Here at PC Labs, our mission is to deliver accurate, reproducible test results for every product we review. We use those results, along with other criteria, such as pricing, ease of use, and features, to assign an overall rating of 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being the highest rating. For wireless routers, Wi-Fi systems, and range extenders, we have a variety of tests to measure factors like data-throughput rates and file-transfer speeds, and we compare these results to the devices that came before to help you decide which is the best one for your needs. Here’s a look at how we test every router, Wi-Fi system, and range extender that we review in PC Labs.
Preparation and Testbed
To prepare routers for testing, we disable all other routers in the vicinity to provide a relatively clean environment with minimal interference. We start by upgrading the router’s firmware to the latest version (if necessary) and install the device in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. We test each router in a closed network, with all security options disabled, and we enable any performance-enhancing features, such as beamforming. We use a desktop system powered by an Intel Core i7 CPU as our host PC and a Toshiba Tecra Z50 laptop with an Intel AC 7260 wireless 802.11ac network adapter as our client.
Setup and Features
We look at the router’s installation and setup procedure to gauge ease of use and check all written and online documentation, paying special attention to things like setup wizards and on-screen help with explanations of basic and advanced settings. We rate features such as size and form factor, the number of wired Ethernet ports and antennas, and if the management interface is user friendly. We also look for certain management features, including parental controls, site filtering, guest networks, security options, firewall settings, and Quality of Service (QoS) settings.
Back in 2007, when 802.11n Wi-Fi devices were released, Single User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (SU-MIMO) also debuted, which allows a router to send and receive multiple data streams sequentially (one device at a time). SU-MIMO technology is used in all of today’s routers, and many routers now offer MU-MIMO streaming technology. MU-MIMO routers can send and receive multiple data streams simultaneously to multiple devices without bandwidth degradation and require specialized testing with multiple clients, but the clients need to be MU-MIMO-compatible. We previously included MU-MIMO testing in our reviews, but since there still aren’t many MU-MIMO clients out there and the current 802.11ac version of MU-MIMO only works with downlink data, we’ve suspended these tests for the time being.
To test SU-MIMO routers, we use JPerf, an open-source network-performance utility, to test throughput between the server and the client and record the results in megabits per second (Mbps). Each JPerf test runs for 60 seconds, uses the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and delivers four parallel streams.
We start with a close-proximity test, where the client is in the same room as the router, separated by a distance of 5 feet. We run three instances of the JPerf test and use the average throughput speed as our final score. Next, we move the client into another room and place it in a location that is 30 feet from the router. After rebooting both the client and the router, we run the same three JPerf tests and use the average as our final score. For dual-band routers, we run these tests while connected to the 2.4GHz band and then again while connected to the 5GHz band.
For models that have a USB port that supports external storage connectivity, we run read/write speed tests to gauge how the router handles large file…