Your wifi sucks, and it’s driving you crazy because every time you want to watch old It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you’re left watching a little loading wheel spin instead of laughing at Charlie’s antics. But don’t freak out. We’re here to help.
Bad wifi isn’t a curse. In most cases, it’s simply a matter of physics; an equation in which the variables include the equipment you’re using and the space you’re trying to fill with sweet, sweet internet connectivity. Everyone’s situation is different, but there are some constants that can help you come up with the right formula to fix your awful wifi.
Your wifi could be struggling for a lot of reasons. Bad modem, bad router, bad setup, bad house—it could be anything. Let’s walk through some possible scenarios.
Most wifi systems involve two pieces of hardware. There’s a modem that connects to your cable internet service with a coaxial cable, and a wifi router that connects to the modem with an ethernet cable. In some cases, the modem and the router are just one device. If you’re a Verizon FiOS customer or have another fiber-based internet service, you’ll have something called an optical network terminal (ONT) instead of a modem, and in the case of FiOS, you’ll have a special Verizon router. We’ll circle back to this sort of setup in a minute.
Now let’s assume that you have a regular old cable modem. This might be something you bought a few years ago, and it might be something you rent from your internet service provider. Not all cable modems are created equal, however. If it’s an older model, there’s a good chance it doesn’t support newer DOCSIS standards, which dictate what bandwidth the hardware can handle over coaxial cables. Lower standards mean lower speeds, and while you might not need a DOCSIS 3.1 modem with the latest standard, you definitely want at least version 3.0. Just keep that in mind when you’re Googling your modem’s make and model. If it’s DOCSIS 2.0 or earlier, it needs an upgrade.
When you’re looking at your modem, also keep in mind what service plan you signed up for. There’s no need to spend a buttload of money on a gigabit modem, for instance, if you don’t have gigabit internet service. The old standard for a cheap modem to replace your increasingly expensive ISP modem rental is the ARRIS SURFboard ($65), although you might get similar performance out of the slightly cheaper Netgear CM500 ($60). Meanwhile, the Wirecutter recommends the Netgear CM600 for most people ($90), and they’re smart friends, so you should consider that newer model as well.
Upgrading your cable modem will improve your wired internet speeds, but to get that bump on your wifi as well, you’re going to need a good router. Just like cable modems, wifi routers can generally be judged based on the standards they support. Long story short, the newest 802.11ac standard it fast as heck—it can theoretically deliver gigabit speed internet—but the 802.11n which offers up to 600Mbps will work pretty well for most people and most devices.
The alphabet soup of 802.11 standards is confusing for sure. However, it’s the first thing you should look at when judging your router. The newest 802.11ac is certainly the most future proof of the bunch. It operates on the 5GHz band, while the 802.11n standard operates on the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz band. The benefits of sticking to the 5GHz band are myriad. Not only does it deliver faster speeds, but because there’s less interference on the 5GHz band, you’ll also offer better stability. Lots of other wireless devices like cordless phones and microwaves use the 2.4GHz, so interference can be an issue, although the 2.4GHz can offer longer range due to the physics of radio waves. (Lower frequency waves can travel further.) The 802.11ac standard also uses beam forming to identify wireless devices in use and focus the signal on those.
That said, not every internet-connected device works with 802.11ac, and the 5GHz band might not be the best option all the time. This is why you’ll see a lot of modern wifi routers tout their dual-band or tri-band capabilities. A dual-band wifi router operates on the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band at the same time. This means you might see the option to connect to either network from any given device. Tri-Band routers add an extra 5GHz band into the mix, which means you could connect more bandwidth-hogging devices to the network without slowing everything down. As with the 501.11ac standard, you’ll only appreciate the benefits of buying a tri-band router if your devices will use them. And these newest router features will come at a price, so there’s no need to spend a bunch of money if you don’t think you need them.
The other meaningful wifi router buzz term is MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output.” The details of how this newer technology might benefit you are complicated enough that it’s fair to say you don’t need an MU-MIMO router right now, but you might want one in the future. MU-MIMO technology is designed for environments where multiple users are accessing the network from multiple points and demanding lots of bandwidth. So if you live in a house where someone is doing a video conference from one room, someone’s streaming on Twitch in another room, and yet a third person is downloading movies in a third room, MU-MIMO might be something to look into. Not all devices support this technology, however, so it’s not the end of the world if your router doesn’t offer it, either.
So what router should you buy? Again, it’s a complicated question that hinges on your needs. We tested the Netgear Nighthawk R7000P, which is a dual-band 802.11ac device with MU-MIMO, and it performed admirably in a multi-level, pre-war building in Brooklyn. Retailing at $200—but often available for around $150—the Netgear Nighthawk is also a device that won’t break the bank. Other leading contenders in this price range include the D-Link EXO AC2600 ($145), the TP-Link Archer C3150 ($220), and the ASUS RT-AC68U ($160).
All those specs and standards aside, the reason your wifi sucks might have everything to do with the space you live in. Old multi-level brick houses filled with pipes, as we explained earlier, are not super friendly to your standard wifi setup. New expansive mansions with a huge footprint are almost impossible for a single router, regardless of its 802.11 standard, number of bands, or MU-MIMO capabilities. Some situations simply deserve more innovative solutions.
The problem with conventional wifi routers is that they blast out a signal, however sophisticated in its capabilities, to a limited range. If your device is too far from the router or if there are too many obstacles between the two of you, the signal will simply stink. You can buy a wifi extender which connects to your main router and rebroadcasts the signal, but all of the traffic is still getting funneled through that original router. Lucky for you, there is new technology that offers more versatility.
Meet the mesh network. A mesh network operates a lot like the name would suggest. You’ve got a base station that’s hardwired into an ethernet connection. Then a number of satellite routers connect not only to the base station but also to each other. That means the resulting network looks less like a daisy chain and more like mesh fabric, with connections between several different nodes. That means you could place a base station in your living room and distribute nodes throughout your house, not only expanding the reach of your network but also better distributing network traffic. If any single node stopped working, the traffic could be redistributed through the other nodes.
While mesh networking technology has been around for years, the technology has only recently been made available and accessible to the average consumer. A pioneer in the space is a company called Eero. This small Bay Area-startup started selling its mesh-networking hardware back in 2015 with the promise that Eero could offer better speeds and, perhaps more importantly, an easier user experience for a wifi router. We’ve long been fans of the Eero system, which now features sleek white base stations and even sleeker nodes called Beacons that plug directly into the wall and require no wires at all. However, Eero is also very expensive, with a single base station (which should cover about 1,500 square feet) costing $200 and Beacons (which each add an additional 1,000 square feet of coverage) running $150 each.
Following Eero’s lead, there are now several major competitors now in the mesh networking space. Google has its own Google Wifi mesh-networking routers that retail for $130 a piece or $300 for a three-pack. Google says they offer similar coverage to the Eero system. Netgear does mesh-networking now, too, with its Orbi system. A single Orbi router will set you back $130, while the latest two-piece system which apparently covers 5,000 square feet costs $370. Plume is another company worth looking at, especially if all those prices seem high.
So if you’re buying more than one of any mesh-networking device, the costs are going to stack up quickly. But bear in mind that only certain spaces will benefit from mesh networks. Multi-storied or especially big homes are obvious choices. If you live in an apartment or single-level home, you’re probably fine with a solid modem and modern wifi router.
Listen, at the top of this post, we warned you that living in a bunker would be bad for your wifi. Just kidding, but also, if you live in an actual bunker, bad wifi might not be your biggest problem.
If you’re facing a more conventional situation like a big brick house with lots of mirrors—mirrors are bad for wifi because they’re full of metal—then you should just pay closer attention to what your specific situation might demand. As we’ve explained, most people living in apartments and smaller homes don’t need expensive mesh-networking hardware to improve their wifi. The right modem and router should do just fine. People living in larger homes might benefit from a mesh-networking solution, but it might not be worth the money. After all, you don’t really need gigabit speeds in the garage if you’re not doing heavy networking jobs from your parked car. Most people can fix their awful wifi just by upgrading to more modern equipment, and that might mean ditching your rental modem and router. They probably cost you more than you think!
Inevitably, fixing your awful wifi is often as easy as some simple trial-and-error techniques. Try installing some different equipment and then running some speed tests. (SpeedSmart is an app we like.) You should also try to stress the network by doing a lot of the tasks you’d normally do on the wifi network. If this test setup doesn’t seem awesome, buy some more equipment and try that out. Return what you don’t want. Finding the perfect wifi setup is not dissimilar to finding the perfect pair of shoes. It’s going to take a little bit of work, but when it feels right, your life will be forever changed.