The internet is the juice your computer and devices run on. Depending on what you’re doing, fast internet speeds can be more important than a speedy processor or lots of memory, the criteria by which computers have traditionally been judged. But if you are having trouble streaming movies on Netflix, playing online games with your PlayStation or taking part in video conference calls, your Wi-Fi might be to blame.
Your Wi-Fi’s speed depends on a slew of factors—everything from where your router is positioned in your home to the speed your ISP promises in your internet service plan. There are a lot of things you can do to eke some additional speed from your Wi-Fi router, and many of them are free. We’ve rounded up the best ways to speed up your home Wi-Fi.
Connect to Your Router’s 5GHz Band
Most modern Wi-Fi routers have either dual or triple frequency bands, transmitting at both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz. That might sound like a mouthful of technical jargon (and admittedly it is) but here’s what you need to know: The 2.4GHz band tops out at at a maximum theoretical throughput speed of 600 megabits per second (Mbps), while 5HGz supports 1,300Mbps. Clearly, the 5GHz band is a lot faster, so any devices that need faster and reliable speed—like your laptop, smart TV, streaming media players, game consoles and phones—should be connected to your Wi-Fi router using the 5GHz band if they’re compatible (and most things over the past few years are).
Put Less Important Devices on the 2.4GHz Band
If your router’s 5GHz band is faster, why would you ever use the slower 2.4GHz band? Well, there are a few reasons, but a key one is to reduce bandwidth on your faster network—smart home gadgets like your robot vacuum and Alexa, for example, work just fine at 2.4GHz and don’t benefit from 5GHz. So put those gadgets on your 2.4GHz band, where they won’t hog the bandwidth needed by your faster devices.
Reposition Your Wi-Fi Router
It doesn’t matter how fast your router is—if you positioned it too far away from the gadgets that need its wireless signal, you won’t maximize its potential. If you experience slow downloads or if your videos stutter because they’re frequently buffering, your router might simply be too far away. And brick walls, metal appliances and large fish tanks can block your signal as well.
Ideally, your router should be positioned centrally so it can reach all the corners of your home equally well. But if you mostly need your Wi-Fi at one end of the house—perhaps that’s where the TV is—then there’s nothing wrong with relocating your Wi-Fi router so it’s closer to where the action is.
Update Your Router’s Firmware
Like your computer and phone, your Wi-Fi router runs on an operating system that occasionally needs to be updated. If your router isn’t running the latest firmware, it might be able to run a lot faster, but you have no way of knowing.
Some routers update their firmware automatically, but most do not. The only way to know is to check. Unfortunately, every router is different, and how you configure your router will vary; some rely on logging into an arcane console using a web browser, while more modern routers tend to have easy-to-use mobile apps for your smartphone. Check your app or user guides and see if there’s a newer firmware version to install.
Change Your Wi-Fi Channel
Speaking of updating your router’s settings, most routers let you choose which channels it can broadcast its Wi-Fi signal on. Don’t confuse the channel with the frequency band we discussed earlier; most routers have a handful of channels at 2.4GHz and still more at 5GHz.
The bottom line is that sometimes these channels get congested, especially the more crowded your neighborhood is. If you are battling a sluggish Wi-Fi network and nothing else has worked, try switching channels. Most routers have this functionality tucked away under advanced settings, so check the user manuals for your model to see what can be done.
Monitor Your Devices and Bandwidth
You can think of your Wi-Fi like a garden hose filled with water. No matter how fast the water tries to come out, you won’t get much if a slew of holes in the line diverts a lot of the water before it gets to you. In the case of Wi-Fi, those holes are other devices. Every gadget uses some of your bandwidth, and if four people are all trying to stream movies on their own tablets at the same time, for example, no one will have a great experience.
One solution is to manually impose rules in the house by walking around and telling the kids to turn off their tablets when you’re trying to watch a movie on the 4K television. Another route you may be able to take is checking your router’s user interface. If it has a mobile app, there’s probably a “parental controls” panel you can use to schedule when certain devices are allowed to go online.
We’d also recommend checking to see if there’s a list of clients using your Wi-Fi—you can use the client list to kick devices offline temporarily. A lot of routers these days can even show how much bandwidth each client is using, so you may be able to tell whether someone in your house is hogging all the speed to download their games or if you have neighborhood freeloaders using your Wi-Fi for free (which won’t happen if you set a strong password for your Wi-Fi network).
Test Your Speed
It’s not always a problem with your router or the way your devices are connected inside the house—it might be that the internet coming into your house is slow to begin with, either because your ISP’s service plan is slow or there’s something wrong with your service. You can easily determine how fast your internet service is by running an online speed test. For the most accurate results, plug a laptop directly into the router using an Ethernet cable and then try a test like speedtest.net or fast.com. Your results will depend on the particular service plan you have with your ISP and the exact test networks you’re connecting to, but if it’s uncharacteristically slow, call your ISP and see if there’s a problem.
Upgrade Your Router
You might find that your router is very old, slow, or both, and the best way to punch up your Wi-Fi performance is to replace the router outright. There are a lot of routers to choose from, and you might want to browse the Forbes roundup of the 6 best Wi-Fi routers for every budget.
Here, though, I’ve assembled a few router options that solve some very specific problems: a powerful Wi-Fi 6 router for unparalleled speeds, a mesh router for getting internet access everywhere in a home with dead spots and a powerline adapter that can get Ethernet-speed internet into a distant room through the electrical lines in your home.
ASUS ROG Rapture Wi-Fi 6 Gaming Router
Simply put, the ROG Rapture Wi-Fi 6 gaming router is one of the fastest Wi-Fi routers money can buy. It’s not inexpensive, but this router includes Wi-Fi 6, the latest version of Wi-Fi that can reach theoretical speeds of about 9.5Gbps—almost three times faster than Wi-Fi 5. You’ll never see real-world speeds anywhere close to that, but all that bandwidth means it can maintain high internet speeds even when connected to a lot of different devices. Moreover, this spider-esque gadget is a triband router with four gigabit Ethernet ports for plugging in local devices and a slew of next-generation features, like compatibility with Alexa and control via a mobile app.
If that’s not future-proof enough for you, don’t forget that Wi-Fi 6E is here as well. Wi-Fi 6E expands Wi-Fi into yet another frequency band—6GHz—to reduce network congestion and allow for even faster speeds. You can preorder the Netgear Nighthawk Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6E Router which promises speeds up to 10.8Gbps. It is expected to ship in March.
Nest Wi-Fi Mesh Router 2-Pack
Unlike most single-unit routers, mesh routers use two or more routers (often referred to as nodes) to blanket your home with Wi-Fi. They work together, sharing the same network name, so any device can latch onto whichever node is closest. Mesh networks are also expandable; if you find two aren’t enough, you can add a third to increase your coverage.
Mesh networks like Google’s Nest Wi-Fi Mesh Router are ideal for large homes and houses with dead spots that a normal router can’t quite cover. The Nest router isn’t the fastest (if you want Wi-Fi 6 in a mesh router, consider the Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi 6 System) but this mesh router is a superb value—it delivers excellent speeds without breaking the bank.
Netgear Powerline AC1000 Wi-Fi Access Point and Adapter
Netgear’s Powerline AC1000 Wi-Fi Access Point and Adapter has two important things going for it. It’s a very fast (but not the fastest) powerline adapter and has Wi-Fi as well. Here’s how it works: You connect one node to your router and then plug it into a regular wall plug. Then, plug the other node into the wall in the room that suffers from poor Wi-Fi.
You can plug a device directly into the Ethernet port on the remote node for fast through-the-electrical-system internet, and also connect wirelessly via its Wi-Fi antenna. Powerline adapters can be finicky and might not work for everyone (generally, the older your home’s wiring, the more problems you incur), but if you’ve exhausted your other options, it might be the perfect solution for getting the speed you need in the room you need it.
Change Your Internet Service Plan
Your failing Wi-Fi speeds might not have much to do with your Wi-Fi network itself, but perhaps the pipeline that feeds it isn’t up to par. Internet service can now be considered a basic utility, and many people still settle for paltry speeds on the cheapest plans.
It pays to spend a little time considering your options, because depending upon where you live and what internet service providers are in your local area, you might have a few options, and you should consider balancing cost versus internet speed and reliability.
Xfinity Cable Internet
Spectrum Cable Internet
The two most common ways to connect to the internet are via cable and DSL, the latter named so because internet is delivered via the same coaxial cable that brings cable TV into your home, while DSL uses a phone line. Your speed will depend upon which service plan you choose. Plans can vary greatly, but DSL lines tend to range from about 10Mbps to 100Mbps.
That’s why, if speed is a priority, you should skip over DSL and subscribe to a cable internet plan. It’s generally faster, delivering somewhere between 50-400Mbps. As a general rule, even the slowest cable internet packages tend to be faster than DSL. A number of companies offer cable internet including Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum and AT&T. Not all providers service all regions, though, and both prices and speeds vary by city as well. So you’ll need to see what companies are available to you.
AT&T Fiber Internet
Verizon Fios and AT&T Fiber Internet are two of the most common fiber optic internet services. Rather than using cable or DSL, they rely on fiber, which literally uses light for data transmission. As a result, these systems blow away traditional internet speeds by offering 940Mbps.
Furthermore, unlike many cable and DSL systems, most fiber installations guarantee an unclogged pipeline right to your local node, meaning there’s no “rush hour” activity holding you back. If you want the highest possible speeds—or you have a lot of devices in your home and download a lot of files or stream a lot of video, a fiber optic solution like Fios or AT&T is the fastest consumer internet technology money can buy.