Best Home Routers and Why 802.11n Is Still Pretty Darned Cool
The latest and greatest. Do you NEED an 802.11ac broadband router? What is the best home router for you? Whereas 802.11n provided a palpable, order of magnitude performance boost over 802.11g, many users will find that 802.11ac is an appealing bridge too far.
LifeHacker has published a reader top five listing of the best home routers and, interestingly enough, only three of those devices were 802.11ac:
• Asus RT-AC66U Dual-Band Wireless-AC1750 Gigabit Router, $172 (Prime)
— nVidia GameStream,  x gigabit Ethernet,  x USB ports for printer or drive sharing
• NetGear Nighthawk AC1900 Dual Band WiFi Gigabit Router (R7000), $191
— nVidia GameStream,  x gigabit Ethernet,  x USB 2,  x USB 3
— Apple AirPlay and Time Machine support!
• Buffalo AirStation HighPower N600 Gigabit Dual Band Wireless Router WZR-600DHP, $82
— “Great range and signal strength”
—  x gigabit Ethernet,  x USB
• Asus Dual-Band Wireless-N 600 Router (RT-N56U), $88 (Prime)
— “Great signal, packed dual-band”
— GameStream,  x USB 2.0,  x gigabit Ethernet
The temptation with 802.11ac is to look at the promised “gigabit wifi” speed without considering the reality of real world performance. For example, according to at least one widely quoted study, few devices offer full 802.11ac support with many shipping with only single or dual streams and not the full three.
That said, of the handful of devices tested, an Apple MacBook Pro delivered the best performance, but still well under half (463Mbps) the advertised “gigabit” level.
If that weren’t enough, only a tiny fraction of American homes and businesses have access to gigabit broadband, which one would need to feed let alone saturate 802.11ac.
Nevertheless, the one big advantage of 802.11ac is range. But even this requires perspective as you need to saturate your home/office and not the entire neighborhood.
Best Home Router: Three Cheaply Effective Solutions
The best home router for you is going to depend very much on what you need, not the speeds and feeds companies are selling. Here are three very low-cost ways to share your home broadband connection.
At my sister’s house, they have one Mac and one iPad. As they don’t have tons of devices, what they need is wifi connectivity in their kitchen, living room and deck. The solution for her is to share their 20Mbps cable broadband connection via her Mac’s integrated Internet Sharing (System Preferences > Sharing > Internet Sharing > From Ethernet > To Wi-Fi).
The bottom line for sis is zero dollars additional cost.
Or, take the example of my parent’s house. Their “broadband” connection is a mere 3Mbps DSL and the need to share intermittent (i.e. when we’re there). Unfortunately, wifi sharing from mom’s iMac doesn’t effectively cover the house.
My solution? A Netgear N-150 Wireless Router, which I found locally at RadioShack for about $30, easily saturates the ‘rents 1,200 square foot house and most of their quarter acre slice of heaven.
Here at Fairer Platform world headquarters, needs are more complex as we have two iMacs, four iPads and a Roku. Whereas the iMacs are connected via Ethernet, everything else requires wifi.
While 802.11ac would be nice, the reality of the situation is that our broadband connection to the world is a mere 15Mbps. And, that Roku is connected to an SDTV (480p).
So, given hard limits on the bandwidth we have, as well limited needs within the house, the best home router is an 802.11n AirPort Extreme, which you can buy refurbished for just $85. That compares very well with the Buffalo and Asus 802.11n routers listed above, but it’s a solution that is AirPlay ready.
Best Home Router: Choose Simply
Perhaps the most important advantage of an AirPort Extreme is that it’s truly a “set it and forget it” device. While homes vary, the low-cost 802.11n AirPort Extreme saturates our 1,900 square foot house with superb reliability.
Realistically, you can expect highly reliable 100Mbps throughput when using 802.11n, which is more than enough to watch HDTV video. Fundamentally, you’ll max your broadband connection before an 802.11n router becomes inadequate.
Slightly cheaper still is the refurbished AirPort Express ($75, pictured above), which is sublimely small and efficient, though a little lacking in the range department.
What’s the best home router for you? Take a realistic look at your resources (i.e. budget, available bandwidth), needs and be willing to experiment. Set aside a weekend to try different devices (save those receipts!) and tinker…
What’s your take?