With the combined benefits of increased speed and better range, 802.11ac is better than every version of Wi-Fi before it. However, the first generation of ‘ac’ routers weren’t that impressive on range. Now, though, we’re onto what manufacturers are calling Wave 2 802.11ac and the difference is huge. The latest models are capable of delivering previously unheard of speeds over greater distances, so much so that you should get a signal in the far corner of a room where before you would have resorted to Powerline networking adaptors or a Wi-Fi repeater.
One way that 802.11ac can go so much faster is the use of multiple aerials, as we’ve already seen with 802.11n. But 11ac is more efficient, with a theoretical maximum of 433Mb/s per stream. Compare this with 150Mb/s for 11n on the 5GHz radio band. Also, the routers here have 4x4 MIMO for 11ac, which means they can transmit and receive four streams simultaneously.
Another trick used to good effect is beamforming. Put simply, the signals are sent at very slightly different times from each aerial in order to aim the radio energy more directionally from router to the other device.
MU-MIMO stands for multiuser multiple input, multiple output. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that these new routers can send data to multiple devices at the same time. It might seem like your current router does this, but it doesn’t. It very quickly alternates which device it’s communicating with, so you don’t generally notice.
But when you have several people trying to stream Netflix and YouTube on their phones and tablets, plus someone else trying to play Call of Duty online on their Xbox, you will really start to notice the benefits of MU-MIMO.
It’s early days for the technology, and it requires those phones, laptops and tablets to have a compatible MU-MIMO Wi-Fi chips. But while you may not have any yet, buying a MU-MIMO router – which should last
several years – means you’ll be able to get those speed gains as soon as you have more than one compatible phone or tablet.
Some routers look like a prop from 24, but there are models without the obtrusive external aerials. Our extensive testing suggests that internally mounted antennas can be just as effective as routers that rock the Counter Terrorist Unit look.
With many homes still finding a need for wired ethernet connections, it makes sense to have a good number of ethernet LAN ports. These are all, thankfully, at least gigabit specification nowadays, and four ports seems to be standard issue, with the exception of extravagant Linksys EA9500 which doubles the allocation to 8. But even a limited array can be easily and cheaply extended with a gigabit switch for around £20, although that creates more wires and boxes and power bricks to hide.
Above all, a home router needs stability and security, as it’s the gateway to every wired and Wi-Fi-connected device you use at home. These are harder to gauge before you install and use the product, but it’s worth checking online forums for reported issues, and looking at the history of the manufacturer for timely patches and security updates.
Bear in mind that not all routers have built-in ADSL (or VDSL) modems. You’ll want a router with a modem if your broadband is delivered via your phone line. VDSL is required for faster fibre connections such as BT Infinity. We recommend that you check with your provider if you’re unsure.
Routers without modems are best suited to those with cable broadband, such as from Virgin. Otherwise, you can buy a separate ADSL or VDSL modem that plugs into the router’s WAN port.
You may, of course, already have a modem, in which case you can take your pick of just about any router