Nearly everyone knows traditional routers—they've been around
forever at this point. You need just one to manage the internet
connection provided through your modem. For some folks, this may be
the combination modem/router (also known as a gateway) provided by
your service provider.
Mesh routers came on the scene around 2015, and
with them came a different kind of setup that relied on multiple
devices. Usually you place at least two nodes around your house,
with the option to easily add more for thorough coverage. The
arrangement can be repositioned and/or expanded as needed to
eliminate dead zones.
But though mesh routers are newer, they don't make their
traditional counterparts obsolete. They're just different. And
because mesh routers are generally pricier when compared to
traditional routers with similar features, people often wonder if
they're really worth it. So we've laid it all out here in
a showdown, so that you understand the pros and cons of each when
it comes to key features. Spoiler: A lot of what makes one better
depends on your living situation.
Mesh routers provide
Wi-Fi coverage in a different way than traditional routers. This is
how the network would look in physical form. Image: Thinkstock
Everyone wants a router that provides a strong, stable signal no
matter your location in a home. And both mesh and traditional
routers can provide that out of the box—depending on the type of
home you live in.
Because a mesh network relies on multiple nodes, it's a good
option for homes with multiple stories or a wide, spread-out
floorplan. The coverage works like a series of dots all
interconnected to one another, hence the name mesh. The nodes can
talk to their nearest neighbor(s) to relay the signal back to the
node that is connected directly to the internet and is managing
traffic on your network, which provides two benefits. First, the
signal can stay stronger because it doesn't have to travel as far
between nodes. Second, delays at the hub are minimized because the
data can take different paths to get there. And should your home
still have any dead zones, you can just reposition the nodes or buy
more to ensure thorough coverage.
In contrast, traditional routers operate as a single point that
transmits and receives data. When a device communicates with a
traditional router, the signal has to travel the full distance from
wherever it is to the router's location. That can create areas with
a weak signal or outright dead zones wherever the signal isn't
strong enough to travel that far or penetrate barriers like walls
or doors. Traditional routers can provide good coverage in homes
with smaller square footage and a one-story layout, like apartments
or smaller houses. The outer edges may have a weaker signal or
occasional drop-outs, but you can easily overcome those by adding Wi-Fi extenders to your network. (So you
don't have to dump your existing traditional router if it's still
relatively new and functioning well, and you need to address a
specific dead spot.)
Wi-Fi extenders over Wi-Fi repeaters—the latter can end up
affecting the speed of your wireless connections,
as our guide explains.
Michael Crider / IDG
Based on Wi-Fi coverage performance, you can't go wrong with a
mesh router. For example, even if you live in a small apartment or
house, some have materials in their walls that can attenuate
wireless signals and make a traditional router less effective. Mesh
routers also offer a smoother experience. While you can add Wi-Fi
extenders to expand a traditional router's coverage, similar to
adding more nodes to a mesh network, the hand-off isn't as seamless
as with a mesh network.
For these reasons, mesh wins this category—but coverage isn't
the only factor to take into account when buying a router.
Besides coverage, the other major factor in choosing a Wi-Fi
router is price.
On this front, mesh routers definitely make you pay for what you
get. A set of two to three nodes ranges from about US$130 to US$350,
with speed and features dictating price. On average you'll spend
about US$170 for a lower-end model and around $300 on the higher end.
(Obviously, the total goes up as you add more nodes.) You can also
start with a single node, but the price still starts higher than a
traditional router—usually around US$80.
Catch the right sale
and you can get a Wi-Fi 5 traditional router at very affordable
prices. Image: Amazon
When comparing routers with similar specs, traditional models
range from about $60 to $350. Prices go even higher if you want
bleeding-edge tech. On average, expect to pay $80 for a decent
basic model and US$250 to US$300 for a high-end model. Traditional
routers often drop lower in price when on sale—you can sometimes
find basic ones for as cheap as US$35. If a traditional router works
well in your home, you can definitely save cash by going this
Winner: Traditional router
Wi-Fi speed is more
than just the numbers you see in tests. Image: PCWorld
When evaluating Wi-Fi speed by supported specs and the resulting
benchmark scores, traditional routers edge out mesh routers. And if
you were to go solely on that basis, traditional routers would take
But speed also relates to how fast the connection feels
when using it. A couple factors affect that subjective impression—a
nd are often the reason why people say, My internet is slow
sometimes, but my service provider says my connection looks
One is the distance between communication points. The further a
signal has to go, the more it degrades. That can lead to spots in
your home with a weak wireless signal, which can make your
connection feel sluggish. Also, if signal quality deteriorates
enough, you can experience choppiness or even drop-outs in the
connection, which also make it feel slow.
How your traffic routes on the network matters, too. If your
router can only handle transmissions from one device at a time,
you'll end up with some devices waiting their turn—and those delays
make a connection feel slower.
As this picture from
Linksys shows, the further you are from the router, the weaker your
signal will be. Eventually, it dies off all together.Linksys
Signal issues are easily addressed with a mesh router. Not only
can you reposition nodes or add more of them, the nodes can all
talk to one another. The wireless signal never has to go as far, no
matter where you are in your home. Most importantly, this system
works seamlessly. Purchasing Wi-Fi extenders to use with a
traditional router to alleviate signal woes isn't as smooth. Some
Wi-Fi extenders operate on a separate SSID and password. The
handoff between the extender and the router can sometimes get stuck
too, leaving you in connection limbo.
When it comes to the issue of traffic routing, it's more of a
draw—you can avoid that kind of transmission delay by buying a mesh
or traditional router that includes MU-MIMO as a feature.
MU-MIMO allows a router to handle traffic from multiple devices at
the same time.
Mesh routers won't be the fastest solution for everyone, of
course. But they eliminate the main cause of speed problems for
most people, and do so in an elegant, simple way.
Ethernet cables plugged into a router (top). Image: Martyn Williams / IDG
A wired connection is faster and more stable than Wi-Fi could
ever be. And so for gamers and streamers in particular, running
ethernet cable to your router can ensure stress-free sessions.
Traditional routers have better support for wired connections.
Even the most basic models come with four ethernet ports for
connecting a PC, printer, network-attached storage (NAS), or other
Mesh routers don't reliably offer that many ports. Some hubs
(nodes that can function as the router for the mesh network) only
come with two. One is for connecting to your modem, while the other
is for creating an ethernet backhaul—aka using a wired connection
between nodes—when a wireless connection isn't quite cutting
Of course, you can increase a mesh router's available ethernet
ports by purchasing an ethernet switch. (Same for a traditional
router too.) But since that requires an extra step and more cash,
the winner on this point goes to the easiest solution out of the
Setup and controls
For today's mesh and traditional routers, setup and management
happens either through a companion app or browser-based interface.
Both have their advantages, with the app being simpler and faster,
and the browser-based interface better for more complex
So on this point, it's a draw between the two router types.
Instead, research the particular models you're interested in to see
how good the interfaces are, as the quality varies between
Mesh routers win this
showdown, but they may not be a perfect fit for your situation. Image: Michael Brown / IDG
You can't go wrong with a mesh router. You may overspend for
your situation, or not have the most optimal setup out of the box,
but you can't actually misstep. Combined with how easy setup and
future network expansions are, mesh nabs the crown in this
(Don't have time to research which model to get? Consult our list of the best mesh routers.)
But as said earlier, mesh routers aren't inherently superior to
traditional routers. Everyone has a different home layout, budget,
feature requirements, and number of active users and devices. The
actual winning router type is the one that best matches your