the basics down and then some. With a powerful 1 GHz dual-core processor and beamforming technology, this Netgear router offers consistent, if not blazing-fast, data speeds at both short and long range (450 and 1300 Mbps), something few other routers do equally well. And most consumers report the Nighthawk AC1750 transmits a reliable signal, even in two-story homes. Those looking for a router with robust parental controls will be happy with the Disney Circle app found here. The basic service offers site blocking and internet interruption, and allows parents to view all browsing history (subscription packages provide even greater monitoring capabilities). Digital Trends recommends this Nighthawk router as its best pick for 2018, saying, "It's everything you could want in a home router without the need to spend hundreds of dollars."
Easy to configure.
Consistent performance in speed and range testing.
1 GHz dual-core processor.
3 antennas and beamforming for improved reception.
USB 3.0 port.
Built-in Circle with Disney parental controls.
Works with both Alexa and Google Assistant.
A handful complaints about customer support.
Relatively large for a router (11.2 by 7.2 inches).
Asus RT-AC68U AC1900 Review
If your home is crammed with wireless devices, a reliable internet connection able to stand up to heavy usage is essential. In professional tests, the dual-band Asus RT-AC68U excels even when up to 30 feet away from connected devices, and it delivers the fast speeds its advertised 1,900 Mbps would suggest. It can also be paired with other Asus routers to create a wireless mesh network for an entire home (although user reviews of this feature suggest functionality can be a bit hit or miss). The included Trend Micro software adds an additional layer of security, protecting the connection against malware, viruses, and access by unauthorized users. When this Asus router first came out in 2013, it was the favorite of many an expert and set the standard as the AC1900 router to beat. Five years later, it may not be as fast as its successor, the Asus RT-AC1900, but it's still more popular and stands pretty much toe-to-toe on most other fronts, excluding price: The Asus AC68U costs about $40 less than Asus' next-wave device.
Reliable connections at long distances, according to PCMag tests.
1 GHz dual-core processor; fast data-transfer speeds.
3 antennas and beamforming.
2 USB ports (3.0 and 2.0).
Comes with Trend Micro security tools.
Parental controls allow users to block content and set time limits.
Many users report problems with AiMesh feature.
Some have had issues updating firmware; many say customer service is not particularly helpful.
Older model; not as speedy as the upgraded Asus RT-AC1900.
Google Wifi is a wireless mesh system, which consists of a base unit that communicates with nodes placed around the house to maintain a consistent, strong signal. Experts say mesh systems are a great choice for multistory homes and other large spaces with thick walls or other obstructions. The primary drawback is that some signal loss can occur, because the units are both receiving and sending a signal, although most users say they don't notice this. Mesh systems are also more expensive than most wireless routers, but Google Wifi is actually on the cheaper end of that spectrum, and the price is worth it if you and your family are high-demand users or want to integrate other Google devices, like the Home personal assistant and Nest thermostat. The listed price is for a single Wifi point; a set of three, which should cover homes up to 4,500 square feet, costs about $256. Experts and owners alike are enamored of the aesthetics of these small, unobtrusive devices.
Wi-Fi mesh systems are much easier to set up than routers.
Dual-band system with quad-core processor supports beamforming and MU-MIMO, handily managing 4K streaming and gaming despite slower speeds, experts say.
Covers up to 1,500 square feet with a single Wifi point, more than many other mesh systems and traditional routers.
Compact size still allows for two gigabit Ethernet ports, plus an USB-C port, on each unit.
Mobile app helps users calibrate the Wi-Fi points for the best reception.
Parents can restrict access and pause internet service to select devices.
Scattered user complaints about inconsistent signal strength.
1,200 Mbps connection speed is not particularly impressive for the price.
Reviewers say the dual-band Netgear AC1200 router is a good choice for users who want to stream movies and browse the web but don't need to support a large network. Most owners say the router is simple to configure, and it's easy to connect devices, but several also note that the signal occasionally drops or slows down if more than five or six devices are connected at once. A few complain that this router doesn't have a range that's robust enough to provide a strong signal throughout a multistory home, but others claim they've been able to pick up the signal outside, up to a block away (some suggest using the 2.4 GHz band for greater range and penetration, although you sacrifice speed). Satisfied users appreciate the low price and reliability. Many say upgrading to this router from an older one has significantly increased their internet speeds.
Dual-band technology reduces the risk of interference.
Installation and configuration, whether automatic, via the Netgear web interface, or with an app, is a breeze, users say.
Built-in parental controls are easy to set up and modify.
Relatively slow (1,200 Mbps) compared with other dual-band routers.
No USB 3.0 port; slower 2.0 port only.
Scattered user complaints about customer service.
Parents cannot program scheduling restrictions for devices.
Asus N-300 (RT-N12) Review
The Asus RT-N12 is a basic, single-band router that gets very enthusiastic reviews from users for its reliable, if somewhat slow (300 Mbps) data transmission. It's a solid choice for users who need a strong Wi-Fi signal in only one or two rooms and don't mind a lack of 802.11ac support. It's also handy for those who want to set up multiple secure networks for guest access. Signal strength diminishes quickly, although you can buy a second router and use it as a network extender for larger spaces; it can easily be switched to repeater or access point modes, and the antennas can be detached and swapped out. For such a low price, you probably can't expect this router to last forever, but even with just a few months of service, it would pay for itself when compared with renting a router from your ISP (which might not be much faster and certainly wouldn't have the security and guest networking options).
Supports up to 3 guest networks.
Parental controls can block websites and set timers.
Single (2.4 GHz) band.
Setup is difficult and time-consuming, users say.
Older 802.11bgn standard.
No gigabit Ethernet ports; hardwired connections (4 LAN, 1 WAN) can achieve top speeds of only 100 Mbps.
Some reports of early demise.