There are two types of routers, those with built-in modems and those without. Although we still call them wireless routers, there's no need as there aren't any 'wired' routers any more: all have built-in Wi-Fi. That's what makes them wireless.
The type of router you need will depend on how your broadband is supplied. If it's via your phone line, you'll need a router with an ADSL or VSDL modem. ADSL is more common, but VSDL is used for faster connections which involve fibre, such as BT Infinity. The fibre optic cable doesn't come to your house, but the nearest cabinet in your road (or an adjacent one). This is why it's called FTTC - fibre to the cabinet.
If you have 'cable' broadband, from Virgin for example, you need a 'cable' router, i.e. one without a built-in modem. Sometimes you can use one with a modem, but it needs to specifically support cable broadband and have an RJ45 WAN port so you can connect it to your provider's box. Read: How to improve Wi-Fi in the home 2016.
Best wireless routers 2016 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. Also see: 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.
Best wireless routers 2016 UK: Wireless bands and channels
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.
Best wireless routers 2016 UK: Choosing the right router
Once you know the type of router you need, it's then a case of deciding how much to spend and the technology you want. These days it makes sense to buy an 802.11ac router (as opposed to 802.11n) because in future devices will support this standard. You will save money, though, if you go for an older 802.11n model. However, that's unlikely to be any better than the router you got with your broadband package, unless you've had it for several years.
Best wireless routers 2016 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, 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.
The routers reviewed below are a mixture of those with modems and those without. All bar the Apple Airport Express are 802.11ac models, and range in price from £45 for the BT Home Hub 5 up to around £200. Also see: How to improve Wi-Fi in the home 2016.
Best wireless routers 2016
- Reviewed on: 13 August 14
- RRP: £169 inc. VAT
The AirPort Extreme is superbly built from the outside and meticulously engineered on the inside, a solid-feeling piece of wireless router hardware that has the least router-like appearance of any such appliance. It lacks some of the more arcane setup options found in other flagship designs, trading these for simpler and more accessible options for the wider audience of non-network specialists. Its performance on 11n in particular is outstanding even if its 11ac speed was behind the current leaders of the pack. If you have a Mac or even just iPhone or iPad, it's a doddle to set up and use, and is well supported with essential firmware and software updates.
Read our Apple AirPort Extreme 802.11ac review.
- Reviewed on: 21 September 15
- RRP: £139.99 inc VAT
Since the software is good and the performance is truly excellent, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Archer VR900. TP-Link has come a long way in a short time.
Read our TP-Link Archer VR900 review.
3. BT Smart Hub
- Reviewed on: 8 July 16
- RRP: £129.99 inc VAT (Free for new or recontracting customers)
Upgrading to the Smart Hub is a no brainer, especially if you're out of contract and aren't planning to move to another broadband provider as it's free. While it may struggle to provide a strong Wi-Fi signal in the largest houses with thick stone walls, it will fix Wi-Fi blackspots in the majority of normal-sized homes without having to resort to Wi-Fi range extenders or power line adapters. It's still easy to recommend at £50 for BT customers already in a contract.
Read our BT Smart Hub review.
- Reviewed on: 12 August 14
- RRP: £165 inc. VAT
Netgear was one of the first companies to launch a draft 802.11ac wireless router in 2012, with the well-regarded R6300. Almost two years later, the fledgling Wi-Fi technology has only inched along but Netgear's statement in noir seems to make good use of available components from its Broadcom supplier. Faster routers are available for 802.11n, but from every 802.11ac wireless router we've tested to date, the Netgear sets the benchmark of what is currently possible with the draft technology.
Read our Netgear Nighthawk R7000 review.
- Reviewed on: 11 August 16
- RRP: £174.99 inc VAT
We hope MU-MIMO performance can also be improved further and 2.4 GHz performance at a distance was middling. Aside from these caveats we were impressed with the TP-Link Archer VR2600. If you can stick with 5 GHz channels all the better but if not, you’ll still have a very strong all-round performer. If you’re looking for a one-box solution to replace a BT Home Hub we’d recommend the Archer VR2600.
Read our TP-Link VR2600 review.
- Reviewed on: 3 September 15
- RRP: £199.99
The Asus DSL-AC68U is a great 802.11ac modem router, with excellent software and decent performance at a reasonable price.
Read our Asus DSL-AC68U review.
- Reviewed on: 10 August 16
- RRP: £329.99
If you have many devices currently attached to your network and need a more powerful router the Linksys EA9500 will fit the bill – but we just can’t recommend it at the price. It’s very impressive is certain areas – more clearly with four devices at once, but most people’s needs will be covered by much more reasonably priced alternatives.
Read our Linksys EA9500 review.
- Reviewed on: 9 August 16
- RRP: £159.99 inc VAT
The Asus RT-AC87U combines smart design with a simple to use but featured-packed interface. Performance impresses, especially over 5GHz and also at distance. From our tests the MU-MIMO feature currently only offers a small speed increase but as a package, for the money, this router is an excellent buy.
Read our Asus RT-AC87U review.
- Reviewed on: 23 September 15
- RRP: £135 inc VAT
Put it all together and the AVM Fritz!Box 3490 is a very strong offering. Great performance, great software, a good range of features and plenty of room for expansion with external storage. A winning combination.
Read our AVM Fritz!Box 3490 review.
10. D-Link DIR-880L
- Reviewed on: 18 August 14
- RRP: £173 inc. VAT
The D-Link DIR-880L is an easy-to-configure wireless router with enough advanced features to also keep some power users happy. Its nearby wireless performance with 11ac was the best on test, and it also worked well at range, approaching one-third of 11ac's rated three-stream speed in the 10 m test. The DIR-880L's official price is £173 but at the £130 some shops are selling it, it earns a recommendation.
Read our D-Link DIR-880L review.
- Reviewed on: 21 October 13
- RRP: £101
Respectable wireless performance and full list of features makes the Archer C7 a truly worthy purchase, especially if you don’t want to spend too much to try 802.11ac for yourself.
Read our TP-Link Archer C7 review.
- Reviewed on: 1 April 14
- RRP: £245 inc VAT
The FRITZ!Box 7490 is a hugely flexible and fast router. It provides a host of features that are easy to use. It's expensive but in value-for-moeny terms this device could be a bargain at £245 for a business or power users that needs all its telephony functions too. If you only require good 802.11ac coverage without the bells and whistles there are cheaper options.
Read our AVM FRITZ!Box 7490 review.
13. Linksys EA6900
- Reviewed on: 15 August 14
- RRP: £190 inc. VAT
Read our Linksys EA6900 review.
14. Linksys XAC1900
- Reviewed on: 4 September 15
- RRP: £175 inc VAT
Think carefully before buying the Linksys XAC1900. It’s a great performer, and the software is really good, but it lacks VDSL support yet still costs more than other routers.
Read our Linksys XAC1900 review.
- Reviewed on: 21 September 15
- RRP: £79.99 inc VAT
TalkTalk claim its router is an improvement over BT’s Home Hub 5, and that much is true: we did see a slight improvement from our results. However, the bottom line regardless of who supplies your broadband, is that you're better off upgrading to a router such as the AVM Fritz!box than paying to upgrade to the latest Super Router or Home Hub. But, if you're given the Super Router for free with your broadband package, it's not so bad that you need to ditch it and spend £130 on a Fritz!Box.
Read our TalkTalk Super Router (2015) review.
16. BT Home Hub 5
- Reviewed on: 18 September 15
- RRP: £45 inc VAT
The Home Hub 5 may look almost identical to the previous model (it's still compact and stylish) but a number of features make this a good upgrade for BT Broadband customers. It's one of the cheapest 11ac routers we've seen and it comes with performance to match its value and good features.
Read our BT Home Hub 5 review.
- Reviewed on: 23 June 14
- RRP: £120 inc VAT
The Trendnet TEW-818DRU looks better on paper than we experienced in practice. Thanks to its 3x3 MIMO configuration, its short-range performance is up there with some of the fastest 802.11ac routers, but it was less impressive at long range. The software has all the necessary functions buried within it, but it’s simply not as good as the interface found on more familiar models from Linksys, Asus and others. Its USB function didn’t work well, the software is rather basic. While some of the premium models cost over £150, the price of the TEW-818DRU is not that far behind. We’d suggest spending a little more for a router that manages consistently good results, such as the Asus RT-AC68U.
Read our TrendNet TEW-818DRU review.
- Reviewed on: 8 September 15
- RRP: £124.99 inc VAT
With both reasonable performance and pricing, the D6400 certainly isn’t a router for speed freaks who expect to be transferring hundreds of gigabytes of files across to a NAS wirelessly on a regular basis, but it works well as a relatively affordable entry-level 802.11ac DSL router.
Read our Netgear D6400 AC1600 review.