If you keep getting scored on when you play Rocket League or shot dead when you try your hand at Fortnite, well... maybe you just aren't very good at competitive online gaming. Then again, if you're plagued by persistent lag during those critical split-second decisions that make the difference between victory and defeat, then perhaps your internet connection is to blame. And, if that's the case, then you might be tempted to upgrade your router.
You've got lots of options that promise to boost your gaming performance -- so are they any good? And if so, which one should you buy? Is it worth splurging big on one that supports the speedy new Wi-Fi 6 standard?
Before buying anything, I'd recommend reading over my beginner's guide to gaming lag to see if there isn't anything else you can do to help bring your ping down -- something as simple as moving your router to a different spot might make all the difference you need. But if you've tried all of that and you're ready for an upgrade, worry not: We've spent months testing these things out, and we're ready to make a couple of recommendations.
After months of tests, the Asus RT-AC86U is the gaming router I'd recommend first. Currently selling for about $150, it offers terrific performance and features for the price. In fact, it was the top overall finisher in our latency tests, and it hit the fastest speeds on the 5GHz band of any router outside of the super speedy Wi-Fi 6 models we tested. It boasts an excellent app and web control interface, including a helpful quality of service engine and lots of other ways to optimize your connection, and the design is gamer-friendly without being too over-the-top. If you want a gaming-minded router upgrade but you're worried about buying more than you need, look no further -- this router hits the sweet spot.
OK, so it isn't technically a gaming router, per se -- but the Wi-Fi 6-equipped TP-Link AX6000 is the fastest router we've ever tested, period. It nailed our latency tests, too, performing just as well as gaming-minded TP-Link routers like the Archer C5400X. You'll also find plenty of useful networking features to play with in TP-Link's Tether app.
It's still early for Wi-Fi 6, but if you're looking to future-proof your home network for a new generation of devices (gaming or otherwise), this is the router I'd point you toward. Best of all -- you can currently get it for a surprisingly reasonable $269. That's still expensive, yes, but it's a lot easier to stomach than Wi-Fi 6 gaming routers that cost $400 or more.
If you're looking for a router with gaming-minded features and design, but you're also interested in multipoint mesh networking, then take a look at the Amplifi HD Gamer's Edition from Ubiquiti. It wasn't a standout in our lab-based top-speed tests, but with plug-in range extenders that are about as easy to use as it gets, it excels at spreading a stable, speedy signal from room to room. On top of that, the unique, attractive design doesn't take up an obnoxious amount of space -- and with a touchscreen on the front and LED lights around the base, you'll actually want to sit out in the open, where it performs better. You'll also appreciate the app's easy-to-use features, including a dedicated low-latency mode that can help you tweak your connection and avoid lag.
At $379, it definitely isn't cheap, but that's still more or less in line with other high-end mesh networks (for comparison, the new Nest Wifi mesh system costs $349 for a three-piece setup).
At just $85, the D-Link DIR-867 was the most inexpensive router that I tested for this roundup -- and it performed surprisingly well, boasting the fastest average speeds on the 2.4GHz band in both our lab-based top speed tests and our home-based real-world speed tests. It held its own on the speedier 5GHz band, too, beating out several routers that cost significantly more. Die-hards will likely want more features focused on their gaming performance, but the DIR-867 at least includes a quality of service engine to let you prioritize gaming traffic above other types of network traffic. That's enough for most -- especially those who aren't willing to break the bank for something fancier. Read our D-Link AC1750 Wi-Fi Router review.
It doesn't offer the same top speeds that you'll get with Asus' Wi-Fi 6-equipped GT-AX11000, but that didn't stop the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC2900 from outperforming it in my home throughout several rounds of tests. In fact, the GT-AC2900 was one of the top finishers in terms of average download speeds, latency and range. It offers the same excellent suite of gaming features as other gaming routers from Asus, including a customizable Quality of Service (QoS) engine and game-and-platform-specific open NAT port forwarding rules. At $238, you won't pay too painful of a premium for it, and it even includes RGB lighting effects if that's your thing.
What we tested
Along with seeing how today's gaming routers stacked up against one another, I wanted to get a sense of how they compared with the sort of standard routers that you might be tempted to upgrade from. Given that a few of these gaming routers use next-gen Wi-Fi 6 technology, I made sure to test a few other Wi-Fi 6 routers, too.
All told, that left us with thirteen routers. Here's the full list, from least to most expensive:
We're still testing a few more models, including some additional Wi-Fi 6 routers like the TP-Link AX11000 and the Asus RT-AX92U mesh system. I'd also like to test the Pro Gaming line of routers from Netgear, which we didn't have time to include in this roundup. When we have data on those models, I'll update this post.
How we tested them
Testing routers is a tricky business. Wi-Fi connections are finicky, with lots and lots of variables that will affect your speeds. We do our best to account for those variables in our tests, but some factors are beyond our control -- and beyond your router's control, too.
For instance, your home's specific internet service provider connection is like a speed limit for your router. If you're paying for speeds of up to, say, 50 Mbps, then your router won't transmit data from the cloud any faster than that. The average ISP download speed in the US is somewhere around 100 Mbps, while those living in areas with access to fiber connections might enjoy speeds of 200, 500 or -- if they're really lucky -- even 1,000 Mbps.
That begs an obvious question: How do you test the top speed of a router like that TP-Link AX6000, which promises Wi-Fi 6 data transfer rates as high as 5,652 Mbps?Ry Crist/CNET
Top speed tests
Our approach bypasses the ISP entirely. Instead of using a modem to pull data from the cloud, we pull data from a local server using a wired connection. Our local server of choice is a MacBook Pro. We connect it to the router using a CAT 7 Ethernet cable to keep interference as low as possible, and we use an adapter to connect to the MacBook's Thunderbolt 3 port, since it supports data transfer speeds that are plenty fast for our purposes.
From there, we take a second laptop and connect to the router's wireless network, then we clock the speeds as we download the data that the router is fetching from the MacBook via that wired connection. We run this test several times on each router's 2.4 and 5GHz bands, and at various distances, too. In the end, we get a great look at how quickly each router is able to transmit data to a client device like your phone, laptop or gaming console of choice.
And yes, you'll see much faster speeds if you connect that gaming console directly to the router via Ethernet cable. We tested those wired speeds, too, and didn't see any noticeable difference between any of the 15 routers we clocked. Each came in within a megabit or two of 940 Mbps, which is what you'd expect from a gigabit Ethernet connection.
Here's what jumps out to me from these results. First, it's easy to spot the three Wi-Fi 6 routers we tested up at the top -- they each clocked top speeds on the 5GHz band that were much, much faster than any other router we tested. And understand that we're running these speed tests on a laptop that supports Wi-Fi 6.
Fastest among them, the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which we measured an average speed of 1,523 Mbps on the 5GHz band at a distance of 5 feet. When we increased the distance to 75 feet, the average speed fell to 868 Mbps, which is still a faster speed than any of the Wi-Fi 5 routers we tested were able to reach at all, even up close.
But note that those Wi-Fi 6 routers didn't blow the competition away on the 2.4GHz band (the left part of the chart). In fact, the router with the fastest average speeds across all distances on the 2.4GHz band was actually the D-Link DIR-867 -- which also holds the distinction of being the cheapest router we tested for this roundup. That, coupled with the fact that it includes a Quality of Service engine that can prioritize gaming traffic, is what made it an easy value pick among this field.
Meanwhile, our top overall pick, the Asus RT-AC86U, led the way with the fastest close-range 5GHz speed among the Wi-Fi 5 field, though its speed dipped a bit at medium range. Right behind it, the aforementioned DIR-867 and the Zyxel Armor Z2, which each scored well in this speed test, too.
Measuring top speeds in a controlled test environment gives us a clear look at what these routers are technically capable of, but you won't see speeds that fast in your home. Remember, your router can only pull data from the cloud as fast as your ISP speed allows, and signal strength will vary from home to home based on the layout and the amount of obstructions in the way.
To account for this, we ran a second batch of tests. This time, I tested each router in my own home, a smallish shotgun-style house of about 1,200 square feet where I have AT&T fiber internet speeds of up to 300 Mbps. I ran my speed tests on a Dell XPS 13 laptop that's a few years old, and which does not support Wi-Fi 6. The goal was to get a good look at the types of speeds most people would experience if they brought one of these routers into their home.
Amplifi's app lets you choose between Latency and Throughput modes depending on your needs, and it includes helpful features like signal strength indicators for the plug-in extenders.Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET
To gather my data, I ran an abundance of speed tests from five different locations in my home, ranging from the living room where the router lives to a back bathroom on the opposite end of the house. Throughout all of my tests, I always kept a TV streaming live video from PlayStation Vue (RIP) to simulate normal household network traffic in a controlled fashion (and also so my very patient roommate could at least watch TV while politely staying off the Wi-Fi during my tests).
After running multiple speed tests from each of those locations, I averaged everything together. ISP speeds can fluctuate throughout the day, so to help account for this as best as I could, I'd run this whole process again with each router at a later time. Then, I'd average that data with the first batch of tests.
Thirteen routers, five locations in my home, three tests per location, two rounds of tests (at minimum). When you add in the additional tests I ran to double-check a result or measure the impact of specific features, it amounts to just shy of 1,000 speed tests over the past month or so.
Those averages proved telling. The top finisher on the 5GHz band turned out to be the Amplifi HD Gamer's Edition, which uses plug-in mesh extenders to help relay the signal around the house. It was one of the worst performers when we measured top speeds -- but unless you have a blazing fast internet connection of 500 Mbps or faster, you won't notice that at all.
Meanwhile, it was the bargain-priced D-Link DIR-867 that, once again, led the way on the 2.4GHz band. With an average speed of 85.9 Mbps throughout my place, it was the top finisher, but I'd note that speeds dropped considerably at range. In that back bathroom I mentioned, it averaged a download speed of 32.3 Mbps, which is about 62% slower than the overall average, and a bigger drop-off than I saw from just about every other router I tested. That tells me that the DIR-867 would work best in small homes like mine -- anything bigger, and you'll want something with better range.
The Asus RT-AC86U features a stylish design and lots of helpful features for gaming, including a Quality of Service engine. You need to log into the web interface in order to tweak that QoS engine, though.Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET
On that front, our top pick, the Asus RT-AC86U saw the smallest drop-off from the overall 5GHz average to that back bathroom average. On the whole, it clocked in with an average speed throughout the house of 187.3 Mbps, which only fell to an average of 144.1 Mbps in the far end of the house, with about four rooms worth of walls and furniture separating my laptop from the router. It was similarly strong on the 2.4GHz band.
Despite the complete lack of Wi-Fi 6 client devices in my home, the Wi-Fi 6-equipped TP-Link Archer AX6000 was another standout from my tests, with strong average speeds on both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands, and excellent range from room to room. It saw the smallest dip in speeds in that back bathroom on the 2.4GHz band, and was a top-five finisher by that metric on the 5GHz band, too.
I can't say the same for the Netgear Nighthawk AX12 or the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000, though. Despite high top speeds in our first round of tests at the lab, neither of those Wi-Fi 6 routers tested well in my home. In fact, they were the two bottom finishers in terms of average overall download speeds on the 5GHz band. Both currently cost around $400 -- for my money, the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which you can currently get for $269, is a much better upgrade pick for anyone who's ready to jump in with Wi-Fi 6. And if you just want the gaming-centric features from the Asus ROG lineup, you've got other options that cost less, like the GT-AC2900.
One last point -- my glut of at-home speed tests allowed me to take a look at latency, too. As said before, there's only so much your router can do to bring lag down, especially if you're connecting to a busy server that's thousands of miles away. Still, a good gaming router should help minimize those occasional latency spikes that can be a real killer when they hit your network at a critical moment during an online match.
Asus ROG Rapture routers like the GT-AC2900 let you easily establish Open NAT port forwarding settings for the specific game you're playing. That makes it easier to party up with your friends.Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET
With that in mind, I made sure to run each of my dozens and dozens of speed tests for each router to the same server located a few hundred miles away, and I logged the ping to that server each and every time. In most cases, that ping would come in at around 15 ms or so, but I also saw plenty of spikes that were a lot higher than that.
The worst offender was the Linksys EA8300, which returned average latencies of 37.5 ms on the 2.4GHz band and 35.4 ms on the 5GHz -- dead last on both fronts. The TP-Link Archer A9 AC1900 struggled on the 2.4GHz band, too, with an average latency of 34.8, though it did manage to do a little better on the 5GHz band, with an average ping just below 20 ms.
The best of the bunch? That'd be our top pick, the Asus RT-AC86U, which returned an average of 13.1 ms on the 2.4GHz band and 12.9 ms on the 5GHz band. That was good enough for first place in both cases. The only other routers to finish in the top five on both bands were the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC2900, and also our budget pick, the D-Link DIR-867.
The Asus RT-AX92U is a two-piece mesh system that uses Wi-Fi 6 for a faster connection between the nodes. That could mean better, faster coverage throughout your home.Tyler Lizenby/CNET
What to watch for
The TP-Link AX11000 features the same design as the older-gen C5400X, but promises top speeds that are much, much faster.Tyler Lizenby/CNET
As I mentioned earlier, we're still testing a few models, including the TP-Link AX11000 and the Asus RT-AX92U. The latter of the two is a two-piece Wi-Fi 6 mesh system that uses those next-gen features for faster data transfer between the two new nodes. That could mean better speeds throughout your home, even if you aren't using Wi-Fi 6 gadgets yet.
As for the AX11000, it features the same, spidery design as the TP-Link C5400X, but promises top speeds that are much, much faster. The C5400X did well in our latency tests, so an upgraded model that adds in the bells, whistles and top speeds that come with Wi-Fi 6 should be pretty interesting.
We'll continue testing all of it, along with budget-priced routers, mesh routers, and other high-end, next-gen routers of note. Expect regular updates to this post whenever we test new hardware that might be a good fit for gamers, and let us know in the comments if there are any specific models or features you'd like us to take a closer look at.