It's a typical night at home. You're sitting on the couch binging on Netflix, your teenager is playing Xbox Live, your tween is video chatting with her friends, and your spouse is uploading photos to Flickr. At the same time, your Dropcam is streaming live video and your Nest smart thermostat wants to upgrade its firmware. And your wireless router, the device that attaches to the modem and creates the WiFi network in your home, is working overtime.
Thanks to the explosion of high-speed Internet connections, streaming video, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as the Nest, home networks are asked to do more than ever. According to the NPD Group, a research firm, U.S. households have nearly eight connected devices on average, up from just over five devices in 2013. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated that number could rise to 50 by the year 2022.
Unfortunately, the WiFi router you bought five years ago and tucked away on a shelf next to your cable modem could soon have trouble keeping up. Chances are it’s slow, less secure than you'd like, and downright ugly. If you’re looking to upgrade, the Consumer Reports has identified capable new routers on the market from the giants of the router world, such as Netgear and Linksys, that address those problems. (Well, except for the looks.)
But these traditional players are being challenged by a swarm of new WiFi routers, including Eero and Google's OnHub concept, which is available from Asus and TP-Link. The newcomers are determined to take that ugly-duckling device and turn it into an industry-disrupting swan. These new routers claim to combine better coverage of the home and tighter security with the sleek aesthetics of an Amazon Echo. Typically, setup and settings are controlled by an app on your smartphone.
"The start-ups likely interpret the router space as relatively commoditized and see an opportunity to differentiate with new features," says Brad Russell, a research analyst with Parks Associates in Dallas. And looks will be a big part of that. “Routers used to be seen as a purely functional device with a bunch of unsightly antennas that you'd hide inside a room,” he says. “Now they're designed to be Apple-esque things that are beautiful to look at."
Some of these newfangled WiFi routers are here today; others are coming soon. We’ll be putting many of their claims to the test as the devices appear on the market. And we’ve already tested the Eero and Google Asus OnHub routers—which had split results compared to other routers in our labs. Here’s what the newcomers are promising.
Probably the biggest complaint among WiFi users is that there are places in the house where wireless signals don't quite reach. There are a number of solutions to this, including the use of WiFi extenders, but these can be a pain to use and they’re not always effective. For one thing, many of them use the same radios for both receiving and sending data, which cuts their throughput, or speed. Most of these repeaters also create a secondary network you must manually log onto during setup.
Routers like the Eero and Luma (promised for June) take a different approach. Instead of one box sitting in the middle of your house beaming radio signals in all directions, these companies let you deploy multiple routers that communicate via mesh networking—so the WiFi router in your living room connects to the one in your study, which talks to the one upstairs in the master bedroom, and so on, blanketing your house in WiFi signals.
In addition to testing Eero routers in our lab, both as a standalone device and as a three-pack, we installed a set of them in an editor's home, and found that the system largely lived up to its claims for wide coverage and easy setup.
Every new generation of router technology is faster than the previous one. Routers that use the current WiFi radio protocol (known as 802.11ac) can handle more data than those based on the previous protocol (802.11n)—and all of the recommended routers in our Ratings adhere to 802.11.ac.
The next-generation devices, called “second wave” 802.11ac routers, pump up bandwidth and capacity even further by handling more devices per radio. For example, the Linksys AC2600 (EA8500) Max-Stream, which tops our Ratings, features a technology called “MU-MIMO” that does this, and has a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 5.4 GB per second. (To be clear, even homes with good broadband service only get data at about 50 Mbps—so that 5.4 GB number should be read as “way more than you'll ever need.”)
One router startup says it’s taking a different tack. Ignition Design Labs claims its Portal routers will provide three times the bandwidth of competing products by exploiting rarely used parts of the 5GHz wireless spectrum. (The number refers to the frequency band; 802.11ac devices are dual-band, operating at both the 2.4GHz frequency range and at the 5GHz range.) The company says that Portal can hop among a wider number of frequency channels in a part of the 5GHz band that's normally used for radar—it's legal to use that bandwidth, as long as a router can switch channels if it detects a radar signal. The point is to sidestep WiFi congestion, which can be a particular problem in apartment buildings and other crowded spaces.
But Portal is currently a Kickstarter project, so we're a long way from measuring the accuracy of its claims.
Many WiFi router makers provide mobile apps to simplify setting up and managing your home network, but some of the apps for these new routers are slicker and faster. As a tradeoff, in some cases they actually give you less control than you'd have if you were using a browser on your laptop to adjust settings. The Eero app, for example, lets you set up your WiFi network, test broadband connection speeds, switch between networks, and manage devices with a few taps on the screen. But unlike many traditional routers, it doesn't let you decide which devices to prioritize when the router is doling out bandwidth.
The Starry Station (available later this month) has a touchscreen that lets you troubleshoot network problems, look up your log-on info, or call tech support directly from the device.
All routers let you encrypt data so nobody can snoop on your connection, but most do nothing to lock down the devices on your network. Luma, on the other hand, claims to analyze outgoing traffic to prevent devices from communicating with rogue servers and probes them to detect if they use weak passwords. This is a feature we’ll have to test once we get it in our labs.
Like many routers from more established companies, Luma, Portal, and Starry also have parental controls that let you set time limits for your kids and steer them away from the Nets' bad neighborhoods.
One feature we like on the Eero and OnHub is that security updates are fully automatic. Many other routers in our tests claim to have automatic updates, but in reality you have to access the router settings through your browser and then approve the update.
Cool Design—and High Prices
High-end Wi-Fi routers often look like ugly black boxes with antennae pointing in every direction. The new breed of routers attempt to look like they belong in a modern art museum; they're designed to sit in the middle of the room, incidentally improving their range. Ubiquiti's Amplifi routers, for example, are cube-shaped and boast colorful LCDs that display current network speeds. Portal is offering a limited edition of its router with an oxblood red shell. Luma is hexagonal shaped, with a glowing white circle in the middle.
Of course, design is subjective, and not everyone likes glowing white cubes. Some of the new D-Link routers achieve the geek-chic look that could have been inspired by one of Darth Vader's rides.
And finally there's the price tag. You can buy a perfectly adequate state-of-the-art home router for around $100. The new routers aiming to become trendy tech accessories can run you from $150 for Portal to $350 for the Starry; a three-router bundle from Eero will cost $500. Which of these are really worth the money? We’ll let you know as our testing continues later this year.
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