8 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Wi-Fi Router

Nest Wifi Pro mesh node next to a house plant
Jordan Gloor / How-To Geek

Buying a Wi-Fi router, like purchasing a new smartphone, computer, or other sophisticated devices, goes much smoother if you know what to look for and avoid. Here are some common mistakes you don’t want to make when shopping for a new Wi-Fi router.

Bandaging Your Network with Wi-Fi Extenders

This article is about Wi-Fi router buying mistakes, so it might seem odd to lead by talking about Wi-Fi extenders.

But it’s all too common for people to overlook the signs they need a new Wi-Fi router altogether and bandage the situation with a Wi-Fi extender. Issues like poor coverage, dropped connections, game session timing out, and other connectivity issues are all signs that you need a better Wi-Fi router.

You can get some mileage out of extenders, especially when you configure them correctly. You might even be able to partially fix one or more of the issues, but in the end, you’ll likely scrap the old router and Wi-Fi extender for a new router anyway. So it’s best to skip the router equivalent of pouring quart after quart of oil in an old car and jump right to enjoying that new car smell and features.

Buying a Combo Modem/Router Unit

Most people are familiar with combination Wi-Fi router/internet modem units because they are practically ubiquitous pieces of hardware supplied by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). You might not know that you can also buy combination units off the shelf for personal use too—you don’t have to get one from your ISP.

Combination units get the job done for many folks, but they’re certainly not without compromises. Most notably, you rarely get the best modem or router for the money you spend.

Further, you’re stuck with a unit that you might not be able to take with you and deploy in a new home easily. If you have a combined cable modem and Wi-Fi router, the cable modem portion is worthless if you switch to a fiber company or move to a location where cable internet isn’t available.

You run into the same problem if your cable company upgrades to a new DOCSIS standard and your combination unit doesn’t support it. By focusing your funds on a better stand-alone router, you’ll get a much better experience.

Combination router/modem units might be a good fit for some people in specific circumstances, but we recommend most people avoid them.

Buying a “New” But Outdated Router

If we could put this tip on the list three times in a row, in bold type even, without it being too obnoxious, then we would. One of the most important things you can do when buying a new Wi-Fi router for your home is to buy a router that is new to the market, not just new to you, because it’s a replacement for your old model.

Think of it like car models. If you want all the newest car tech, you buy a new model car. You don’t buy a mint condition 2010 model. If you buy a new-in-box router today that is actually a model that came out five years ago, you’re not getting current Wi-Fi technology and advancements.

You should upgrade your Wi-Fi routers every 3-5 years, so if you’re buying a popular model first released five years ago, you’re already a Wi-Fi generation behind the curve.

So when you’re shopping, pay attention not just to reviews and ratings, but to when the router came out.  For example, the early Netgear Nighthawk routers like the R6700, R6800, and R7000 had thousands upon thousands of glowing reviews—but those routers came out in the early 2010s and there’s no good reason to buy something that old today.

At this point in time, there’s no good reason to buy a router that doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6 or better and WPA3. If you’re going to keep the router for a few years, it only makes sense to ensure it uses the current standards for both Wi-Fi connectivity and security.

Buying Too Much Router for Your Needs

In general, it’s hard to buy too much router for your needs. Most people hold on to their routers for too long and suffer through years of bad performance. And very few people buy a modern and powerful router and then turn around and say, “This is just too much router. I wish I had less Wi-Fi coverage!”

But you can certainly overspend and end up paying a lot more than you needed to pay to get the job done. For example, if you’re a single person living in a small apartment who spends most of their time at work or out and about—and when you’re home, the only connected devices you have are a smart TV, a game console, and a smartphone —it’s probably a wee bit of overkill to drop $300-500+ on a premium router with cutting edge everything. Despite how premium “gaming” routers are marketed, you don’t need to drop half a grand to be an elite pro gamer.

You might even consider buying a mesh router multi-pack, splitting it up, using one node at your apartment, and upgrading your relatives’ home networks with the remaining nodes. It’s counter-intuitive, but you can split up most mesh router packs without an issue. Also, counter-intuitive, mesh routers tend to be perfectly robust without the mesh component. This is why we recommend people consider a mesh system even if they only need one node.

On the other hand, if you work from home, have lots of people in your household, lots of connected devices, and everyone is effectively an internet power user, then it’s not unreasonable to invest in a beefy router to handle all the activity.

Not Considering Your Home and Yard Size

Speed tests get all the glory in ad copy and benchmark-centered reviews, but most people don’t need to peg their fiber connection in a single connection to their iPhone. What matters is the ability to use their iPhone anywhere on their property with a strong, stable connection.

Hands down, the single biggest complaint we hear from friends, family, and neighbors is that their Wi-Fi signal is weak in some places they want to use their devices, and they’d like to fix that. You won’t be happy with your new Wi-Fi router purchase if it’s underpowered and you’re stuck using mobile data on the patio, just like you were with the old router.

It’s far better to have a budget-friendly Wi-Fi mesh system that can cover every inch of your home (and the outside areas you use too!) than it is to have a more expensive stand-alone router, for example, that does a great job covering a portion of your home but leaves the rest in the dark.

Ignoring Smart Home Demands

When planning a new router, don’t limit yourself to only thinking about the high profile network devices like your smart TV or phone. Think about all the other devices on your home network too. Even if you feel like you don’t have a bleeding edge smart home of the future, you might be surprised how many devices there are.

Once you start counting the video doorbell, smart cameras, smart plugs, the smart thermostat, all the smart speakers, and so on, you might be surprised to find that your list of smart home devices is actually longer than the number of items like smartphones and laptops in your house.

Most Wi-Fi smart devices aren’t bandwidth intensive—smart TVs and security cameras aside—but they still need a stable connection. A good modern router is designed with the understanding that your home Wi-Fi landscape isn’t a couple of laptops and smartphones anymore.

Worrying About Features After the Fact

The best time to think about the features you want and need is before shopping, not afterward when you’re disappointed they are missing.

You can bandage up some feature deficiencies after the fact. For example, if you discover that parental controls are anemic or missing from your new router purchase, you can purchase third-party network tools like Disney Circle or use parental controls on individual devices. You can also turn a Raspberry Pi into an ad-blocking or content-filtering mini server in your home, but that’s fairly hands-on and not something everyone will want to fuss with.

If you want easy-peasy parental controls, the ability to toggle the internet off for family dinner time, easy bandwidth monitoring, automatic updates, monitoring who is connected to your network, multiple guest networks, or any other number of useful features, it’s better to find a router model that supports them than to try to patch it up with extra devices or services after the fact.

Picking a Router That’s Too Simple or Too Technical

There is a trend in router design that, overall, is better for consumers. For years, router manufacturers, especially those making mesh network platforms, have been streamlining and simplifying the user experience.

Historically, router interfaces were pretty arcane (and on some models, they still are), which led to a lot of people never getting around to properly configuring them, missing out on features that would have been useful, and otherwise being underserved by their router hardware.

If you’re not super into network technology and tinkering around with your router, there’s nothing wrong with picking a router platform, like the mesh routers from Nest Wi-Fi or Eero, with a simple app-based plain-English user interface. Most people don’t need or want to set up custom virtual LANs, run startup scripts or software on their routers, or SSH tunnel into them.

But if you are interested in those, or similar, things, buying a very closed-system and simple-interface setup like an Eero will leave you frustrated, like your hardware has training wheels you can’t take off.

If you wanted a mesh platform but still wanted a broader range of options and toggles like a traditional router offers, for example, you might consider buying from ASUS’s ZenWiFi platform, which combines mesh technology with a more familiar traditional router experience.

Once you’ve considered all these tips and picked out a new router, it’s a perfect time to get off on the right foot by following our new router checklist to ensure your router is running in a secure and optimal state right away.

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