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The best Wi-Fi router of 2021

The best Wi-Fi router of 2021

First introduced a few years ago, Wi-Fi 6 is the latest generation of Wi-Fi, and it boasts faster, more efficient home networking performance. Now, the growing number of new, second-gen mesh router options is worth paying attention to as well — particularly since so many of them are so much less expensive than the router combo systems that came before them. After all, a quality connection is awfully nice to have if you’re spending a lot of time working or attending school from home due to the pandemic and have more than one connected device pulling bandwidth at the same time.

Between mesh and Wi-Fi 6, you’ll find a number of interesting new options if you’re currently in the market for an upgrade. Whether you’re interested in gaming routersmesh systemsWi-Fi 6 routers — or if you just want something decent that won’t break the bank and won’t require you to switch your devices back to a wired connection tethered to an access point for the fastest internet connection possible — we’re here to point you in the right direction. And watch this space, because we’re expecting to see new Wi-Fi 6E routers capable of accessing newly opened bandwidth in the 6GHz band very soon, including multiple routers that were teased at this year’s all-virtual CES tech showcase.


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Expect regular updates to this post as we continue our internet speed tests on new devices like these. When we find a new router that merits strong consideration, we’ll add it to this best Wi-Fi router list with links back to our most recent test data.

Read more: Best internet providers for 2021 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest, fastest version of Wi-Fi, and we’re expecting to see lots of new models that support it soon. And, if you want, you can upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router from a budget router right now to get faster, more efficient Wi-Fi performance from connected devices that support the new standard (the list is growing). Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible, so your older devices will still be able to connect to the wireless signal, too — but your new wireless router won’t do anything to speed them up.

All of which is to say that it’s probably still too early for most of us to get a new Wi-Fi 6 router (and don’t forget that you’ll need a really, really fast internet connection in order to notice the difference in the first place).

That said, if you’re looking to make the upgrade now, or if you need a new wireless router and you want something future-proofed for the next generation of Wi-Fi devices, then go for the TP-Link Archer AX6000. It basically aced our performance tests, delivering the fastest top transfer speeds we’ve ever recorded, plus excellent range and low latency.

The AX6000 debuted at a price of $350, but it’s currently down to $300, and we’ve seen it marked down as low as $270. It definitely isn’t cheap even at that price, but if you can catch it on sale, it’s a worthy way to upgrade to a robust Wi-Fi 6 network.

Read our list of the best gaming routers.

 

Chris Monroe/CNET

With fast wireless speed, simple setup and helpful, easy-to-use app controls, Google Wifi was our top mesh router pick for the past three years. Its second-gen follow-up, Nest Wifi, is faster, more affordable and just as easy to set up and use. Plus, the range-extending Points double as Google Assistant smart speakers now. That, coupled with a new design that comes in multiple colors, is aimed at getting you to keep these things out in the open, where they’ll perform better.

It doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6 (and Nest’s range-extending satellite devices don’t have Ethernet ports, which means you can’t wire them back to the Wi-Fi router), but Nest Wifi does add in a couple of current-gen upgrades, including support for new WPA3 security standards and also 4X4 MU-MIMO connections, which means that this mesh Wi-Fi router can provide faster top speeds to devices that use multiple Wi-Fi antennas. All of that helps Nest’s mesh router punch above its weight and outperform most other mesh routers with similar specs.

At $269 for a two-device setup capable of Wi-Fi coverage up to 3,800 square feet (a claim that checked out when we tested it in both a small home and the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home), the dual-band Nest Wifi is the most well-rounded mesh router on the market right now, and the first one I’d recommend for folks who aren’t ready to make the jump to Wi-Fi 6.

Read our Nest Wifi review.

 

Ry Crist/CNET

It isn’t as fully featured as systems like Nest Wifi, and the app controls you’ll use to set everything up aren’t nearly as slick — but aside from that, the new, budget-friendly Netgear Orbi system stands out as a clear value pick in the mesh category. At just $150 for a two-device setup with the Wi-Fi router and a single range Wi-Fi extender, it’s about as inexpensive as a mesh network gets, and it kept up with both Nest and Eero in our speed tests. As of right now, it’s on sale for even less — just $99.

In fact, of those three systems, Netgear Orbi clocked in with the fastest average top speed at close range — and when we put that range to the test with smart devices at the CNET Smart Home, it edged those two Wi-Fi systems out with a faster router speed once again. I even like the new design, with clever contours on top that vent out heat in style.

Read our Netgear Orbi review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Starting at $700 for the two-piece setup seen here, the Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi (which I call the Netgear Orbi 6) is far more expensive than the dual-band version listed above, but it’s also a lot more powerful. With a second 5GHz band serving as a dedicated backhaul for system transmissions between the router and its satellites — at full Wi-Fi 6 speeds, mind you — the system managed to ace our performance tests.

To be exact, the system returned average Wi-Fi speeds of 289Mbps when I spent a few days testing the speeds and signal strength in various rooms at my home, where I have a fiber internet plan of 300Mbps from my Internet service provider. That’s a near perfect result, and one that no other mesh system I’ve tested has been able to match.

Is that sort of speedy performance worth $700? I think most will find better value with something less expensive — and you’ve got a growing number of options to that effect hitting the market this year. Still, if you’re buying right now and you just want the best mesh performance money can buy, this is the system to get.

Read our Netgear Orbi 6 review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It isn’t quite as speedy as the Netgear Orbi AX6000, but the Asus ZenWiFi AX mesh router was close — and at $450 for a two-pack, the price tag is a lot easier to swallow. For the money, you’re getting just about everything you’d get with Netgear, including a multi-gig WAN port and a dedicated backhaul band to keep transmissions between the router and the satellite separate from your network traffic.

$450 is still a lot of money, but this easy-to-use Asus router system proved to be highly capable and reliable in our performance tests. That puts it right in the sweet spot for a future-proofed mesh router that feels every bit the part of a high-end upgrade.

If your home is large and you think you’d benefit from having a mesh with more than one extender, you might also consider Eero Pro 6, another triband mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6. It doesn’t have a multigig jack, and it didn’t perform quite as well as Asus when I tested it out at home — but it was close, it hit higher top speeds in our lab, and at $599 for a three-pack, it’s more affordable for big homes with a lot of space to cover.

Read our Asus ZenWiFi AX review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Gaming routers promise high performance and low latency for die-hard gamers, and it isn’t uncommon to find them selling for $300 or even $400. At about $250, the Asus RT-AX86U dual-band router isn’t inexpensive either, but it’s a strong value relative to routers like those — and the performance it delivers is flat-out great.

Most noteworthy is the router’s latency management. In fact, it leads all of the routers I’ve ever tested, gaming or otherwise, with the lowest average latency across all of my tests, which online gamers will definitely appreciate. Something else you’ll appreciate: An excellent mix of app-based controls and features, including a mobile boost mode, that lets you prioritize gaming traffic to your phone at the touch of a button.

Gaming features aside, the RT-AX86U offers full support for Wi-Fi 6, with strong, stable speeds and good range. If you need additional range, you can add other Asus “AIMesh” devices to your home network to make it the centerpiece of a mesh.

That checks off all of the boxes that most people want from a good gaming router, and it gets you there at a price that isn’t too painful for us to recommend. Even if you aren’t a gamer, this is still one of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers you can buy right now.

Read our list of the best gaming routers.

 

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