Ever been moments away from a W in Fortnite only to have your victory snatched from you because of lag or, even worse, a dropped internet connection?
Then it may be time to upgrade your router in favour of one specifically designed for the task.
But if you head over to Newegg or Amazon and search for a ‘gaming router,’ you’ll be met with a veritable soup of wireless-tech acronyms and jargon that’s bound to leave you scratching your head.
As the ultimate authority on everything wireless, our job is to make things easier for you. So we’ve put together this guide to explain what a gaming router is and what you should look for when buying one.
What Is a Wireless Gaming Router?
A gaming router is simply a souped-up version of the router your internet service provider probably gave you when it set up your internet connection. The tweaks and performance improvements of a gaming router provide you with the best low-ping and lag-free experience when playing online games.
Gaming routers boast the latest wireless technology: Wi-Fi 6, multiple antennas, QoS features, Gigabit Ethernet, and more. Which makes them a good investment even if you aren’t into gaming and just want to upgrade your home network.
How Does a Gaming Router Differ?
Before we consider the differences between ordinary routers and gaming routers, it’s essential to understand the relevance of three fundamental networking concepts to online gaming:
- “Latency” refers to the time it takes for a packet (a fixed amount of data traveling as a unit) to go from your device to a server and back. This span of time is typically measured in milliseconds.
- A “ping” is a signal used to measure latency or lag. Your computer sends a test packet to the server and measures the time between its departure and arrival. Ping rate, ping time (or just ping), and latency are often used interchangeably to refer to this span of time.
- Lag” refers to the delay between your performance of an action—pressing a button—and when it registers in the form of your character actually moving on the screen.
As you can imagine, if your network connection has a high latency and ping rate, you’ll get the feeling that the game is not keeping up with you—that it’s lagging. The problem can be quite pronounced in the case of first-person shooters, significantly impairing your accuracy. By the time the game knows you’ve shot your gun, your target may have already moved, so that all you’re hitting is air.
Another major source of lag when you’re gaming is the way your router distributes traffic between connected devices.
Say you’re playing Fortnite on your gaming PC while someone else is watching Netflix on a television. Older, less robust routers tend to take a first-come, first-serve approach; if the TV has made a request first, the router will serve it first. Routers also try to prioritize requests based on distance. So a device that’s closer to the router will be served first.
Gaming routers, though, are designed to put the requests of gaming devices first in order to ensure the smoothest game experience possible. They use state-of-the-art networking technology to do this.
Essential Features for Wireless Gaming Routers
Gaming routers often include the latest cutting-edge wireless technology to ensure a lag-free experience for gamers. Let’s look at the most important features and buzzwords you should know when buying your next router.
Quality of Service (QoS)
Quality of Service is an umbrella term for technologies designed to prioritize certain types of traffic when distributing bandwidth among multiple devices. In the case of a gaming router, this means giving preference to gaming data and your gaming rig over someone watching Netflix on the TV.
This prioritizing is arguably the defining difference between a gaming router and a regular router. Although high-end routers that are not designed for gaming may also include the latest wireless technology and some QoS features, the QoS settings of gaming routers are specifically designed for online gaming, resulting in lower latency and reduced lag. Your game’s data is routed first even if another device made a network request before yours did.
Routers with Adaptive QoS settings go one step further to let you manually select the priority for different kinds of traffic like gaming and media streaming.
Wireless Standards and Wi-Fi 6
Usually denoted by a code starting with 802.11, wireless standards refer to the Wi-Fi protocols that your router supports, which in turn determine things like the speed at which the network can transmit data and the frequency band at which it operates.
In recent years, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the bodies that oversee Wi-Fi standards, have made an effort to simplify the naming scheme. The result is much simpler generational categories:
As with the move from 4G to 5G in the mobile world, the newer Wi-Fi standards enable faster, more efficient, and more secure networks. Wi-Fi 6 is the next big thing in the wireless networking world. If you’re buying a gaming router in 2021, that it support Wi-Fi 6 is a must.
Wi-Fi 6’s maximum throughput of 9.6 gigabits per second is almost 2.7 times faster than the 3.5 Gbps speeds supported by Wi-Fi 5. Although you’re unlikely to ever see those top speeds at home, Wi-Fi 6 will give you a major speed boost.
Even more worthy of consideration when it comes to Wi-Fi 6 is its stellar support for multi-device households. Having too many devices connected to the same network is a major source of latency. Thanks to technologies like multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output (MU-MIMO) and orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), Wi-Fi 6 can more efficiently accommodate numerous devices.
Wi-Fi 6 upgrades the existing MU-MIMO standard so that a router can communicate with eight devices at once, double the four connected devices possible with Wi-Fi 5. Not every router supports MU-MIMO, though. So make sure to look for the feature on a router’s spec page.
Meanwhile, OFDMA allows each of those eight signals to carry information for multiple devices—the Wi-Fi equivalent of multitasking. Devices conforming to older Wi-Fi standards allowed only one device per signal.
That’s not all. Last year, the FCC decided to allow Wi-Fi 6 devices to make use of the 6 gigahertz (6 billion-hertz) band. The Wi-Fi Alliance has since created a new standard, Wi-Fi 6E ( ‘E’ for ‘extended’), for Wi-Fi devices capable of transmitting over the 6 GHz band. This new standard requires new hardware, however. So be on the lookout for Wi-Fi 6E when choosing your next router.
Terms like ‘6 GHz band’ refer to the frequency—6 billion cycles per second—at which the network operates. Let’s look at what this means in some detail.
Network Bands and Frequency
Much like your phone, Wi-Fi uses radio waves. The 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz you’ll often see in a router’s specs refers to the frequency spectrum in which it operates.
Signals of 2.4 GHz are generally better at carrying information for longer distances. But they are typically rated for maximum speeds: at best, 450 Mbps to 600 Mbps. Signals of 5 GHz band are typically rated for maximum speeds of up to 1,300 Mbps. Your real-world experience will almost always be lower than that.
Although 5 GHz connections are generally faster, their higher frequency means that the Wi-Fi signals are less capable of penetrating solid objects like walls and therefore cover shorter distances. So there is a trade-off between the two wireless bands with respect to speed and area of coverage.
Further complicating matters is the problem of spectrum congestion. Both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz refer to a specific range of frequencies. If many devices are operating in the same band, the signals may interfere with each other, resulting in poorer connections. Because it’s the older standard, the 2.4 GHz band tends to be the most traffic-jammed. But the 5 GHz band is now starting to experience the same problems.
This is where Wi-Fi 6E and the 6 GHz band can really make a difference. For the last two decades, Wi-Fi has generally been restricted to a 400 MHz range of the radio frequency spectrum. But with the addition of the 6 GHz band, the range will increase to 1,600 MHz. That’s like going from a single-lane road to a four-lane superhighway!
Unfortunately, Wi-Fi 6E routers have only just started becoming available, and only a small number of countries have authorized the use of the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi. But the number is increasing. Although Canada has yet to approve the use of the 6 GHz spectrum, the government launched a public consultation on the matter in November 2020. Canadian regulators are also thinking about releasing the full 1,200 MHz of the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi use. So expect good news on this front later this year.
Dual-Band and Tri-Band Routers
Although older routers could operate only at either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, new routers have started featuring dual-band and even tri-band connections.
Dual-band routers can broadcast at both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands; tri-band routers add a second 5 GHz signal. With dual-band routers, the drawbacks of each band are mitigated by the ability to broadcast in both bands simultaneously. If you’re far enough away from the router that the 5 GHz signals aren’t reaching you properly, your device will switch to the 2.4 GHz band. When you’re closer to the router, it will switch back to the 5GHz band so that you can benefit from faster speeds. The best of both worlds.
Tri-band routers work on the same principle, but with the added bonus that the router can offer 5 GHz connections to different devices on separate channels. This reduces congestion in the network and prevents devices from interfering with each other.
Regardless of how good your Wi-Fi router is, a wired connection using an Ethernet cable will always give you the best possible connection, the connection with the fastest speeds and lowest latency. With a wired connection, you simply bypass all the problems and intricacies of wireless network congestion, frequency bands, and so on.
A wired connection is also a great backup if you run into problems with the router or drivers. Switching to it is often your best bet for troubleshooting.
Any gaming router worth its salt should have a good number of Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports. We recommend at least three or four, but more is even better. Wouldn’t you love to host your own LAN party?
The best routers also include plenty of other creature comforts, like multiple USB ports so that you can wirelessly connect to a printer or external storage.
The wireless router scene is a crowded one with many options. Which router you should choose depends on your specific needs.
The most crucial thing to consider when making your choice may be the number of devices that will be connecting to the router. These days, households can have up to 10 wireless devices at a time dialing in. The number will only rise as wearable devices, IoT, and smart home gadgets become more and more common.
Network congestion can be a problem in multi-device households, and this is where Wi-Fi 6 and multiple-band routers truly shine, with features like MU-MIMO and OFDMA designed to overcome such challenges. The 6GHz band will provide another solution to this problem as Wi-Fi 6E devices become more common later in 2021.
The most cutting-edge routers charge a significant premium. So if you know there won’t be too many other devices connecting to the network while you’re gaming, a Wi-Fi 5 router with QoS features will save you quite a bit while still giving you a broad array of game-facilitating features. You can even sidestep the problem of latency and lag entirely by just using a wired connection.
Another consideration is your distance from the router. Although, ideally, the router should be right next to your gaming rig or console, this is not always possible. If there are walls and a large distance between you and the router, paying more for a multi-band, 5 GHz-capable router may not be worth it. You may end up defaulting to a 2.4 GHz connection anyway.
If security is a major concern, go ahead and spend a bit more on to get a Wi-Fi 6 router. All Wi-Fi 6 devices are required to support the new WPA3 security standard, which means built-in protections against hackers and other threats.
Keep in mind, though, that the most significant limiting factor just might be your internet connection itself. A fancy gaming router won’t help you much if your internet speeds are slow or unreliable to begin with. If that’s the case, you’d be much better off upgrading your connection or switching to a new internet service provider than buying a new router. Of course, there’s no law that says you can’t do both.