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The Best Gaming Router Still Looks Like a Robot

Illustration for article titled The Best Gaming Router Still Looks Like a Robot
Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo

We get it. Picking a router is hard! Do you even need a gaming router? Won’t your ISP-supplied, non-branded modem/router combo obelisk suffice? Probably not! Do you need to blow $700 on one that looks like Kylo Ren’s Command Shuttle? I mean, it’s pretty sweet, but no. So, we went ahead and got together 6 of the best gaming routers available and put them in a head-to-head battle for supremacy, just for you, dear, sweet reader.

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The routers we chose are largely already recommended elsewhere for their combination of power and gaming tech and, I presume, aesthetics. Each can be found for under $300 and either operating on 802.11ac or the newer, faster, but less widely supported 802.11ax, otherwise known as Wi-Fi 6. The routers I tested were:

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After getting baseline numbers hardwired to my modem, I used testmy.net to gather data on wireless download/upload speeds, at various distances from the router, as well as throughput on file transfers to NAS and between clients. Finally, through my many hours of CS:GO—wired and wireless—I used the game’s developer console to keep track of ping, playing on official servers only.

For these tests, I focused on three criteria: Design, because more than one looks like a sci-fi super villain, Performance, because if you need good speeds if you want to get up and gaming fast, and Usability, because you should not need to be a network engineer to set up or manager your router.

The Gaming Router With the Best Design

Gaming routers have taken to wildly garish designs, all pointy and resembling alien artifacts, and it seems the more money you spend and the more gamery the features, the more extreme the styling. This was largely true, here, with the worst offender being the Black-Manta-looking Asus RT-AX82U. At the other end of the spectrum, the Linksys MR9000 was visually the meekest of the routers tested - all gentle curves and rounded corners. It practically whispers, “Hey, I’m just doing my job.”

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Of course, design is about more than looks, and the best balance I found was in the Asus RT-AX86U, with its bonus 2.5 Gb LAN port, its nice, inoffensive look, an upright stance with a small footprint. This makes placement much, much easier than the absolute units like TP-Link’s Archer AX6000, which is just a giant octagonal chonk determined to make you know it is an AX router, thanks to the gigantic “X” stamped in the top. The XR500 is perhaps the most attractive of the bunch - the thing looks like a Corvette with Night Rider lights on the front, and I am fond of its USB 3.0 port placement, as well as its handy LED toggle, which others have, but I like an actual switch over a button for this. That said, like the Archer AX6000 and the Asus RT-AC88U, it just takes up too much space for me.

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I do want to give a quick nod to Asus, here. Power supplies don’t HAVE to be greedy, bloated bastards, and Asus realized that. All three of the Asus routers tested had very considerate power bricks, and I didn’t have to do any rearranging of my UPS to accommodate them! I wish everyone would get on board the mid-cable brick train.

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Winner: Asus RT-AX86U

The Gaming Router With the Best Performance

When the final list of routers I was receiving came into focus, I thought there was a decent chance it would be a blowout, with the newer Wi-Fi 6 devices kicking the pants off the older 802.11ac ones like the RT-AC88U or the XR500. Yet we’re only now seeing a lot of devices with 802.11ax support. Most PC gaming systems, and every console beside the PS5, rely on 802.11ac still. So I stuck with that for testing, and consequently, the 802.11ac routers were far more competitive. I would actually happily recommend almost any one of them to most people if the price is right!

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Routers were tested at a distance of 3 feet, 25 feet, 45 feet, and if applicable, 100 feet. This required me to go outside and hunker by the chicken coop. The chickens were not impressed.
Routers were tested at a distance of 3 feet, 25 feet, 45 feet, and if applicable, 100 feet. This required me to go outside and hunker by the chicken coop. The chickens were not impressed.
Photo: Wes Davis

Where Wi-Fi 6 sees the biggest advantages is in ranged use - the new standard’s 5 GHz broadcasts are purportedly better in crowded environments, with longer range, and I found this to largely be true in testing - I saw particularly impressive numbers with the Archer AX6000, which was among the three routers fast enough to give a 100 ft bonus round to. At this range, it had triple the throughput of the other two, a fact that impressed the chickens in the coop that served as the site of the 100 ft bonus round.

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Local file transfers were fastest with the AX6000, too, but overall, the numbers weren’t that much better than the 802.11ac units, with the XR500 coming in a tidy second in client-to-client and NAS reads. The AC88U was slowest at reading and writing to NAS by far, even counting the Linksys numbers. If we were just looking at throughput, however, TP-Link would’ve had this one in the bag, thanks to its muscular quad-core CPU, 8x8 MU-MIMO, and other obscure acronyms.

There is a key metric here that matters above all of those fancy numbers, however, and that is gaming performance. How did everyone stack up, and who did the best?

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In my testing, most of the routers were great. The Linksys MR9000 Max Stream AC3000 Tri-Band Mesh WiFi 5 Router, despite its name being an entire conversation, was the only one I would call lackluster, with a gaming experience mired in stuttering and jerky movement. The Asus RT-AX82U, despite its superior wireless standard, had bad latency spikes that were too many to blame anything but the signal. Every other router, however, performed admirably, with average pings in the 60-70 ms range, both wired and wireless. The Archer AX6000, despite its very impressive performance in speed tests, had some of the higher pings, though it was consistent, with 78 ms average ping both wireless and wired. The RT-AX86U did slightly better, and I was tempted to give it the nod, here, until I compiled ping and realized how much better the XR500 did, with a full 10 ms improvement in ping, across the board!

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Winner: Netgear Nighthawk Pro Gaming XR500

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The Best Gaming Router to Actually Game With

All of the routers I tested had an easy, quick setup, except the XR500, which was a little more particular about pointless things like good passwords, and it just wouldn’t leave me alone about it. Okay, that is actually pretty cool, and I like it. I was just being a lazy guy, but having a router insist you create a unique password is welcome given most just seem to assume you’ll stick with the one stuck on the bottom of the router and call it a day.

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Every router also had solid Quality of Service features. Quality of Service (QoS) optimizes network traffic, such that more immediately-used data, like that for gaming or streaming, is prioritized over other kinds of data, assuring a smoother experience for the user.

Once you got down to managing the routers, though, things diverged more. The Linksys experience was largely barebones, and I found the advanced settings to not be all that advanced in the app, and they were strangely hidden in the browser interface. I had to look at forums to find them, because there was no other way to separate the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, and that is extremely annoying. The ASUS routers’ settings were similar across the board which would be nice, but I found them to be somewhat convoluted, and I think the average person would have trouble making heads or tails of much of it, but if you are nerdy about this stuff, there is a lot to love in ASUS’ options. TP-Link’s menus were perfectly inoffensive, easy, navigable and with a pleasant powder blue theme.

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The edge here goes to the XR500. There is a reason people rave about its sanguine DumaOS used by Netgear—the customizable home screen, with pinnable cards that give you basically all the information you could possibly want, and its front-and-center gaming features, make it far and away the best experience of the bunch. Moreover, the Geo-Filter feature of the XR500’s firmware is the most powerful gaming-focused attribute I looked at, limiting console games’ server connections to a customizable area, and allowing users to selectively prioritize servers or exclude those they don’t like. This wasn’t close at all, and other manufacturers have a long way to go if they want to catch Netgear and DumaOS.

Winner: Netgear Nighthawk Pro Gaming XR500

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Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

These routers, with the exception of the Linksys, all performed very well at their intended purpose. All have Quality of Service features that help streamline gaming traffic. Gaming on almost any one of them is a pleasure. But they didn’t all stack up in other metrics—the ASUS routers run the risk of confounding those who love games but aren’t otherwise technically-minded. The TP-Link and every other router—excepting the RT-AX86U—forces itself to be a set piece, rather than simply accept its role as an accessory to a greater whole. The XR500 is fantastic, but it remains a question how important future-proofing is.

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Considering all of the above, while the RT-AX86U and Archer AX6000 are very excellent routers, I believe the Netgear Nighthawk XR500 is the best of the bunch. The benefits of future-proofing with Wi-Fi 6 notwithstanding, the question really comes down to which one best serves a competitive gamer, and none of the routers here came anywhere close to its excellent latency-busting features or clever, customizable DumaOS. Latency wasn’t just low; it was satisfyingly consistent, leading to a smooth, uninterrupted play experience the other routers approached but did not quite match, ultimately giving the XR500 the win in this Battlemodo.

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DISCUSSION

Gaming? Use ethernet. End of article.

I’m sure you have all sorts of perfectly cromulent excuses for not using ethernet but just run an ethernet cable and be done with it.