Best WiFi routers for streaming multiple devices like Roku, Xbox One
Everyone wants an Internet connection that runs like a hard charging river. You want your HD streaming flowing with consistent, uninterrupted speed.
You want the best router for streaming HD content. And you want to make sure it can meet multiple, simultaneous demands within your entire household. Even if you’re not a cord cutter like me, you expect a lot performance-wise from your Internet connection. Family members are streaming Netflix, playing a game on Xbox One and surfing the web on a smartphone all over your house.
While you may wonder about whether you are getting enough speed from your Internet service provider, I suggest you look within your own home first.
Actually, you need to look at two pieces of hardware. Your cable modem (which hopefully you own), and your wireless router.
They are the foundation of your Internet connection. This review focuses on the best routers for streaming in HD and on multiple devices. But it’s worth talking about cable modems for a moment.
For a cable modem, we recommend (and personally use) the Arris SURFBOARD SB6141. Buying my own cable modem gave me faster speeds than the Arris modem that I was renting from my former cable provider. I am saving a little over $60 in my first year of using it since I don’t have to rent a cable modem anymore. Many cable companies, including Comcast, are starting to phase out use of the SB6141. The Arris SURFBOARD SB6183 replaces our recommendation for the best cable modem.
For a wireless router, we recommend and use the Netgear R6400. The bottom line is you want a faster wireless router than the one you use today. You will also want a router that’s optimized for streaming and gaming.
Why you might need to upgrade your WiFi router
It’s still surprising how many people don’t take a hard look at their wireless router and cable modem when their HD streaming gets choppy. They complain about their lousy Internet connect. They reset their devices, Google around in hopes of solving the issue, but are puzzled about why their Internet seems choppy.
Take a look at their equipment and they have a single-band router they bought years ago. It’s sitting on the floor in a closet with no external antennas. They’re streaming Netflix wirelessly on 2.4GHz bandwidth, the same one being used for their cordless landline phone, garage door opener and baby monitor.
Seriously, this happens. You might even know someone with this kind of set up.
It’s not entirely their fault. In the last few years, especially, there have been major improvements with WiFi routers. As demand for HD streaming has grown, so has the demand for 802.11ac routers.
At the same time, the lifespan for cable modems and routers may feel shorter these days than in years past. Remember when your cable router back in 2003 lasted you seven years before it started to drop your connection?
Those days are largely long gone. Talk to anyone in the electronics business, and they’ll tell you that customers are replacing their routers every three to five years.
The funny thing is the hardware being made today is faster and of better quality than ever before. So why is there a shorter shelf life? It’s pretty simple.
We’re demanding more and more from our equipment, which runs 24/7 all year long. As an experiment, I have been turning off my cable modem, router and Amazon Fire TV when I’m out of town for a few days. I’m hoping my hardware will last longer as a result. I’m always surprised how much heat comes off these devices while they are powered on. It’s also a good idea to reset your devices for the best performance, and routinely check for firmware updates. We’ve outlined tips on how to improve the performance of router’s in our review of WiFi range extenders.
What is a dual band router?
You don’t need to be all that tech savvy to understand why owning a dual-band router is superior in speed and overall performance.
Just remember that lots of everyday items in your home already use 2.4GHz bandwidth. Baby monitors, garage door openers and Bluetooth earpieces all operate on it. The good part about 2.4GHz is that it can travel through walls and longer distances. With a 5GHz frequency, you’re getting a faster data rate, but at a shorter distance. A dual-band router broadcasts separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals. These signals connect to your older and newer devices like a smart TV or tablet.
There should be a lot less competition for your Internet signal with a dual-band wireless router. A single band router can be used for streaming, but not over any significant distance. You’d be better off running an Ethernet connection to your Roku, Amazon Fire TV or PlayStation 4.
Dual band router vs single band router
As you research new routers, you may hear the term “power user” thrown around in reviews and user comments. Who are these folks? And what exactly are they doing that qualifies them as a power user? Trust me, they are nobody special. They may not have much more technical know-how than you. But they’ve done their research and know how to get the best performance out of their hardware. They know the merits of having a dual band router vs a single band router.
You might even be a power user and not even know it. A router that can handle streaming and gaming on multiple devices simultaneously is becoming a more mainstream expectation.
Even if you are someone who wants a basic setup for your cord cutting household, there are two features that are favorites among power users that you’ll want to look for.
Quality of Service (QoS) feature for better HD Streaming
Prioritizing your Internet traffic on a wireless router will significantly improve HD streaming in your home. A QoS feature on your router allows you to manage which devices get an Internet signal first. The streams can be dedicated to a Roku, a Nexus tablet or an Xbox One. A QoS feature will become even more valuable if you expect to add more things to your home that connect to the Internet.
These days, you can already buy a thermostat for your home that works off WiFi, so you can control the temperature from afar, or even with your voice using an Amazon Echo. These WiFi-related innovations are sometimes referred to as the Internet of Things. I only mention this because if you’re thinking of upgrading other tech around your home in the near future, a powerful router with customizable options may be more important than just making sure your Netflix can stream without any lag.
What is Beamforming on a router?
Wireless routers broadcast your Internet signal in all directions. Imagine tossing a pebble in the middle of a calm pond. Once the pebble hits the water, the ripples bloom outward. This image demonstrates a similar, but one-dimensional pattern of how wireless routers broadcast signals.
Beamforming, like the name suggests, manipulates the WiFi signal so that it’s optimized and directed to a particular device. The result is a stronger, faster signal that has a longer range. You get WiFi coverage in areas that were once dead spots. And you have a more stable connection for voice and HD streaming.
Beamforming technology has been around for a few years now, but it’s become more relevant with the growing demand from streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
As HDR streaming becomes more commonplace, the demand will only grow. Beamforming can sometimes improve the signal between your router and an older device on 2.4GHz bandwidth. This is sometimes referred to as “implicit beamforming” because you’re getting some improved performance. But it’s not going to be as great as the improved signal on a 802.11ac device.
Not all 802.11ac routers come with Beamforming, which is a brand name. You may see other manufactures with similar names like SmartBeam and the like. If you are upgrading to a 802.11ac router like we suggest, you’ll definitely want this feature. All of our recommendations below have Beamforming technology.
Best router for streaming: Netgear R6400
Netgear R6400 is the best router for streaming, and our top choice for cord cutters looking for a new wireless router. There are a number of high quality wireless routers on the market. In fact, some of them can cover vast areas of your home so you’ll likely not need a WiFi range extender. The R6400 eliminates dead zones in large homes.
You could spend hundreds of dollars on a high performance router. But that’s not necessary if you want to stream HD quality content or play video games simultaneously without interruption.
We found the R6400 to have an excellent performance for streaming multiple devices at once, with a price point that was close to routers with far less features.
The user interface is excellent and makes setting custom features like QoS for prioritizing traffic on your network easy. You can manage both downstream and upstream traffic.
Beamforming+ also provides a strong, reliable stream to each device in a large home.
With two separate WiFi networks for older (2.4GHz) and new devices operating on 5GHz bandwidth, there is less competition among your devices for a single Internet stream. The 5GHz band operates up to 1300Mbps, while the 2.4GHz band runs up to 450Mbps.
There are four Ethernet ports at the back of the router.
Other impressive features: The R6400 has a built-in VPN server for added security. If you are connecting to a public WiFi at a local library or coffee shop, the VPN server will give you an encrypted connection to your home router. This function alone can potentially save you big money. A third-party VPN service usually comes with a monthly fee.
R6400 also allows users to customize their setup with third-party firmware like Tomato. This page offers a decent breakdown of what’s available for Netgear routers.
Netgear R7000 vs R7800
The similarly styled Netgear R7000 is also remarkably popular on sites like Amazon, earning 4.3 out of 5 stars with just over 10,400 customer reviews. Like our top pick, the R7000 is made for HD streaming and gaming simultaneously without breaking a sweat. It’s an AC1900 (600+1300Mbps), 802.11ac router with a 1GHz processor. The R7000 has five Ethernet ports and two USB ports. But the R7000 comes at a higher price point.
If your game for the R7000, the Netgear R7800 is a common comparison that a lot of people make when shopping for a new router. The R7800 model (a.k.a. Nighthawk X4S Smart WiFi Gaming Router) has a faster 1.7GHz dual core processor. It streams 160MHz bandwidth. You’ll find many of the features we like on the R6400 like Dynamic QoS and OpenVPN. The higher end hardware gives you some added features like MU-MIMO, which we explain below with our runner-up choice.
RUNNER-UP: ASUS RT-AC88U
The ASUS RT-AC88U is arguably the most powerful WiFi router on the market. The drawback is that it comes with a price to match its high performance and oodles of features. That’s the main reason why it comes in second behind our choice for best router of 2016.
The user interface (UI) is simple to navigate like our top pick. There are 8 Gigabit LAN ports and 1 Gigabit WAN port, allowing more devices to have Ethernet connections.
We want a speedy dual-band router with QoS and Beamforming technology to meet our needs for simultaneous streaming. The RT-AC88U offers bandwidth of 2,167 Mbps with 5GHz, and 1,000Mbps on 2.4GHz. That’s probably far more bandwidth than many people will need, even for a so-called power user.
Like our top pick, this WiFi router had a built-in VPN server and security features that protect you from hacking and malware. There are features also specifically for gamers. But one feature in particular makes this ASUS router stand out.
The RT-AC88U also has Multiple-User Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology.
Many routers can only deliver data to one device at a time. They’re known as “SU-MIMO” or Single-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output routers. In a SU-MIMO world, one streaming device will get priority over another.
If you are streaming Hulu on your Roku, while another family member is watching Netflix in another room, one device will get priority over the other. Don’t panic. SU-MIMO routers are generally able to distribute data fast enough so that it’s not noticeable in many households.
What is a MU-MIMO router?
MU-MIMO routers can break up bandwidth into individual streams. So your devices will evenly get a piece of the stream instead of having to wait. To boil down the technology in simple terms, each laptop, Kindle or smartphone gets their own private router with MU-MIMO technology.
MU-MIMO is only relevant if you have MU-MIMO laptops, gaming consoles or a smart TV that can take advantage of the individual streams.
There’s another caveat or two worth mentioning. If you have to MU-MIMO devices near each other, then they will end up sharing the same band. When they’re apart – say in different parts of your house – they will get their own band.
Many devices – tablets, smartphones and laptops – are not yet outfitted as MU-MIMO devices. But the technology is expected to grow in popularity soon. So as far as an buying a “future proof” device, this is the right pick. You may already benefit from the RT-AC88U if you have a few MU-MIMO devices in your home.
BUDGET PICK: TP-Link Archer C9
The TP-Link Archer C9 has the kind of speed and abilities you want with a dual-band router. It’s not as feature rich as our top two choices. But it has plenty of power.
A 1GHz dual core processor is designed to deliver data for multiple HD streams (including 4K Ultra HD video) and demands from high-end gaming. The Archer C9 uses Beamforming technology and has its own version of a QoS feature. The dual band streams up to 600 Mbps on 2.4 GHz bandwidth, and up to 1300Mbps on 5GHz.
There are 4 LAN ports and 1 WAN port on the rear panel of the Archer C9. There are nice security features that you would expect from a high-end router. The 5GHz signal did not have the same reach of our top pick or runner up. But this a great router if you only have a few streaming HD streaming demands in a smaller home. This shouldn’t be confused with the wildly popular Archer C7, which is also a dual band Gigabit router.
For Apple households
An Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station is a decent purchase for a home where iPads, an Apple TV and iPhones are mostly used to stream content.
The Airport Extreme is a dual band router that reaches data rates of up to 1.3 Gbps. The Airport Extreme can handle streaming from multiple Apple devices without lag. This WiFi router lacks QoS or the other customizable features we recommend for a cord cutting household. The set up for the Airport Extreme is easy. It’s better suited for people who aren’t concerned about major features, but want to get the most out of their 802.11ac connection.
A Last Word About Cable Modems
Remember when I described your cable modem as the foundation of your Internet connection? I should note that the current cable modem I use, the Arris SURFBOARD SB6141, doesn’t match the maximum speeds of the R6400. That doesn’t matter to me because my current Internet feed is 50Mbps. If I ever upgrade, my equipment is ready to handle it.
FINAL TIP: Make sure you update firmware once you get your router out of its packaging even if it’s brand new. Our top pick, the Netgear R6400, checks automatically. Not all wireless routers do.
A home’s location, layout, Internet service provider and proximity to other wireless networks can affect performance of a network. I know I said before that people often mistakenly blame their provider for poor performance of their Internet connection and it’s true. But it’s a good idea to run a speed test anyway, especially before and after you install new a cable modem or wireless router.
Hopefully, I have covered enough of the basics so you can make an informed decision before you upgrade any equipment. Let me know what you end up using in the comments below.