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How We Test Wireless Routers


How We Test Wireless Routers

Your router is the at the heart of your home network, so it's important to get the right one. Here's how we test every Wi-Fi router we review.

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.

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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.

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 with the exception of the newer 802.11ac Multi User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) routers that are starting to hit the market. 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.

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.

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MU-MIMO Testing

We run the same single-user tests on MU-MIMO routers as we do on SU-MIMO routers, and we perform additional testing to measure a MU-MIMO router's ability to simultaneously send and receive multiple streams to multiple clients. For this we use three identical Acer Aspire R13 laptops equipped with Qualcomm Atheros QCA61x4A wireless 802.11ac network adapters as the clients and the aforementioned Intel Core i7 desktop PC as the server. For the close-proximity tests, each client is placed 5 feet from the router in a triangular configuration, and MU-MIMO is enabled in the router's settings menu. We run the JPerf test three times, with each client hitting the 5GHz band at the same time, and report the the total average of all three clients. We then move the clients to a distance of 30 feet in a similar triangular configuration and run the same tests.

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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.

Wi-Fi System Testing

These tests are done similar to traditional router testing but with a few variations. If the system only runs in band-steering mode (where the router determines the best available band), we run three close-proximity tests and three 30-foot tests on the router component, and then again for each node. If the system supports dedicated band control (where you have individual SSIDs for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands), we run three close-proximity and three 30-foot tests for each band on the router component and on each node. When moving from node to node, we disconnect the client from the network and reconnect it to ensure that it is connecting to the closest node.

MU-MIMO testing for Wi-Fi systems is also similar to traditional router testing. We use the same three client systems and placement, and run each test (close-proximity and 30-foot) three times for each component. We use the average score of all three tests as our final score for each component.

For more on how to buy a Wi-Fi system, along with reviews of the latest products, check out our buying guide.

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Range Extender Testing

Range extenders are tested using the Jperf utility in much the same way as traditional routers. The extender is placed 30 feet from the router and each band is tested three times with the client at close proximity, and again at distances of 25, 50, and 75 feet. We use the average score for each of the four ranges. If the extender supports MU-MIMO streaming we use the same MU-MIMO tests as we do for routers and test throughput at close proximity and at a distance of 30 feet.

You can see our favorite range extenders in our buying guide. Also check out our Wi-Fi router product guide for the latest reviews. You can also learn how to boost your wireless signal, or set up and optimize your router.

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