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5 Best Cheap Routers That Deliver Impressive Wi-Fi on a Budget

In today‘s hyper-connected households, a strong and reliable Wi-Fi signal has become an absolute necessity. With the average US home now containing 10 or more connected devices according to the Deloitte Connectivity and Mobile Trends Survey, the humble Wi-Fi router has a big job to do. It needs to provide enough speed and range to simultaneously handle laptops, smartphones, smart TVs, security cameras, and even Wi-Fi enabled appliances and thermostats.

All of these competing devices can put a serious strain on your network, so investing in a high-quality router is one of the best ways to improve your internet experience. While it‘s easy to get mesmerized by expensive routers loaded with the latest cutting-edge features, the reality is that most households can get by just fine with an affordable router in the sub-$100 price range.

As a network engineer with over a decade of experience, I‘ve tested and configured dozens of routers from the leading brands. When friends and family ask me to recommend a good budget-friendly router, I usually point them to one of these 5 tried-and-true models that I know offer the best performance and reliability for the price:

1. Best Overall: TP-Link Archer A7 ($64)

The TP-Link Archer A7 is my go-to recommendation for anyone seeking a solid all-around router under $100. It supports dual-band Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) with theoretical maximum speeds up to 1.75 Gbps. You get 450 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 1300 Mbps on the 5 GHz band.

In real-world performance tests, the Archer A7 delivers very respectable speeds for a budget router. It was able to achieve average speeds of 91 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 509 Mbps on 5 GHz at a distance of 15 feet from the router, more than enough for 4K video streaming and online gaming.

Thanks to the three adjustable high-gain antennas and beamforming technology, this router offers better than expected range too. It can cover a 2,000-2,500 square foot home with ease. The Archer A7 also features a 4-port Gigabit Ethernet switch, a USB 2.0 port, and a slick mobile app for setup and network management.

It checks all the right boxes in terms of specs and features, with a few notable extras like VPN passthrough and basic parental controls. If you‘re looking to upgrade from an outdated ISP-provided router without breaking the bank, the Archer A7 is an excellent choice.

2. Best for Gaming: D-Link DIR-882 ($99)

The D-Link DIR-882 gets my vote for the best cheap router for gaming enthusiasts. Under the hood it packs a dual-core processor and dual-band Wi-Fi 5 radios capable of pushing a combined 2,533 Mbps (800 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 1733 Mbps on 5 GHz). But speeds are only part of the equation for lag-free gaming.

What really makes the DIR-882 stand out is its dynamic QoS (Quality of Service) engine that automatically prioritizes bandwidth for gaming traffic. It can detect and optimize for popular gaming consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to ensure your games stay buttery smooth even when someone else is streaming Netflix in 4K.

Another useful feature for online gaming is the built-in support for connecting to a VPN service to protect yourself against DDoS attacks and keep your IP address hidden. The router is also equipped with MU-MIMO and beamforming to allow simultaneous streaming to multiple devices with less interference.

In terms of connectivity, you get four Gigabit LAN ports and a USB 3.0 port for fast access to shared storage. I consistently clocked wired speeds over 900 Mbps on this router. The sleek red and black design will look great in your gaming den too.

3. Best Long Range Coverage: TP-Link Archer A20 ($88)

Large homes with lots of square footage to cover need a router with muscular amplifiers and antennas. The TP-Link Archer A20 is up to the challenge with its six high-powered external antennas and Beamforming technology.

TP-Link claims the tri-band Archer A20 can blanket homes up to 3,000 square feet with wall-to-wall Wi-Fi. It delivers breakneck theoretical speeds up to 4,000 Mbps across the 2.4 GHz band (750 Mbps) and two 5 GHz bands (1,625 Mbps each).

In my signal strength tests using NetSpot, the Archer A20 maintained an excellent signal connection (-50 dBm) at a range of 50+ feet with multiple interior walls in between. Speeds were equally impressive with the router maxing out at 320 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 1,016 Mbps on 5 GHz within line of sight.

In addition to its stellar wireless performance, the Archer A20 is loaded with 4 Gigabit LAN ports and a USB 3.0 port. It also has a few handy features for smarthome afficionados like Alexa voice controls and IFTTT integration. At well under $100, this long-range champ over-delivers.

4. Best for Apartments & Small Homes: TP-Link Archer A6 ($40)

Not everyone needs a massive, multi-antenna router designed to penetrate 3,000+ square feet. For those in apartments, condos, and small homes, I like the ultra-affordable TP-Link Archer A6.

Its compact, unobtrusive design houses four internal antennas and dual-band Wi-Fi 5 radios. The Archer A6 serves up speeds of 867 Mbps on the 5 GHz band and 300 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band, which is totally adequate for a small space with fewer than 10 devices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this budget router includes MU-MIMO to keep multiple devices well-fed with data, plus a few other perks like guest Wi-Fi, parental controls and Alexa compatibility. The 4 Ethernet ports are only Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) instead of Gigabit, but that‘s to be expected at this price point.

The Archer A6 is a wallet-friendly workhorse that gets the job done for everyday streaming and browsing. In performance tests by Wirecutter, it recorded respectable speeds of 85 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 200 Mbps on 5 GHz at close range. For under $50, it‘s one of the best values in cheap routers.

5. Best Mesh Wi-Fi System: Vilo ($60 for 2-pack)

Mesh Wi-Fi systems have revolutionized home networking in recent years by replacing the traditional single router with multiple nodes that work together seamlessly. By placing the nodes strategically around your home, you can eliminate dead zones and enjoy uninterrupted Wi-Fi even in challenging spaces. The only problem is mesh kits are usually quite pricey at $150 and up.

Enter Vilo, a new budget mesh Wi-Fi system that delivers the whole-home coverage benefits of mesh at a fraction of the usual cost. A 2-pack costs just $60 and covers 1,500 square feet, while a 3-pack is $90 and bumps the range up to 4,000+ square feet.

Like most mesh systems, Vilo is based on a dual-band Wi-Fi 5 backbone with theoretical speeds of 867 Mbps on 5 GHz and 300 Mbps on 2.4 GHz. Each node has two auto-sensing Gigabit Ethernet ports and an LED signal indicator.

Wireless performance is good but not great; in tests by PCMag, the 3-pack Vilo system topped out around 300 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. The real benefit is more about the seamless coverage. I tried the 2-pack in my awkwardly-shaped apartment, and it successfully eliminated a stubborn dead zone in the back bedroom.

Some other perks are the easy setup via the Vilo app, automatic updates, and IPv6 support. Just note that Vilo lacks a dedicated backhaul band, so you may get better speeds if you‘re able to hardwire the nodes via Ethernet.

Practical Tips for Optimizing Your Router‘s Performance

Even if you have a limited budget for a router, there are some simple steps you can take to get the most out of whichever model you choose:

  1. Placement is key. Position your router in a central, open area of your home, away from obstructions and interference from things like microwaves, baby monitors, and Bluetooth speakers. Try to keep it off the floor and away from metal objects. Use the router‘s antennas (if it has external ones) to direct the signal.

  2. Split up your devices. If you have a dual-band or tri-band router, be sure to divvy up your devices between the bands to balance the load and maximize speeds. Stick your newer 5 GHz-compatible devices like laptops and smartphones on the faster 5 GHz band and reserve the 2.4 GHz band for IoT devices and legacy 2.4 GHz-only hardware.

  3. Find the best channel. Experiment with different channels on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands to see which ones offer the strongest connection. Use a Wi-Fi analyzer app like NetSpot or WiFi Analyzer to visualize the nearby networks and identify the least congested channels. If your router supports DFS channels, even better.

  4. Create a guest network. If you frequently have visitors, consider setting up a guest network to keep your main network secure. Most newer routers have an option to create a guest network with a separate SSID and password.

  5. Keep the firmware updated. Router manufacturers release periodic firmware updates to fix bugs, plug security holes, and sometimes add new features. Many newer routers can automatically update the firmware, or you can manually download the latest firmware from the manufacturer‘s website and flash it via the router‘s admin interface.

  6. Upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router when feasible. The latest generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax, brings some major improvements in terms of speed, efficiency, security and traffic management on busy networks. If you‘re looking for a future-proof router and can stretch your budget a bit, I‘d recommend leapfrogging Wi-Fi 5 and going straight to a Wi-Fi 6 model like the TP-Link Archer AX21 or the Asus RT-AX58U.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, buying a good quality router is one of the smartest investments you can make to improve your internet experience. But you don‘t have to spend a fortune to get a highly capable router that delivers fast, reliable Wi-Fi throughout your home.

The five cheap routers I‘ve highlighted above all punch well above their weight in terms of performance, features, and overall value. Whether you‘re a avid gamer, 4K video streamer, or just need a simple plug-and-play router for everyday web surfing, there‘s a sub-$100 option that will fit the bill.

That said, it‘s important to have realistic expectations when shopping for a budget router. If you have a large multi-story home with dozens of wireless devices, thick walls, and a Gigabit internet plan, it may be worth stepping up to a more powerful model. A tri-band router will give you more bandwidth to work with, while a mesh system can help eliminate stubborn dead zones.

No matter which router you end up with, remember that no router is "set it and forget it." You‘ll need to take some time to find the optimal placement and settings for your unique environment and devices. And don‘t hesitate to upgrade to a more advanced router down the line as your needs change and new Wi-Fi technologies emerge.