The Ultimate Buying Guide for Gaming Routers

As a modern house can hardly be a home without its own internet network, a reliable router has quickly become a must-have. These little devices form the central hub to all wireless connections — on which we rely more and more. Even hard-headed ‘cablist’ gamers need a solid wireless connection from time to time. But how does your home Wi-Fi benefit from a proper router? And, more importantly, how can you tell a good router for gaming, from a great one? We will answer all, through our Ultimate Buying Guide for Gaming Routers.

Of course, our guide can be adapted by non-gamers, as well. We look at our peripherals through the gamer’s perspective, but in the end: fast internet is fast internet. For us, that means lag-free competition, for someone else, it’s the freedom to serve the entire house Netflix streams, without any hitches for anyone.

If your wireless connection seems to be unstable or sluggish, a better router might be a great upgrade for you. These don’t necessarily have to be branded “gaming routers”, as many of the features we touch on can be found on all kinds of higher-end routers. The products that aggressively target gamers, usually come with some additional tweaks to benefit gameplay latency or to automatically grant gaming a more stable stream. Other than that, they’re just solid “regular” routers.

Picture of a gaming router on a coffee table.

The hard-hitting dilemmas on gaming routers, up front

Are routers the miracle solution for bad internet?

To be absolutely clear, a new router will not inherently make your internet faster. That may seem counterintuitive after we just encouraged you to look into gaming routers, but there is a very good reason.

Your internet service provider (ISP) sends internet to your house at a specific speed and rate. By the time it reaches you, it may have lost strength due to faulty wires, shared neighborhood setups, or much more. Then this internet signal is sent through your personal connection, bringing the web into to your house.

Along this way, anything that causes the signal to lessen or be slower will take its share of the cut, until it gets to your device. Relying on cheap internet solutions can amplify problems like these, adding to the lag. So while your ISP may be a part of horrible internet in your home, the router is a huge contributing factor, often proving the biggest bottle neck.   

How important is branding?

Brands are an interesting thing in the networking world. Because a bad brand may become the black sheep of a specific company, routers often have different lines with different names. For instance, Netgear is commonly known for affordable routers that you find in many homes. Few realize that Nighthawk routers are just a rebranding from Netgear.

Before hitting the panic button and writing the Nighthawk off as a sham, consider that nearly every company will have bottom-tier and top-tier products. A cheap router provided for free from your ISP probably is a low-tier option, mass produced for the average consumer. So knowledge of one brand or company as “bad” isn’t a good indication of the actual products they produce.

It’s best to disassociate the low-quality routers from the major router brands as they are merely offering a bottom barrel option, and it in no way indicates the quality of the brand at large. Trusted brands such as ASUS, Netgear, Linksys, TP-Link, and others produce high-quality routers that highly trained business professionals trust and use.

Picture of the Netgear Nighthawk XR700 gaming router.

The most important features on gaming routers

Gaming routers come with a bevy of features that most consumers hardly know how to use. That’s why a little education will go a long way toward helping you pick up a router offering blazing fast speeds and keeping ping as low as possible. Setting up your router correctly can change the quality of your experience significantly, especially since unique features unlock the potential for games to run flawlessly and faster online.

Understanding the features you encounter with a router is pretty important, especially when used intensively through gaming. While most users will never encounter a need to use exotic on-board features, everyone needs to understand the basics. Down below, we list the features that matter the most. Some are more important that others, but these will get you up to speed on why one router could be better than the next one.

Data Transfer Rate

Routers can only process so much data and send it back and forth between devices. This generally isn’t as much of a problem as most people believe, because few people have internet connections that require the speeds that routers work at. The problem comes when you connect many devices to one router.

With multiple devices, the speed is often split or lessened for several of the devices. A higher data transfer rate ensures information keeps flowing a maximum capacity, as it should. Also consider that your devices may be hard-capped by internal hardware, so a 1Gbps stream to a laptop could in fact top out at a mere 300Mbps. Make sure that your hardware has an internal wireless card strong enough to make a new high-quality stream worth it.

Bands — And why having more matters

Routers come in Dual-Band and Tri-Band options, meaning that they can project several different signals in different bandwidths (usually 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). These bands are designed for different uses and having more than one band means that you can password protect one band and keep its bandwidth dedicated to gaming.

The 2.4 GHz band has a longer range at the cost of speed, while the 5 GHz band is blazing fast but not nearly as far-reaching. Multiple bands are great because you can make a password protected and dedicated band for your gaming gear while family and guests use the other bands without a hitch. Modern modems fare better in dispersing internet speeds to many different devices.

MU-MIMO

MU-MIMO is an absolute must for routers that will get heavy traffic from multiple devices at the same time. Routers that have MU-MIMO do an exceptional job at making a multi-device Wi-Fi signal function as fast and consistently as possible by sending a signal out to multiple devices in real-time. Most modern gaming oriented routers offer MU-MIMO, although budget-friendly alternative might lack the option.

Without MU-MIMO, routers literally switch the internet signal between devices to simulate real-time connections. With only a couple devices, it isn’t an issue. But add one smartphone too many, and you are going to see significant slowdown on all devices.

Signal Range

Router range is usually rated in square feet (or square meters) and often not entirely accurate in real life. That’s because real-life environments affect Wi-Fi signals tremendously. Projecting through a wall will dampen a signal, odd materials may affect the strength of Wi-Fi waves, and router quality truthfully may not hit the rated range as conditions are rarely ideal. Almost every router is tested in an ideal situation so it’s hard to trust this number as exact.

Companies generally are being truthful though and it could be reproduced in a better environment. Signal range is very important to consider because you want to be able to use your router without feeling too restricted when it comes to movement. Lack of coverage is one of the chief complaints in larger homes and often requires another router or two or a signal extender.

Modem/Router Combination

It can be a bit confusing at first for those of us who grew up with 56k modems in our desktop computers, to see the modem as separate from the router. A router distributes internet and does this in a fantastic way, while a modem receives the internet and makes it sendable from the ISP to the router.

Some routers will also include a modem part, while others will opt for a separate device. Generally either setup is fine, but you do need both a modem and router of some sorts to even use the internet.

Router Software

Routers are rather hard to set up without decent software. Cheap routers are not intuitive and can be a massive headache to work with. Common software seen today is clunky and poorly designed for a non-technical user. Modern Gaming routers have taken note and now offer streamlined easy to use websites and actual apps that you can put on your phone and quickly edit settings with on the fly.

When selecting a router, make sure to consider your technical expertise and how important easy to use software is. Otherwise you may spend years unable to make simple changes to your network such as password protection.

QoS

Quality of Service (QoS) indicates the priority you give to specific applications in regards to your router. QoS is not offered on every router, but allows you to choose if games (or downloads) are prioritized on your network. This is part of the router software and usually comes with a specific QoS section.

Some Quality of Service is simple and merely categorizes device usage into broad categories such as “Gaming” or “Media”. The best QoS will give immense freedom to select specific devices and even programs to be given priority bandwidth.

Mesh Software

Mesh is another important router technology that helps multiple devices connect together to spread a wireless signal. For instance, two mesh enabled routers may seamlessly connect to each other and extend the Wi-Fi signal from one modem. This is done quickly and with minimal setup. We’ll explain more below, but know that most mesh setups require a device from the same company to work properly.

DD-WRT Compatible

DD-WRT is an open-source firmware program that allows you to take a normal router and give it insane enterprise-level capabilities. Power users who love to install VPN’s on routers, overclock routers, and play with those sorts of settings will want a router that offers DD-WRT Compatibility. We wrote an exhaustive guide on DD-WRT routers and included our recent favorite for those gamers that want something a little more.

Some of the ports commonly found on the backside of gaming routers.

Size

Gaming routers are a bit larger than the tiny routers most homes have. In fact, top models can be as large as 2ft x 2ft. Most of us don’t think of this as important because of our association with tiny consumer routers, so make sure to check the size and weight before picking up new gear.

The same goes for spare room you can leave for antennae. Some routers might be compact, but need to spread their “wings” for proper range. Always ensure you leave enough headroom for these devices to spit out their Wi-Fi signals.

Ports

Routers can also act as wired network hubs/switches, allowing you to plug multiple devices into them directly. This is doubly important in wiring a home correctly as each room may have an individual Ethernet port needed to allow access.

Other ports, like having a USB connector or two, are mostly nice-to-haves. By plugging in an external SSD or other type of storage disk, can make for some nice “cloud storage” in your own home network. It’s far from a necessity, but can be a handy way of storing and sharing gameplay recordings throughout your house.

Technical Support

Most products for modern tech setups are somewhat plug-and-play. Even the fanciest gaming components are just an installation away from being highly effective. Networking products are different and a required conversation between the consumer, hardware company, and ISP can be migraine inducing.

Always take a moment to think through the technical support options of modern router companies because there is a good chance that you’ll be communicating with them if something goes wrong. With networking there is a good chance something small and hard to catch will go wrong as well.


Other Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on Routers

Should I buy certain name brands?

We aren’t big on recommending gear purely based on brand. In a way, we did already touch on that, up above. Some small players in the tech industry make fantastic products. That being said, a cheap, no-name router, will often compare terrible to higher-end options.

Networking is complex and often messy so before you dash out and buy a cheap product on Amazon, consider how important having functioning Wi-Fi is for your situation. We don’t recommend going cheap or buying something from an unknown company as even the best wireless technology can have problems. So worst routers much more so.

Shouldn’t I always use an ethernet port for gaming?

The old wired solution is one of the best. It’s hard to beat the reliability of a simple CAT 5(+) cord plugged into the back of a PC or gaming console. Years ago it would have been foolish to even attempt using another method for your gaming sessions. Today’s wireless technology is more reliable than ever, though. And while you may have more stability with a corded setup, you ultimately lose the freedom to move your device anywhere and open the home up to unsightly cords strung about.

Wi-Fi is great for consoles, smart devices, laptops, and smartphone gaming. And these days, the difference will be minimal with cabled connection — especially when sub-second latency isn’t a factor, like with streaming YouTube or movies.

QoS — Does it matter?

As said earlier, Quality of Service (QoS) helps to filter bandwidth to the correct applications. Primarily this is what keeps your games from lagging if you live in a household with many devices. You can make sure that the router knows to give the maximum amount of effort into games. There are other things you focus on with QoS, such as streaming, downloads, television, and more. It may seem superfluous to those who haven’t used it before, but good Quality of Service can make a huge difference.

Screenshot of the DumaOS control software for Netgear Nighthawk gaming routers.

Why are there different frequency Wi-Fi bands?

It’s commonly seen in routers that they offer both a 5 GHz option and a 2.4 GHz option, but the average consumer has no idea why the different bandwidths would matter. There are actually a few reasons that different bands are useful on a router. The most common being that you can put less important devices such as smartphones on one band while keeping a dedicated second band for other tasks. These bands have a set speed and an allotted amount of devices that can use them. Making use of lesser devices on one band helps you out, especially when guests come over.

It’s common for a small business to keep one in-house band that is password protected and a generic band that is less secure or has a well-known password. That keeps Wi-Fi flowing for staff and the guests happy. The advantage for gamers is that they can do the same thing and satisfy guests, family members, and non-critical devices like phones while dedicated one whole band to gaming.

The second reason for using bands is that 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz (The commonly accepted wireless signal ranges) have unique advantages for each band. 5 GHz is faster but has a shorter range while 2.4 GHz bands can transmit further at a lower speed. That means the 5 GHz band is best to reserve for gaming devices if they’re at a reasonable distance. The 2.4 GHz is great for phones and other devices that move often as they’ll be able to connect further out with less effort.

What is MU-MIMO?

Did you know that routers haven’t always been able to share devices on the same signal in real time? In fact, that’s a relatively new technology that has made huge improvements in how routers function. SU-MIMO (Single-User) and MU-MIMO (Multi-User) came around about a decade ago but MU-MIMO took a while to replace SU as it only functions at 5 GHz. Basically, before MIMO connections were one to one.

SU-MIMO improved on this by allowing multiple users to be on the same connection simultaneously, only it wasn’t actually simultaneous in real-time. Instead SU-MIMO sends a burst of data to one device then moves onto the next device. This happens in real-time and so fast that you hardly notice. The problem comes in that connections with numerous devices can slow SU-MIMO down, more can go wrong technically, if you lose one feed you lose all of them.

MU-MIMO solves this by literally streaming data to different devices with individual streams. That means you don’t get simulated real-time but actual real-time speed. In a dorm setting or business that means the router isn’t struggling to bounce between nine devices in real-time. It also means you need an antennae for every device that is supported (One reason so many antennae are on the average router you encounter).

Estimated Square Footage — Does it matter?

That would be a resounding “yes”. The strength of a router is quite important to ensure your home has good Wi-Fi. Routers that can’t project very far are cheap and simple.

Routers with relatively small ranges may seem like an easy option and save a few bucks, but ultimately they will become a nuisance. The ability to go anywhere in your home without losing signal is a pretty basic standard to have, and greatly affects how useful your home network can be is. A poor router setup will cause more headaches, depending on how much you stroll around in your living environment.

Why use a mesh set up?

Mesh Wi-Fi describes connecting wireless devices throughout a home without using wires. Since routers are already capable of sending and receiving signals, they don’t require much more to be used as pieces of a network. In a way, they can serve as nodes within a network. Many modern routers come with mesh compatibility built in.

Wi-Fi “dead spots” are just a reality in most homes. This is due to the large footprint of modern living spaces mixed with thick walls and furniture blocking those powerful wireless signals. One device can rarely cover an entire two-story home, and often Wi-Fi signals will weaken by the time they get across the home.

Mesh is a simple and convenient way to set up Wi-Fi through a home. You install nodes which can be dedicated mesh devices such as those offered by Google, or just a well-designed router. These routers take in signal and project it to a new device with minimal signal loss. Even good routers can get overworked or stretched thin, so mesh solutions offer a fantastic option for making sure your living room and office are getting the same quality Wi-Fi, as bedrooms and gaming areas.


Thanks for joining us!

Thank you for reading our ultimate guide on gaming routers! We hope you learned something new and now can talk with confidence about the difference between MU-MIMO or Tri-Band solutions. It’s not easy information but it’s important for those of us who want to game at the best speeds with least lag.

Keep coming back to GameAuthority for more articles on today’s most important gaming devices. We love bringing top-notch reviews and guides to those who want to know a bit more about gaming. Until next time, play on.

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