If you have dozens of Wi-Fi devices in your smart home, you might have noticed the network getting slower and slower. You might have upgraded to a mesh system and still struggled to keep everything running. That’s because most smart devices now cause network congestion, and there’s only one good solution—a Wi-Fi 6 router.
To get to the root of your problem, you need to know what makes Z-Wave different than Wi-Fi smart home devices. While Z-Wave is a defined standard that follows specific rules, Wi-Fi isn’t when it comes to smart home devices. Amazon and a few other companies are trying to change that with a standard dubbed CHiP, but that’s a long way out.
Z-Wave has a specific advantage over both ZigBee (another smart home standard) and Wi-Fi-based gadgets. Z-Wave devices communicate over a lesser-used radio frequency—908.42 MHz—that won’t cause network congestion.
ZigBee and most Wi-Fi smart home gadgets communicate over the 2.4 GHz protocol. If you’re familiar with Wi-Fi networks, you likely know that your router can handle two “bands” of radiofrequency, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The latter is faster and less likely to become congested but doesn’t broadcast as far. It’s also more expensive to build into devices.
ZigBee and Z-Wave devices also automatically build smart home mesh networks from device to device, while Wi-Fi-based smart gadgets do not. But while Z-Wave and ZigBee have plenty of advantages, they’re fading way in favor of Wi-Fi devices.
Wi-Fi smart home devices don’t require hubs, and they’re easy to make Google Assistant and Alexa compatible. If you buy smart light bulbs for multiple rooms, a smart lock, video doorbell, and cameras, you’ve suddenly added dozens of Wi-Fi-connected devices in addition to your laptops, tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs.
Your smart home devices are overwhelming your router, thanks to the radios they use and the sheer number of them.
Smart home companies that build Wi-Fi devices often prefer only to include a 2.4 GHz radio to save on costs. That drives the price down and guarantees the device will have an extensive range. If it’s a simple device that spends most of its time listening, the extra speed from a 5 GHz radio may not be that important. For similar reasons (and cut down on size), the same devices often don’t include ethernet ports, forcing you to use Wi-Fi.
That sounds great from a cost perspective, but it just throws fire into the congestion problem. In the past, you may have dealt with your neighbor’s loud and busy network causing congestion, but now it’s your home that’s at fault.
To make matters worse, regardless of the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz dilemma, consumer Wi-Fi routers weren’t designed to handle so many devices. When Wi-Fi 5 came out, the average home had about five Wi-Fi devices connected. Now we’re connecting far more Wi-Fi devices, even without smart homes. Additionally, Wi-Fi 5 routers can only broadcast to four devices simultaneously, and only one device can respond at a time.
And while theoretically Wi-Fi router software can handle “up to 250” devices, few consumer routers have the hardware to back that up. Your router can only communicate with so many devices at once, so the more you add, the more strain your router experiences. Even a mesh router won’t have the capacity to keep up. That’s where Wi-Fi 6 comes into play.
Wi-Fi 6 routers change the game on every level of the Wi-Fi smart home problem. First, it doubles the communication protocol, so it can simultaneously broadcast to eight devices. And multiple devices can respond at the same time, speeding everything along.
On top of that, Wi-Fi 6 routers have the hardware to handle more devices than Wi-Fi 5 routers do. It gets better, Wi-Fi 6 can prevent congestion on the 2.4 GHz spectrum. A Wi-Fi 6 router can divide a wireless channel into a large number of subchannels, with each of those subchannels carrying data from a different device.
Essentially, you’re getting some of the benefits of Z-Wave without the need for a hub. But it’s not just your smart home devices that benefit—your entire network of Wi-Fi devices will see improved performance, whether or not they are Wi-Fi 6 compatible.
Our Results Speak for Themselves
Here at Review Geek, we like smart home devices a lot. In this author’s home, that means between smart lights, locks, video doorbells, sensors, tablets, computers, and smartphones. This network nearly 70 Wi-Fi devices connected to it.
To make matters worse, everyone works and schools from home, which leads to simultaneous video calls for meetings and lessons, sometimes three at a time. To say the network buckled frequently is an understatement. And that’s despite using mesh devices with three or four satellites from Eero, SmartThings with Plume, and others.
But switching to a two-unit Wi-Fi 6 mesh router system solved the problem entirely. That’s right: A two-unit Wi-Fi 6 mesh unit can keep up with three simultaneous Zoom calls and run a 70-device network when a three or four-unit Wi-Fi 5 Mesh couldn’t.
Wi-Fi 6 is a next-generation standard designed for modern-day household needs and will do a better job of powering a smart home, a work-from-home life, or both. But it will come at a cost, and you will spend more money than you would buying a simple Wi-Fi 5 router.
If you’re looking to switch to a Wi-Fi 6 Router, you have options, but be prepared to spend extra. Many Wi-Fi 6 Routers come as Mesh systems, and with those, you usually can buy just a single unit and then expand as you need. Powerful Wi-Fi 6 routers can cover many homes with two units, where a Wi-Fi 5 Mesh system would have required three.
Best Overall Wi-Fi 6 Router
If you want just a single router without worry about Mesh or hooking up satellites, look no further than the NETGEAR Nighthawk 6-Stream AX5400 Wi-Fi 6 Router. What it lacks in an elegant name, it makes up for in power.
This NETGEAR router can handle up to six simultaneous streams and a 5.4 Gbps network. Given that few people have access to single gigabit speeds, that should be enough for most people. More importantly, it has the hardware to handle 60 or more connected devices without getting bogged down.
NETGEAR promises it’ll beam Wi-Fi out to the corners of a 2,500 square foot home, but your mileage may vary, depending on your walls and other surrounding interference.
Best Premium Wi-Fi 6 Router
If you know your smart home is huge and only growing, or you live in a work-from-home environment where multiple people need to make video calls simultaneously, the NETGEAR Orbi Whole Home Tri-Band Mesh Wi-Fi 6 System is all the router you’ll probably ever need.
It can easily handle 100 or more devices while accepting and broadcasting to eight simultaneously. Just two MESH units will cover a 5,000 square foot home, and each has four Ethernet ports.
The Orbi Wi-Fi 6 router can handle network speeds up to 6 Gbps, well beyond any current home’s need, making it truly future-proof.
Best Premium Wi-Fi 6 Router
Best Budget Wi-Fi 6 Router
Spending hundreds of dollars may not be something you can make happen right now, and that’s understandable. If you want to get started with Wi-Fi 6 and expand down the road, the Eero Pro 6 single unit should fit the bill.
Eero promises its single-unit router can support up to 75 connected devices and beam internet to far reaches of a 2,000 square foot home. Its top speed taps out at 1 Gbps, but few ISPs offer more than that anyway. The Eero router also supports ZigBee smart home devices, giving it access to more than just Wi-Fi-connected gadgets.
While sold as a single router, the Eero Wi-Fi 6 is a Mesh device, and you can add on additional router access points to expand its reach.
Best Budget Wi-Fi 6 Router