Mesh or standard? Dual-band or tri-band? Here are our favorite Wi-Fi routers

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Tue February 26, 2019

Much of the tech I test and that consumers use daily is in your face and personal. By design, it becomes part of our everyday lives. However, the backbone to any connected device is its network, whether its Wi-Fi, ethernet or cellular.

These devices, at least the consumer-facing ones, are ones that you set up and leave running. Hopefully, there's minimal troubleshooting during their lifetime, and truthfully, they're not the most fun. However, especially in a house or apartment, the Wi-Fi network is the backbone of our connected and technologically enhanced lives.

So when it comes down to it, that Wi-Fi router is critical. The issue is deciding what router to buy. There are many to choose from and there's a variety of technical standards that consumers have to cut through.

The current craze is the mesh router, which essentially is a set of three access points that connect to each other to broadcast the network throughout a space. It allows for more bandwidth to pass through the network and can provide a broader net of coverage than a typical router. But typical routers aren't a thing of the past. There are truly boss routers (at least to a nerd like myself) that provide plenty of I/O (ports to connect devices) and a fast connection. It comes down to your space and the speed.

Before we dive deep on our top picks, here's a bit of sneak peak:

  • Google WiFi 3 Pack ($259, originally $299.99; amazon.com)
  • Samsung SmartThings Wifi ($229.99, originally $249.99; amazon.com)
  • Ubiquiti AmpliFI WiFi HD System ($339.99; amazon.com)
  • ASUS AC5300 Tri-Band WiFi Gaming Router ($294.85, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

What to look for in a Wi-Fi router

Mesh vs. a typical router

In its simplest form, a router's job is to broadcast the network (aka the internet) from the modem. Chances are you likely have a standard router rented from the internet service provider or a purchased standalone router that's connected to your modem via an Ethernet cable. The router then takes that hardwired connection and broadcasts it to your home or the coverage net it can fill.

A traditional standalone router is good for a network with a few devices and an older building. Think of a home or apartment with cement walls, as that is tougher to broadcast a signal through. These standalone Wi-Fi routers are generally cheaper for a simpler less advanced model.

Mesh Wi-Fi routers are better for a larger space with many devices on the network, especially for streaming. In this setup, you have one main access point that connects to the modem via an ethernet cord and two other access points that connect wirelessly to the main point. This gives you a larger area of coverage and is great if you're trying to power several floors.

Dual-band vs. tri-band and 2.4 GHz vs. 5.0 GHz

Specifics on networking can be daunting and scary, and it can push you away from buying a router or attempting to buy one. However, you don't have to be a network expert to make an informed decision. Once you decide on a mesh router vs. a standard router, you'll likely see dual-band or tri-band, along with 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz on the box. So luckily these two features go hand-in-hand.

A dual-band router offers two bands for devices to join; a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz band. The 2.4 GHz is older and has interference with other household appliances that might be on the same wavelength, whiile 5 GHz is newer and is used in most modern devices. And, as you likely guessed, a tri-band router packs an additional band for devices to connect. It gives you two 5 GHz bands and one 2.4 GHz band.

Our favorite Wi-Fi routers

Google WiFi 3 Pack ($259, originally $299.99; amazon.com)

Google WiFi is super simple Mesh router solution that won't break the bank. Unlike other routers that might need you to visit IP addresses and go through a long setup process, Google does it through an app for iOS or Android. It's a step-by-step process, and the networking hardware inside each access point will impress. The three pack can cover up to 4,500 square feet. Plus, it will intelligently choose which access point to connect, hopefully making buffering a thing of the past.

Samsung SmartThings Wifi ($229.99, originally $249.99; amazon.com)

Samsung's second try at mesh networking undercuts Google WiFi with the same amount of coverage. This three-pack of access points can cover up to 4,500 square feet and uses adaptive network management. This means that it will intelligently manage each connected device and strive to deliver the best network experience possible. Samsung parted with Plume on this, so you will need two apps (both for iOS or Android) to fully use this system.

Plus, these access points also can power your smart home with ZigBee and Z-Wave smart home connection standards inside. And yes, these can act as hubs for Samsung's SmartThings platform.

Ubiquiti AmpliFI WiFi HD System ($339.99; amazon.com)

If you have a large house and several connected devices (ranging from phones to TVs and even connected appliances), the AmpliFI WiFi HD System by Ubiquiti might be the best option, as it covers up to 10,000 square feet. Like Google WiFi, you can set up AmpliFI through an app for iOS or Android that gives you control over practically every aspect of your network.

Plus, the main access point has a touchscreen that can share current speeds, the connected devices and other pertinent info. The other two access points are attached to power ports with magnets and can be placed almost anywhere. These are pretty high-tech, as well, and can increase the network coverage by a significant amount.

ASUS AC5300 Tri-Band WiFi Gaming Router ($294.85, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Simply put, this is an absolute beast of a router. The ASUS AC5300 has a whopping eight antennas and can cover up to 5,000 square feet. It is a tri-band router with two 5 GHz channels and a single 2.4 GHz channel. Additionally, you get five ethernet ports and a USB 3.0 port. This way, you can plug an external hard drive in for network attached storage. This needs setting up, but ASUS includes instructions and customer support.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.