The best budget Wi-Fi 6 router costs just $100

Ry Crist/CNET

While the idea of upgrading your router to a next-gen model that supports all of the latest Wi-Fi 6 features might sound daunting -- and expensive -- the TP-Link Archer AX21 is neither of those things. An AX1800 router with full support for Wi-Fi 6, the AX21 can be had for less than £100, and it's a cinch to set up. Even better, the AX21 was as stable as it gets throughout my gauntlet of speed tests -- and it notched faster average speeds and better range than similarly budget-priced AX1800 models, too.

Like

  • Faster performance and better range than comparable AX1800 routers
  • Thoughtful, well-designed app for simple setup guidance and easy access to settings
  • Nice-looking build with multiple spare LAN ports
  • Excellent value

Don't Like

  • Lacks unique or advanced features
  • WAN port caps incoming wired speeds at 1Gbps

Best suited for small- to medium-size homes and apartments, the AX21 won't keep up with a decent mesh router if you're trying to provide coverage for a large space or a multistory home, and it doesn't offer many unique features.

Still, if you're ready to upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router and you just want a strong, speedy performer that's simple and affordable, put the TP-Link Archer AX21 at the top of your list. Nothing I've tested better fits the bill.

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Wi-Fi 6 for everyone

For those unfamiliar, 802.11ax is the newest version of the wireless transmission protocol we commonly call Wi-Fi.

The industry experts who maintain that Wi-Fi protocol decided that the 802.11 codes designating different generations of the standard were too confusing for some consumers to keep track of, so they renamed the newest version Wi-Fi 6 -- the sixth major generation of Wi-Fi. And yep, that means that you can refer to previous-gen 802.11ac devices as Wi-Fi 5 hardware now, too. Wi-Fi 6 devices can send data back and forth at top speeds that are about 30% faster than what Wi-Fi 5 is capable of, with better, more efficient performance, particularly in dense environments where lots of devices need to connect.

A growing number of devices support the standard, including most of the phones and laptops released over the last year or two, but you'll need a Wi-Fi 6 router in order to take advantage of those faster speeds at home. That was a pricey proposition when Wi-Fi 6 first became available a year or two ago, but at this point, most of the major manufacturers offer entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers for £100 or less. I purchased three of the top options for myself and tested them out -- among them, the TP-Link Archer AX21 performed the best.

A basic design done right

On to the router itself, and let's start with some basic specs.

The Archer AX21 is an AX1800 router -- the "AX" part means it supports Wi-Fi 6, while the "1800" part refers to the approximate combined speeds of its bands. 

The AX21 features a USB 2.0 jack and four spare Ethernet ports in the back, with the main WAN port color-coded in blue.

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In this case, the AX21 is a dual-band router with a 2.4GHz band claiming top speeds of up to 574Mbps and a 5GHz band with a top transfer rate of 1,201Mbps. The caveat there is that you can only connect to one band at a time, so when TP-Link says that the router offers speeds of up to 1.8Gbps, what it really means is 1.2Gbps (and that's only in an ideal, lab-controlled environment). Marketing ploys like that annoy me as much as you, but they're essentially an industry standard, so don't hold it against TP-Link for playing along.

Just be aware as you shop. One other note -- the AX21 supports Wi-Fi 6, but it isn't a Wi-Fi 6E router that includes an additional band on the newly-opened, ultra-wide 6GHz spectrum. Routers like those have already started hitting the market, but for most of us, I think it's much too early (and much too expensive) to make the upgrade this year.

Sticking with plain ol' Wi-Fi 6 seems like the better play to me, and that'll likely be true in 2022 too. As for the AX21 itself, it's a pretty standard-looking router with four adjustable antennas, four spare LAN ports and a USB 2.0 jack for connecting peripherals like local storage or a printer. The patchwork array of heat vents lining the top face make it look a touch fancier than the cheap, glossy plastic suggests -- I also appreciated the physical on/off button and the fool-proof ports in back, with the WAN port you'll use to connect with your modem color-coded in can't-miss blue.

TP-Link's Tether app does a great job of walking you through setup.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Tethered to a pretty decent app

Like with most TP-Link routers, you'll control the AX21 via TP-Link's Tether app on your Android or iOS device.

Doing so is a bit simpler (and for networking novices, less intimidating) than logging in via the router's IP address in a web browser, and it makes for a simple setup. Specifically, after plugging the router in and turning it on, you'll open the app, connect to the router's network, then pick out a network name and password. That's essentially it.

Once you're up and running, the app allows you to view network status, manage connected devices, turn on a guest network, or troubleshoot any issues with your connection. Other minor features of note include a night mode that lets you program the router to kill the blinking lights during set hours and automatic overnight updates for your firmware, both of which are good to have. The AX21 also supports Alexa controls for pausing your home Wi-Fi, along with Amazon's Wi-Fi Simple Setup, which makes it faster to add Alexa-compatible smart home devices to your network.

Bring your home up to speed with the latest on automation, security, utilities, networking and more.

You'll need to head to TP-Link's web portal for more advanced features, like controls for managing a DHCP server, NAT forwarding or IPv6, but the app does offer a basic quality of service engine -- that lets you prioritize traffic to specific devices at specific times. You don't always get that with an entry-level router like this. In fairness, just about every router at this point offers an app like Tether to simplify setup and controls -- but I like Tether better than most, and certainly better than Netgear's Nighthawk app, which constantly bugs you with popup ads to purchase Netgear's security software.

No such nagging from TP-Link.

Tested against two other budget-priced, AX1800 routers, the TP-Link Archer AX21 (blue) finished with the fastest average download speeds, particularly at range.

Ry Crist/CNET

What about performance?

As I mentioned earlier, I tested the AX21 against two budget-priced AX1800 routers: the Netgear R6700AX and the Asus RT-AX55. All three can be yours for about £100, or less if you catch a good sale, and all offer decent performance for the price. Still, it was the AX21 that inched out ahead in my speed tests, as the blue bars in that chart above suggest.

Those room-by-room speed averages are the product of hundreds of tests across multiple days at my smallish, 1,300 square foot home, where I have a fiber internet connection that tops out at 300Mbps. The AX21 was able to push that connection to the max in four out of five spots in my house. In the fifth, a back bathroom dead zone that's on the opposite end of my house from where the router sits, my average download speeds plummeted down to 99Mbps -- but that's still a serviceable connection, and it's more than twice as fast as what Netgear or Asus was capable of.

The Asus RT-AX55 finished with the lowest latency of the three, but the TP-Link AX21 finished in a very close second.

Ry Crist/CNET

That's not to say that the AX21 beat the R6700AX or the RT-AX55 outright.

Though TP-Link scored the highest average download speeds, it was Netgear's router that notched the highest average upload speeds, averaging in at about 195Mbps across my entire home (the AX21 was a close second at 188Mbps, while the Asus RT-AX55 averaged out to 170Mbps). And then there's latency, or ping, which is a measure of how long (in milliseconds) it takes for your router to send a signal to a given server and receive a response. Lower latency makes for a snappier connection when you're on a video call or gaming online, so I make sure to record the ping for each and every speed test I run. 

The result is that nifty-looking radar graph. All three routers performed pretty well, but it was the Asus RT-AX55 (yellow) that finished with the lowest average latency, never spiking any higher than 19ms. The AX21 (blue) was, again, a close runner-up, with only a handful of minor spikes above 20ms.

The Netgear R6700AX (red) finished third, with an average latency just above 20ms and multiple spikes as high as 26ms. Not bad, but noticeably behind the other two.

The TP-Link AX1800 performed well with both a Wi-Fi 6 and a Wi-Fi 5 device, though the Wi-Fi 6 speeds were obviously a bit faster.

Ry Crist/CNET

With all three routers, I also made sure to run two completely separate sets of tests -- one on a device that supports Wi-Fi 6 (an iPhone 12 Pro) and the other on an older device that uses Wi-Fi 5 (an iPad Air I purchased about five years ago). Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, so older devices like that will still be able to connect to the AX21 just fine -- they just won't be able to take advantage of newer features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster. 

In this case, the difference in download speeds was pretty slim. Across my entire home, the Wi-Fi 6 iPhone 12 Pro notched a near-perfect average of 299Mbps, while the Wi-Fi 5 iPad Air averaged in at about 270Mbps. The difference between upload speeds was slightly more pronounced -- the Wi-Fi 6 iPhone 12 Pro averaged in at around 190Mbps, while the Wi-Fi 5 iPad Air came in closer to 150Mbps, which is a dip of about 20%.

In both cases, the difference will likely be even more noticeable with a connection that's faster than mine.

Ry Crist/CNET

The verdict

If you've bought a new phone or laptop in the last year or so, then there's a very good chance that it supports Wi-Fi 6. If you use that device regularly at home, then an upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router that can boost its speeds is worthwhile. The TP-Link Archer AX21 gets you there for £100 or less, and it offers stronger overall performance than the competition, plus a very good app for keeping an eye on the network.

I didn't notice any major bandsteering issues with the router's SmartConnect feature, which automatically routes you between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands as needed, and I never encountered any drops or stalls as I ran tests in my house. I even think the design is nicer-looking than average. All of that makes this router an outstanding value and a better budget pick than the budget-priced Wi-Fi 6 routers I tested last year, including the Linksys MR7350 and TP-Link's own Archer AX10.

I've seen the AX21 on sale for as low as £80, but even at £100, it's a very worthy purchase, and an easy recommendation for anyone who's ready to try out Wi-Fi 6 at home.