Should I buy a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router? We explain everything you need to know about routers
The router is probably one of the least loved gadgets in your home. Chances are, you didn’t even pay for yours as many are supplied free by broadband providers when you sign up.
You probably plugged it in, connected it up and then forgot about it… until there was a problem with your internet connection.
Either that or you’ve been living with slow or non-existent Wi-Fi in parts of your home and have finally decided it’s time to fix things.
The question is what to buy, and that’s why you’re here.
What kind of router do you need?
There are, broadly speaking, two options. One is to replace your existing router with another, more powerful one.
That can improve speeds and coverage, giving you faster Wi-Fi in more places in your home.
Thomas Newton / Foundry
However, another option is to buy a mesh Wi-Fi system which is, effectively, a pack of two or three routers which can do an even better job of giving you strong Wi-Fi over a much larger area, which is great news if you live in a large home or one that seems to do an amazing job of blocking the signal from your existing router.
You might be surprised to learn that mesh Wi-Fi kits don’t have to cost a whole lot more than a single router, and it may be worth trading off having the very latest, fastest Wi-Fi standard and getting an affordable mesh system that will ensure every room (and maybe even your garden) has good Wi-Fi.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
The other thing to bear in mind is that it’s all very well buying a router (or a mesh system) that does have the latest Wi-Fi 6E standard but unless your phone, laptop and other devices also support it, you won’t get the full benefits of your purchase.
If you decide that mesh might be right for you, read our guide to the best mesh Wi-Fi systems for more advice and recommendations for what to buy.
What kind of broadband do you have?
While a mesh system will connect to your existing router by default, you might want a new standalone router to replace your old one. Otherwise you’ll need to two power sockets, more space for both routers and unnecessary power consumption.
In the UK, fibre connections are slowly becoming more common but ADSL (or VDSL) is still the most common type of broadband. If you have that type, you’ll need a router with a built-in ADSL/VDSL modem and you’ll quickly find that not a lot of routers have these any more.
If you have cable broadband (from Virgin, say) then you’ll need to connect any new router to the existing one and run it in ‘modem’ mode. And you can do the same if you have ADSL and can’t find a suitable modem-equipped router for an upgrade.
In the US, it’s a similar situation, and you’ll almost certainly need to connect a router or mesh kit to the modem provided by your ISP.
You can always check with your ISP to see if a particular router will work or not, or ask in the ISP’s forum as other customers are bound to have already tried out the model you’re considering buying.
Sometimes it’s necessary to keep the original router to ensure that TV channels provided by your broadband provider continue to work.
Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ac) is still the prevalent standard in most homes at the moment, but you should be looking at Wi-Fi 6 unless you’re on a tight budget.
It’s important to understand that Wi-Fi 6 isn’t automatically faster than Wi-Fi 5: you have to look at the specifications, and read reviews to find out how a router performs in the real world.
Manufacturers use terminology such as AX1800 and AX5400 as a means of conveying overall performance and allowing buyers to compare, but it is a rather misleading number.
That’s because it’s the total speed calculated by adding together the speeds possible using different frequencies, including 2.4GHz and 5GHz. But devices connect to only one frequency at a time.
There are other factors, such as the number of data streams a router can broadcast at the same time, and this is further complicated by the number of streams your phone, laptop or other device can handle, too.
If you want ultimate speed you need to make sure your router and any devices match each other, and the fastest speeds are often possible only with expensive routers and phones / laptops / tablets.
The bottom line is this: Wi-Fi 6 has some extra features which improve your experience as a whole compared to Wi-Fi, but you’ll need Wi-Fi 6 in your phone, laptop and other devices to really benefit from them.
Of course, Wi-Fi 6 isn’t the latest standard any more. That would be Wi-Fi 6E. You can read more about Wi-Fi 6E and how it uses the new 6GHz frequency. But there’s little point in choosing a Wi-Fi 6E router because prices are still high and so few phones and others devices support this frequency.
Amazingly, Wi-Fi 6E might be one to skip because Wi-Fi 7 is coming and looks to be the one to go for – eventually.
What do the different router frequencies mean?
Routers can use 2.4GHz, 5GHz and (for Wi-Fi 6E and 7) 6GHz.
Speeds get faster as the frequency increases, but range gets shorter. This is why your phone is more likely to be connected to the router using 2.4GHz if you’re a couple of rooms away, or outside in the garden.
A lot of routers combine all frequencies into one network and use what’s called “band steering” to switch between different frequencies as appropriate.
Many gadgets such as smart lights only have 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and you can end up with problems when trying to set these up on a router with a combined network, because your phone might be connected on 5GHz and can’t “see” the light which is on the other frequency.
However, in general, you don’t need to worry about frequencies too much.
What features should I look for in a router?
Once you’ve decided on the Wi-Fi standard and know whether you need a router with or without a modem, it’s a case of deciding how much to spend and the features you want.
You probably don’t care too much about Ethernet ports, and just about every router now has ports supporting at least Gigabit speeds (1000Mbps). Only pay extra for 2.5Gbps ports if you have Gigabit broadband that will max out Gigabit ports.
More important, after considering Wi-Fi specs, are software features. Routers are becoming easier to use thanks to apps that make them much more accessible than the days of using a web browser to connect to an archaic interface designed for geeks.
Apps make it much simpler to do things like blocking internet access to certain devices and some routers come with decent parental controls that allow you to group devices. That way you can pause internet access to all your child’s devices on a schedule or simply when you want to.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Other features including being able to prioritise the broadband connection to specific devices (such as laptop you use for video calls) and even security software that can protect all connected devices, including those that can’t run antivirus software such as smart speaker or security camera.
Some router makers make you pay for these features while others don’t, so it’s a good idea to check if a subscription is necessary. Eero, for example, charges $10 / £10 per month or $100 / £100 per year, which is a lot.
Often you’re better off using dedicated parental control software anyway because it allows you to set time limits for specific apps and means phones can be blocked regardless of whether they’re connected to Wi-Fi or 5G.
Most routers let you create a separate ‘guest’ network so friends get online without being able to access the computers and other gadgets on your home network. This won’t be high on your list of priorities, but it could be invaluable if you’re running a small business such as a B&B, or rent properties out on Airbnb.
See our recommendations for the best routers to buy.
Are routers and modems the same?
No. A router allows the devices on your home network to share a single internet connection. A modem is the device that acts like a bridge to connects your router to the broadband connection supplied by your ISP.
Will router work without a modem?
It is possible to use a router without a modem. For example, you could use a router without an internet connection to allow a group of devices to talk to each other. It would be a network without an internet connection, but it would work.
In most cases a modem is needed to provide an internet connection to the router.
Will router work in a cabinet?
Yes. But the cabinet may reduce the Wi-Fi performance of the router. Depending upon the material the cabinet is constructed from, it will block the Wi-Fi signal to a greater or lesser extent. If there is no ventilation in the cabinet it may cause the router to run at high temperatures which could shorten its lifespan, or even cause it to overheat.
Are routers compatible with all modems?
In general, yes. Almost all modems connect to routers using an Ethernet cable and should work with any router. It is worth double-checking that the router you intend to buy is compatible with your modem before spending money just in case there is any reason it won’t work properly.
Can you run two routers together?
You can have two routers on the same network. However, it is a good idea to set one to ‘bridge mode’ because otherwise both routers will try and assign IP addresses to your devices and you may end up with problems. You can have two routers on the same network. However, it is a good idea to set one to ‘bridge mode’ because otherwise both routers will try and assign IP addresses to your devices and you may end up with problems.
Do routers get outdated or expire?
They don’t expire, but their Wi-Fi standards do become outdated so you might be able to get faster internet by upgrading. As explained in the buying guide, a newer router is likely to give you better coverage so you get a faster internet connection in more areas of your home.
How do I find my router’s IP address?
You need to use a computer or phone and look at its network settings to find your router’s IP address. In Windows, for example, open a Command Prompt and type ipconfig and press Enter. The Default Gateway is your router’s IP address. For details, read our step-by-step guide on how to connect to a router.
Why do routers have multiple antennas?
Most routers have more than one antenna, but they don’t have to be external. Multiple antennae usually provide several ‘streams’ of data which allow for faster Wi-Fi connections to devices.
Also, different antennae are required for each frequency that the router supports – typically 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
Which routers support VPN?
ISP-supplied routers usually do not support VPNs. That means you cannot configure the router to connect to a VPN service.
You may be able to install custom firmware on your router (such as DD-WRT or Tomato) which will then support a VPN, but you could alternatively buy a router that natively supports VPN connections.
Some Netgear and Asus routers have VPN settings, and Synology’s RT2600ac (although fairly old at this point) also supports VPN thanks to its DSM software.
Can routers be hacked?
It is very difficult to hack Wi-Fi, and most routers are shipped with a unique username and password these days. If your router was supplied with the default password common to every other model, then you should change it to prevent anyone from logging in remotely and gaining access to your home network.
Router makers often disable remote access by default, but it is worth checking your router to make sure remote access is not possible and to change the password from the default for better security.
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