Spending a lot of time at home has made many of us realize that our internet is actually... really bad. Maybe you even upgraded your service and perplexingly it’s still bad. You’re not going crazy, you probably just have hardware that isn’t quite up to the task.
That said, your internet service isn’t totally blameless. Some ISPs are actually reducing the amount of upload bandwidth they offer customers. For a lot of people this won’t be a problem, but if you’re Twitch streaming or, for example, have a household of people doing video calls for work and remote learning, then suddenly that upload bandwidth becomes critical.
Don’t panic though, because you can do a lot with a little. According to Twitch’s documentation, you only need 6.0 mbps of upload bandwidth to broadcast at 1080p at 60 fps. How much upload bandwidth do you need for Zoom calls? About 3.8 mbps for the highest-quality stream according to the company’s website, but you can adjust your settings in the app and bring down the data usage considerably.
So if you have enough bandwidth, why are all of your video calls and online games still stuttering like crazy? Barring some kind of issue with your modem, it’s almost certainly your Wi-Fi router.
In all likelihood the situation is simple: You just have too many wireless devices connected to your router, which is probably kind of old, or worse, provided by your cable company. Older 802.11n routers and first-generation 802.11ac routers can only communicate with one Wi-Fi device at a time in a setup called SU-MIMO, or single-user, multi-input, multi-output. This just means that while the router can receive and transmit simultaneously, it can only do so with one device at a time.
For web browsing this is totally fine. But once you have five people trying to do simultaneous video streaming or low-latency gaming, things fall apart quickly.
You need MU-MIMO
The thing you need is a router with MU-MIMO, or multi-user, multi-input, multi-output. As the name implies, this technology allows your router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time. However, as we’ll see, not all MU-MIMO devices are created equal.
First let’s unpack some nomenclature. You may have seen “2x2” and “3x3” in some of the acronym salad on router specs pages. These are essentially the concurrent clients: A 2x2 router can handle two concurrent devices at the same time, a 4x4 can handle four. Some router manufacturers like to inflate this number by adding the number of streams on the 2.4 GHz band and the 5 GHz band together, but at the end of the day, more MIMO is better.
So how do I make my internet better?
Before we dive even deeper into the exciting world of wireless networking, let’s cover some basics. First thing’s first: Are you getting the speed you’re paying for? If you can, hook up your computer via Ethernet and do a speed test, preferably at “peak hours” so you can see the real worst-case performance.
Next, try to offload as many devices to wired Ethernet as possible, particularly the high-bandwidth ones like game consoles, streaming boxes, and desktop PCs. If you work from home on a laptop, even if you can’t connect that to Ethernet, taking other devices off of Wi-Fi could free up some bandwidth.
If you don’t have your home wired for Ethernet in every room, Powerline adapters are a great way to expand Ethernet without needing to open up your walls. It is expensive to do so in every room in the house, so we only advise it if you have one room in mind where Ethernet would make an impact.
If your router doesn’t automatically move devices between the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks, then manually switching to your 2.4 GHz network when you’re further away from the router should help alleviate strain and give you a better signal since 2.4 GHz travels through walls best.
What is QoS?
Quality of Service or QoS is an umbrella term for features that allow users to manually prioritize certain types of traffic on their network. The most basic form of QoS lets you prioritize a specific device temporarily to make sure it receives the best connection. QoS can also prioritize specific domains across the whole network, like the servers for co-op games before you start your Twitch stream.
If you live alone, QoS probably won’t do much for your connection. However, if you have a family, roommates, or a lot of high-bandwidth devices crowding your router, QoS might improve things a little.
Some routers offer more QoS options than others. If your router doesn’t have a preset QoS option for whatever it is you’re trying to prioritize, you might have to get your hands dirty and set up a custom rule. You can find Zoom’s specific networking settings here.
The best Wi-Fi 6 routers
Do you know what router you have right now? No? Don’t worry, you’re probably a well-adjusted person with good life priorities. For these people, the routers we have listed below will almost certainly be a huge upgrade. They’re all Wi-Fi 6 routers, and that means they have the latest version of MU-MIMO.
Just upgrading to a 4x4 MU-MIMO router will be a big step up for most people, but if you’re willing to pay more, a 6x6 router will offer you even better future-proofing. In fact, if you had to choose between a Wi-Fi router that supports Wi-Fi 6e, which adds 6 GHz support, or a regular Wi-Fi 6 router with more MIMO capacity, I think the latter offers more long-term benefit.
Single point routers
These routers will best fit the needs of most people. If you live in a house or apartment that’s smaller than 2500 square feet, any of these routers should provide every room in your house that Wifi upgrade you’ve been looking for.
The best Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers
Mesh routers are the hot new thing in wireless networking right now, but if you live in an apartment or a smaller home, you probably won’t see much benefit despite the elevated price. For less money you’ll probably get the same or faster speeds out of a really good standalone Wifi 6 router. But for those of you who do require a mesh system to fully cover your house, here are two great systems to consider, and no, they aren’t from Amazon or Google.
Netgears terrific and reliable Orbi routers have been updated for the age of WiFi 6. You can expect simple management in their app, terrific speed and coverage, and the confidence that you’re not reliant on cloud services to keep your network running smoothly.