It was clear from CES that 2012 is going to be a year of major changes in home networking, considering the availability of the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. While it's rather complicated to figure out all the differences between Wi-Fi standards, it's quite easy to equip yourself with the best as long as you follow this regularly updated list of the Top 5 networking products currently available.
This time around, the list includes the two first 802.11ac routers on the market and three cream-of-the-crop N900 Wireless-N routers. Any of these routers is able to transform your home network into something you might not have imagined possible before, thanks to features, speed, or both.
This list is sorted by the review date, starting with the most recently reviewed.
Asus RT-AC66U 802.11ac router
The Asus RT-AC66U is the first router from Asus that supports the latest 802.11ac standard to offer up to 1.3Gbps Wi-Fi speed on its 5GHz frequency band, while still providing up to 450Mbps Wireless-N speeds on the 2.4GHz frequency bands. It was indeed very fast in my testing. At launch, the RT-AC66u suffered from some performance issues, but it has just recently joined the ranks of the best routers on the market, thanks to its latest firmware.
The latest firmware also brings the router's AiCloud features, which uniquely enable remote users to access and stream data not only from an external hard drive connected to the router but also from other computers connected to the router. This means you can easily turn any regular computer into a media-streaming, file-hosting server for both local and remote users, even those using mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets. On top of that, the RT-AC66U is the onlyrouter on this list that has a built-in VPN server, and its two USB ports can be used for a lot more than just hosting storage devices and printers. Read the full review of the Asus RT-AC66U 802.11ac router.
Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500
The N900 Linksys EA4500 comes with Cisco's latest Cisco Connect Cloud firmware, which transforms the router into a somewhat new type of home networking product that now can be easily accessed and managed remotely via the Internet, using either a Web browser or the Cisco Connect Cloud mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. Cisco Connect Cloud also allows the router to support third-party mobile apps, opening its potential even wider.
The release of Cisco Connect Cloud brought some controversy, however, since the new firmware was pushed out to the EA router automatically and then required existing users to register an account with Cisco to continue to manage the router. Cisco Connect Cloud's initial Terms of Service also imply potential privacy risks. Cisco has since changed its ToS and promised to make Cisco Connect Cloud a clearer opt-in feature.
As a wireless router, the EA4500 also offered very good performance in my tests. Read the full review of the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500.
The Netgear R6300 router is the second 802.11ac router on this list, and the first that offers speeds that come close to living up to what the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard is cracked up to be. In my testing, it proved to be the fastest Wi-Fi router by far, when coupled with another 802.11ac client. There currently aren't that many ac clients, but the router works with all existing Wi-Fi devices on the market, offering up 450Mbps Wireless-N on each of its two frequency bands.
That said, there's nothing wrong with getting the R6300 now, other than the fact that it's about $20 more expensive than the top-tier Wireless-N router. The router's two USB ports and its robust Netgear Genie firmware, however, are more than worth the extra dollars. Read the full review of the Netgear R6300 router.
D-Link DIR-857 HD Media Router 3000
The DIR-857 is the latest in D-Link's family of media routers. This is an N900 router -- one that offers the top 450Mbps Wireless-N speed on both 2.4GHz and 5Ghz frequency bands simultaneously -- and which offered great speeds in my testing, with the 5GHz performance topping the charts.
The best feature of the D-Link is HD Fuel, a customized QoS feature that automatically detects HD streaming, games, and voice content, and prioritizes the Internet bandwidth of these applications. For those who stream a lot of Netflix or YouTube videos, or play online games, you don't need to have to worry about making sure to turn off downloads or other activities in the network that would slow down your entertainment needs. The router takes care of that for you. Read the full review of the D-Link DIR-857 HD Media Router 3000.
Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight Double 450Mbps N Router
The Asus RT-N66U is my favorite N900 router. This is a great upgrade to the already excellent RT-N56U. This is the first and only N900 router from Asus that supports the 450Mbps speed on both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz bands. The router offered top performance in my testing. Its two USB ports can be used with more than just external hard drives and printers. For example, you can connect a cellular modem to one of the USB ports and use that as a backup Internet connection in case your broadband is down.
The router boasts a very robust Web interface and comes with a large number of features. For example, it supports up to six guest networks (three on each band) and even has a built-in VPN server. For this reason, it's an excellent choice for both home and small-office environments. Read the full review of the Asus RT-N66U.
Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these routers head-to-head.
Editors' note: This post was originally published February 21, 2012, and was last updated on October 31, 2012, with the latest worthy devices added to the list. Other devices that have been on our list so far this year are the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4620L, the Clear Spot Voyager, the D-Link Amplifi HD Media Router 2000 DIR-827, the Cisco Linksys E4200v2, the Belkin Advance N900 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, the Asus RT-N56U, and the Buffalo AirStation WZR-D1800H. While no longer in the Top 5, these are still among the best in their respective categories.