If you’re in the market for a new wireless router or AP, you have a choice in front of you. Contrary to what many people appear to think, at least based on their actions, one wireless router is not as good as any other. While buying a cheap wireless AP / router doesn’t guarantee you’ll have problems anymore than an expensive wireless router guarantees a fantastic experience, I’ve seen enough to say that there’s a pattern of what to expect based on the retail price of the router. At least with Belkin, Linksys and Netgear: these are the brands used almost exclusively by our customers.
Info & Disclaimers
This post is written based on my experience as a WISP (wireless internet service provider) technician for a small company operating in the midwest US in and around small towns and villages. If our customers don’t buy a router from us, they pick up a router at the closest Walmart 80%+ of the time. Different regions and different stores may have different experiences.
Also, I’ll use router along with wireless router / wireless AP throughout — for the purposes of this article, they’re all the same thing. They aren’t in reality, but the average internet user will be shopping online or going to the store to buy a single, all-in-one device: firewall, router, wireless AP. So here, I’ll use “router”.
This article references Netgear, Linksys and Belkin routers. I don’t have enough experience with any other consumer-grade router brands to have an informed opinion. At least, other than if I only had the option between a low-cost Netgear, Linksys, Belkin, TP-Link and Asus, I’d pick a TP-Link or Asus despite knowing little about them.
What is a “cheap router”?
In my opinion, cheap routers are anything up to about $50 retail price, or MSRP. The biggest problems I’ve seen are people buying the cheap-o Walmart specials at $25-$35, but anything under about $50 retail tends to have more problems than routers that run in the $60-$80 retail range.
Why cheap routers suck
By and large, cheap routers tend to start having issues in the first year more often compared to routers that people spend a little more on. They tend to need to be rebooted more often. They tend to have more problematic WiFi performance: either too many clients on 2.4Ghz, in particular, causes things to lock up or behave erratically (requiring a reboot), or the WiFi performance is just poorer than the slightly-more-expensive alternatives. Living in an area with a lot of routers in the immediate area can also cause the same type of instability / “lock up”, seems more prevalent on lower-end routers.
Frankly, I’ve not dug into the CPU frequencies, RAM and TX power available on most routers. Or the software these routers run in the background. My guess as a tech-oriented person is that weaker CPUs, less RAM and lower TX rates contribute to this behavior in cheaper routers. Generally speaking. However, I’ve seen where low-end routers seem to work pretty well using third-party software like DD-WRT, so there’s probably some software-related mismanagement to blame for some of it.
What are mid-range routers?
I consider mid-range routers to run about $60-$80 retail, maybe $90. In my experience, these tend to provide better stability, better longevity and better WiFi performance and range than cheaper routers. In pretty much every case, I recommend our customers look for routers in this range unless they have known needs for something more expensive.
When a cheap router is ok to buy
If you need WiFi for a single room primarily and you don’t have a lot of neighbors who also use WiFi. If you live in the middle of nowhere with few neighbors, you could probably get away with a cheap 2.4Ghz router only, which may set you back less than $30. If you live in a populated area, you should only get a dual-band router unless you do not have devices that can connect to 5Ghz.
Don’t go cheap on your next router
Cheap can be alluring, but if having a relatively stable internet experience is important to you, you can increase your chances of that by spending a bit more. Spending more doesn’t guarantee a better experience, but based on my experience, definitely improves the odds.