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

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu May 30, 2019

Much of the tech gear that I test and that consumers use daily is in your face and personal. Our phones and our laptops become part of our everyday lives. But the backbone to any connected device is its network, whether it's 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 you can ignore them. But especially in a house or apartment, the Wi-Fi network is critical to our technologically enhanced lives.

The issue is deciding which router to buy. There are many to choose from, and there's a variety of technical standards that consumers have to cut through.

Before we dive deep into the technology and our top picks, here's a bit of a sneak peek:

  • Ubiquiti AmpliFi Wi-Fi HD System ($339.99; amazon.com)
  • Google Wi-Fi 3-Pack ($259; amazon.com)
  • Samsung SmartThings Wi-Fi ($277.99; amazon.com)
  • ASUS AC5300 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Gaming Router ($275, originally $299.99; amazon.com)

What to look for in a Wi-Fi router

Mesh versus 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 have a standard router rented from your 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 the widest coverage net it can fill.

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

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 ports to connect devices and a fast connection.

The choice comes down to your space and the speed. 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 versus tri-band and 2.4 GHz versus 5.0 GHz

Specifics on networking can be daunting and scary, which might make you give up on the idea of buying a router. 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, the next choice you're likely to face is dual-band or tri-band, along with 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. 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 band is older and could run into interference from other household appliances that might be on the same wavelength, while 5 GHz is newer and is used in most modern devices. And, as you probably 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

Ubiquiti AmpliFi Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi HD System by Ubiquiti might be the best option, as it covers up to 10,000 square feet. You can set up AmpliFi through an app for iOS or Android that gives you control over practically every aspect of your network.

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 and can increase the network coverage by a significant amount.

Google Wi-Fi 3-Pack ($259; amazon.com)

Google Wi-Fi is a 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 Wi-Fi ($277.99; amazon.com)

Samsung's second try at mesh networking matches Google Wi-Fi, 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 partnered 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.

ASUS AC5300 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Gaming Router ($275, originally $299.99; 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 in an external hard drive for network attached storage. This requires setting up, but ASUS includes instructions and customer support.

For a really enhanced Wi-Fi experience

If you really want to double down on connectivity, speed and reliability, then you're probably looking at a more managed solution. And Ubiquiti's UniFi system is that next step. It's essentially a managed Wi-Fi system that allows you to control the number of wired access points (you can think of these as the mesh nodes) that will be in your home. These get connected to your own Switch and Security Gateway, two pieces of networking equipment that are normally built into a router. But by taking these out, you can really customize the experience, control who's on the networks, and make tweaks to improve it from almost anywhere.

The setup can be a little daunting, but in reality it isn't that bad. We tested three UniFi nanoHD Access Points, a Network Switch and a Security Gateway in a three-level home environment that was previously using Google Wi-Fi or AmpliFi from Ubiquiti. While we did have to wire some Ethernet throughout the house and then set up the physical network via the Network Switch and Security Gateway, it was well worth it.

Since the switch, I've seen faster download and upload speeds, less latency, and a more dynamic network that can handle several phones, tablets, smart speakers, smart home devices and smart TVs. And one of these access points on its own can cover a lot more ground with a full 4x4 antenna setup inside.

Think about it this way: With a typical mesh system, you need to wait for updates and might have to replace the whole unit if something goes wrong. With UniFi, you can customize the package and just swap out one piece if something breaks.

Let's walk through the components:

  • UniFi Security Gateway ($129; amazon.com)
  • UniFi Switch with eight ports ($106.94; amazon.com)
  • UniFi nanoHD Access Point ($157.86, originally $179; amazon.com)

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