Which wi-fi router or extender?
Free ISP routers vs paid third-party routers
By Ryan Shaw
Article 2 of 4
Browse, stream and download throughout your home with the best ISP or third-party routers. We detail the key differences and the features to look for.
Most of us receive a free router from our internet service provider (ISP) when we sign up for a broadband deal. These free models can be pretty basic and while they usually do a decent job, you'll often get better speeds and improved performance by upgrading.
Buying your own third-party router, from manufacturers such as TP-Link, Netgear and Belkin, will typically also give you access to additional features such as more connectivity options (network and USB ports), parental controls, file sharing and printer sharing.
Head straight to our router and wi-fi extender reviews - or read on for more expert advice.
Best ISP routers vs paid third-party routers
Wondering which models impressed in our tough tests? Browse some of the best routers you'll find supplied by ISPs in the table below.
Best ISP routers
Alternatively, if you're looking to buy a router and stay with your current broadband provider, these are some of our top scoring third-party models.
Best third-party routers
Why would I need a replacement router?
Third-party routers offer some advantages over the routers you're sent by your ISP. For a start, they give you more flexibility - you can use them with a broadband connection from any ISP and you can continue to use them even if you switch provider.
A standalone router tends to give you more control, so you can adjust the settings (though this will only appeal to a few, advanced users). Plus, you don't have to rely on your ISP to fix it or upgrade it - you can do this when you need.
Will you need a separate modem?
The terms 'modem' and 'router' are often confused. Strictly, you need a modem to connect to the internet - the router then transfers the data, in the form of web pages and streamed content, to your connected devices.
Most modern routers, and all the models supplied by ISPs, now incorporate built-in modems, meaning that you only need one device to get online. But that's not true of all third party models.
If you buy a third-party router, you may need to plug it into a separate modem (or a router with a built-in modem) to access the internet. So, if you'd rather keep things simple and just have one device, look for a router with a built-in modem.
It’s important to know what type of internet connection you have before you upgrade or make a new purchase. If you have ADSL broadband, you’ll need a router with an ADSL modem. If you have a fibre broadband connection, such as BT’s Infinity, you’ll need a router with a VDSL modem. Some routers even support both ADSL and VDSL connections, which can be useful if you plan to switch from regular broadband package to fibre broadband in the future.
What features should I look out for in a router?
Single or dual-band routers
When shopping for a router, you'll find both single-band and dual-band models. Single-band routers operate on one wireless frequency only (the 2.4GHz band). While it works well for surfing the internet, this frequency can get overly congested, making it unsuitable for high-bandwidth tasks such as streaming videos.
Dual band routers are more expensive but suffer less interference and offer faster speeds. They transmit data over both the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band. With a dual band router, you can browse the internet on the 2.4GHz band while streaming HD movies on the 5GHz band and neither band gets overloaded.
Wireless router standards
If you hear the term 'wireless standard' – for example 802.11ac or 802.11ax – take it to mean 'speed'. The first generation of wireless routers was ‘b', followed by ‘g',‘n', 'ac', and now ‘ax'. Each version offers faster speeds and longer range.
Since the release of ax, wi-fi standards have been renamed; starting at Wi-Fi 4 (n), to Wi-Fi 6 (ax).
However it's important to understand that to benefit from the latest standard, both your router and your hardware (ie your laptop or tablet) will need to support the same technology. Otherwise, the wi-fi connection will drop back to using an older, less powerful, standard. As of 2020, although Wi-Fi 6 routers, mesh systems and devices are on the market, a lot of technology is still using Wi-Fi 5 (or ac).
Want to find out more? Read our guide on Wi-Fi 6.
Some wireless routers have integrated USB ports for connecting a hard drive or memory stick. They let you share the connected USB device across the wireless network – useful for sharing media files, such as a music or movie collection, without having to leave a network-connected PC switched on.
What else do I need to know about wireless routers?
Your wireless network will only ever be as fast as its slowest part. And often this won't be your router. That's because your router will usually be capable of faster speeds that you get from your broadband provider – especially if you've got a standard speed connection (ie up to 24Mbps).
To put it another way, if you're only getting a maximum download speed of 10Mbps from your ISP, then adding a router capable of 450Mbps won't make things any faster.
However, adding a better router can help future-proof your network for when you get a faster connection. And if you've already got a speedy connection, then a good router can make a difference – especially if you're stretching that connection over a long distance or over multiple devices at the same time.
A good router can also be of benefit in other ways – it's not just about the speed of getting online. A fast router will really make a difference if you move a lot of big files between computers in your home, for example transferring large video files or lots of music from one device to another.