Comparing single-, dual-, and tri-band routers isn't as easy as comparing a single-patty hamburger with a triple-decker. Though "more is better" is easy enough for some comparisons, the world of Wi-Fi is a bit more nuanced when it comes to meeting your specific needs.
So let's talk about bands. Once you plug your network cable into a Wi-Fi router, the radio waves that wirelessly transmit an Internet signal to your iPhone or Xbox travel on one of two frequency bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. It's these different frequencies that separate a single-band router from a dual-band, and makes tri-band routers distinct from both. But the Wi-Fi rabbit hole goes even deeper still.
Way back in 1999, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) introduced the idea of wireless standards—that's what those "802.11" numbers that you see on your Wi-Fi-enabled gear represent. These standards are basically rule books that make sure routers and online devices are on the same page, ensuring that your Roku plays just as nicely with your router as your tablet does.
A single-band router is limited to, as you might've guessed, just one frequency band—the 2.4 GHz frequency band, to be exact. Older, single-band routers operate on the 802.11g standard (introduced in 2003), which caps data speeds at 54 Mbps. The iPhone 3G and 3Gs use this standard, for instance.
More likely, though, a single-band router operates on the (somewhat) newer 802.11n standard, also known as "Wireless-N." Wireless-N routers on a 2.4 GHz band offer theoretical speeds of up to 800 Mbps—"theoretical" meaning that you'll probably never see these speeds during day-to-day use, given real-world factors such as your Internet service limitations.
Though single-band, 2.4 GHz routers are accessible and low-priced, they come with a fair share of drawbacks, given the natural progression of Wi-Fi tech. It breaks down something like this:
In addition to supporting the 2.4 GHz Wireless-N standard, dual-band routers support the 5 GHz frequency band, operating on the newer 802.11ac standard. At their theoretical best, that means they support aggregate speeds up to 2,167 Mbps or more.
For most households, 5 GHz connectivity is what makes these routers really shine. Imagine that the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands are freeways, and each of the Wi-Fi networks in your router's vicinity are semi-trucks. Having been around for more than a decade, there are a whole lot of 2.4 GHz semi-trucks out there, and that makes for speed-clogging traffic jams. On the other hand, the 5 GHz freeway is fairly open because it’s newer, making for a faster, more stable connection. This is especially crucial if you live in a well-populated city or a big apartment building.
Some dual-band routers also pack perks that you won't find on older models. For instance, many support MU-MIMO technology, which improves the way your Wi-Fi interacts with multiple devices. Routers without MU-MIMO can pay attention to only a single device at once—you can still use multiple devices, but imagine your router is on a lazy Susan, sending data to your smart TV, your gaming console, and your laptop in turn as the platter spins. The more devices you have, the less data they're going to catch, so to speak.
In contrast, MU-MIMO maintains a constant connection to multiple devices simultaneously, so even when you're streaming Spotify while your kids are playing Splatoon in the next room, the Internet connection runs smoothly.
Right off the bat, tri-band routers—which just hit the scene a few years ago—are capable of multiple Gigabit speeds, well upwards of 4,000 Gbps on the 5 GHz band. And here's where the "tri" in "tri-band" comes into play: They feature one 2.4 GHz band and two 5 GHz bands.
With two radio freeways for your 5 GHz data to travel on, tri-band routers reduce signal interference even more than dual-band devices. Using automated features like Linksys Smart Connect, tri-band routers "steer" devices to the optimal 5 GHz band (or the applicable 2.4 GHz band, for older devices). It's kind of like adding an extra lane to the interstate, or a bike lane to downtown roads—this makes tri-brand routers a handy tool for environments with a lot of continuously connected 5 GHz devices, and a worthy investment if you're currently on the market for a new router and want to future-proof your Wi-Fi for at least a few years.
Take note of that last bit—if you're in a studio apartment rocking a laptop, a smartphone, and a gaming console, sticking with your dual-band router is probably a safe bet. But if you plan on Netflix-ing 4K movies downstairs while your spouse streams recipe videos from a tablet in the kitchen, your kid's Pandora station never stops, and your guest harbors a World of Warcraft addiction, it might just be time to add that third traffic lane to your home's Wi-Fi freeway.