WIreless routers are usually thrown in with home-broadband packages, but extra performance and features can be had by upgrading this usually basic model. The routers we test here should offer faster connections, longer wireless range, and neat extras, such as the ability to add a USB drive and share its files over the network.
What is 802.11ac?
Behind its bland engineering designation, 802.11ac wireless networking has the potential for a revolution in computing technology. Dubbed gigabit Wi-Fi by some marketing departments, it promises a substantial leap forward in just about every aspect of wireless data transfers, providing better reliability, range and faster speeds. Consequently, it should allow more bandwidth-heavy tasks to be simultaneously carried out at distance, without having to resort to old-fashioned ethernet cables.
Once fully ratified the 802.11ac specification should deliver a major boost to key aspects of the previous 802.11n standard. It will do this with a variety of new techniques, such as an increase in channel bandwidth from 20- or 40MHz to 80MHz, modulation (QAM) from 64 to 256, and an increase in the maximum number of spatial streams from 802.11n’s three to eight.
It works only on the 5GHz frequency band, which is currently less troubled by interference from other routers and electronic devices that use the traditional 2.4GHz band. Optional features of 802.11n, such as beamforming, will become standard and should work more effectively than before, with clients able to direct wireless streams from the router.
The result can be a mathematical maximum sync rate of 1.3Gb/s. Real data-transfer speeds will be lower, as best-case coding rate will be 5/6 of that figure.
But this technology is in the early stages. The 802.11ac specification is still in draft form, with ratification expected in early 2014. Until then there is no certainty of full compatibility between devices. And that’s one reason why only a handful of laptops, smartphones and tablets currently support the standard, despite 802.11ac wireless routers appearing over a year ago.
If you want to get a glimpse of 802.11ac’s potential today, you’ll need to find a compatible wireless router, and one of the few mobile devices that support it, such as the Apple MacBook Air or HTC One.
Or you could try a wireless USB dongle, although these will limit performance – either by limitations with USB 2.0, or even with USB 3.0 thanks to their single aerial. To get even halfway close to the ‘gigabit’ speed requires a three-antennae setup.
We’ve tested the routers using Apple kit for the simple reason that there are precious few Windows PCs with built-in 802.11ac.
As with other transitions in 802.11 wireless standards, 802.11ac routers should be backward-compatible with older wireless devices using 802.11n. This is hugely important: there are billions of mobile devices that rely on the 802.11n wireless protocol.
While you can pick up a perfectly functional 802.11n router for less than £70, even the cheapest 802.11ac models cost more. In time, every mobile device will likely incorporate this technology.
We’ve taken six 802.11ac routers sold with a pre-ratification specification and tested their real-world data-transfer rates, using both 802.11ac and 802.11n at short- and long range.
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. See also: Group test: what's the best modem router?
What's the best 802.11ac wireless router?
The Zyxel NBG 6716's relatively high price and only fair-to-middling transfer rates make it hard to recommend the NBG 6716.
Price: £153 inc VAT
The TP Link Archer C7 has respectable wireless performance and full list of features.
Price: £101 inc VAT
The D-Link DIR-868L has a great cylindrical design and its performance over 802.11n was one of the best recorded.
Price: £143 inc VAT
The Buffalo Airstation 11ac WZR 1750DHP is great router, with some excellent software tools not found on many other products.
Price: £122 inc VAT
The RT-AC68U produces record-breaking 802.11ac results, while demonstrating all-round quality.
Price: £189 inc VAT
The AirPort Extreme is pricey, but it offers the best experience in many ways.
Price: £169 inc VAT