The fact is, the router your Internet Service Provider supplied you with simply isn’t enough to handle all of your smart devices, both in terms of quantity and data. You can use this list to meet your growing connectivity needs with the best routers available today. These routers will ensure a solid and stable network
First though, let’s talk about what we are looking for and some of the benefits.
What is a Smart Wi-Fi Router?
To be a smart router, it should be up-to-date with the latest Wi-Fi standards (or at least only one generation old), it should be fast, it should be secure, it should be able to connect to many devices, and it should be able to cover your whole house.
There is no hard and set definition on what makes a smart router, but that is my opinion. There are also a few nice to have features as well which I will discuss
Now, the question becomes, how do you measure those qualities?
Here is what to look for.
• 2.4 & 5 GHz
• Router Speed/Throughput (At least AC1200)
Nice to Haves
• Network Security
Router Must Haves
There is one place where you are gauranteed to find those features, and that is in the latest WI-Fi standard. There is a lot of hype right now about what has been dubbed Wi-Fi 6, or by the more technical name of IEEE 802.11ax. The Wi-Fi Alliance is in the process of doing a re-branding of Wi-Fi standards from the technical naming convention to the more consumer friendly single digit naming, incrementing by one with each new generation.
If you haven’t heard of the Wi-Fi Alliance, they are a consortium of companies that promotes Wi-Fi technology and certifies Wi-Fi products for conformity to certain standards of interoperability. Most producers of 802.11 equipment became members, and as of 2012, the Wi-Fi Alliance included over 550 member companies. At least that is how Wikipedia describes them here, and I couldn’t find a better description than that. If you see the Wi-Fi logo, that means the product was certified by these guys.
Wi-Fi 6 has a lot of enhancements targeted at IoT devices. It promises more capacity, efficiency, coverage, and performance that is required by users today. Here is one of the marketing blurbs (full article can be seen here) straight from the Wi-Fi Alliance.
“Emphasizing quality connectivity in locations with hundreds or thousands of connected devices such as stadiums and other public venues, as well as corporate networks utilizing time sensitive, high bandwidth applications, Wi-Fi 6 networks ensure each connected device performs at an optimum level. Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 devices meet the highest standards for security and interoperability, and enable lower battery consumption, making it a solid choice for any environment, including the Internet of Things (IoT).
Key benefits of Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 technology include:
- Higher data rates
- Increased capacity
- Performance in environments with many connected devices
- Improved power efficiency”
Wi-Fi 6 Features
You can tell that the Wi-Fi standard creators are really trying to cater Wi-Fi towards IoT in several ways. There are a few ways that these new enhancements are achieved. Here is an infograph from the Wi-Fi Alliance showing the big ones. There’s a lot of technical jargon that doesn’t mean a lot to most people, but let’s take a look at a few important ones in further detail.
Mu-MIMO, short for Multi-User Multi-Input, Multi Output, was created to support environments where multiple users are trying to access a wireless network at the same time. Mu-MIMO allows for several high bandwidth applications to run on your network at the same time. In your house, that would look like all the people under your roof being able to use multiple high bandwidth services all at once. Imaging such as HD video streaming, gaming, and viewing security cameras simultaneously. For a lot of us, you won’t even have to imagine because we are already trying to do that.
If multiple users are trying to access your router at the same time, this creates congestion. In the past, a router answers the first user’s request while the second (and all the other devices) wait. While these times can be minimal, they can start to add up as we add more and more smart devices and more devices in general (smartphones, tablets, computers, appliances, etc.) onto our network, and more devices are asking for resources. MU-MIMO helps this by allowing for multiple users to access router functions at the same time, instead of responding one by one.
Mu-MIMO is not a new idea with Wi-Fi 6, it has been around since 802.11ac, or should I say Wi-Fi 5? That’s right, 802.11ac is being retroactively named. Anyways, WI-Fi 5 Mu-MIMO technology only works for downlink connections. This is great for home users who will likely need faster speeds for 4K video streams and online gaming, but less useful for business workers who need faster uploads for content creation (such as video uploading) or two-way video conferencing applications.
WI-Fi 6 addresses the uplink issue of MU-MIMO. MU-MIMO is now bidirectional, meaning multiple users can now upload data at the same time. This means less time the Wi-Fi airwaves are tied up, ultimately improving network throughput and efficiency.
OFDMA stands for Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access. I would call OFDMA an advanced RF technique. I don’t completely understand it, so I’m not going to try to explain it. There is tons of info on Google and YouTube if you are interested in learning more.
I will say though, that OFDMA allows a router to allocate a whole Wi-Fi channel to a single user at a time, or it can partition a channel to serve multiple users simultaneously. OFDMA is best suited for low bandwidth applications and results in better frequency reuse, reduced latency, and increased efficiency. I’m a visual person, so this chart helped me understand it a little better.
To sum it up, for home users, this is aimed at improving speed and efficiency of users who tend to use multiple devices simultaneously to manage many things, such IoT devices, online web usage, streaming music and video, Voip calls, etc. All this while providing coverage over the whole house.
Target Wake Time
Target Wake Time (TWT) is an important update that helps reduce congestion from having many devices on Wi-Fi, as well as helping with saving power for IoT devices that are battery powered.
Target Wake Time enables devices to determine when and how frequently they will wake up to send or receive data. Essentially, this allows your WiFi 6 router to effectively increase device sleep time and significantly conserve battery life, a feature that is particularly important for IoT devices. In addition to saving power on the client device side, Target Wake Time enables your router and connected devices to negotiate and define specific times to access the medium. This helps optimize RF congestion efficiency by reducing contention and overlap between users.
Here is an image that I found helpful in showing the concept.
The main concepts and benefits from Target Wake Time are:
- Routers and other Access Points negotiate with devices and define specific times to access those devices.
- TWT reduces contention and overlap between users and devices.
- TWT greatly reduces power consumption by increasing the time that devices are asleep.
Routers have all sorts of speeds listed on their packaging — from 8Mbps (megabits per second) to 1900Mbps. In theory, the higher the number, the faster your internet speed . Clearly labeled on the box, you will often see routers that are AC1200, AC1750, AC 3200, and so on. The “AC” refers to the wireless standard, while the number refers to the speed. With WiFi 6, you should start to see labels that indicate WiFi 6, but you will still probably see “AX” as well.
The number portion after the AC or AX indicated the maximum uplink/downlink rate of the router. It is the sum of both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radios. For example, a router with a maximum link rate of 500 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,500Mbps on the 5GHz band is considered an AC2000 router. The speeds advertised on the router packaging are theoretical maximums, and usually only achieved in lab testing. The actual speeds you’ll get at home depend on lots of different factors: your ISP plan & connection, your modem, your home, RF interference, and more.
Keep in mind that no individual device connected to your router, such as your smart TV, uses all that bandwidth at once. Imagine that. One device taking up all your internet. Haha. Anyways…..also keep in mind that each device can only use one band or the other (2.4 Ghz or 5 GHz) at a time. If you are not using high-bandwidth applications, you only really need 50Mbps downlink from your router.
How to choose Router Speed: To choose a speed, consider your internet activity: for the average internet user, AC1200 routers are usually sufficient. IF you are going to be streaming video, gaming, or some other activity that requires a lot of bandwidth, go with a faster router. Most WiFi 6 certified routers will be plenty fast enough for high speed applications.
Router security is important when it comes to keeping the information on your network protected. The security acronyms to know when buying a new router are WEP, WPA, and WPA2. All three are WiFi protected access protocols, which encrypt your network and require that outside devices — and hackers — have a “key” to gain access.
WiFi 6 is required to have WPA3, which is the lastest Wi-Fi security standard. It tackles WPA2 shortcomings to better secure your personal and IoT wireless networks.
Routers are also beginning to have cyber security protection built directly into the router. Netgear has Bitdefender, Asus has TrendMicro. Here are some of the protections that can provide.
They keep a URL blacklist of unsafe or non-secure websites stored in the cloud. Any outbound url is checked against this list. When you are browsing the internet, this will help keep you safe from phishing and online fraud.
From NETGEAR: Scan and identify network security flaws: backdoors, weak or default passwords, and unsecured or poorly encrypted communications. When NETGEAR Armor finds something, it correlates information from your devices with online vulnerability databases. You then get a thorough report that includes tips on how to address your specific issues and secure your network.
Device Security Management
Receive instant alerts when new devices join your network, so you can immediately block Wi-Fi access for devices you don’t recognize. The other option is to not allow new devices to join, and you manually have to go open up your network when adding a device.
If we are going to call this a smart device, it should have a way to control it through an app, right? Here are some of the features that you might find in an app for a router.
View your WiFi status, a list of your connected devices, and all of your router’s features. There is often an option to pause internet completely or on specific devices.
Check the speed of your internet connection directly from your router. This should provide more accurate results than running from a device that is connected to your router.
Smart Parental Controls
Easily filter content and manage time online for your child.
Cyber threat protection
Remember that built-in protection we talked about? Get advanced security for all of your connected devices.
ZigBee or IEEE 802.15.4 Compatibility
802.15.4 is the baseline of what Zigbee uses.
A dual-purpose router with smart home features will have a ZigBee and/or Z-Wave radio that can communicate with your smart devices that use those protocols.
A mesh network is a group of devices that act as a single Wi-Fi network; so there are multiple sources of Wi-Fi around your house, instead of just a single router. These additional Wi-Fi sources are called access points.
Since each device broadcasts a Wi-Fi singnal from each point, all around your house (and not just a single router), they provide better coverage over more of your house. Hopefully covering your whole house and eliminating dead spots. If you have a large house, you can add more points for additional Wi-Fi coverage.
All points are connected to each other wirelessly. They can communicate with one another wirelessly without the need for a router or switch as long as they are within range of each other. This allows for fast and efficient data routing.
Here are some benefits of a mesh network:
- Flexible coverage: Additional points can be added to get better coverage in hard-to-cover areas, like hallways. Or they can be placed near walls for outdoor coverage.
- Reliability: If one point goes down, communication is simply rerouted through another point. Everything is good as long as the main router stays connected.
Best Wi-Fi Routers For Your Smart Home
Here is the list you have been waiting for. Many of these routers are Wi-Fi 6, but some are the (now) older 802.11 AC standard. These Wi-Fi 5 routers have a history of reliability and features that are still coming online in the new standard. Also, they are cheaper if price is a concern for you.
Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien
With the latest 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 technology, AmpliFi Alien delivers 4x the overall network capacity and 2x the coverage while reaching true gigabit speeds.
The AmpliFi Alien router is a high speed router, capable of delivering gigabit speeds. Equiped with Wi-Fi 6 technology, the AmpliFi Alien is able to deliver 4 times the bandwidth and covers over twice the coverage area of previous generations. It has a tri-band radio with a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz 802.11ax radio for Wi-Fi 6. Those are backwards compatible with previous Wi-Fi standards, but the third radio is dedicated to 5 GHz Wi-Fi 5 devices. It cannot be used for Wi-Fi 6.
AmpliFi Alien can be used as a stand-alone router, or you can add an additional AmpliFi Alien Routers to create a mesh network that will help expand Wi-Fi range & coverage.
Here are some of the features that Ubiquity hgihlights:
- Wi-Fi 6 performance
- 5 GHz 8×8 Wi-Fi 6 radio (Max speed 4804 Mbps)
- 2.4 GHz 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 radio (Max speed 1148 Mbps)
- 5 GHz 4×4 Wi-Fi 5 radio (Max speed 1733 Mbps)
- 4-Port Gigabit Ethernet switch
- Touchscreen display
- Includes AmpliFi Teleport configuration-free VPN solution
This router has a futuristic design that makes it suitable for having in a visible area. For good reason too. Its recommended that the router is placed in the center of the house in order to assure maximum coverage. That doesn’t matter so much if you are setting up a mesh network. It is cylindrical, like Alexa, and has a touchscreen interface with a LED light ring around the base to indicate different statuses.
The Alien router features a VPN option which they call AmpliFi Teleport. It’s a little different than what a typical VPN provides in that it lets you route your web traffic through your home network from anywhere in the world. Normally,for residential users, that is the other way around. They claim it is easy to use and mention that it is free as well. A use case might be if you are connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, and want to stream your local channels from a digital TV service while you’re traveling.
Critics claim that the Alien is missing a few features too, for being a high-end router. It does not include a multigig Ethernet ports. It only has gigabit ports, which are capable of accepting incoming wired speeds as fast as 1Gbps. That is plenty fast for your smart devices. The second complaint is that one of its two 5GHz bands only supports Wi-Fi 5. Those are both high-end problems only applicable to a handful of users.
The Alien router does a lot of things right, and Ubiquity is constantly working on improving the firmware running on the router. If you want a fancy, feature-rich router with plenty of horsepower and support for Wi-Fi 6, the Alien fits the bill.
The Asus RT-AX88U is a Wi-Fi 6 route and comes loaded with advanced features and user-friendly, capable management software. You can control the RT-AX88U using a mobile app or the more advanced web console. The web console main screen contains a network map that shows all connected clients, internet and security status, connected USB devices, and Wi-Fi information for both radio bands.
The left side of the screen has a menu containing General and Advanced settings. General settings include Guest networking, a Traffic Analyzer, USB storage settings, Adaptive QoS, and AiCloud settings. The Adaptive QoS settings offer manual and automatic bandwidth thresholds and application-specific prioritization.
This router uses Trend Micro’s AiProtection software to block access to malicious sites, detect viruses, and apply Parental Controls that let you block sites you don’t want your kids to see, restrict access to social media sites, and block streaming media and entertainment content.
ASUS routers also have a cool feature called AiMesh. This feature is capable of the router into a part of a mesh network. It’s still being developed for WI-Fi 6 routers, but has been proven out on WI-Fi 5 routers. SO if you have one router, and then add a second ASUS router, you can then create a mesh network in your house. It’s a pretty cool concept that I see other competitors picking up in the future.
The Netgear RAX120 is a dual-band router with support for Wi-Fi 6. It has lots of customization options, particularly if you want to use the router to manage access to networked storage. The Netgear RAX120 has a multigig Ethernet port that supports incoming speeds of up to 5Gbps and the option to combine two of the single-gig Ethernet jacks for aggregated incoming wired speeds of up to 2Gbps.
The Nighthawk app offers quick, basic controls for your system, and it does a good job of walking you through the setup process quickly. The RAX120 supports denial of service protection and the latest WPA3 encryption. It also lets you block specific sites or services outright or on a schedule. It does not yet include a traffic-scanning threat detector. I suspect the firmware will be updated at some point since previous-generation Nighthawk and Orbi routers ship with support for Netgear Armor.
Netgear’s Wi-Fi 6 Nighthawk routers were some of the first 802.11ax routers to go on the market. They are a good upgrade option if you think you will be able to get good use out of the multigig Ethernet ports. That means your running more than smart devices on your router.
If you’re just looking for a fast, reliable upgrade that supports Wi-Fi 6, you can spend less on some other options. The TP-Link Archer AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 router is a good choice. It may not have all the advanced features, but it also doesn’t have the price tag of the devices we’ve looked at so far.
TP-Link Archer AX6000
The TP-Link Archer AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 router is a bulky device equipped with the latest technology. It has numerous connectivity options, including eight gigabit LAN ports, a multi-gigabit WAN port, and two USB ports. The router is easy to install and can be managed from a phone using the TP-Link Tether mobile app, as well as the web console which offers more advanced controls. The Archer AX6000 delivers solid throughput and file-transfer performance, but it’s not quite as fast as the Netgear RAX120.
The Archer can be managed using the TP-Link Tether mobile app for iOS and Android devices, but, as mentioned, you’ll need the web console to access and configure advanced options. The web console is the same one used to manage previous generations of TP-Link routers. It opens to a screen that contains a network map that shows connected devices and has a Speedtest button for measuring internet upload and download speeds. The top of the screen has Quick Setup, Basic, and Advanced tabs, and over on the left is the menu bar.
The TP-Link Archer AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 router is a great choice if you want to save some money and don’t need all the speed of the top-notch routers.
Asus Blue Wave
The Asus Blue Cave AC2600 is a feature-packed dual-band wireless router made to be seen. It is also the first Wi-Fi 5 router on the list. The Blue Cave is a small white box with a big, blue-outlined hole in the middle that lights up. It is sure to be a conversation piece when guests come over.
The Blue Cave has one gigabit WAN port for internet, four gigabit LAN ports for your wired devices, along with one USB 3.0 port. Asus did a great job designing a modern looking device while incorporating the ports and buttons one would expect.
Setting up the Blue Cave from the Asus Router app or its web interface is easy. Setup should only take a few minutes with either method. This router also comes with AiProtection, which I mentioned earlier in the list. It provides security and protection for your network.
I’d definitely recommend the Blue Cave to anyone who wants style, speed and security from their hole home network. The Blue Cave offers top speeds, for the Wi-Fi 5 generation of routers, at an affordable price. Its menu gives access to almost every setting you could need and free security from Trend Micro helps protect your network. Alexa and IFTTT are also supported.
Samsung SmartThings Wifi
Outfitted with Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth radios in addition to Wi-Fi, it can control just about any smart home device you can think of. SmartThings Wifi is an AC1300-class, dual-band device, meaning it’s based on the 802.11ac protocol (Wi-Fi 5) and that it operates one network on the 5GHz frequency band, and the other on the 2,4 GHz band.
Samsung’s SmartThings Wifi is kinda an all-in-one. You not only get a reliable mesh Wi-Fi system, but you get the added bonus of the SmartThings ecosystem for home automation. With products from Ring, Schlage, Ecobee, and many more all supported by the SmartThings ecosystem, it makes sense to consolidate the number of hubs and devices in your home.
If you’re looking to make the jump to mesh, then Samsung’s SmartThings Wifi is worthy of your consideration. If you don’t plan on having a lot of devices that use WI-Fi, but rather Zigbee or Z-Wave, SmartThings Wifi is a great option.
Google Nest WiFi
The Google Nest Wifi is an excellent mesh router system with good top speeds, strong performance in terms of range, and has easy-to-use features. The range-extending Nest Wifi Points come in your choice of three colors: Snow, Mist, or Sand. In non-marketing lingo, that is white, blue or pink. All of these access points also double as Google Assistant smart speakers, so if you already make regular use of Google’s products and services, then the Nest Wifi will be a good fit.
Google touts the following features of the Nest WiFi:
- Good performance
- Google Assistant with music
- Easy setup Small
The app doesn’t offer nearly as many features as the routers we have previously mentioned, but you still get useful controls over your network. It’s not designed for advanced users, just an average consumer. You can view the devices connected to it and group them together, then pause the connection to those devices at any time. This can also be done using voice commands.
The Nest Wifi can also prioritize traffic to any of the devices on your network. This is used for application where you may be streaming 4K video or gaming online.
The Google Nest WiFi mesh system uses a dual-band approach. It has proactive band steering that sends the data to the least congested channel and the preferred extension. The beam-forming tunes the transmitted signal to suit the receiver and can connect with up to 100 clients per device.
The Google Nest WiFi has Bluetooth and 802.15.4 Thread mesh networking built in, maning it should be compatible with Zigbee devices.
The installation routine for creating a Nest Wi-Fi network is easy and logical with simple illustrated step-by-step instructions. You will need a phone or tablet because there is no way to set it up or configure it through a connected web browser.