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How do you know when it’s time to upgrade your router?



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Chris Monroe / CNET

Your router might be one of the most essential gadgets you own, but in many cases we̵

7;ve set the thing up and hope never to think about it again. Heck, maybe you just came along whatever your internet service provider has installed when you signed up.

It’s an understandable blind spot. Between the flashing lights, incessant jargon, and often misleading speed claims, routers can be puzzling. But in our current age to do everything at home – to work, learning, socializeyou name it – having a good router that manages your network traffic is as essential as ever.

In general, experts recommend upgrading your router at least every five years. Make that every two to three years if you use a lot of smart home gadgets, or if you make a habit of buying the latest laptops, phones and other primary network devices. That means there are probably tons of us who would benefit from upgrading to a new router in 2021. Here’s how to do all that and get the right upgrade at the right time.

Need speed

A good router should be able to take full advantage of all the internet speeds you’re paying for – but if your network seems slower than you might expect, you need to take some steps to make sure that your router is, indeed, to blame.

Sometimes a simple restart is all your network needs, so start with the obvious and unplug both your router and your modem, then plug them both back in. Dave Coleman, a Wi-Fi expert, author, and director of product marketing for Extreme Networks, the company that just ran the Wi-Fi on Super Bowl 55, also recommends rebooting the Wi-Fi drivers on your phone, laptop, and other major client devices.

“It’s amazing how that solves about 90% of the problems, because the drivers are the interface between the radio and the operating system, and they can get confused,” says Coleman. “I know it sounds simple, but it’s the first thing people should do to solve problems.”

It’s also a good idea to try to bypass the router altogether, which you can do by connecting your computer directly to the modem with an Ethernet cable. Is that hardwired level of online performance noticeably better than what you get when connected wirelessly at a short distance, in the same room as the router? That’s a clear sign that the router is not living up to your network’s potential.

If these kinds of issues persist, try running some speed tests in different places around the house with a few different devices, such as both your phone and laptop. I like the Ookla speed test, which is fast, free, reliable and easy to use – you can run it in your browser by clicking here, or you can download the Ookla speed test app to your Android or iOS device , or even to an Apple TV. Whatever devices you’re using, those results should give you a clearer idea if the problem is related to a specific client device or location in your home, or if it’s a bigger problem affecting everything.

With the numbers that give you a better understanding of the status quo, you can make some quick adjustments and see if things improve. Try moving the router to a place that is more open and central to your home, preferably as high a location as possible. While you’re at it, adjusting the angle of the antennas can help boost the signal to specific areas in the house. It’s also a good idea to blow the rear ports and airflow vents with a can of compressed air to break the dust build-up – that kind of gunk can cause your router to overheat and drop performance.

None of that worked and your internet still stinks? Yes, you probably need a new router.


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Upgrade to the next generation

Router technology and security are constantly improving, and we’ve seen some major leaps in recent years with the advent of Wi-Fi 6 and WPA3, the latest generations of Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi security respectively. Generational advancements like that leave yesterday’s routers in the dust, so it’s worth upgrading to a router that supports them as soon as it makes sense for you to do so – even if the one you’re using now still has the job done.

Beyond that, the fact that so many of us spend so much more time at home these days makes the idea of ​​upgrading your router even more appealing.

“People get in trouble where Mommy tries to make a Zoom call, but it’s going south because the kids are streaming Netflix videos upstairs,” Coleman says. “That’s a sign that you may need to upgrade your Wi-Fi network.”

Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, a new generation of Wi-Fi better suited to densely populated, busy environments where many devices compete for bandwidth, is certainly one way to boost your network – and with plenty of new Wi-Fi-Fi 6 routers and client devices currently on the market, 2021 looks like a particularly good year to buy.

That said, you want to temper your expectations Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for dedicated Wi-Fi 6 devices equipped with an additional radio capable of transmitting signals over a super-wide spectrum mass in the 6GHz band, providing the FCC opened for use without a license last year.

“Wi-Fi 6E is going to be great once it’s widely accepted, but widespread adoption will be slow, simply because everything you own right now will run on the 2.4 or 5 GHz band,” Coleman explains. “The 14 or 15 billion Wi-Fi devices currently out there around the world will never connect to that 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E radio.”

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The Asus ZenWiFi AX is one of our top mesh router recommendations.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

Make the jump to mesh

Is your connection strong in some places in your home, but weak or absent in others? If, upgrade to a mesh router, which uses multiple devices to extend the range of your network and distribute a more stable signal throughout your home, is arguably one of the most meaningful technical upgrades you can buy.

Mesh routers have been around for a number of years now, but it’s only in the past two years that we’ve seen decent options available for under $ 300. Now, in 2021, you’ll have plenty of systems to choose from, with prices ranging from entry-level kits that cost only $ 150 or less top-of-the-line mesh systems that costs a whopping $ 700.

For my money, the best strategy for that spectrum of mesh options is to aim for the middle. Tri-band design, which adds a second 5GHz band to serve as a dedicated backhaul channel for transmissions between the main router and its satellites, was the biggest difference maker in my testing, and it’s worth checking out at this point. pay little extra also for wi-fi 6.

You should expect to pay at least $ 400 for a multi-device mesh system that takes that approach. Winners of the systems chosen by the editorial team like the Asus ZenWiFi AX and the Eero Pro 6 both will get you there for hundreds less than those premium options, but you can read more about all your options in my full rundown of the best mesh systems now on the market.

Your router cannot work miracles

One final point: it’s important to understand that your router doesn’t generate speed or bandwidth – it takes the bandwidth you pay for from your ISP and sends it to your home for wireless devices to connect. If that incoming bandwidth is limited to begin with, your router really can’t do much about it.

Ultimately, improvements to things like satellite internet and ongoing 5G and fiber deployments should help bridge the bandwidth gap in parts of the country that don’t have access to high speeds. But until that happens, it’s probably an exaggeration to pay extra for an updated router.

“I wish there was an answer to say, ‘Yes, you could upgrade your router, and that will solve your bandwidth problem at the ISP,” says Coleman. “But the answer is not real.”

In such a “ small pipe ” situation, Coleman recommends focusing on saving your bandwidth – especially in the situation he described earlier, where Mom’s work visits are declining because of the kids’ Netflix habits. His suggestion: find a router with good parental control settings.

“If you are a parent, you can specify time settings and firewall settings to limit access to certain types of applications, as well as certain times when certain people might use them,” Coleman says. “My kids are grown up now, but I used to do it!”


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