Let’s cut to the chase: Wired network connections will always be faster, more secure and more reliable than wireless.
If you want top speeds in your home, you’ll want to save room in your remodeling budget for running gigabit Ethernet network cables (CAT5e — or better yet, CAT6) to every room in your home. Ethernet is the only connection standard where the real-world speeds are very close to, or even match, the lofty theoretical speeds.
Of course, wired networking has several drawbacks. Wires are a pain to install, they’re unsightly — and it’s just not fun to be tethered. And, of course, not every device is even compatible with wired Ethernet. For your tablet and phone, your streaming stick and even many newer printers, you will have to use Wi-Fi. But that’s when you may find yourself poking along at slower speeds than you’d like. Also, even once you’ve upgraded to the best Wi-Fi solution (run network cables everywhere in your home) your online experience might not change much.
So what gives? Why the slowdown? You need to be aware of the huge gap among these three different attributes: real-world speed, ceiling speed and the advertised speed. There’s also the broadband speed that you need to be aware of. (By the way, if you really want to dive in on networking, I’d recommend reading my in-depth look at networking.)
Note, however, the network speed’s rule of thumb: The ceiling speed of a connection is that of the slowest device in the chain. In other words, a connection is only as fast as its weakest link. So if you connect a Fast Ethernet device (100Mbps), like a Roku 3, to a Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbps) router using a network cable, the connection speed between the two (and only those two) will be capped at 100Mbps.
Wi-Fi, however, is totally different since it uses radio waves to transfer data. Wi-Fi devices share the same airspace not only with each other, but other home appliances as well. That means the speed of a Wi-Fi connection is subject to the Wi-Fi environment it’s operating in. That’s why your wireless speeds can flatline when you (or a neighbor in a nearby apartment) fires up the microwave.
Take the Asus RT-AC68U, for example. It’s a dual-band router, which means that it can operate on the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz wireless band. (The latter band is far less prone to interference from household items.) The top ceiling speeds on those bands in this case are 600Mbps and 1,300Mbps, respectively. That means the real-world speeds are closer to 300Mbps and 550Mbps, at best.
Advertised vs. ceiling vs. real-world speeds of popular Wi-Fi routers
|Device name||Advertised speed (Mbps)||Max ceiling speed (Mbps)||Max real-world speed, tested by CNET Labs using optimal settings (Mbps)|
|Reference wired Gigabit Ethernet connection||1,000||1,000||1,000|
|Reference wired Fast Ethernet connection||100||100||100|
|* Triband router|
Advertised speed: The art of marketing
The question is, why do all networking vendors always use the unachievably high numbers for the Wi-Fi ceiling speeds? That’s because, as inaccurate as it is when it comes to the real-world speed capabilities of Wi-Fi devices, the ceiling speed is the only thing that’s constant and therefore can be used to differentiate one Wi-Fi standard from another. However, to cover their asses, all networking manufacturers precede the top Wi-Fi speed number with “up to.” It’s kind of like the speedometer on your car: It may top out at 160 mph. And maybe the engine is capable of driving at that speed. But you’re not going to be going anywhere near that fast in real life.
Take, again, the Asus RT-AC68U. It’s classified as an AC1900 product because it uses 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. The 1900 is derived by adding the router’s top speeds on both of its bands: 2.4GHz at 600Mbps and 5GHz at 1,300Mbps. But that implication of “1,900Mbps” is completely misleading, because a Wi-Fi connection takes place on one band at a time (the router itself can work on both bands simultaneously, but each client can only connect to one of the two bands at a time) so at most, the ceiling speed of this router would be 1,300Mbps.
|The notion that this AC5400 router has a Wi-Fi speed of 5.3Gbps (or 5,400Mbps) is completely false.|
But adding together the numbers is a networking manufacturer’s favorite way of naming its routers. For this reason, a router with three Wi-Fi bands (two 5GHz bands and a single 2.4GHz band) can have an outrageously high number after “AC.” Triband routers are only necessary when you have a lot of 5GHz clients (a dozen or more) in use at the same time. The D-Link DIR-890L/R for example, is a triband AC3200 router, suggesting a speed of 3,200Mbps. Completely untrue. The router has two 5GHz bands, each capped at 1,300Mbps, and one 2.4GHz band that tops at 600Mbps. Add those numbers together and you get 3,200. In reality, however, at best, the fastest connection you can get from this router is the same as that of any AC1900 router, like the Asus above.
This kind of naming convention is also confusing because a dual-band AC2400 router (1,733Mbps on 5GHz band and 600Mbps on 2.4GHz band) or an AC2600 router (1,733Mbps on 5GHz and 800Mbps on 2.4GHz) are actually faster than a triband AC3200 router, though it supports fewer concurrent 5GHz clients before slowing down.
And, again, two caveats apply:
Cut all of those ceiling speeds at least in half anyway to account for real-world performance.
Your AC speeds will drop to the maximum Wi-Fi speed of the connected device — so if you’re using a phone or tablet with 802.11g or 11n limits, expect even slower speeds.
Your broadband connection
Now it’s obvious that you will never get the Wi-Fi speed that you think you pay for. But but the good news is that even those “slower” real-world speeds, Wi-Fi is often more than two to 10 times faster than you need on many residential internet connections.
This is because fast residential broadband connections generally range from 20Mbps to 150Mbps for download and 2Mbps to 20Mbps for upload — if you want to find out how fast yours actually is, check out this quick tip. And this means, no matter how slow your Wi-Fi is, as long as it’s faster than 150Mbps, which almost all Wi-Fi connections are, it’s already fast enough to deliver your full internet speed. And this means that getting even the most expensive router won’t necessarily improve your online experience if you have a slow internet connection. The only time a top Wi-Fi route would help is when you have ultrafast internet, such as fiber optic, with a top speed of up to 1Gbps.
But don’t worry — most of the time you don’t need superfast internet. Netflix, for example, recommends 5Mbps for HD video streaming and 25Mbps for Ultra HD 4K streaming. On top of that a fast router also helps with local activities, such as wireless backups or data sharing.
Now that you know what to expect out of a Wi-Fi router, here are some tips on how to get the fastest home network. These are what I do for my own home. Again, these only apply to the local network and in most case won’t help with your internet connection.