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Reviewed: routers, wi-fi extenders and mesh networks to boost your broadband

Best Buys and Don't Buys found among the latest models from TalkTalk, BT, TP-Link, Netgear and Linksys

Reviewed: routers, wi-fi extenders and mesh networks to boost your broadband

Our latest tests have revealed some top performers in a wide-ranging round-up of ISP routers, wi-fi extenders and mesh networks from big brands. But it was far from plain sailing for some – we also uncovered a Don’t Buy that scored a woeful 22%. Our worst wi-fi routers and extenders score ever.

Our test this year was divided into three main categories:

  • routers supplied by ISPs
  • cheap and cheerful wi-fi extenders for boosting wi-fi signal
  • mesh networks for creating a fast and stable wireless network around your home.

Below, we run through the key facts about each category and look at each of the products on test. Click through to see the full review for each model.

Itching to see who comes out on top in our tests? Browse all our Best Buy wi-fi routers and extenders.

ISP routers on test: should you change supplier?

Routers are generally given away free to new customers of internet service providers (ISP) and then used – and abused – for years. If you have no interest in researching or buying a new standalone router, it’s worth picking an ISP that will not only supply fast internet, but also one that will give you a router that will cover your house in fast wi-fi.

After all, what’s the point in paying for an expensive tariff if you can’t even watch Netflix in the loft conversion? And if you think your current router is getting a bit long in the tooth, it’s worth asking your ISP for the latest model. It will probably give it to you at a discount or even for free. 

TalkTalk claims its new wi-fi hub is its fastest, strongest and most reliable wi-fi signal ever, capable of handling streaming in the living room or gaming in the bedroom with ease. To find out if this is true, we put the TalkTalk hub and all the other routers through a series of stringent tests, including how quickly they can transfer data over short, medium and long distances, how easy they are to set up, and importantly how secure they are.

Our latest routers test includes:

If you have an area of your house that struggles to receive a wireless signal, an extender can be a great option, especially if you don’t need the absolute fastest speeds and just want to be able to get a more stable connection.

These aren’t the perfect solution, since an extender doesn’t offer a seamless experience. It still requires your device to choose to connect to the extender’s wi-fi network, which can take a few seconds and interrupt what you’re doing. If you’re watching live TV on a laptop or phone while walking around the house, this could prove annoying.

As you can see from the products we’ve tested below, they can be extremely cheap. Take the BT Essential 300. Costing just £20, this is the sort of inexpensive solution that could completely change how you use devices in your house.

But paying so little does get you very basic features. For example, this product only uses the 2.4GHz band, which is slower than the 5GHz band you get on more expensive wi-fi kit. There are also no added extras. You won’t be able to connect a computer or printer over USB or ethernet, for instance. That’s fine if you’re simply looking to extend your wi-fi. If you’re looking to kit out an office, though, you may want to buy something a bit more expensive with higher speeds and more features. Our tests look at both range and speed to see whether it’s a good long-term investment.

Wi-fi extenders in the lab:

Mesh Networks: the Ultimate in wi-fi performance

A mesh network is the best way to get your home’s wi-fi up to speed. They normally consist of two or three wi-fi base stations that all work together to provide a seamless wireless network across your house. These differ to extenders, because extenders create a separate wi-fi network. To explain a mesh network, it’s easiest to think of it like a mobile phone network: you can be driving down a motorway and seamlessly pass between multiple mobile masts. The same is true of mesh wi-fi networks, just on a very small scale.

They tend to be a lot more expensive than other solutions, but if you value a seamless and wide-ranging connection, it’s worth the cash.

The Netgear Orbi RBK50 is the most expensive mesh network we’ve tested, but it also has a bulging spec sheet and powerful innards as well as fast claimed wi-fi speeds.

Each base unit has either three or four gigabit (1,000Mbps) connectors for connecting to other devices, so if you’re looking to create a fully kitted-out office or den, the Orbi has the specifications to match. There’s also an app for iOS and Android that lets you manage every base station and the devices connected to them, making it easy to check on the status of your devices and diagnose any problems.

And that’s before you get to speed. Combined, the Orbi has a maximum speed of 3,000Mbps, and while no single device will manage that speed, it means that should be capable of handling all the devices in your household at the same time without significant slowdown.

Mesh networks in the lab:

These models join the BT Whole Home mesh network we tested last year.

Looking to find a good provider? Find out who we rated as the best and worst broadband providers.

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