We’re all spending a lot more time indoors and on screens these days.
During the day, millions of Americans now work and attend classes via teleconferencing.
Then, when it's time to relax, we use the same screens to enjoy all the content the streaming wars have to offer.
None of this is possible unless your internet connection is up to par.
If you’ve been dealing with a lot more buffering and dropped Zoom calls than you’d like, it might be time to upgrade your modem or router — or both.
Best modem router combo
Dennis Bell, who has worked in the IT industry for 15 years and now is now the Quebec-based CEO of the online coffee resource Byblos Coffee, likes modem-router combo gadgets.
"Routers and modems are usually separate devices, but there are combined devices that simplify the setup process," he says. "I recommend Motorola MG7550, as it is the best choice for internet speeds of 250 Mbps to 300 Mbps. Combining the modem and router saves space, eliminates wires, and simplifies the installation."
He adds, "You can save over $120 per year in cable modem rental fees, depending on your service provider," and that "it offers a 2-year warranty on the device upon purchase."
Some people are lucky enough to live in cities with multiple internet service providers, so they can shop around and see which one gives the best value.
But as Patrick Ward, the Los Angeles-based director of marketing at the software development agency Rootstrap, points out, you need to make sure you don't buy a modem that locks you into one service. That's why he likes the Netgear CM500.
"The Netgear CM500 is a workhorse modem that is fully compatible with most cable providers. This is a key consideration because the entire point of buying your own modem is to reduce the monthly rental fee from your internet provider," he says.
“At the same time, all those savings are for naught if you purchase a modem that locks you into one particular internet provider,” Ward says.
Ward also told us that for heavy duty internet users, such as households with online gamers, “You’ll be better served shilling out a bit more cash for a more powerful, faster modem.
"For users looking to simply get out from underneath their current rental fees, however, this is a great option at an affordable price point.”
Ben Kurlan is the co-founder of BillFixers, a Nashville-based business that helps consumers and small businesses save money on their monthly internet and cable bills.
“We negotiate with internet providers all day, every day and end up giving a fair bit of tech advice a long the way,” he says. “Rental modems are one of the biggest scams around — internet providers are charging up to $13/mo these days, so most people will get their money back within a year by buying their own modem/router rather than renting from their ISP.”
For those trying to save money, he recommends the Arris Surfboard, a budget workhorse.
“They tend to be reliable, good for any residential use, and I’ve never encountered an issue that powercycling doesn’t solve,” Kurlan says.
If you're willing to spend more for the highest speeds out there, consider the ARRIS Surfboard SBG7600AC2 whose 16x4 channel bonding can clean up just about any traffic jam on the information superhighway.
"If you're a more serious user who has to run an internet-based home business or needs to game competitively, the Motorola MB8600 is one of the more future-proofed options you'll find," Kurlan says.
"It'll be several years before you can even get home internet as fast as it can support, and it's optimized to handle low latency.
"Be careful though, because the MB8700 isn't compatible with internet service from several providers, including Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink."
If you have a big family full of smartphone and screen users, the Netgear Nighthawk is a cost-friendly way to keep everyone online, and there are enough options available to fit your budget and service needs, according to Ward.
"The Netgear Nighthawk R6700 provides more than enough power and speed for the vast majority of internet users. The 802.11ac wireless protocol allows for greater transmission ranges suitable for medium to large-sized homes, and according to the manufacturer, it is designed for users with 13 or more connected devices," he says.
"If you’re looking for a measurable bump in your performance without breaking the bank, the Netgear R6700 Nighthawk is an ideal choice that helps the majority of consumers stream HD media and browse the web on multiple devices at once."
You might have noticed that there's, uh, a lot of weird stuff on the internet. If you'd like to avoid having to explain to your children what some of the more lurid things they might encounter mean, then Sarah Kimmel has some suggestions for routers that can help you block what your family sees, and to help limit screen time overall.
A resident of Lehi, Utah, Kimmel has been an IT manager for more than 17 years and runs the Family Tech website, which "helps families understand and manage the technology in their home."
She likes the Gryphon Guardian "because it's the only device I have tested that gets both the networking and parental controls right."
"Some that had good parental controls lack the strong networking capabilities I require with over 50 devices connected to my home network," she says. "Others that have really good networking, lack quality parental controls. The Gryphon nails them both perfectly.”
If you've been thinking about getting an Alexa or similar smart home device, check and make sure your router can handle it first, says Michael Miller, the Portland-based CEO of the cyber security firm VPN Online.
"Getting your money's worth and versatility are two of the things I look for in a home office router," says Miller. "The TP-Link AX1800 can support multiple IoT devices and integrate with Alexa easily."
"It uses WiFi 6 technology which guarantees you won't need to replace them for years to come," Miller says. "An added feature that I love is the OFDMA (Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access), which increases efficiency and reduces latency rates."
When is it time to get a new modem or wi-fi router or both?
Other than the obvious signs — the annoying dropped teleconference calls and stalled video streams -- there are a couple other reasons to look into upgrading your connectivity.
Buying a new modem might help you save some money on your internet bill, for example.
Sometimes you don’t own your modem, and instead rent it from your internet service provider (ISP) such as Comcast, Cox, AT&T, or Spectrum.
Modem rental fees run $12 or even $14 per month, and you can buy a decent modem for under $100 — so it’s a purchase that easily pays for itself in less than a year.
(Just make sure that the modem you buy is compatible with your ISP.)
What's the difference between a modem and a wireless router?
A modem connects your home network to the internet. A Wifi router lets all of your wireless devices connect to the internet, and it allows them to pair with each other via Bluetooth technology and the like.
Then there are cable modem-router combo devices that handle all of the tasks above.
If you’ve recently upgraded to a high-speed internet service but have the same old box, or if you modem is more than five years old, or you just find that your internet is always slow, then it could be time for an upgrade. In fact, an upgrade may be required for you to access the faster speeds you're already paying for.
So, we’ve asked technology experts and people who work in IT departments for their recommendations, as part of our ongoing product recommendation series.
How to find the best modem and router for your needs
Based on our research we recommend the devices above for faster speeds and solid reliability. We also recommend buying your own wireless router and internet modem rather than paying expensive equipment rentals.
But our list represents only part -- what we consider the best -- of this diverse market. You'll come across other devices as you shop, whether in a big box store or online.
If you find a really good deal, be sure to check these issues before clicking the "add to cart" button or making your way to the register.
Unfortunately, not all ISPs use equipment interchangeably. If you have Comcast Xfinity or Time Warner Cable internet, for example, you won't use the same modem as an AT&T fiber customer.
If you have a fiber-optic connection, your ISP will be more likely to insist on providing your modem.
Or, if you still have a DSL internet plan, you'll need a compatible modem -- or you may want to wait until you get a broadband connection in your neighborhood before buying new gear.
So check with your ISP first.
These factors will help determine your equipment's performance:
- DOCSIS 3.0 vs. DOCSIS 3.1: DOCSIS 3.0 is still the standard, and it can still produce faster speeds up to 1 gbps (1-gigabit per second) of data. But DOCSIS 3.1 can support speeds 10 times that fast which we may need in a few years as the Internet of Things grows more diverse.
- Broadband speeds: Before the pandemic, 300mbps (300 megabytes per second) was enough for most of us. Now, with everybody home and online, more of us are in the market for 1 gbps speeds.
- Download speeds: Within the spectrum of internet speeds, modems download (use data) faster than they upload (send data). If you upload a lot of videos, pay special attention to your modem and ISP's upload speeds which will be slower than the advertised broadband speed.
- Wifi speed: Wireless routers send out signals in 2.4ghz or 5ghz bandwidths. If you need to cover more ground with your wireless network, opt for 2.4ghz; if you want to take advantage of faster speeds, go with 5ghz. Dual-band wifi offers both bandwidths.
- Power boost: Some ISPs talk about PowerBoost technology which responds with more data as a user starts downloading a large file or playing on gaming consoles that require lots of data. If your ISP provides this feature make sure your new modem can provide it.
Depending on your intentions, make sure your new internet connectivity gear has the right hardware features:
- USB port: Many routers and modems have USB ports just like laptops. These typically aren't for connecting to the internet, but they can help with equipment set-up or diagnosing problems.
- LAN ports: A modem typically uses a local area network (LAN port) to send data to the wireless router. But you could also connect directly from the modem to a computer using a LAN port, assuming you have a cable long enough. Some people feel more secure with hard-wired connections.
- Gigabit Ethernet ports: A modem normally has several Ethernet ports to send data to the Wifi router or to individual wired devices. If you plan on using a wired connection with one of your devices, make sure your modem has more than one Ethernet port.
- Firewalls: Any wireless router now on the market will include built-in firewalls to protect your data; however, if you'd like more control over your cybersecurity, you may want a standalone firewall which you can connect to your Wifi router.
A modem, wireless router, or combo unit will cause frustration if it doesn't extend a network throughout your home.
- Bandwidth: A 700-square-foot apartment with an open floor plan can be easily covered by a 5ghz wireless router, but if you're covering a larger area, consider getting a 2.4ghz or dual-band router. The slower frequency can extend internet access across larger areas.
- Beamforming: This can direct your wireless router data in one particular direction rather than spreading the network evenly. What's wrong with an evenly spread network? Depending on the location of your router, your neighbor may have better coverage from your equipment than you do. Beamforming can direct your network.
- Guest network: If you'd like a separate network for friends or relatives who visit, consider a router that supports guest networks. This may be a good idea if you want to make sure other users don't slow down your internet access.
Why the best modem and wireless router matter
If you're happy using the gear your ISP provides -- likely for a monthly fee that's hidden within your bill -- you should keep it.
But we still suggest taking a minute to Google the model numbers of the equipment -- especially if you've been frustrated with your home internet's performance.
You could be doing a lot more online with a new cable modem, modem router combo, or wireless router. If the gear your ISP provides is old and outdated, ask your ISP to upgrade it.
If your provider won't send out new equipment, maybe it's time to buy your own network infrastructure and optimize your connection to the world.
The internet was already the center of work, school, and entertainment for millions of Americans before the pandemic sent so many people indoors for good.
Now, entire universities, corporations, and public school systems communicate online -- which means a slow internet connection can slow down just about all aspects of life.
Getting the right hardware to match your ISP and your home will enhance your ability to interact with the wider world.