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Wireless Basics

Choosing A Wireless Router - 2017

Introduction

Our 2015 guide recommended AC1900, AC1750 and AC1200 class routers as the go-to choices for most buyers. Those recommendations will still serve many Wi-Fi router buyers well.

But 2016 has been a year of many changes for the Wi-Fi industry. New players, technologies and architectures are making it much more difficult to choose the right Wi-Fi router as 2016 comes to a close. These changes include:

  • 2x2 and 3x3 MU-MIMO
  • 160 MHz bandwidth
  • DFS
  • 802.11ad
  • "Mesh" wireless

Since these developments are likely to have the most effect on your choice, we're departing from the bottom-up approach used in previous editions of this guide to focus on the overall trends that should guide your Wi-Fi router purchase. We've created a separate Wi-Fi backgrounder for those who need to get up to speed on the buzzwords and technology that make Wi-Fi tick.

In each section, we'll first provide background, then provide a bottom line and recommendation.

The MU-MIMO Mess

Our 2015 edition made only passing mention of Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO). This technology, which is aimed primarily at improving bandwidth utilization in busy wireless networks, has traveled a long and difficult road. It has yet to provide any practical benefit to gullible early adopters.

The first round of AC2350/2400 4x4 products used Quantenna's QSR1000 chipset, which required its own processor to run the 5 GHz radio. Products using this chipset shipped as "MU-MIMO ready"; marketing-speak for no working MU-MIMO.

The ASUS RT-AC87U was first to market in mid-2014, followed by MU-MIMO "ready" routers from NETGEAR, Linksys and others. The ASUS was the only Quantenna-based router to eventually enable MU-MIMO, two years later in early 2016. Other manufacturers stopped waiting for Quantenna and moved on to AC2600 class routers based on Qualcomm Atheros' 4x4 MU-MIMO chipset. All these shipped with working MU-MIMO out of the gate and established QCA's lead in this technology.

Broadcom didn't have its MU-MIMO chipset ready, so instead promoted its tri-radio "XStream" architecture that spawned AC3200 class routers. The battle between the two technologies was described in MU-MIMO vs. XStream: The Coming Battle For Wi-Fi Airtime, so won't be repeated here. Broadcom eventually shipped its MU-MIMO devices, which spawned AC3100 class 4x4 routers and AC5300/5400 class tri-radio XStream versions. But none shipped with working MU-MIMO. Broadcom didn't have its MU-MIMO firmware ready, so pulled a Quantenna and promised firmware upgrades to follow. This resulted in a series of alpha and beta firmwares during 2016 that mostly didn't work.

The situation was so bad we refused to review Broadcom-based MU-MIMO routers until they were supplied with working MU-MIMO, which occured in mid-2016. To this day, however, we have yet to test a Broadcom-based MU-MIMO router with MU-MIMO that works anywhere near as well as QCA-based products.

But that's not all. We recently learned that Broadcom's first MU-MIMO devices were not capable of properly supporting MU-MIMO. So there are some early Broadcom based MU-MIMO routers out there that will never have properly functioning MU-MIMO. And even products with the newer chipset are still waiting for Broadcom firmware that produces decent MU-MIMO.

All this hasn't stopped manufacturers from pushing forward with adding MU-MIMO downmarket, however. Linksys went first with its 3x3 AC1900 class EA7500 and Amped Wireless has its AC1300 class ARTEMIS line with 2x2 MU-MIMO. And MU-MIMO has moved into wireless extenders in the form of Linksys' RE7000 and NETGEAR's EX7300.

With all these MU-MIMO routers, you'd think that we would be tripping over all the MU-MIMO devices to go with them. But that's still not happening. Although there are now MU-MIMO USB adapters like Linksys' WUSB6100M, it's still hard to find MU-MIMO supported in smartphones, computers and tablets. Notable exceptions are Samsung's Galaxy S7, Google Nexus 6P and new Google Pixel, which all support MU-MIMO. Apple, on the other hand, has not yet embraced MU-MIMO, since it is absent from the iPhone 7.

Caution!Bottom Line: MU-MIMO continues to not be a primary reason for selecting a router. Think of it like the 3D TV feature of Wi-Fi; it's moving from a promoted premium feature to something that's thrown in and unlikely to be used. You need two MU-MIMO devices to get any benefit from it and you're unlikely to see any benefit unless both devices have strong signals and you make actual throughput measurements. If you still think MU-MIMO can do wonders for you, make sure you buy an AC2600 class router, which uses QCA chipsets.

160 MHz Bandwidth

Combining channels, aka channel bonding, has been a technique used to boost throughput since the introduction of 802.11n. We explored this back in 2012 when 802.11ac was starting to gain traction with its 5 GHz 80 MHz channels. Only 40 MHz wide channels are allowed in 2.4 GHz, because that takes up two of the three non-overlapping 20 MHz wide channels. 802.11ac requires 80 MHz channels, which take up four of the nine channels available in the U.S.

11ac optionally supports 160 MHz wide channels, which leaves only one free channel and there goes the Wi-Fi neighborhood! But recognizing the channel crunch, 11ac's architects allowed for two paths to 160 MHz, split 80+80 and contiguous.

80 and 160 MHz channels

80 and 160 MHz channels
(courtesy Ruckus Wireless)

Split 80+80 mode enables devices to effectively double their maximum link rate without adding streams, which require more circuitry and antennas. This isn't so big a deal in routers, which have plenty of room and power. But adding antennas gets a lot of pushback in mobile device design, so the attraction of 160 MHz is pretty clear.

Of course, like many of 802.11ac's high-bandwidth tricks, higher 160 MHz mode bandwidth requires a strong signal to work effectively. And it requires devices to also support 160 MHz mode and, you guessed it, there aren't a lot of those in the wild.

NETGEAR was first to leap into this space with its R7800 Nighthawk X4S that supports a split 80+80 design. We haven't seen another split 80+80 design since.

NETGEAR R7800 Nighthawk X4S - first 80+80 MHz router

NETGEAR R7800 Nighthawk X4S - first 80+80 MHz router

More recently Linksys dropped the other 160 MHz shoe with the introduction of its WRT3200ACM, the first router to support contiguous 160 MHz. This requires it to use DFS channels, which it is also certified to do. (More on DFS below.) Contiguous 160 MHz yields a maximum link rate of 2600 Mbps when 160 MHz bandwidth mode is in use, but 1300 Mbps when normal 80 MHz bandwidth is used. This, plus the 600 Mbps 2.4 GHz radio maximum link rate results in the product's "AC3200" designation.

Linksys WRT3200ACM - first contiguous 150 MHz bandwidth router

Linksys WRT3200ACM - first contiguous 150 MHz bandwidth router

This unfortunately will cause the product to be confused with "tri-band" AC3200 class products that have two 5 GHz radios. For most buyers, this is a 3x3 AC1900 class router because devices that also support contiguous 160 MHz aren't available.

Caution!Bottom Line: 160 MHz, whether 80+80 or contiguous, will not provide a practical benefit for at least a year and more likely two. Like MU-MIMO, 160 MHz support in devices is highly dependent on mobile network operators, who seem to be in no rush to move to these newer Wi-Fi technologies, or even clearly describe Wi-Fi capability on the phones they sell.

DFS Support

DFS or Dynamic Frequency Selection is a mechanism that allows Wi-Fi devices to use 5 GHz channels that are used by public safety radar systems. In the U.S. DFS channels are in the U-NII-2 and U-NII-2e bands, whose channels are shown in the graphic below.

5 GHz channels w/ DFS noted

5 GHz channels w/ DFS noted
(courtesy TP-Link)

DFS has been around since the introduction of 802.11a, which added 5 GHz channels to the 802.11 standard. It hasn't been supported in many consumer routers, however, because it requires frequent monitoring of 5 GHz for radar signals and separate FCC certification. This adds to router design complexity and cost.

But the increasing dependence on 5 GHz (see the 160 MHz discussion above) has lit a fire under consumer router makers, pushing them to add DFS support. It probably helped that startup Ignition Design Labs fired a shot across the incumbents' collective bow at CES 2016 with the demonstration of its "Zero wait" DFS technology, using an early prototype of its Portal router. IDL made Portal official with a Kickstarter campaign in May and Amazon preorder announcement late last month.

IDL Portal router

IDL Portal router

As noted above, Linksys jumped on the DFS bandwagon with its WRT3200ACM that has a separate 5 GHz monitor radio. This should also enable fast channel reuse if radar is detected. NETGEAR also recently enabled DFS channel use in its R7800 Nighthawk X4S, even though it doesn't have a dedicated 5 GHz monitor radio.

GoBottom Line: DFS is a feature you should definitely put on your router shopping checklist. The 5 GHz spectrum is only going to get more crowded and you'll need as many channel selection options as you can get. The main caveat here is that some older dual-band devices may not support DFS channels.

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