A solid router is the centerpiece of the home network. As our lives get more and more digital, multiple devices and increasing bandwidth requirements all push the router, network, and internet connection to their limits. When it comes to PC gaming, this means the router is frequently under heavy load to deliver bleeding edge performance. The best gaming router is one that can cope not only with our current performance needs, but also the future demands of 4K video, Twitch streaming, VR, and the like.
The main feature that a gaming router needs to include is Quality of Service settings (QoS). This helps prioritize gaming traffic over other content, ensuring low latency during game play. This becomes even more critical when other people on the network are simultaneously consuming bandwidth, such as streaming videos or downloading game files.
With these criteria in mind, we narrowed things down to top picks in three different categories after having gone hands on with the latest models and evaluating for usability and performing benchmark tests. Also, be aware that while a decent router can provide service for several years, the market continues to change. Routers don’t go out of date as often as some components, but the router segment was far more static years ago; these days there’s a lot more emphasis on additional features and faster speeds.
As a general recommendation, if your router is sporting 802.11n or older wireless, it’s definitely time to see what modern router hardware can do to bring your network up to speed. And of course, don’t forget to check out our buying guide for a wireless USB adapter—there’s no sense running an 802.11ac router with support for four streams if you’re using an outdated client adapter.
Within the 802.11ac standard, there are many speeds to choose from. They are based on the combined theoretical maximum speed of the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz frequencies, rounded as needed. For example, AC1200 has a 2.4GHz speed of 300Mbps and a 5GHz speed of 867Mbps, which sums to 1167 and gets rounded to AC1200. Here’s the list of currently ratings:
It should be noted that on the fastest standards, AC3200 and AC5300, this is based on total bandwidth sent across three connections: one 2.4GHz, and two 5GHz. A single client will not receive that much bandwidth, and while this is not a significant limitation, it does amount to a certain amount of manufacturer exaggeration. On an AC5300 router, for example, they state “deliver faster Wi-Fi speeds of up to 5332 Mpbs,” failing to note that it’s only in aggregate.
The latest so-called ‘Wave 2’ routers support MU-MIMO. This stands for multiple user, multiple input, multiple output. While 802.11n MIMO was limited to a single client, MU-MIMO can be used across four simultaneous clients. It takes advantage of the radio wave phenomenon of multipath propagation. By this process, data transmission becomes more efficient as less bandwidth is wasted, and simultaneous transmissions can occur multiple channels.
In our testing, we were able to demonstrate in a setup where both the router and the client supported MU-MIMO, more than double the throughput compared to SU-MIMO.
While beamforming debuted with the 802.11n standard, it was significantly limited by requiring the router and the client to be from the same manufacturer. With 802.11ac, beamforming is now part of the standard, providing compatibility between manufacturers.
This technology allows the router to focus the transmission of the data stream more directly to the client, rather than transmitting equally in all directions. This increases the signal strength to where it is needed, with less interference. While this is now a standard, there are still proprietary implementations of beamforming such as Netgear’s Beamforming+ or D-Link’s AC Smartbeam, which promise even faster speeds. However, these claims go largely untested.
Open source firmware
Like other computing gear, routers have firmware embedded into their flash memory. When a router becomes vulnerable to an attack, it’s up to the manufacturer to patch the firmware. This is one of the arguments to have a router from a major manufacturer so that there will be firmware updates down the road, as long as the router remains supported. When setting up most routers, they will check for the latest firmware and install it, providing the best and most secure experience.
Unfortunately, even the most reliable and zealous manufacturers of networking gear grow faint in the firmware department at some point. It’s not realistic for a manufacturer to continue devoting resources to older products that are long out of warranty support, and these are usually no longer being sold. But with homes and businesses continuing to use routers for many years, the potential to end up with network vulnerabilities on older hardware is a concern.
There are several open source firmware solutions that are produced and maintained by enthusiastic communities. These projects include DD-WRT, Tomato, and OpenWRT. While these open firmwares were traditionally loaded onto routers no longer supported to enable current security and additional features, times have changed. Some manufacturers, such as Buffalo with their AirStation Extreme AC1750, are manufacturing new routers, and their only firmware is of the open source variety. Some question whether this is a better approach, but an advantage is that the end user will likely have access to a more secure and up to date firmware for longer than what most manufacturers typically support.
Routers have settings that need to be configured, such as setting up a Guest Network, or changing the Wi-Fi password. Typically this is done via a web interface through a browser page on the computer. More convenient is a smartphone interface done via an Android or iOS app. These are free apps that are provided by the router manufacturer that can control many, but not all, of the router functions that can be done over a web interface. (These same apps can also be used on a tablet, naturally.)
The advantage is that the login and web address do not need to be remembered each time an adjustment is made. Examples of this include the Netgear Genie and Google’s OnHub. An additional benefit is that some of these apps can be used even when the smartphone is away from the router and not connected via Wi-Fi, which can be useful when there is an issue with the home network and you are elsewhere.
QoS stands for Quality of Service. This is a setting that allows the router to prioritize more important traffic over less critical data, allowing the available bandwidth to be utilized most effectively. In general, streaming media, such as high bandwidth HD or 4K video, and gaming require an uninterrupted flow of data to ensure an excellent experience. Higher performance routers feature QoS that can be toggled on as an overall setting. Even better, some routers allow for even more granular settings that allow certain websites to be specifically designated as priority. If you value low ping times in games and routinely have other PCs or devices using a lot of your internet bandwidth, QoS can be very beneficial.
Checking bandwidth and how we test
All the routers in this guide were tested first hand using a variety of high bandwidth applications, including gaming, 4K video, file transfers, and general web surfing. The latest version of the router’s firmware was flashed onto the router at the onset of testing. All the client devices used were consistent throughout testing, running the latest drivers and software.
Testing was done for throughput using NetPerf software. A desktop with a Gigabit Ethernet port (10/100/1000) is used to send the data via a wired connection to the router via a CAT 5e cable.
Three test runs were done on each wireless adapter at each of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, at both the close and far distances, with the highest throughput of each parameter reported. The client used is the Trendnet TEW-809UB, our choice for the Best high-end USB Wi-Fi Adapter. The throughput is tested both at a “close” 8’ (2.4m) distance with direct line of sight, and also at a “far” 30’ (9.1m) distance with an obstructing floor and wall in the way, as well as some metal ductwork intervening. The “close” test indicates the peak throughput of the hardware, while the “far” test is a more realistic test of what the end user will experience when separated from the router by a wall or floor.
The results are presented below, with all speeds reported in Mbps.
For this update of our guide, we added a “Gaming Network Congestion Test,” similar to what we do on our mesh router testing. However, here the congestion is two YouTube videos, streaming at 4K, with the Dropped Frames quantitated via the “Stats for Nerds” feature, and we report the total from the two videos. We also use FRAPS 3.5.99 software to quantitate the FPS for our standard game, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, run from Origin on a Lenovo S400 laptop, upgraded to 8 GB of RAM. The wireless client is again, the Edimax EW-7833UAC.
Performance results will vary from environment to environment, and we endeavor to control the variables to make our results reproducible.
Amped Wireless High Power AC2600 Wi-Fi Router with MU-MIMO (Athena R2)
Amped Wireless’ entry into the budget router market is their Athena R2 mode. It features 16 advanced amplifiers coupled to 4 high gain antennas all driven by a 1.3 GHz quad core processor. In our testing, the Athena R2 is in the handful of routers that can exceed 300 Mbps of throughput on the 5 GHz test (301.26 Mbps to be exact), and was no slouch at 2.4 GHz. However, on the network congestion test, the low FPS of 17.8, with the highest to date 48.8% video packet loss left us cold.
The Asus RT-AC1900P features AC1900 speeds (N600/AC1300) that are fairly standard in this segment. It takes a fairly business approach to the router design, with matte black plastic in a vertical design, with three antennas that can be positioned. The Asus RT-AC1900P has a 3 x 3 antenna design. It has a dual core processor inside, with a 1.4 GHz clock speed, and 256 MB of RAM with 128 MB of flash memory. In addition to functioning as a router, it can also function as a range extender or access point giving additional flexibility in the setup of a network. While some other gear struggled on the 2.4 GHz frequency, this router hardly breaks a sweat. The only real problem for this otherwise capable router is that it got bested on the FPS and streaming video tests by the similar hardware specced, but more capable and gaming focused Asus RT-AC86U.
The Asus RT-AC5300 is an imposing piece of networking hardware with eight antennas arranged around a square block of a case with plastic mesh for ventilation. The AC5300 designation results from the tri-bands of this router: 1000Mbps on the 2.4GHz frequency, and a pair of 5GHz bands, each good for 2167Mbps. In testing, the Asus RT-AC5300 proved totally stable and had fast throughput among high end routers for throughput speeds on the 2.4 GHz band, with solid scores on all the tests consistently above 200 Mbps. When we put the AC 5300 through our network gaming congestion test, it had solid FPS at 30.8, but that puts it a few FPS behind its replacement, the Asus ROG.
The Asus RT-AC88U covers all the essentials, with AiRadar Beamforming, MU-MIMO and four external antennas. Speeds are AC3100, and this router takes it a step above for the category, with eight Gigabit Ethernet ports, supporting both link aggregation, and Dual WAN’s. There are also plenty of features for power users to rejoice in, including Adaptive QoS, Game Boost and VPN settings. The slower throughput than the Netgear XR500, and the slightly lower FPS and higher video packet loss on video streams edge this otherwise capable Asus offering this time around.
D-Link EXO AC2600 (DIR-882)
The D-Link EXO AC2600 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi Router was recently introduced, promising 4x4 MU-MIMO, AC Smartbeam, and Advanced QoS to optimize gaming. While its 5 GHz throughput speeds were impressive, the 2.4 GHz throughput fell behind the rest of the pack. On our network congestion test, while the video streams had a very respectable dropped frame rate of 8.7%, but counting against this was that the DIR-882 also had a painfully low FPS on the gaming test.
D-Link DIR-879 EXO
The D-Link DIR-879 EXO was a previous budget choice, with its fast 5 GHz speeds. However the slower 2.4 GHz speeds, and the lack of any USB ports are barriers to recommending the only piece of networking gear to be emblazoned in orange, even at the current bargain basement $59 price point.
Netgear Nighthawk X4S
A few moons ago, the Netgear X4S was our choice for the best overall router, and on our last revision, it remained a runner up choice. While we still feel fondly for the Netgear X4S, and it is still a decent piece of networking gear, these days the throughput falls behind, and on network congestion testing our game only ran at 16 FPS, although with a very respectable packet loss of 17.4%.
Netgear Nighthawk X6S
Netgear recently released their update to the X6 model, the X6S, which upgrades it from AC3200 to tri-band AC4000 (N750 + AC1625 + AC1625), and the CPU goes to a 1.8 GHz dual core, 64 bit piece of silicon. The X6S supports link aggregation, and has six external, and easy to deploy and folding antennas.
In use, it has solid 5 GHz speeds, however, the lower 2.4 GHz throughput, and gaming congestion test of 18 FPS, keep it from becoming our pick for this category.
TP-Link Archer C9 V2
At first glance, the word that comes to mind for the TP-Link Archer C9 is ‘quirky.’ Rather than the typical horizontal design, the Archer C9 heads in the other direction, and goes for a space saving vertical design, complete with a metal kickstand. We were pleasantly surprised to find a full set of options for QoS settings, by both device, and the application. Looking at the specs, the Archer C9 hardly gives up much ground, with a full AC1900 feature, and has a 1 GHz dual core processor. The Archer C9 also incorporates beamforming, and has dual USB ports, although only one is USB 3.0, and they both support either a flash drive or a printer. It has the usual four Gigabit ports on the rear as well; just realize that the Archer C9 does not support MU-MIMO. The mediocre 16 FPS on the gaming congestion test, and the higher 22.3% dropped frames on video streaming cause us to look elsewhere.
TP-Link Archer AC2600
The TP-Link AC2600 takes a more utilitarian approach to the router with its horizontal configuration and more standard four antennas across the rear, in contrast to the more quirky Archer C9. The TP-Link AC2600 is a plenty decent router, but the issue is that the Archer C9 offers faster speeds in our throughput testing, and comes in at a lower cost.
Linksys WRT 3200 ACM
The WRT 3200ACM brings the goods to the table including AC3200 speeds (N600 + AC1300 + AC1300 [tri-stream]), a 1.8 GHz dual core ARM processor, and a USB 3.0 port, and a combo USB 2.0/eSATA port. It also claims to use open firmware right out of the box, either from DD-WRT or OpenWRT. The Linksys WRT 3200ACM’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag. On the 2.4 GHz close test, its close performance throughput of 191.8 Mbps lagged our other mid-range router choices, that all exceed 200 Mbps, and it fell even fell further behind on the far 2.4 GHz test with a middling 118.1 Mbps of throughput. However, the speeds on the 5 GHz were a different story, where it easily keeps up with its peers on the close test, and on the far test had a speedy 214.3 Mbps.
Linksys AC3200 Dual-Band WiFi Gaming Router with Killer Prioritization Engine (WRT32X)
Take the already capable Linksys WRT3200M router, let Killer Networking redo the software including the KPE (Killer Prioritization Engine), and we get the Linksys WRT32X. This router takes prioritization of gaming to the next level, but the catch is that it really shines when the client is a Killer NIC, which are only integrated into motherboards or notebooks. With a Killer client, we can stream four simultaneous 4K videos, and still game at over 26 FPS- an impressive feat. It keeps from earning our recommendation due to lower 2.4 GHz throughput, lower FPS than our high end pick, and a higher video packet loss.
Linksys EA7500 Max-Stream AC1900 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router
The Linksys EA7500 is an attempt at a budget router that supports MU-MIMO, albeit only 3x3, while most at 4x4. However, particularly slow speeds on the 2.4 GHz frequency, especially as the distance increased, led us to other recommendations.
Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router
The top of the heap router from Linksys is their EA9500 model, with tri-bands supporting AC5400 speeds (N1000 + AC2166 + AC2166) and eight antennas crowning this model dressed in business black plastic. While we liked the integrated eight port switch, the speeds of the EA9500 could not keep up with our other recommended routers, preventing it from earning our recommendation.
Trendnet AC2600 StreamBoost MU-MIMO Wi-Fi Router (TEW-827DRU)
The Trendnet AC2600 features StreamBoost QoS, and other advanced features including protection from DoS attacks. While the 5 GHz speeds were strong, the pokey 2.4 GHz speeds across the distances tempered our enthusiasm for this model with particularly tall antennas.
Routers will continue to evolve, with new technology on the horizon. The successor to the current Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac is 802.11ax. It promises to offer even faster speeds via 8x8 MU-MIMO technology. Several vendors announced upcoming products at CES 2018, and they are expected later this year.
Another direction that routers are moving in is to have more available computing power, with the routers featuring dual core processors, with RAM and storage that would have fit in with a mainstream computer from some years ago. With this level of computing power on tap, routers such as the Synology RT1900ac become possible that integrate more functionality including an app store and PC-less downloads.
As new routers come on the market, with additional features and technologies, look for this guide to evolve.
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