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The Best Budget Routers for 2021

With the pandemic keeping most of us in our residences, home routers are now work routers, too. But that presents problems for some since carrying work-related traffic with dial tone-like reliability can be a difficult chore for that aging router that’s been collecting dust under your TV. If your router is wheezing while shouldering your work-at-home data load in addition to its normal gaming and entertainment fare, it’s time to start looking for something more modern. But with the pandemic stretching wallets in addition to bandwidth, you’re likely looking for something economical. Enter this bevy of network bargains.

Higher-end wireless routers utilize the latest Wi-Fi technologies to deliver blazing data rates and advanced features, but they often cost upwards of $300. You’re looking for a speed boost, but you might not need the latest and priciest to get it. If you live in a small home or apartment and have only a handful of devices connecting to your network, you can save a bundle with a budget-class router and still enjoy solid throughput performance and even some of today’s more advanced features. Read on to find out what to look for (and what to expect) from a sub-$100 desktop router.

Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6

These days, you’ll find that most budget routers use Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) technology, although there are still a few Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) routers hanging around so it’s worth checking. However, the latter are single-band routers that operate on the 2.4GHz spectrum and offer very limited throughput speeds. That’s not necessarily the kiss of death, but it does mean they probably won’t pair well with today’s PCs, mobile devices, and smart home devices, most of which are looking for at least a Wi-Fi 5 connection. They’re also ill-equipped for multimedia tasks such as video streaming and online gaming.

Wi-Fi 5 routers, on the other hand, are dual-band devices that let you connect using both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. They have several other improvements, too, especially MU-MIMO technology, which transmits data simultaneously (rather than sequentially) to compatible client devices. Another cool feature to look for is beamforming, which sends wireless signals directly to clients rather than over a broad spectrum. If you see automatic band-steering on your router’s spec sheet, that means the router can select the most efficient radio band based on the current network traffic, band availability, and signal strength.

If you’re wondering which band you’re most likely to use, then know that the 2.4GHz radio band is best suited for long-range transmissions but is subject to interference from other household devices such as microwave ovens and cordless phones. The 5GHz band provides significantly more bandwidth than the 2.4GHz band and is ideal for video streaming, online gaming, and large file downloads, but has limited range, which is why these systems often need to be bolstered with a wireless range extender, especially in larger homes.

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is the latest in wireless technology and offers much-improved throughput speeds; up to 4.8 gigabits per second (Gbps), which makes it sought after both by those looking for business-class networking as well as those seeking a fast gaming router. The standard officially launched last year and there will be a wave of Wi-Fi 6 routers hitting the market in 2020 and beyond. If you’re looking to future-proof your home network, you can still do that without spending a fortune as there are a few Wi-Fi 6 routers available for under $100. It also uses other new technologies, including Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Target Wake Time (TWT) to relieve network congestion and reduce client power consumption.

Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 takes advantage of previously unused radio frequencies to provide faster 2.4GHz performance, offers WPA3 security which protects against weak passwords, and uses 256-bit encryption to help keep your network safer from hackers. Finally, it provides upstream and downstream MU-MIMO streaming (802.11ac only supports downlink MU-MIMO), and it’s backward compatible with previous Wi-Fi protocols.

And if you see a router being advertised as compliant with W-Fi 6E, know that’s just the very latest in the Wi-Fi 6 saga. With 6E, the software capabilities of the protocol are the same as in Wi-Fi 6, meaning you’ll get all the new goodness around features like OFDMA and TWT. But you’ll also get access to the newly released 6GHz band, so routers that support 6E will have access to quite a bit more wireless bandwidth which should provide much more room for those bandwidth-hogging work applications and also solve things like difficult connections due to bandwidth congestion. You likely won’t see 6E routers in the budget router space for some time, however.

TP-Link Archer C7 wireless router product shot

Speed on a Budget

The most expensive Wi-Fi 5 routers, including the newer wireless mesh systems, offer “combined” speeds of up to 5,400 megabits per second (Mbps). That just means the total maximum throughput of both bands, not the actual speed of the router. For this reason, they’re labeled as AC5400 routers, but many of these models will cost close to $300 or more.

For under $100 you can expect to find AC750 Wi-Fi 5 routers, which provide speeds of up to 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 450Mbps on the 5GHz band. You can even find sub-$100 AC2200 routers, which deliver speeds up to 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band.

Finally, the current crop of AX1500 Wi-Fi 6 routers, mesh or standalone, can handle data rates of up to 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 1,200Mbps on the 5GHz band. It’s important to note that these speed ratings are theoretical and refer to maximum achievable speeds. Actual throughput will likely be significantly lower, but never fear, we thoroughly test all our contenders so you can see all the key real-world numbers, including throughput and signal strength.

An interesting trend in the higher-end router spectrum is that prices are starting to drop. No, you won’t find any Wi-Fi mesh systems in our budget roundup just yet, but we are seeing those machines become cheaper in the latter half of 2020, so you may see them soon. The best examples are the new Amazon Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6 mesh routers, which are coming in around $200-$300 less than many of their current mesh competitors. Not only do these products provide a low-cost mesh network, they also support Wi-Fi 6 and they include a Zigbee smart home hub built into the router, as well.

Should You Compromise on Key Features?

So far, it sounds as if you can find pretty much anything you want in a sub-$100 router. Unfortunately, that’s likely not the case. In order to meet a lower price point, a lot of routers eschew many of the features that you’ll find on more expensive models. On the hardware end, you won’t find any sub-$100 routers that are equipped with more than four LAN ports, nor will you find features like speedy multi-gig (2.5Gb) LAN ports. The ability to perform link aggregation won’t be there; nor will USB ports. Those are useful for connecting directly to peripherals like external hard drives (a quick way to build your own network attached storage or NAS device). Budget routers also typically use non-removable external antennas, which means they can’t be replaced with more powerful high-gain antennas to help boost performance and extend the router’s signal range.

Budget routers are managed using a web console or a mobile app, much like the more expensive versions, but they’ll likely lack some of the advanced settings. That’ll likely include support for bandwidth allocation or QoS (Quality of Service), dedicated online gaming presets, VPN connectivity, and sometimes support for DD-WRT, a Linux-based firmware upgrade that replaces the manufacturer’s firmware and provides enhanced settings which allow you to customize the router for maximum performance.

Additionally, budget-class routers rarely offer the robust parental controls with age-related presets that filter out things like social media, gambling, shopping, and violent or adult content that you’ll find on many mid-range and high-end routers. You can, however, still use basic access scheduling and URL filtering features to help you control when your kids go online and which sites they can visit. Or you can purchase a parental control program that suits your family’s needs.

Indeed, third-party software is a good way to up the capabilities of your budget router, because unlike many mesh systems and midrange to high-end routers, budget routers usually ship with only basic software capabilities. You likely won’t find one that’s bundled things like name-brand security software that can protect your network and client devices from phishing, viruses, adware, and other malware, or real parental control solutions that can make it much harder for your kids to find the dangerous corners of the web. To find a likely pairing candidate for your router choice, check out our Malware Protection and Removal roundup to see what works best for you.

Whichever router you wind up choosing, remember that once you’ve found it, be sure to read our tips for setting up your router and boosting your Wi-Fi signal.

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