Even though you might just now be getting around to upgrading your home network to take advantage of the 802.11n spec, there’s a new standard on the horizon that promises even faster speeds. How fast? Well, if 802.11n is a pitcher’s fastball, the draft 802.11ac spec is a bullet fired from a gun, at least in theoretical terms.
Unless you live in an underground bunker completely isolated from interfering signals and find yourself favored by the gods of Wi-Fi, you’ll never come close to 802.11ac’s theoretical maximum of 1.3 gigabits per second (assuming a three-antenna design). Overhead, interference, and a number of other factors poop on the Wi-Fi party, but the same is true of earlier standards, so you’ll still see a net gain in performance. How much depends on your setup, but in general, real-world 802.11ac performance ends up being around twice as fast as 802.11n, which bodes well for streaming HD videos, gaming, and file transfers.
One of the reasons why 802.11ac is so much faster is because it taps into wider channels. As part of the spec, 802.11ac must support 80MHz channel bonding (160MHz is optional), up from the maximum of 40MHz in 802.11n. It also boasts twice as many multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) streams at eight.
Before you rip out your router and replace it with an AC model, there are some things you should know. We’ll tell you what they are, and then dive into a roundup of seven 802.11ac routers available now in search of the best AC router.
What to look for when upgrading your home network
The 802.11ac spec should be finalized in early 2014, perhaps even by the time you’re reading this. Until then, don’t expect to see a lot of systems natively support the new standard. So, you’ll need an 802.11ac adapter, of which there are a growing number to choose from.
A router with at least one USB port should allow you to plug in an external storage device and share files across your network. For this, a USB 3.0 port works best. You can also share a printer over your network through your router’s USB port, though only if the router supports this feature. Not all do, so you’ll want to verify that the model you’re considering does if this is a must-have feature.
Router makers use clever marketing tactics to help their products stand out from the crowd. One of the most common tricks is to add the 2.4GHz (up to 450Mb/s) and 5GHz (up to 1,300Mb/s) channels together to arrive at a higher, more attractive number. AC1750 looks and sounds faster than AC1300, so why not use the bigger number? It’s a bit deceptive because you can’t actually combine the two channels for a faster connection. Some, like Linksys and Netgear, advertise AC1900 for their highest-end routers, and that’s because the 2.4GHz channel supports a 600Mb/s data rate due to the use of 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) instead of the more common 64-QAM. This provides a real-world benefit, but only if your Wi-Fi adapter also supports 256-QAM.
Instead of sending a signal out in all directions, routers that support beamforming are able to focus the signal toward a client for better performance, reliability, and range. A good analogy is to think of a how a light bulb (traditional router) casts its light in every direction, whereas a flashlight (router with beamforming) focuses its energy on a specific target. Even better, beamforming can focus on multiple targets, not just one.
Maximum PC Lab Midwest
For the past several years, we’ve been testing routers at Maximum PC Lab North, a 2,800-square-foot home located on 10 acres of what was once a dairy farm. The new location is Maximum PC Lab Midwest, a 1,400-square-foot home flanked by houses on either side, a yard extending into a wooded area out back, and a semi-busy road in front. The new location offers a harsher, more real-world testing environment.
We measure the performance of each router in five separate locations starting with the Bedroom in a spot 10 feet away from the router with no obstructions. The next test takes place in the Dining Room 15 feet from the router and separated by two walls, followed by the Entryway with 20 feet and three walls of separation. The final two tests take place outside in the Driveway (35 feet) and Backyard (90 feet) toward the edge of a wooded area.
When possible, each dual-band router is configured to run in 802.11n-only mode on the 2.4GHz channel and 802.11ac-only mode on the 5GHz channel, both with WPA2 encryption and channel bonding. We use the open-source Jperf utility, a GUI front end for Iperf, to measure throughput in each of the five locations. Our Jperf server is an HP Envy Ultrabook with a Core i5 processor wired directly to the router being tested, and the client PC is a Dell Inspiron laptop with a Core i3 processor. Since the client PC doesn’t support 802.11ac natively, we run the tests with a Linksys USB6300 dual-band USB adapter. We compare the 802.11n scores to our zero-point router, an Asus RT-N66U.
Finally, we also test each router’s attached storage performance by plugging in a 32GB Lexar JumpDrive P10 USB 3.0 flash drive. We chose this drive because it’s one of the fastest on the market with up to 265MB/s read and 245MB/s write performance. Once configured, we use a stopwatch to time how long it takes to write a single 3GB file to the flash drive and then again with a 1GB folder containing several smaller files. We repeat both tests to read the large and small files to the hardwired server PC. All the benchmark results can be seen on page 43.
Jperf’s wealth of settings aren’t just good for benchmarking; you can use the open-source app to troubleshoot your network, too.
Simple design with a confusing interface
Routers come in all shapes and sizes, and after spending time with an assortment of boxy models with antennas extending every which way, D-Link’s cylindrical DIR-868 is a welcome change. It’s not overly big and looks rather neatly groomed compared to the other routers in this roundup, but looks will only get you so far.
With regard to brawn, the DIR-868 offers exceptional range on the 5GHz channel in 802.11ac mode, delivering 15.1Mb/s in the Backyard test at a distance of 90 feet. Technically, that makes the DIR-868 the second-fastest at that range, though it virtually tied Netgear’s model at 15.3Mb/s for pole position. Since this test is outside, a fly belch could explain the tiny difference.
The DIR-868 didn’t fare as well on the 2.4GHz channel in 802.11n mode. Its performance wasn’t bad, just merely average, and it certainly never threatened our zero-point router. However, its file-transfer performance using the built-in USB 3.0 port was among the fastest.
Initial setup of the DIR-868 was pretty painless, though the fugly web-based interface could use a major overhaul. It’s way too wordy and not very intuitive to navigate, especially for less savvy users and/or anyone who’s unfamiliar with networking nomenclature.
Nestled inside the cylindrical DIR-868L are half a dozen antennas with beamforming support.
$155 (Street), www.dlink.com
Plain looks meet plain performance
Despite this router’s high MSRP, we’ve seen this model retail for a Benjamin online, giving users a comparatively inexpensive upgrade path to 802.11ac territory. The old adage “You get what you pay for” applies here because even though the TEW-812DRU supports the AC spec, its performance on the 5GHz channel in 802.11ac mode consistently trailed the competition. In our two outside tests—Driveway and Backyard—the performance gap was especially noticeable. Throughput on the 2.4GHz in 802.11n mode fared better at close distances, but again became strained as we moved farther away from the router.
Low street pricing is this router’s saving grace.
Trendnet deserves major props for a well-designed web interface that’s straightforward and easy to navigate. The main screen provides you with an uncluttered glimpse of your network situation, and Trendnet even figured out a way to include a bit of fine-grain control in the Basic view. Naturally, there are a lot more levers to pull in the Advanced tab, but you’ll still never feel lost or overwhelmed.
You can share files by connecting a drive to the router’s single USB 2.0 port, though transfer speeds are hindered by Trendnet’s decision to forego USB 3.0. And while it offers FTP and Samba support, no DLNA is a buzzkill.
$140 (Street), www.trendnet.com
Belkin’s first product under the Linksys name
The Linksys brand has managed to survive two acquisitions in the past 10 years, first by Cisco in 2003, and more recently by Belkin in 2013. Apparently, the Linksys name isn’t enough because Belkin also calls the EA6900 the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi AC1900. The “Smart” portion of that title denotes the availability of Smart apps you can install on the router, and the AC1900 is a sum of the 2.4GHz (up to 600Mb/s) and 5GHz (up to 1,300Mb/s) bands added together. Give the marketing team a cookie.
Belkin proves with the EA6900 that Linksys is in good hands going forward.
Beyond the talk, the EA6900 walks the walk with acceptable 802.11ac performance on the 5GHz band and blazing-fast 802.11n throughput on the 2.4GHz band. It obliterated the zero-point router in the three indoor tests, and split the two outdoor tests, losing by less than 3Mb/s in the Backyard—impressive.
There are two USB ports on the back, one Hi-Speed (2.0) and one SuperSpeed (3.0), though the latter acted like the former by registering a pokey 6:09 (min:sec) to write a 3GB file to the attached storage device. However, both ports support DLNA and allow you to share a printer across your network.
Overall, a solid first effort by Belkin.
$195 (Street), www.linksys.com
So fast it should be illegal
If you have the space to park Netgear’s mammoth R7000, otherwise known as the Nighthawk, the router will pay its rent by serving up blistering-fast throughput on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands in 802.11n and 802.11ac modes, respectively. It posted the fastest AC performance by far in the Entryway (336Mb/s), which is 20 feet away from the router and separated by three walls, and had the best range of the bunch. Overall, it was one of the more consistent-performing routers, and also demonstrated an intelligent ability to pick out less-crowded channels on its own—that’s a great commodity for novice users.
The aggressive design and “Nighthawk” name are both inspired by the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft.
Netgear has put in a lot of work over the past few years making its web interface more user friendly, but that hasn’t come at the expense of advanced knobs and dials. If you like to tinker with your network settings, you’ll find a host of options to play with, including robust QoS controls, which look at both upstream and downstream traffic.
There are two USB ports on the Nighthawk, including a USB 3.0 port conveniently located on the front. In our file-transfer tests, the Nighthawk ran the table, leaving the other routers in the dust.
$200 (Street), www.netgear.com
This router rises about its predecessor, the Dark Knight (RT-N66U)
Asus nicknamed its last-generation router—and our zero-point in this roundup—Dark Knight, and if it’s looking for another DC Comics hero to represent the RT-AC66U, we recommend going with The Flash. Point blank, this is the all-around fastest router we’ve ever tested. It came out on top in five of our 10 throughput tests and nipped at the heels of the leader in three others.
A pair of slower USB 2.0 (compared to USB 3.0) ports on the back temper our enthusiasm over performance, though at least Asus offers a host of ways to share and stream files—DLNA, iTunes, FTP, and Samba server support all showed up to the party. You can also use Asus’s AiCloud app available on Android and iOS to tap into your files from a mobile device.
If speed kills, this router would be a serial killer.
The user interface is brilliantly mapped out and chock-full of settings. All the main functions are categorized on the left-hand side, while tabs on the main window allow you to dig several layers deep. Power users and novices alike will feel right at home jumping around the menu. It’s also nice that Asus gives you the ability to tweak the signal strength and external antennas.
$180 (Street), www.asus.com
High maintenance, low reward
We’re not sure if the RTA15 is so potentially fast that it keeps tripping over its own two feet, or if this is a case of being seduced by promises of a wild ride by a hot number that has no intentions of following through. Either way, we were left frustrated and unsatisfied.
Amped Wireless advertises the RTA15 as a “High Power 700mW” router, yielding expectations of both speed and distance. During our tests, we saw glimpses of the former—the RTA15 would spike on the 5GHz band before taking a dip in performance. Averaged out over time, the best we could muster was just shy of 300Mb/s, and even that took a lot of tinkering. We spent way more time experimenting with settings on the RTA15 than any other router. One thing we discovered is that dialing back the signal strength helps in close quarters, but we never did uncover the magic formula that would make this router scream.
Move along. This is not the AC router you’re looking for.
File transfer speeds over the single USB 2.0 port failed to impress, as well. It was among the slowest of the bunch, taking a minute and a half longer than any other router to write a single 3GB file.
Amped Wireless RTA15
$185 (Street), www.ampedwireless.com
Don’t judge a router by its cover
Whereas high-performance routers are adopting sleek designs with aggressive angles and external antennas, Buffalo’s WZR-1750DHP stands up like a hardcover book with subdued LEDs and a rubberized coating. This isn’t a fashion contest, however, and Buffalo’s model quickly demonstrated why looks mean nothing. Throughput on the 5GHz band in 802.11ac mode consistently bumped elbows with Asus and Netgear, with Buffalo edging out both in the Entryway. 802.11n and file-transfer performance via USB 3.0 were both solid, too.
A wealth of advanced features can be found in the back end, including some not-so-common tweaks like an eco mode and an optional time limit for guest access. Buffalo earns bonus points for a persistent Help button in the upper-right corner. Clicking it brings up an explanation of whichever settings are on the page—we wish more router makers would follow in Buffalo’s footsteps here.
Exceptional speed and features belie this router’s unassuming looks.
Zooming through the menu system is a little quirky. The main menu is the most touch-friendly of the bunch with four large, tiled menus, but the deeper you go, the more traditional (and a little confusing) the menus get. Given the focus on touch computing lately, we hope Buffalo eventually extends the main menu look throughout the UI.
$140 (Street), www.buffalotech.com
|Bedroom – 10ft (Mb/s)||416||324||361||400||419||298||398||N/A|
|Dining Room – 15ft, 2 walls (Mb/s)||243||221||239||291||335||138||309||N/A|
|Entryway – 20ft, 3 walls (Mb/s)||257||178||241||336||284||112||268||N/A|
|Driveway – 35ft (Mb/s)||67.8||20.2||63.7||136||132||42.4||138||N/A|
|Backyard – 90ft (Mb/s)||15.1||2.76||11.1||15.3||9.54||2.81||14.3||N/A|
|Bedroom – 10ft (Mb/s)||79.5||97.1||170||96.4||180||159||180||111|
|Dining Room – 15ft, 2 walls (Mb/s)||65.6||95.2||140||93.4||163||66||141||99.3|
|Entryway – 20ft, 3 walls (Mb/s)||62.3||42.2||149||88.3||145||50.4||91.7||122|
|Driveway – 35ft (Mb/s)||42.8||31.4||80||78.7||95.5||4.13||64.4||73.4|
|Backyard – 90ft (Mb/s)||4.31||23.8||56.4||54.4||58.4||2.35||51.4||59.1|
|3GB Router to PC (min:sec)||1:38||2:16||1:41||0:50||4:29||6:20||1:12||4:28|
|1GB Router to PC (min:sec)||0:39||2:16||0:40||0:22||1:35||2:14||0:29||1:52|
|3GB PC to Router (min:sec)||2:51||4:33||6:09||1:31||6:00||7:45||2:15||6:15|
|1GB PC to Router (min:sec)||1:10||2:58||2:58||0:40||2:25||2:35||0:59||2:34|
Best scores are bolded.