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How We Test Wireless Routers

 How We Test Wireless Routers

Here at PCMag 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 routers, Wi-Fi systems, and range extenders.

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 Dell XPS 13 laptop with a Killer Wi-Fi 6 AX1650s 160MHz wireless network adapter as our client.

Rear-view photo of a wireless router being connected
Setup and Features
For budget routers, management and customization features are often very similar; but high-end products, especially those that address specific audiences, like gaming routers, differentiate themselves on the depth of their overall feature portfolio as well as on unique capabilities that help them achieve more competitive results. To quantify this, 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.

Then we rate features such as size and form factor, the number of wired Ethernet ports and antennas, the number of USB ports and other I/O features, 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. Finally, we look for common third-party integration bundles, like anti-malware software suites or virtual private network (VPN) clients.

SU-MIMO Testing
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.

TP-Link AC1200 Wireless MU-MIMO Gigabit Router product shot
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 transfers. We connect a USB 3.0 hard drive and time how long it takes to transfer a 1.5GB folder containing a mix of video, music, photo, and document files between the desktop and the USB drive. We then take the elapsed time in seconds and divide 1,536 (1.5GB) by that number to get the write transfer speed in megabytes per second (MBps). Read speeds are measured by transferring the file from the drive to the desktop and are calculated the same way.

Signal Strength Testing

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