Nathan Edwards, The Wirecutter’s lead editor for networking, recommends new technology to buy — and the technology to wait just a bit longer for.
Is there any device in your home more confounding, ever-changing and indecipherable than the modems and routers that take the internet in and out of your home? Luckily, we have Nathan Edwards, The Wirecutter’s lead editor for networking, who spends his days and nights overseeing the testing and recommendation of new technology to buy — and the technology to wait just a bit longer for.
Q: I keep seeing ads for mesh networks popping up on my computer. Is this something that we all need to be considering for our homes?
A: Probably not. But home mesh networking kits like Eero or Netgear’s Orbi are going to appeal to people who aren’t happy with the speed or range of their Wi-Fi system, don’t like that their router is complicated to set up and use, or want something that’s not ugly.
Q: It sounds like I want it. Is it better than any router?
A: For some people. Home mesh systems work like your normal Wi-Fi router, but come with several satellite units that pick up the Wi-Fi signal before it becomes too weak and rebroadcast it farther.
They’re great if you have a big house, or if there’s no way to get your router into the center of your house where it’ll transmit better. The software of the mesh kit also can make sure your phone or laptop is connected to the strongest signal it can find, not struggling to connect to a faraway router.
Most mesh kits have easy-to-use apps, and they can automatically download and install firmware updates, which is important. Most people don’t ever think to check if their router’s software is up-to-date, which can lead to big security holes. Also, a lot of the mesh kits look a little better than traditional routers, which tend to be angular, dark and bristling with antennas.
Q: It still sounds like I want one.
A: Mesh kits are expensive. A three-pack can cost $300 to $500. And unless you have a big house — say, more than 3,000 square feet — most people just don’t need one. It’s going to be overkill, and having these three powerful Wi-Fi signals in your small house or apartment can actually make your network (and your neighbors’ networks) slower than if you had a single router.
Q: Then I’ll need to buy a bigger house. So, about those regular routers and modems, should I still be renting my equipment from my internet service provider?
A: Not if you can at all avoid it. Most ISPs charge you a monthly fee for a mediocre modem/router combo. If you have cable internet, it’s easy to avoid this charge by getting a compatible cable modem, which will pay for itself within a year. (We recommend the Arris SURFboard SB6183.) A stand-alone router will give you more control, and probably much better speed and range. If you have to use your ISP’s modem/router combo (usually if your ISP uses DSL or fiber instead of cable), you can still buy a better router and just turn off the Wi-Fi on your ISP’s modem/router. (The Wirecutter pick is the TP-Link Archer C7 (v2).)
Q: It seems like there is a new kind of router every few years. Do I need to worry that I’m stuck with old technology?
A: You should be good for a few years. The next version of the Wi-Fi spec, 802.11ax, won’t be finalized until 2019 or so, and won’t be common for a couple of years after that. Right now you should be thinking about all the devices in your home using Wi-Fi. As we get more Wi-Fi devices in our homes (thermostats, light bulbs, cameras, phones, toothbrushes or whatever), that’s starting to become a problem.
If your router isn’t using 802.11ac Wi-Fi, it’s time for a new one. We’ve found in our testing that $100 is the sweet spot to get all the features you need without overpaying.
Q: Are you about to lay some more jargon on me?
A: You can handle it.
This will get you something in a speed class of AC1750 or AC1900 or a little above. Speed class is marketing nonsense, but those numbers indicate you’ll get a two-band, three-stream router, which is a good match for all the gadgets you most likely have. Any higher number and you’re paying for bandwidth you don’t need and your devices can’t use yet.