Here are our recommendations for the best WiFi Access Points in 2020, and not one of them uses the latest WiFi 6 technology. We do not see the justification for paying £450 or more for a single WiFi device, particularly given the erratic performance of early WiFi 6 802.11ax equipment. Excellent signal levels are crucial with WiFi; signals do not pass through walls well, and speeds typically plummet with distance while susceptibility to interference increases. A single WiFi router or Access Point won’t adequately cover a typical home so investing in multiple, modestly-priced Access Points to improve WiFi coverage is one of the best things you can do to provide more consistent WiFi performance – in terms of throughputs and latency.
Our general recommendations, and what WiFi Access Point features you do and do not need
Before diving in to our specific WiFi Access Point recommendations for 2020, we want to share our experience of using and measuring the performance of WiFi in the real world. We are here to dispel a lot of the marketing hype that seems to pervade this particular industry. Here are our general recommendations:
1. Set your performance expectations appropriately. If you are looking for insight into the real performance of WiFi, please don’t go anywhere near the websites of WiFi product manufacturers. They have managed to take the ratio of claimed speeds to actual real-life throughputs to levels we have never seen before – confusing many broadband users in the process. If you think WiFi will ‘smash’ Gigabit Ethernet several times over, it won’t and it will cost you a lot of money to prove it doesn’t. If you are able to achieve consistent throughputs at all device locations of about 400-600 Mbps or more without significant (latency) ping spikes, you will have done well with today’s typical client devices. Latency is as important as speed when defining a high quality connection. You will have done very well if the ping added by your WiFi (compared with Ethernet) can remain steady in the 3-5 ms range, with ‘spikes’ kept below 10ms.
2. Don’t draw strong conclusions on performance from online reviews, particularly if trying to compare reviews on different sites. Since measured throughputs depend so critically on the capabilities of client devices and test methodologies, measured throughputs may not be representative of what you will be able to achieve. Also, bear in mind that reviews showing very high throughputs may have been achieved using wide channel bandwidths, which may not be possible if multiple Access Points are used (to avoid interference) or because client devices do not support the widest channels. Finally, WiFi increases latency and produces latency spikes, which are not measured as part of most reviews but can be much more important than speed.
2. For now, ignore the allure of the latest form of WiFi – WiFi 6 or IEEE 802.11ax. WiFi 6 routers currently attract a large price premium and performance of early devices is underwhelming to say the least. Amazingly, early WiFi 6 routers have not supported the key technologies advertised (such as OFDMA or AX MU-MIMO). Furthermore, independent testing of a number of 802.11ax routers have found no throughput gain over ‘older’ and cheaper 802.11ac routers, together with peculiar speed drops relatively close to the device. You are best opting for a tried-and-tested WiFi 802.11ac device (where the firmware has been developed and improved over time or which uses OpenWrt firmware).
3. While it is easy to think that a router with the very latest technology will make a big difference, WiFi performance is generally determined more by the capabilities of client devices than the capabilities of the WiFi router/Access Point. Why be wowed by claimed speeds of a WiFi router or Access Point with 8 x 8 MIMO if your client devices (such as mobile phones) are lucky to have 2 x 2 MIMO incorporated?
4. As signal level is the most important requirement to maximise WiFi speeds and performance, opt for multiple Access Points configured so they can be very close (ideally less than 2m) to client devices. Even measurements of the latest, really expensive WiFi 6 802.11ax routers show massive drop-offs in throughput, falling significantly below 100 Mbps, for clients that are not very close. For a typical house, you won’t be able to maximise WiFi performance with a single WiFi router/Access Point. Opt for multiple, good value 802.11ac Access Points, locating these in the best places to maximise coverage where there are WiFi devices. Optimally, you should install a WiFi Access Point in any room that is regularly used by mobile devices. Not only do multiple Access Points help maximise coverage, they boost capacity too as there’s less chance that several WiFi client devices will be using a single WiFi router/Access Point at the same time.
5. Take all non-mobile client devices off WiFi and connect them to your router via Cat6 Gigabit Ethernet cables. WiFi fulfills the convenient purpose of connecting devices that are mobile in nature, such as tablets and mobile phones, although there’s always a performance penalty for that convenience in terms of throughputs and latency. There’s absolutely no point connecting devices that don’t move, particularly if they are potential ‘bandwidth hoggers’ such as smart TVs, media players and desktop PCs. These should always be connected via Ethernet cables. Not only will Ethernet make those devices perform better (maximising speed and minimising latency), this approach will minimise the traffic carried over WiFi, maximising performance for the devices using WiFi too.
6. Opt for WiFi Access Points connected to your router via Cat6 Gigabit Ethernet cables rather than more ‘convenient’ alternative options such as WiFi mesh extenders and boosters that connect to your router wirelessly (via WiFi). Nothing beats the reliability, low latency and real-world speeds of Ethernet as ‘backhaul’. The one thing worse than a single WiFi link is using multiple WiFi links (needed by extenders and boosters).
7. Optimise your WiFi Access Points for excellent 5 GHz operation (rather than interference-prone 2.4 GHz). Speeds (in good signal conditions) at 5 GHz are generally much better than at 2.4 GHz due to lower interference levels and wider channel bandwidths. The one area where 5 GHz is inferior to 2.4 GHz is range, as signals at the higher frequency do not travel as far and generally suffer more signal attenuation through walls. This is why multiple WiFi Access Points are important to stop the lower range of 5 GHz becoming an issue. Make sure you define a separate SSID for 5 GHz to ensure that your devices connect using the 5 GHz band. If you use the same SSID for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz operations, your client devices could swap to 2.4 GHz (and without you realising).
8. Configure radio channels on your WiFi Access Point(s) manually, and with care. Measure WiFi interference levels to identify channels with the least amount of interference. We use the very handy WiFi Explorer application (with Mac OS). Ensure that your WiFi Access Points use different, and non-overlapping, channels to prevent interference.
9. Rather than buying brand new equipment, consider re-using an older wifi router as a WiFi Access Point. After recently upgrading to a new fixed router (Ubiquity ER-4), because of its excellent ability to mitigate bufferbloat, our two older WiFi routers that lack Smart Queue Management at high throughputs (Synology RT2600ac and Netgear R7000) have been successfully redeployed as Wireless Access Points.
Following the above tips should help you achieve impressively-consistent and cost-effective throughputs and latency for all WiFi client devices in your home (or office). If you have bandwidth-intensive devices (such as smart TVs and media streamers) and time-sensitive devices (such as gaming consoles and gaming PCs) connected using Ethernet, you will very happy with your WiFi speeds (and your devices probably would not have been able to support higher speeds anyway).
Our top Access Point recommendations for 2020
Here are our top recommendations. Rather than go mad and recommend devices costing £450 or more, we are assuming that you are intending to deploy multiple devices. We’re focusing on mid-priced devices, which give excellent value for money. Our first two products are not strictly WiFi Access Points and are routers too (which can also operate as standalone Access Points). Where router functionality is included, we’ve opted for devices that can run OpenWrt firmware, so that you can mitigate bufferbloat using Smart Queue Management (which we believe is absolutely essential).
NETGEAR Nighthawk X4S R7800 (OpenWrt compatible)
Many WiFi routers can also be configured as standard Access Points, so do not be put off with seeing what is commonly termed as router being included in our list of WiFi Access Points. You have the option of using such devices either as a router with WiFi capability or as a standalone WiFi Access Point (enabling you to use a different router). Although the NETGEAR Nighthawk X4S is not the newest device on the market, it provides an excellent balance between affordability and WiFi capabilities and performance.
The X4S, is well-equipped in terms of processing power and memory, utilising a dual-core 1.7 GHz processor and 512 MB of memory. It utilises 4 x 4 MU-MIMO. While NETGEAR heavily promotes the ability of the X4S to support 160 MHz channel bandwidths in the 5GHz band, you would not deploy this in practice with multiple Access Points to minimise interference (and client devices would have to support this bandwidth anyway, which most do not). It is equipped with 5 Gigabit LAN ports.
The Nighthawk X4S has been rated highly by the SmallNetBuilder site, which we have a lot of respect for due to their extensive testing and telling things as they are. In its Router Ranker, the Nighthawk X4S is currently rated first in the ‘5GHz Average Throughput’ category, ahead of some much more expensive alternatives. In testing, SmallNetBuilder achieved a close-range throughput of over 500 Mbps. It can be purchased for well under £200.
One of the reasons we really like the Nighthawk X4S is that it is one of the most popular WiFi routers that can run the OpenWrt firmware, replacing the stock firmware. Over the years, OpenWrt has gained an excellent reputation for being generally more stable and secure, as well as offering more features, than stock firmware.
Of particular significance, OpenWrt has pre-built packages for controlling bufferbloat when working as a router. As discussed in our How to Fix Bufferbloat article, Smart Queue Management (SQM) can substantially reduce latency bursts caused by bufferbloat and current versions of OpenWrt have both FQ_CoDel and CAKE SQM built in.
So, the X4S can operate as an excellent, affordable router (with SQM) combined with excellent 5GHz WiFi throughput or you can choose to just use its WiFi capabilities as an Access Point, for example pairing it with a high-performance fixed router (such as the Ubiquity ER-4 router). You get this for about a third of the price of the supposedly top-of-the-range WiFi 6 802.11ax routers.
Linksys WRT3200ACM (OpenWrt compatible)
The Linksys WRT3200ACM has become an extremely popular WiFi router among broadband users. It is well built and robust, and is sold and marketed as being fully open source ready, and is fully compatible with OpenWrt firmware. We really love the design and it looks much better ‘in the flesh’ than in photos, with a premium feel.
Although a number of reviewers have commented on relatively mediocre throughputs in the 2.4 GHz band, the WRT3200ACM has been universally praised for excellent throughputs at 5 GHz. If you’ve read our previous guidance, you’ll know that 2.4 GHz performance is not of any significance and it is 5 GHz performance that you should be interested in.
It uses 3 x 3 MIMO. While it supports 160 GHz channel widths at 5 GHz, this is of not much significance due to lack of 160 MHz support in the vast majority of client devices and the fact that, if you are deploying multiple Access Points, you would not use such wide spectrum to minimise interference. It can achieve close-range throughputs of over 400 Mbps. The Linksys WRT3200ACM uses a dual core 1.8 GHz processor and 512 MB of memory.
One of the reasons we have included the WRT3200ACM in our top list is the ability to run OpenWrt firmware. So, if you want to use the WRT3200ACM as a router with WiFi capabilities, you’ll be able use Smart Queue Management to avoid slow-downs due to latency spikes caused by bufferbloat.
One of the most popular questions is often ‘Should I buy the NETGEAR X4S or the Linksys WRT3200ACM?’ as both have established excellent reputations among broadband users. You really cannot go wrong with either although, with 4×4 MIMO, the NETGEAR X4S is capable to greater close-range speed with appropriately-equipped devices and can often be cheaper to purchase.
Ubiquiti UniFi Access Points
Your optimum WiFi configuration will greatly depend on your existing equipment, for example, if you use a separate router and whether you wish to redeploy any ‘old’ WiFi routers as Access Points. Running a patchwork of Access Points using different firmware can be challenging and there are definite benefits, particularly in terms of set-up and configuration, from choosing multiple, dedicated and identical Access Points.
If you are going for multiple Access Points, Ubiquiti Networks offers a great range of products with different capabilities and price points and you cannot go far wrong with any of them. We really like the UniFi range, where multi-packs (3-packs, 4-packs and 5-packs) are widely available. Ubiquiti Networks has established an excellent reputation of producing enterprise-quality equipment at affordable prices. With so many models in the range, the options can seem confusing so we’ve produced a table below to allow you to compare the main Access Point choices.
|UniFi AAP-AC-HD||UniFi UAP-nanoHD||UniFi UAP-AC-PRO||UniFi UAP-AC-LITE|
|2.4 GHz max radio link speed||800 Mbps||300 Mbps||450 Mbps||300 Mbps|
|5 GHz max radio link speed||1733 Mbps||1733 Mbps||1300 Mbps||867 Mbps|
|MIMO||4 x 4||4 x 4||3 x 3||2 x 2|
|Environment||Indoor/outdoor||Indoor only||Indoor/outdoor||Indoor only|
|Maximum number of users||500+||200||200||200|
Table: Comparison of Ubiquiti UniFi Access Points
The AC-PRO is currently rated by Small Net Builder at number 1 in its chart of Access Points ranked in terms of 5 GHz peak throughput, with measured peak rates over 700 Mbps. It has not (yet) reviewed the nanoHD product.
The UniFi UAP-nanoHD looks very appealing – sharing the same 4×4 MU-MIMO capability and delivering the same 5 GHz maximum radio link speed as the much more expensive UniFi UAP-HD Access Point. The more limited maximum radio link speed at 2.4 GHz (300 Mbps versus 800 Mbps) and the reduced maximum number of concurrent users (200 versus 500+) are of no practical relevance.
The nanoHD can be wall or ceiling mounted. For a typical house, we think you cannot go far too wrong with the nanoHD 3-pack, which can generally be purchased for significantly less than £500. So, for the price of a single leading-edge WiFi 6 router, you would be able to enjoy the superior coverage of three reliable, enterprise-quality Access Points.
Some users find the set-up of Ubiquiti’s Access Points more challenging than for a typical router but, ultimately, there’s just so much more opportunity to maximise performance with the sophisticated and powerful UniFi Controller software. This is a solution for those who want to get the very best WiFi performance without paying typical enterprise pricing.
We hope that this guide on the best WiFi Access Points for 2020 has been useful. The most important thing is not to be guided by the totally unrealistic performance claims from WiFi manufacturers and focus on providing the strongest signal to your WiFi clients through careful placement of multiple WiFi Access Points. This will provide consistent speeds, and will minimise latency and latency spikes. Optimum placement and configuration of WiFi Access Points is far more important that the differences between Access Point products and manufacturers, although our guide has identified highly-regarded products that represent good value for money and perform very well. It’s currently not worth opting for one of the latest WiFi 6 802.11ax devices, particularly as performance is more determined by the capabilities of client devices. Taking unnecessary traffic off WiFi through the use of Ethernet connections to fixed devices is very important. There’s always a performance price to be paid for the convenience of WiFi in terms of speeds and latency, but why pay it when you don’t have to?
Other pages you may be interested in: