By Eric Podolsky, 9/10/12
As we collectively hurtle into the brave, new world of streaming, our ever-increasing bandwidth demands present us with constant challenges. The amount of data we stream continues to increase exponentially, and the routers we use to transmit said data are becoming obsolete faster than ever before. Thanks to a growing pool of streaming HD entertainment and games, the typical 300 Mbps wireless router just isn’t going to hold up to demands pressed upon it.
Naturally, as our hardware becomes increasingly unable to handle the sharp spike in streaming data, we continue the quest for that perfect router which can best handle our massive bandwidth needs in 2012 and beyond. And as AVS Forum’s members attest, the best performing router on the market is a very subjective term. Mfusick is quick to point out: “Best meaning what? Fastest? Most reliable? What's the purpose? If performance was actually important enough... you could just wire it. No wireless router can touch a good wired setup.”
Bottom line, there are so many factors to consider when buying a wireless router that a definitive “best of” list is next to impossible. So instead, we present the next best thing: a list of AVS members’ most recommended routers. These five top-of-the-line routers have been selected and recommended due to the high praise which AVS has given them across the board. Each stands out in its own way and is worthy for a different reason, so make sure to know what you want from a router before pulling the trigger. So kiss drop-outs goodbye, as these babies should have you riding a stable band of streaming connectivity from here on out (at least until your power goes out).
Cisco Linksys E4200
When it comes to straight power and reliability, these two machines are at the top of the heap. You know what you’re getting with the E4200 and RT-N66U, which are far and away the most praised routers on AVS right now. The main difference between the two is cost, as the RT-N66U is around $60 more, although its performance is about the same as the E4200. AVS member Zon2020 points out that “they have very similar capabilities and I think most people would consider them comparable, some preferring one, some the other...the Linksys has every one of the features listed for the Asus except detachable antennas.”
Taking this into consideration, the Asus may be worth your extra money, considering its benefits. Member Ehjax raves that “after a few months I am very very happy with mine. Speed is amazing, have not had one hiccup and the range is silly (I get wifi in the park across the street from my house with my router located in my basement).” p5browne also has great things to say about the RT-N66U’s massive range: “Man is it fast! All the electronics in the house that require wireless connected easily... the DLink was nowhere as fast as this RT-N66U for the internet! Signal strengths, when shown on the other electronics scattered about the house, were far greater. Gave this router five stars!” With such powerful performance, this router justifies its high price with speed fast enough to handle whatever you throw at it.
The more modestly priced E4200 comes in an older and newer model (the V2), though their features are almost identical. AVS member Nethawk owns the older model, and stands by it completely: “it has been running perfectly for at least a year now...it has killer range and no issues whatsoever with wireless speed or latency - for almost two years I ran Google TV, Roku and Panasonic Blu-ray player streaming services across my wireless network with never a hiccup.” Member Apestoso agrees that this V1 model does all that he could ever want from a router: “I have tried many different brands/models and so far this is my favorite. Has all the bells and whistles anyone could require out of the box and if you throw dd-wrt firmware on it, you get so much more...Throughput and range is amazing. I have a very high speed...and this thing gives me every last kb of bandwidth available from my provider. I've done extensive testing on occasion over the years, and the 4200 has given me the best results I've ever seen. Sub 30ms pings wireless, and into the 20's and teens when directly connected to one of the ethernet ports. That is certainly pushing the limits of the ISP, not the 4200. I love the fact that I can have multiple SSIDs with different settings to accommodate the shortfalls of some mobile devices...unless you drop over $500 on a true Cisco Enterprise AP, you can't beat this thing.”
As for the V2, it seems to be equally as reliable, and comes equipped with extra processing power to match. Member Dark_Slayer has nothing but glowing praise for his: “I plan to use this router for a long time. I wanted dual-bands so that I could have wireless for the phones, laptop, devices, printer, etc. while using one band for dedicated video streaming...I can send full 1080p with HD audio to the bedroom HTPC without hiccups...I've had this up and running 60 days no resets, no down-time, no fuss. I'm very impressed with the stock menu options for the Linksys, especially the DHCP reservations, which is important if you're looking for expandability like using your old router as a repeater in another room.” These dual-band babies are true keepers, and you shouldn’t need to invest in another router for a long time if you opt for an E4200.
Most proven, best value:
Though this router is a few years old, it’s a testament to its power that it is still at the front of the pack in terms of reliability. Netgear has released a WNDR3800 model with minor upgrades in flash memory and RAM, but the general consensus is that the 3800 is not worth the extra money -- its performance is not notably better than the WNDR3700, which still packs a wallop delivering speedy, high-performance dual-band wireless. And as it is now a discontinued model, this also means that it can be bought for much cheaper than other routers with similar capabilities. StanF loves his for its simplicity: “it does everything I need reliably. I don't use it's extra features. It's MUCH easier to configure than the Cisco.” LexInVA is also quick to point out that the router’s age is a benefit in many ways: “The 3700 is tried and true and can be found at a good discount since it's no longer being made and there are plenty on the shelves to be had. It takes Netgear a long time to work the bugs out of it's routers, so getting the newest is not a great idea as they tend to put very buggy products on the market.” After trying the WNDR3700, you may realize that tried and true is the way to go when it comes to getting the most reliable router money can buy.
Simplest, best for your parents:
Apple Airport Extreme
If simplicity and reliability is what you’re looking for, look no further than the sleek, compact Airport Extreme, which is solid as a rock, according to member wgriffa: “I do not find the range amazing on the Apple Airport Extreme but it is the most reliable one I have ever owned.” Though it is definitely more expensive than other routers, the Airport’s price tag is justified by its simplicity and ease of use. Simply put, this is the router your mother can use: there aren't any extras to speak of, just consistent connectivity and a little green light which turns red if there’s a problem. But judging from AVS’ reviews, that red light doesn’t turn on too often. NewOrlnsDukie boasts that he has “three airport extreme routers in my house, and they never crash or need to be reset. I have them placed such that I can get at least 10 Mb/s of transfer speed wirelessly from all but one room of the house.” lockdown571 can also hold claim to the Airport’s ease of use: “I've used Airport Extremes for probably the past 6 or 7 years, and they are extremely reliable. For something I use for hours every day, I don't think $180 is asking much if it gives me a reliable no-fuss connection. I remember having a linksys router before that and having to reset it all the time. I don't think I've ever had to reset an Airport Extreme.”
Despite its perks, this may not be the router for you if you’re looking to do more with it than just connect to the internet. AVS member sunol explains: “The Airport Extreme is fine, if expensive, if you don't want anything but basic connectivity. The ease of use and stability are probably why many people like it...The Airport is extremely limiting in what you can do with it. And I mean basic stuff like providing a wired LAN table, website filtering or not having to restart it every time you make a change. This is not the more advanced stuff in the RSV4000 like QoS, VLANs and VPN, but really basic router capabilities that I assumed would be in the Extreme and are just not there. If you have an Apple-centric home and just want 'a network', I am sure it is fine. But if you want to actually manage your network, it is a non-starter. Some people just 'want it to work' and don't really care.” PAP adds that “Apple products have no QOS settings, which is a huge problem if you have multiple users on a home network and need to prioritize traffic, i.e. so I can play xbox while my kids stream netflix, etc.” Though this may not be an issue for the majority of users, if you’re one of the few who want extra bells and whistles in a router, you may want to go a different route....
Best heavy duty commercial grade:
ZyXEL ZyWALL USG100
If you demand serious, commercial-grade connectivity and security in a router, you could do much worse than the ZyXEL ZyWALL USG100. Make no mistake, this is a real piece of machinery, and you will pay the price for its superior hardware and accompanying security subscription. Member mgavsf makes the argument for this heavy-duty piece of equipment: “Instead of all these junk home routers, how about a "real" router. The commercial kind...I want total control over firewall rules and a lot more...It took a year but I found ZyXEL which I had rarely heard of. I got a USG100 for about $350 which does way more than $5000 routers, and has....SIP ALG that works! That means no NAT issues for SIP (if you don't know what that means be glad) [it stands for Session Initiation Protocol]. The USG100 allows the 2 DSLs to be used at the same time and back each other up. And with SIP ALG the phone system (Freeswitch on a Mac Mini) even switches when one DSL goes down. It took 2 years to find the ZyXEL...Tech support is excellent and the manuals blow everyone away (you can download them free).
“Caution: The USGs are real routers meaning you should be somewhat technical and know what ports, gateways, rules, are so you can set them up. This is the best router for the money anywhere. But...if all you can handle is plug it in and adding your credential, this is not for you.” It’s clear that you’re going to have to know your stuff if you want one of these babies. Zon2020 is also quick to point out that the main perk in investing in such a high-end router is the security subscription, which has a price tag that’s hard to justify: “if I was buying a security appliance like that, I would do it because I want router-level anti-virus and intrusion protection, and that would require another $200-300/yr for a security subscription, and I'm not sure it's worth it for a home...it’s the annual subscription cost, not the hardware cost, that is the real issue” [the subscription is not required to use the router, however]. Despite its price, rest assured that if you do choose to invest in the USG100, you’ll never want to go back to using a consumer router again.
Best open source firmware:
When it comes to commercial routers, there are many that simply do not stack up. And while this may be because of the hardware itself, in many cases, shoddy performance can be attributed to poor firmware, as SmartAV explains: “Typical consumer routers seem to be a mixed bag. With every brand and model you find rave reviews and owners that had horrible experiences...The lesson here: great hardware is useless if the firmware sucks, so make sure you can flash it with open source firmware (which hopefully fixes the bugs without introducing new ones).” Installing stable, bug-free open source firmware into a router that is less than stellar is a good way to increase performance, and according to AVS members, there’s no better firmware replacement than Tomato.
When installed on compatible routers (not all are compatible), Tomato’s stable (and free!) firmware boosts connectivity considerably, and is a great way to take a mediocre/poor router and make it useable. As xcrunner529 espouses, “Educate yourself...Most consumer routers are junk, Tomato makes some a bit more bearable.” It also boasts extensive QoS configuration options which allow you to manage bandwidth traffic to your specifications, which can be very helpful. Member Mark the Red explains: “QoS is a means of ensuring certain clients (I.e., gadgets, computers, etc.) are guaranteed priority on limited bandwidth. For instance, not letting bit torrent on one computer clouding out online gaming performance on another. Very handy in multi-user shared living accommodations.” Bottom line, Tomato delivers performance where there once was none. This is why many surely agree with Mark when he calls Tomato “the most intuitive, user-friendly router software I've ever used.”
For more router info and AVS recommendations see this thread: