The latest 802.11ac wireless routers support improved performance, reliability and range. We round up the 8 best 802.11ac wireless routers you can buy in the UK in 2015. (Also see: What's the best wireless router 2015.)
8 best 802.11ac wireless routers 2015 UK: Why an 11ac router is a good idea
802.11ac is better than every version of Wi-Fi before it. The principle benefits of 11ac are increased throughput and longer range. In other words, data can be sent much quicker, and you’re more likely to maintain a usefully fast connection when you’re further away - even several rooms or floors removed from your wireless router. See all Wi-Fi and networking reviews.
One way the latest wireless version been optimised is by using multiple aerials, as we’ve already seen with 11n Wi-Fi. But 11ac raises the speed here through more efficient modulation, to a maximum of 433Mb/s per stream. Compare this with 150Mb/s for 11n on the 5GHz radio band. So in a three-stream setup, as we find with all the 11ac routers reviewed here, the total theoretical peak wireless sync speed is 1300Mb/s.
Expanding on a technique actively in use with 11n wireless on the 5GHz band, two wireless channels can be bonded together to increase data capacity. The current draft of 11ac allows channels 80MHz wide (already four times that of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi); but there’s talk of expanding this to 160MHz-wide channels in the future.
Another trick used to good effect is beamforming, a way to aim radio energy more directionally from router to laptop. This is achieved through a phased-array technique, where signals from one aerial are fractionally delayed compared to another, to create areas of constructive interference in the direction required.
8 best 802.11ac wireless routers 2015 UK: What to look for
For best results, look for an 11ac wireless router with at least three aerials - although, in some cases, these will be mounted discreetly inside, so check the specs or our expert reviews to be sure what you’re getting.
You can safely ignore claims of 600Mb/s speed for 11n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band – even though all the brands represented here except Apple are doing just that. It’s the bogus ‘600’ number that’s currently inspiring router brands to print AC1900 on the boxes, the sum of 600 and 1300 from two independent radio systems.
The top theoretical Wi-Fi speed in the 2.4GHz spectrum is 450Mb/s; but with encouragement from chipset impresario Broadcom, router makers are marketing a speed breakthrough based on a proprietary and non-standard technique.
Unique to Broadcom, and outside of the IEEE 802.11 standard, they have cooked the books to use 256-QAM technology from 11ac on the older 11n connections, promoted by Broadcom as ‘TurboQAM’. Without going into the unavailability of the necessary 40MHz channels, suffice to say there are no laptops or mobile devices which can join this particular wireless network. It’s worth noting that in the real world, the best theoretical wireless sync speed on the 2.4GHz band using three streams is 217Mb/s. This can give a best-case real-world throughput closer to 170Mb/s.
For the router’s hardware design, you may prefer something that looks less like GCHQ’s Bude listening station, and more like something you’d want in your lounge. Our extensive lab testing suggests that internally mounted antennas can be just as effective as routers that rock the stealth bomber look.
With many homes still finding a need for wired ethernet connections, it makes sense to have a good number of ethernet LAN ports. These are all, thankfully, at least gigabit spec nowadays, and four ports seems to be standard issue, with the exception of the Apple AirPort range which settles for just three. Even a limited array can be easily and cheaply extended though with a gigabit switch at any time, although that creates more wires and boxes and wallwarts to hide. Some brands are now touting ‘smart routers’, which can allow access to the router’s setup admin interface by people outside of your home network. Given the number of security vulnerabilities already included in most domestic routers (see tinyurl.com/qzsn4st), we would not encourage additional ways to compromise your home than is necessary. In our experience with Linksys, for example, this ‘smart’ technology actually blocked our initial setup of the router until we’d created an online account with the maker just to access the router.
Above all, a home router needs stability and security, as it’s the gateway to every wired and Wi-Fi-connected device you use at home. These are harder to gauge before you install and use the product, but it’s worth checking online forums for reported issues, and looking at the history of the manufacturer for timely patches and security updates.
Bear in mind that none of these routers here have built-in ADSL modems, so they are best suited to those with cable broadband. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a separate ADSL modem that plugs into the router’s WAN port.