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How to Choose the Right Gaming Router: A Guide for 2021

Gaming Routers
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Regardless of which router you choose (be it one of the best gaming routers or something more affordable and basic), any competitive online gamer will tell you that if you want good gaming performance, you need to be hardwired to the nearest Ethernet jack. That’s largely true. And hey, if you are in a position to either game right next to your router or run ethernet drops throughout your house, good on you. 

If you’re wired, you won’t have to necessarily worry much about ping or game-ruining jitter with most routers worth their salt. But if you can get by just fine with a solid mainstream router, why in the world would you buy what is essentially the flashy hot rod of the router world? If you don’t have the luxury of a hardwired connection, will a gaming router help you at all? Finally, if you decide you want or need a gaming router, how do you go about picking one out? If you’re asking any of those questions, you’ve come to the right place.

Of course, you’ll want to consider the standard characteristics: how much does it cost? How much area does it cover, and how fast is it? Does it work well with a broad range of devices? But with a gaming router, you’re specifically going to go a few steps further. What are the gaming-specific features? Are they useful features, or a placebo? Moreover, what kind of equipment are you gaming with? If you’re using a PC and you want to play wirelessly, what generation wireless card does your rig have? Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, or are you an early adopter with Wi-Fi 6E? Finally, and importantly, what does your environment look like? Big or small, multiple levels, and even the material construction of your walls or the stuff adorning them can have big impacts on your wireless signal. We’ll break all of this down below so that, by the end of this article, you will be equipped with the knowledge you need to make a good buying decision for your next gaming router. 

Quick Shopping Tips 

Here are some key tips for deciding about whether and which gaming router to pick:

What you play matters: If you’re not engaged in intense, fast-paced twitch games where victory is a few pixels from defeat, a gaming router may be a costly lesson in overkill.

Where is your lag coming from? If you’re having problems, is it actually your router killing your signal? Faulty gaming machine hardware, bad cables, a problematic modem (if you’re using your own -- they’re not all created equal), or even the hub from which your home’s cable drop comes can be the source of your gaming issues, and you might want to troubleshoot those first.

Consider network protocols: Can you get by with an older WiFi 5 router, or do you need a WiFi 6 unit? WiFi 6E? This depends on a lot of factors (which we address in detail here), from the size of your home to the devices that will be online to your desire to futureproof. Mainly, consider that a Wi-Fi 6E router (or even a Wi-Fi 6 model) has few compatible clients to take advantage of it today. And though you can certainly upgrade your Windows PC to work with Wi-Fi 6E, you would likely have to buy all-new versions of each device in your home if you really want to take full advantage of the new standard.

Consider your network and environment: A gaming router might improve your gaming experience, but if you’re also going to use it as your primary wireless Internet hub, a crowded network or a big, convoluted and dense house could challenge the router to the point of making everything else in your life a frustrating mess.

Security: You are probably generally fine if your computer is extremely locked down. However, adding IoT devices like Wi-Fi-powered appliances, connected ceiling fans, sensors, and more represent expanding potential security holes in your network. Keeping that in mind, security should probably be at the forefront of your decision-making process, just after feature set.

Price

A good place to start is your budget. Gaming router prices can range from $100 for a used WiFi 5 gaming router, all the way up to many hundreds of dollars for all the bells and whistles (like Wi-Fi 6E and fast ports). Setting a reasonable budget will help you narrow down your choices, though it may also limit the wireless protocol your router supports, as well as the feature set available to you -- though not by as much as you might expect. You can get some truly great routers for under $200, so long as you prioritize features properly. For example, the Netgear Nighthawk Pro Gaming XR500 provides stellar gaming performance, with very low ping and a user-friendly, web-based GUI that provides comprehensive information and broad configurability without being overwhelming to the user, thanks to a custom implementation of Netduma’s DumaOS. For even advanced players, this router would be more than enough to satisfy their gaming needs, and can still be had for under $200 at major retailers. 

Of course, while you can expect an edge from the router’s low-ping performance, you will be missing out on features offered by the still-maturing 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, wireless protocol, which brings more robust MU-MIMO functionality than what’s available with WiFi 5, and introduces OFDMA, a complementary technology. Together, the two let your router handle a busy home network much more seamlessly, as they allow your router to communicate with many devices at once, with MU-MIMO aiding in large-bandwidth applications like video calls and streaming, and OFDMA doing so for low-bandwidth devices such as smart home sensors. Of course, as Wi-Fi 6E routers and devices begin to propagate, the cost of a decent WiFi 6 router like the Asus RT-AX86U will begin to come down.

If you have a higher budget, as with most things, you gain quite a bit more headroom for features. The $200-$300 range perhaps provides the most value relative to price, and anything above that tends to fall into the diminishing returns category, with some few exceptions

Environment 

The makeup and layout of your home plays one of the biggest roles in your wireless network’s performance. The square foot rating of a router, while nice as a general guide, does not relate directly to the square footage of everyone’s home. Since most houses tend to not be a perfectly symmetrical circle, they don’t always have a convenient center point at which to place your router. Further complicating matters, most people put their routers right by their modem, which the installer may have lobbied for putting at the most convenient point for them on the day of installation. This  often results in a router in a basement, or adjacent to an exterior wall in a corner of the house. It’s not the end of the world if this happens to you, and it can be fixed in a variety of ways. But all of them will cost you some amount of money and/or time. The easiest solution is, of course, just buying a more powerful router with more range. 

It’s also helpful to remember that a router’s given coverage area does not equate to range in a straight line. A router rated for 1,500 square feet, for example, will probably only reach about 50 feet out, maybe a touch farther under the right circumstances. 25 to 30 feet is going to be generally as far out as you should expect to get before noticing degradation most of the time, provided the walls your signal encounters are only drywall and studs. My home, for example, is a shotgun-style house, longer than it is wide, and my router is as central as I can possibly place it. As such, it reaches my bedroom pretty easily, and parts of my back yard. And there are areas in the home where the signal is very weak, but where I’m physically much closer to the router. This is because of various bits and types of interference, like the two closets stuffed to the brim that make up the space between the office, where the router is, and the living room, where my TV and game consoles are. Signal to the dining room is similarly dampened, as it must push through cabinets full of plates, bowls, pots and pans, etc. You might be surprised how many materials can wreak havoc on your wireless signal - wood, metal, other electronics, water, and even human bodies serve as poor mediums for Wi-Fi! 

Network Topology 

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The make-up of your network -- that is, the modem, routers, computers, smart home gadgets, gaming systems, TVs, etc. -- and how they’re all connected is referred to as network topology. What it looks like can have a great deal of bearing on what kind of router you should choose. In ye olden days, before smartphones, network-connected sensors, smart TVs, and Wi-Fi microwaves, it was pretty rare to have more than a scant handful of connected devices -- usually just a computer or two, perhaps more in a family with more money to go around. These days, the average household has several devices online at a given time, and it’s not unusual for some homes to have upwards of 50 connected gadgets. If your place falls into this category, you can be sure it’ll affect how well your network performs.

Some routers now boast about how many things can be connected to them, with many capable of accommodating more than 100 devices. You’ll want to keep an eye out for the number of devices a router can handle at once when you’re purchasing, as approaching or pushing past this limit on lesser routers can lead to a great deal of network instability and a smart home that is more frustrating than helpful. Naturally, this would also mean unreliable, latency-ridden gaming as your router tries to keep up with the demand from dozens of devices.

This is where you may find mesh routers particularly helpful. Most mesh systems are designed to deal with a higher number of connections than your standard non-mesh system. So far, outside of a couple of models, the mesh gaming router market hasn’t really materialized. But there do exist some good options, including Asus’ AiMesh system, which lets nearly any modern Asus router function as a mesh node.

You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Wi-Fi 6 much yet. That’s because, while features like Downlink/Uplink MU-MIMO and OFDMA are going to eventually be key improvements, particularly in a crowded network environment, those benefits really won’t be manifest until client support of the WiFi 6 standard is ubiquitous. Until then, most WiFi 6 routers will really just behave like pricey WiFi 5 routers. Sometimes they perform worse in fact, if you have lots of legacy devices on your network, as WiFi 6 routers can introduce incompatibilities that many older clients simply can’t handle. 

If you have no worries about compatibility, you might also consider one of the precious few WiFi 6E routers available now. But before you do, you should be aware of the key differences between WiFi 6E and its progenitor, WiFi 6. Primarily, while WiFi 6E does offer significant latency benefits over WiFi 6 -- thanks partly to the underlying 802.11ax standard’s improvements to MU-MIMO and OFDMA and partly to the newly-opened, barren 6 GHz band -- there are extremely few radios and devices that currently use the tech, and the benefits may not be apparent until 6E has proliferated quite a bit more. 

Finally, and crucially, while 6E routers are all tri-band by necessity, none of the Wi-Fi 6E routers around today offer a second 5 GHz band. And if you have very few WiFi 6E client devices (or none), buying one of these routers means you may actually see worse performance, as you could lose significant bandwidth without that second 5 GHz band available. Unless you plan to stay on the bleeding edge of technology and replace each device in your home with a Wi-Fi 6E-capable one as soon as possible, this is one area where you may not quite want to future proof yet. That’s especially true if squeezing every ounce of performance out of your router is a priority.

Internet Plan

Sorry to say, but your internet plan is your speed limit, full stop. No amount of antennas or color-cycling RGB lights is going to change that, but that doesn’t mean something like the ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 (or its WiFi 6E younger sibling, the GT-AXE11000) is a pointless purchase for you -- quite the opposite, as it happens. Here’s something that may surprise you: gaming is not actually a particularly bandwidth-heavy activity. Game consoles usually recommend a minimum total household bandwidth, and you’d be surprised how low the number can be. On the PlayStation 5, for instance, that number is only 25 Mbps. That speed is considered pretty slow by many urban standards, but it’s one that, given the exact same equipment, could yield more stable, better performance than internet service with a much, much higher throughput in some circumstances. 

If this seems counterintuitive, that’s because the language we use to talk about internet “speed” is a little misleading. What we commonly call fast internet is actually high bandwidth internet, or internet with a larger “pipe” through which data travels. The speed with which data travels from your end of that pipe to the other is measured by your latency, where a lower-latency connection is actually a faster connection. It is when a connection has lower latency that gamers may see the most improvement from a gaming router, thanks to gaming-centric Quality-of-Service (QoS) features, built-in port forwarding rules, and server connection-monitoring features that many of these routers have. They can’t conquer the stubborn Ohm’s Law limits imposed on traditional copper, where the metal’s resistance significantly delays data transmission, but they can provide greater efficiency, leading to real-world improvements in connection speed for gamers!

In fact -- perhaps surprisingly -- a gaming router provides probably the least benefit to gamers on a fiber connection. Although you may still find some value in some more indirectly beneficial features of gaming routers, it’s harder to justify the extra expense when you can still get literally lightning-fast speed from a normal router, thanks to the virtually lag-less connection offered by fiber. At this level, a lot of your gains will be courtesy of equipment upgrades, like opting for one of the best graphics cards, or the best gaming mouse. That said, many gaming routers offer other cool features centered on traffic monitoring and other nice-to-haves. And proper QoS can still be to your benefit with an excellent connection; it’s just that it becomes questionable whether the remaining potential improvements are actually worth the premium you pay.

Gaming Style

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Style can also be important for gamers, of course. Are you the type to refer to your desk, bolstered gaming chair, and clear-sided, liquid-cooled PC tower as your battle station? Or does the extent of your online gaming involve swinging by your friend’s island in Animal Crossing to pick up some sweet, sweet 54-bell turnips? If the former, you’re probably going to be looking for the lag-bustin’-est router you can find. For you, features offered by the insanely gamer-centric DumaOS on Netgear’s Pro Gaming line of routers would be not just a nice-to-have, but practically a necessity. The best of the best here will give you not just measurable improvements to latency, but will have fantastic QoS data prioritization. In other words, the router will give preference certain devices and certain types of data. Some even let you tweak this on a per-device basis, allowing you to make changes on the fly and set up preconfigured profiles to be used in certain circumstances. 

If you’re not trying to increase the speed with which you can squeeze off a headshot by small fractions of a second, however, one of those big router beefers may just be overkill. Games like World of Warcraft or Mario Kart really don’t require the kind of unconscious reaction speed exhibited by, say, professional baseball players. For you, again, a solid, easy-to-use mesh network might be worth exploring. Many of these systems are reasonably priced. And excepting fast-twitch shooters where every millisecond counts, you’re simply not going to notice any difference between the performance offered by a system like that and other, more powerful options.

Ease of Use

This may not seem an obvious one to most. After all, who cares how easy a router is to use once you’ve got it set up? For a serious gamer or even the parent of a gamer, this really should matter. Beyond just setting up an SSID and password and deciding whether or not to split out the 5GHz and 2.4 GHz bands, intuitive router configuration is often nonexistent. Adjusting QoS settings, configuring port forwards, using a special gaming VPN -- many people don’t use these features, because they just aren’t obvious to set up. The thing is, these things need not be the exclusive domain of the trained IT professional or hobbyist. I’ve seen routers handle this stuff well, and I’ve seen others give these features hardly a second thought. To have easy-to-understand settings really is a boon, saving you time and frustration as you steadily tweak preferences that often take time to understand and appreciate. 

So what does it look like to have this be simple? Well, I’ll give you examples. As long as you stick with the gamer-forward features, ASUS handles their menu system very well, with preconfigured rules for specific games that you need only toggle to use. And the list of games they’ve entered these rules in for is vast and varied. For Netgear’s DumaOS, everything you might want is front and center on the router’s home screen, with an easy-to-understand, card-based interface that is customizable. Even out of the gate you see just about everything a gamer could want to be presented with: network traffic, access to gaming features, and normal, basic network admin stuff like updating SSIDs.

Of course, you may want the router to be easy to use beyond that, and here is where some gaming routers can fall flat. For most people, once you get beyond the gaming features on certain routers, you will find a daunting conflagration of unexplained acronyms, sliders, toggles, and drop-down menus that can easily be overwhelming. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, however, and some manufacturers realize this. Some take away all of that control, leaving you with the barest option set, while others put real effort into making sensible menu hierarchies and approachable configurations. Which appeals to you more, once you’ve decided a router otherwise fits your needs, is up to your personal style. And I absolutely do not begrudge a user who wants a router to do everything for them. I play with routers for a living, and at the end of the day I prefer my network backbone to be handled by the same mesh system I’ve used for the last year and a half. It’s hard to argue with a no-fuss router setup, even if it lacks granularity of control, or the fastest speeds and best features.

Security

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We may be near the bottom of the list here, but the security features of a router are becoming more important with each passing year. We are in the midst of an arms race between hackers and security experts these days, and it feels like there is a constant stream of news about compromised security at major firms, with such breaches afflicting even the most beloved darlings of the industry. Breaches and ransomware attacks happen so frequently that it can really feel like there is no point to bothering to keep anything secure. 

That’s a fallacy though; keeping good security practices every possible step of the way is very important, and having a router with good security is paramount. Just like bike theft, cybercrime on the level of private home networks tends to be opportunistic, with hackers taking using bots to crawl the internet sniffing for weak security. It’s essentially like someone walking down a neighborhood street trying car door handles until they find an open car, except instead of stealing your old Creed CDs, they steal your sensitive financial docs or start crypto mining with your machines.

On this point alone, it may be prudent to seek out a Wi-Fi 6 router. Thanks to the improvements brought about by WPA3 -- the security standard that replaces the 15-year-old WPA2 -- your terrible network password is no longer the problematic hole in your security that it once was, thanks to a new authentication method known as a Dragonfly Handshake. This method never exposes said password when a device joins your network. Though WPA3 has its flaws, updates continue to be released to counteract found vulnerabilities, and WPA2 is still far less secure. 

It’s not just password security that you should consider, however. The convenience of having built-in features like VPNs, DoS attack protection, and malware blocking means the barriers to entry for a secure network are pulled away for a great number more people, and most good routers offer some sort of network security suite, either available for a fee or provided at no direct cost to the user.

Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a gaming router, keep your needs and the capabilities of your equipment at the forefront of your mind. It’s easy to get drawn in by marketing fluff with these things, and while there truly are some excellent gaming routers out there with substantial features, actually hardwiring your gaming machine with a good cat 5e-or-better cable will get you 90% of the way there, particularly if you have a fiber connection. That’s not to say a gaming router is useless. The feature set these devices bring can often add value beyond just reduced lag, giving players insightful information and granular control over the prioritization of data packets, and easy port forwarding that anyone can do without foreknowledge about what that is or why you’d want to do it.

For most people though, if you’re just looking for a good, stable wireless network that you can use for casual gaming, you might be far better served by a solid mesh system, especially if you have heavy network traffic already. These systems are modular, meaning you can build them up a little at a time rather than buying everything at once. And for most of them, a single unit can be enough to suffice if you’re on a shoestring budget and just can’t afford to drop hundreds on a three pack. And although mesh routers will generally at most only have a single extra ethernet port for you to use, you can always just buy one of the best network switches to make up for the lack of ports.

  • gggplaya
    No mention of Buffer Bloat, FQ_Codel or Cake? Many people do not have access to faster internet plans, so making the most of what you have is a necessity.
    Reply