Your buying guide for the best Wi-Fi routers of 2018
There are two types of routers, those with built-in modems and those without. Although we still call them wireless routers, there's no need as there aren't any 'wired' routers any more: all have built-in Wi-Fi. That's what makes them wireless.
Actually, there's now a third type of router - mesh Wi-Fi network systems. These comprise two or more Wi-Fi routers which work together to deliver a Wi-Fi network that can cover even the largest of homes.
The type of router you need will depend on how your broadband is supplied. If it's via your phone line, you'll need a router with an ADSL or VSDL modem.
ADSL is more common, but VSDL is used for faster connections which involve fibre, such as BT Infinity. In most cases the fibre optic cable doesn't come to your house, but the nearest cabinet in your road (or an adjacent one). This is why it's called FTTC - fibre to the cabinet.
There's also FTTP - fibre to the premises. This is much less common (and typically only available in new-build properties) but it means you can sign up for much faster broadband packages.
If you have FTTP or 'cable' broadband (from Virgin for example) you need a 'cable' router, i.e. one without a built-in modem. Sometimes you can use one with a modem, but in most cases it needs to specifically support the broadband service from the fibre provider and have an RJ45 WAN port so you can connect it to your provider's wall box.
What if I just want better Wi-Fi in my home?
We've written a guide on how to improve Wi-Fi in the home, which includes some great tips on getting better speed and coverage from your existing router.
But if they don't work for you, there's a new generation of so-called mesh networks, which replace the Wi-Fi that your router provides.
These typically come in a set of two or three units, and you place them around your home to get good Wi-Fi speed and coverage throughout.
However, if you need better Wi-Fi in just one room, you could be better off buying a set of powerline network adaptors with built-in Wi-Fi.
Do I need an 802.11ac router?
802.11ac is better than every version of Wi-Fi before it. The principle benefits of 11ac are increased throughput and longer range.
In other words, data can be sent much quicker, and you’re more likely to maintain a usefully fast connection when you’re further away - even several rooms or floors removed from your wireless router.
One way the latest wireless version been optimised is by using multiple aerials, as we’ve already seen with 11n Wi-Fi. But 11ac raises the speed again.
These days it makes sense to buy an 802.11ac router (as opposed to 802.11n) because many wireless devices now support this standard.
What about MU-MIMO?
Some of the latest routers support MU-MIMO, which means the router can communicate with multiple devices at the same time rather than having to quickly send data to different devices in turn, which is how all non-MU-MIMO routers do it. We explain this more fully in What is MU-MIMO?
What features should I look for in a router?
Once you know the type of router you need, it's then a case of deciding how much to spend and the features you want.
For best results, look for an 11ac wireless router with at least three aerials - although, in some cases, these will be mounted discreetly inside, so check the specs or our expert reviews to be sure what you’re getting.
For the router’s hardware design, you may prefer something that looks less like GCHQ’s Bude listening station, and more like something you’d want in your lounge. Our extensive lab testing suggests that internally mounted antennas can be just as effective as routers that rock the stealth bomber look.
With many homes still finding a need for wired ethernet connections, it makes sense to have a good number of ethernet LAN ports - check out our guide to the best ethernet cables if you want to maximise speeds in a wired network.
Be sure there are at least gigabit spec, and four ports seems to be standard issue, with the exception of the Apple AirPort range which settles for just three.
Even a limited array can be easily and cheaply extended though with a gigabit switch at any time, although that creates more wires and boxes and power supplies to hide.
If you want to share a hard drive without going the whole hog and buying a NAS drive, then get a router with a USB port which supports storage. Many also let you share a USB printer this way.
Synology's RT1900ac router combines the software from its NAS drives with router hardware, so you can simply add your own external storage.
Some routers offer a 'guest' network that lets friends get online without being able to access the computers and other gadgets on your home network. This won't be high on your list of priorities, but it could be invaluable if you're running a small business like a B&B.
Some brands are now touting ‘smart routers’, which can allow access to the router’s setup admin interface by people outside of your home network. Given the number of security vulnerabilities already included in most domestic routers, we would not encourage additional ways to compromise your home than is necessary.
The routers reviewed below are a mixture of those with modems and those without, so check before buying whether you need a modem or not.
Best Wi-Fi routers 2018
- Reviewed on: 3 September 2015
The Asus DSL-AC68U is a great 802.11ac modem router, with excellent software and decent performance at a reasonable price.
Read our Asus DSL-AC68U review.
- Reviewed on: 11 August 2016
We hope MU-MIMO performance can also be improved further and 2.4 GHz performance at a distance was middling. Aside from these caveats we were impressed with the TP-Link Archer VR2600. If you can stick with 5 GHz channels all the better but if not, you’ll still have a very strong all-round performer. If you’re looking for a one-box solution to replace a BT Home Hub we’d recommend the Archer VR2600.
Read our TP-Link VR2600 review.
- Reviewed on: 3 May 2018
As gaming routers go, this is a spectacular one. The DumaOS brings the XR500 into line with the operating system flexibility that you’d expect from a Synology NAS. This OS is focused on effective network management rather than providing network services, though.
We’d like it to be cheaper, but that is so true of many of the most desirable devices.
Read our Netgear XR500 Nighthawk Pro review.
- Reviewed on: 3 July 2017
The Asus DSL-AC88U manages to deliver the key Wi-Fi, LAN and broadband connectivity in a highly effective one-size-fits-all package. It’s far superior to the typical router that broadband suppliers provide, and ideal for any household that uses Wi-Fi extensively.
Just watch out for the RT-AC88U version when buying: this is an identical-looking router but it lacks the ADSL modem necessary for most UK broadband packages.
Read our Asus DSL-AC88U review.
- Reviewed on: 23 September 2015
Put it all together and the AVM Fritz!Box 3490 is a very strong offering. Great performance, great software, a good range of features and plenty of room for expansion with external storage. A winning combination.
Read our AVM Fritz!Box 3490 review.
- Reviewed on: 9 August 2016
The Asus RT-AC87U combines smart design with a simple to use but featured-packed interface. Performance impresses, especially over 5GHz and also at distance. From our tests the MU-MIMO feature currently only offers a small speed increase but as a package, for the money, this router is an excellent buy.
Read our Asus RT-AC87U review.
- Reviewed on: 6 February 2018
The D-Link DIR-882 is an interesting combination of solid wireless technology and useful extra features including DNLA and FTP. The modest extra cost of this over an AC1900 design makes it an interesting proposition for those that use their Wi-Fi heavily or exclusively.
Read our D-Link DIR-882 EXO AC2600 review.
- Reviewed on: 2 March 2018
A very powerful router that packs almost all the networking functionality any home user might reasonably want. The C5400 Lilly is gilded with wired link aggregation and now IoT support.
A monster wireless router that should handle what most users can throw at it with ease.
Read our TP-Link Archer C5400 v2 review.
- Reviewed on: 5 July 2017
Synology has approached the router with the same design ethic as their excellent NAS range, and the RT2600ac is the stunning result. Where other router makers talk-the-talk of security, flexibility and performance, the RT2600ac unequivocally delivers on those words.
Read our Synology RT2600ac review.
- Reviewed on: 13 October 2016
The Synology RT1900ac is a very good router marred slightly by occasionally inconsistent performance and occasional 5 GHz dropouts. That aside, performance is very good, which is impressive considering its compact size. It doesn’t feature cutting-edge tech such as MU-MIMO, but that’s still a work in progress and there are still very few phones and other Wi-Fi devices that can take advantage of it. Its reasonable price also works in its favour. But if you want to share files across the network, and even access them remotely, without forking out on a NAS, then the Synology RT1900ac will do the job.
Read our Synology RT1900ac review.