Router Roundup: We Review 7 Top-Tier Routers

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Today's premium Wi-Fi routers push the boundaries of design, features, and range

You’ve been getting by with the cheapie router you bought two years ago, so why should you upgrade now? In a word: Performance. And features. Oh, sorry. That’s two words. We looked at a host of budget offerings in our last router roundup (February 2010) and didn’t find much to get excited about. This time, we asked seven manufacturers to send us the best consumer routers in their stables regardless of price tags.


If aesthetics matter in your router, you're sure to find a design that suits your style, although its performance might not be up to snuff. Hey, that's why we're here.

In most cases, that meant a simultaneous dual-band router capable of running 802.11n wireless networks using the typical 2.4GHz frequency band and the less-crowded 5GHz band, plus a guest network that isolates its clients from your primary LAN. In all cases, it meant a router with an integrated four-port gigabit switch and at least one USB port for sharing a printer or a storage device over the network (some have two USB ports to support both functions). In an interesting twist, however, no one submitted a product using a three-stream wireless chipset promising raw throughput of 450Mb/s.

We’re absolutely fine with that, because our first experience with this bleeding-edge standard, courtesy of Trendnet’s single-band TEW-691GR, left a bitter taste on our tongues. The TEW-691GR was very fast, but only at very close range. As we observed in our review , you can’t buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter with three antennas today, so much of that extra bandwidth is effectively wasted.

Astute observers will notice that we’ve previously written stand-alone reviews of three of the routers here—namely, the Netgear WNDR3700 V1 (our current Best of the Best pick), the Linksys E3000 (previously known as the WRT610N), and the Belkin Play N600 HD (previously known as the Play Max). Since wireless performance varies with Wi-Fi client device drivers, router firmware updates, and even atmospheric conditions, we didn’t think it would be fair to compare one product with the latest updates to a competitor we reviewed several months ago.

So, will Netgear’s WNDR3700 V1 retain its title, or will a scrappy challenger exceed our lofty expectations? Keep reading to find out.

Jump to page 3 for the benchmarks.

Asus RT-N16

A solid, if unexciting, bargain

The Asus RT-N16 is a single-band router with three removable (and therefore upgradeable) antennas, but the third antenna didn’t help the router rise above third place overall in terms of TCP throughput. It did, however, do a solid job of penetrating our media room.

The RT-N16 is equipped with two USB ports, so it can support both a portable USB hard drive and a printer. USB storage devices are shared using SMB/CIFS, so the shares appear when you use Windows to browse your network. This is a far superior alternative to forcing you to install a client to access the shares, as some of the other routers do.


The Asus RT-N16 is a solid performer with dual USB ports, strong firmware, and support from the DD-WRT community.

Asus has developed a very user-friendly GUI for the RT-N16’s firmware, and the EZQoS utility makes it easy to assign bandwidth priority to various applications (with settings for VoIP, games, video streaming, and the built-in FTP server). There’s an integrated BitTorrent client, too. If the stock firmware doesn’t float your boat, you can replace it with a version of the popular open-source alternative DD-WRT.

The RT-N16’s stock firmware includes a UPnP media server, but it’s not DLNA-compliant. This means the router is not a great choice if you’re looking to stream media from an attached drive to an Xbox 360 or a PS3 gaming console.

You’ll find our complete Asus RT-N16 network and NAS benchmark results here .

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Single-band: 2.4GHz only
Guest Network
No
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
No
USB Ports
Two (for printer and/or storage)
NTFS Drive Support
Yes
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
No

The Asus RT-N16 Verdict
GUI

Decent range and throughput; dual USB ports; support from DD-WRT community; BitTorrent client.

Gooey

Single-band only; no guest network; no DLNA-compliant media server.

Belkin Play N600 HD

Homey don't play dat

The Belkin Play Max ’s claim to fame was a fat set of hardware features and a generous collection of apps that ran not on the router but on client PCs connected to the router. In relaunching the Play Max as the Play N600 HD, Belkin has kept all the hardware features but axed three of the apps (the music library tool Daily DJ, the backup utility Memory Safe, and the MP3 tagger Music Labeler).

No big loss, as far as we’re concerned; we’re far more interested in the hardware. Like its predecessor, the Play N600 HD features two wireless radios, so you can operate distinct networks on the 2.4- and 5GHz bands, plus a second guest network (on the 2.4GHz band only) that provides Internet access while isolating visitors from your LAN. You’ll also find two USB ports, so you can share both a mass storage device and a printer across your network (but not with clients on the guest network).


Belkin's Play N600 HD router has a single status LED that glows green when the router is connected to the Internet and amber when it can't make that connection.

The Play N600 HD’s wireless routing performance using the 2.4GHz band was distinctly middle of the road, placing third in two of our test locations and tying for third in another. On the other hand, it managed a relatively strong second-place performance in our challenging media-room test. Performance on the 5GHz band was roughly the same, except that it couldn’t penetrate our double-walled media room at all.

Belkin includes a BitTorrent client that’s useful for finishing Torrent downloads without tying up a host PC; but as you can see from our benchmark charts, the router’s NAS performance is abysmal.

You’ll find our complete Belkin Play N600 HD network and NAS benchmark results here .

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Dual-band: 2.4GHz and 5GHz
Guest Network
On the 2.4GHz band only
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
Running on a host PC only
USB Ports
Two (for printer and/or storage)
NTFS Drive Support
Yes
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
No

The Belkin Play N600 Verdict
Dual Band

Guest network; two USB ports; BitTorrent client, good range on the 2.4GHz band.

Dual Personality

Slug-slow NAS performance; DLNA-compliant media server runs on a host PC, not the router.

Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti

This bison no longer roams

Of the three routers we’re taking second looks at, none has changed more than Buffalo’s WZR-HP-G300NH. That’s because Buffalo has thrown the firmware we tested earlier out the window and adopted the open-source DD-WRT.


We weren't impressed with the AirStation Nfiniti WZR-HP-G300NH's TCP throughput, but its price tag is a saving grace.

Comparing our earlier benchmark numbers to the performance we recorded this time out, however, we much prefer the Kick Ass award–earning router we tested in January to the one in front of us now. That router turned in the best throughput we’ve ever seen with our client in our well-insulated media room and in our furthest outdoor location; this one took fifth-place finishes in both tests (in a field of seven). We have little doubt the reason for this performance discrepancy is due to the fact that no matter how we configured the router, we couldn’t coax Buffalo’s WLI-UC-G300HP01B USB client adapter to connect to it at a stated data rate faster than 130Mb/s.

This is a single-band router that enables you to run virtual wireless networks with distinct SSIDs, but these aren’t true guest networks that provide Internet access while isolating guest clients from your primary LAN. The router is equipped with a single USB port that’s limited to NAS functions—you can’t use it to share a printer attached to your network. It does, however, feature a DLNA-compliant media server, and it can be converted to a wireless bridge/repeater when you upgrade to a newer router down the road.

You’ll find our complete Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti WZR-HP-G300NH network results here . We didn’t test NAS performance because this router doesn’t support NTFS-formatted drives.

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Single-band: 2.4GHz only
Guest Network
Sort of
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
Yes
USB Ports
One (for storage only)
NTFS Drive Support
No
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
Yes

The Buffalo AirStation Verdict
NTFS

DLNA-compliant media server; integrated BitTorrent client; DD-WRT firmware.

NSFW

Poor range; USB NAS feature supports only FAT32 or XFS formatted drives; no guest network.

Next Page: Wi-Fi Routers continued »

D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N

Does 'Xtreme' refer to the price tag?

In terms of features, D-Link’s DIR-855 came the closest to matching Netgear’s routerlicious WNDR3700. It’s a simultaneous dual-band model that allows you to run guest networks on either the 2.4- or 5GHz frequencies, it provides a USB port for sharing either a printer or a storage device, it’s equipped with three removable/upgradeable antennas, it sports an OLED display, and its firmware is a tweaker’s paradise.

But the benchmark performance we experienced with the DIR-855’s 2.4GHz radio in no way justifies its astronomically high street price of $240. Netgear’s WNDR3700 V1 spanked the DIR-855 on both frequency bands, has almost as many features, and costs $90 less than D-Link’s router.


You can attach either a printer or a USB storage device to the DIR-855's single USB port, but you'll need to run D-Link's SharePort utility on any client that needs to access it.

The DIR-855’s 2.4GHz radio scored fourth or fifth everywhere except at our outdoor location, where it placed first. Its 5GHz radio performed better, coming in second (behind the WNDR3700) in our two close-range tests, and third and fourth in two other tests.

On the bright side, D-Link’s firmware boasts more customizable settings than any other router in this field. You can configure both radios to operate on a schedule, so you can shut off your entire wireless network when you’re away from home (with independent schedules for your guest networks), you can grant or deny guests access to your LAN, and more. But in the final analysis, we’d be a lot more impressed if the DIR-855 was a whole lot faster and much cheaper.

You’ll find our complete D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N Duo Media Router network and NAS benchmarks here .

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Dual-band: 2.4- and 5GHz
Guest Network
Yes, on both radios
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
No
USB Ports
One (for printer or storage)
NTFS Drive Support
Yes
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
No

The D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N Verdict
DIR

Supremely configurable; OLED display; dual guest networks.

DUH

Absurd price/performance ratio; no DLNA-compliant media server; NAS feature requires client utility.

Linksys E3000

Same as it ever was?

As we mentioned earlier, the Linksys E3000 is actually a rebadged WRT610N. We’re taking a second look at it now because it remains Cisco’s best consumer router; as such, we owe it to our readers to compare it to the best of what the rest of the industry has to offer.


The Linksys E3000 scored dead last in most of our benchmarks--and left us wondering which of its two radios we were testing.

We updated the router with the latest firmware for this review and downloaded fresh drivers for the Linksys AE1000 dual-band USB client adapter, so we were quite surprised to see the router perform more poorly than it did when we tested it several months ago. Cisco Connect remains the easiest tool we’ve ever used to establish a connection to a router, but Cisco’s “fix” for a problem we described in our initial review has rendered the router a whole lot less appealing.

In that earlier review, we discovered that using the router’s web interface to change the router’s SSID broke Cisco Connect. The new firmware not only forces you to use Cisco Connect to change the SSID, it uses the very same SSID for both the 2.4- and 5GHz networks. So when your client Wi-Fi adapter surveys the airspace, it sees only one network plus the guest network. That’s just dumb.

You’ll find our complete Linksys E3000 network benchmark results here . We didn’t test NAS performance because this router doesn’t support NTFS-formatted drives.

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Dual-band: 2.4- and 5GHz
Guest Network
Yes, on the 2.4GHz band only
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
No
USB Ports
One (for storage only)
NTFS Drive Support
No
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
No

The Linksys E3000 Verdict
EEG

A brain-dead zombie could connect a wireless client using Cisco Connect.

DRE

Crap benchmark performance; NAS feature doesn't support NTFS drives; can't share a USB printer.

Trendnet TEW-673GRU

My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

We thought the 1.5x1.25-inch LCD on Trendnet’s TEW-673GRU was pretty cool at first. It informs you of the router’s status, provides real-time performance numbers, displays the time and date, and more. But our enthusiasm wilted when the display became corrupted to the point of being illegible. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot else to like about this router.


We like the Trendnet TEW-673GRU's removable/upgradeable antennas, but the flakey display gives us pause.

The TEW-673GRU is a dual-band model with two USB ports to support both a printer and a portable hard drive. It finished second in terms of TCP throughput on the 2.4GHz band (taking third place on the 5GHz band), and it turned in the fastest transfer speeds as a NAS device.

But it’s not all hot fudge and cherries with this sundae. You need to install a utility on each client PC in order to grant access to the attached storage device, for instance, and only one client can utilize those ports at a time. And while the TEW-673GR delivered high throughput to our outdoor patio using both radios, neither was able to penetrate our media room or reach our second outdoor location. The router isn’t capable of operating a guest network, either, and its integrated media server is not DLNA-compliant.

You’ll find our complete Trendnet TEW-673GRU network and NAS benchmark results here .

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Dual-band: 2.4- and 5GHz
Guest Network
No
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
No
USB Ports
Two (for printer and/or storage)
NTFS Drive Support
Yes
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
No

The Trendnet TEW-673GRU Verdict
Hardwood

Excellent TCP throughput in most locations; dual USB ports; relatively strong NAS performance.

Fiberboard

Flakey display; must install client utility to use USB ports; no guest network; no DLNA-compliant server.

Netgear RangeMax V1

The winner, and still champeen!

It wasn’t much of a contest: Netgear’s WNDR3700 V1 retained its crown as our Best of the Best router with spectacular TCP through-put, a strong feature set, and an even stronger price/performance ratio. It’s the second-most expensive router we tested, but it’s worth every penny.

The WNDR3700’s 2.4GHz radio delivered the best performance at every client location except one (where it placed second), and its 5GHz radio finished first in six of our seven locations. D-Link’s DIR-855 firmware is more customizable, but Netgear’s router offers several important features D-Link can’t match, including a DLNA-compliant media server, the ability to configure either radio as a wireless bridge/repeater, and NAS functionality that doesn’t require a client-side utility.


Supremely fast, feature-rich, and relatively inexpensive: There's little we don't like about Netgear's WNDR3700.

If your ISP subjects you to download limits and penalizes you for overages, you’ll appreciate the WNDR3700’s traffic meter. This tool measures both online time and download volume and can be configured to prevent you from exceeding either quota. Unfortunately, the meter measures in aggregate, so you can’t establish limits on a per-client basis. We also find it odd that Netgear doesn’t support printer sharing on the WNDR3700’s single USB port.

We suspect the primary reason the WNDR3700’s press-time street price was so low is because Netgear was clearing inventory to make way for the WNDR3700 V2. Netgear is promising to double the router’s memory, deliver a 50 percent performance boost on the 5GHz band, and provide full support for IPv6. We can’t wait.

You’ll find our complete Netgear WNDR3700 V1 network and NAS benchmarks here .

Specifications
Radio Frequencies
Dual-band: 2.4- and 5GHz
Guest Network
Yes, on both radios
DLNA-Compliant Media Server
Yes
USB Ports
One (for storage only)
NTFS Drive Support
Yes
WDS Bridge/Repeater Support
Yes, on both radios

The Netgear RangeMax WNDR3700 V1 Verdict
Wonders

Awesome price/performance ratio; DLNA-compliant media server; dual guest networks; traffic meter.

Blunders

No USB printer sharing; traffic meter can't limit on a per-client basis.

Next Page: Benchmarks »

Benchmarking Routers

Keepin' it real-world

When it comes to benchmarking routers, Maximum PC enjoys an advantage most publishers can’t match: My home , which is located on a 10-acre parcel in rural northern California, well isolated from the pollution of neighboring Wi-Fi networks.

I measure TCP throughput by running the free JPerf 2.0.2 network measurement tool (Jperf is the Java GUI for Iperf) as a server on a desktop PC and as a client on a notebook PC. Each router is paired with the same vendor’s USB Wi-Fi client adapter. I record benchmark performance with the notebook at four locations inside the home, as well as in an enclosed outdoor patio, and at a location completely outside the home.

For dual-band routers, I perform the same battery of tests on both radios. And for routers that support attached storage devices, I use the same benchmark criteria we use with NAS boxes and home servers. You’ll find even more details here .

The Performance Picture

A router worth its salt will perform favorably in a variety of real-world scenarios

2.4GHz Benchmarks

Asus RT-N16
Belkin Play N600 HD
Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH
D-Link DIR-855
Linksys E3000
Netgear WNDR3700
Trendnet TEW-691GR
Bedroom, 10ft (Mb/s)
74.3
53.2
56.9
59.6
56.1
98.7
75.9
Kitchen, 20ft
54.1
60.9
42.8
55.0
55.9
96.6
86.8
Enclosed Patio, 38ft (Mb/s)
35.5
32.9
3.7
5.7
4.8
53.8
44.9
Bedroom 2, 60ft (Mb/s)
25.5
25.5
41.5
4.3
3.8
27.1
2.0
Media Room, 35ft (Mb/s)
6.3
18.5
3.7
4.9
2.3
22.8
1.1
Outdoors, 85ft (Mb/s)
1.9
3.1
0.5
3.2
N/C
4.0
N/C

Best scores are bolded. TCP throughput measured using IPerf. N/C indicates no connection at that location.

5GHz Benchmarks

Belkin Play N600 HD
D-Link DIR-855
Netgear V1
Trendnet TEW-691GR
Bedroom, 10ft (Mb/s)
70.6
86.1
94.5
84.4
Kitchen, 20ft (Mb/s)
34.5
64.6
68.9
50.8
Enclosed Patio, 38ft (Mb/s)
32.5
23.9
34.7
27.5
Bedroom 2, 60ft (Mb/s)
28.1
22.0
44.3
5.1
Media Room, 35ft (Mb/s)
N/C
N/C
4.3
N/C
Outdoors, 85ft (Mb/s)
N/C
2.4
N/C
N/C

Best scores at 5.0GHz are bolded. TCP throughput measured using IPerf. N/C indicates no connection at that location.

NAS Benchmarks

Asus RT-N16
Belkin Play N600 HD
D-Link DIR-855
Netgear WNDR3700
Trendnet TEW-691GR
Large File Write (min:sec)
8:24
22:23
9:06
11:41
5:52
Small Files Write (min:sec)
2:48
9:42
2:13
4:15
1:32
Large File Read (min:sec)
7:53
23:36
11:58
3:59
6:45
Small Files Read (min:sec)
1:59
5:36
2:36
1:04
1:11

Best scores are bolded. We used the contents of Maximum PC's November 2007 CD for the small-file test, and a single 2.79GB for the large-file test. All scores are averages of three transfers.

Next Page: New Developments in Home Wireless »

New Developments in Home Wireless

A host of new technologies promise to meet our evolving needs

Believe it or not, 300Mb/s IEEE 802.11n routers have already been on the market for several years. What’s more, the first 802.11n routers that support three 150Mb/s data streams—that's raw throughput of 450Mb/s—have reached store shelves, too.

As we’ve already mentioned, we didn’t find the first such model to be very impressive in terms of range, and we haven’t been able to find any USB client adapters equipped with the three antennas needed to take full advantage of the technology. Let’s take a quick look at what other wireless technologies are headed our way in the near future.

Wireless USB

We once dismissed Wireless USB because it offered terrible range, but the technology has improved considerably and several manufacturers are now using it to build inexpensive video-streaming solutions. Instead of streaming video from the Internet or a media server over your network to a set-top box connected to your TV, these devices will stream video to your TV from a laptop in the same room.

You can read our review of Warpia’s PC-to-TV Display Adapter here . The recently announced Veebeam HD promises an even better experience: Warpia’s device uses a VGA output and supports a computer-oriented maximum resolution of 1440x1050. The Veebeam HD uses HDMI and promises resolution of 1080p.

Intel's WiDi

Intel announced its Wireless Display (WiDi) technology at CES last January, and notebook manufacturers including Dell, Sony, Toshiba, and Asus have been slowly rolling out machines that support it. Since WiDi is incorporated into Intel’s wireless chipset, it doesn’t require a USB dongle to transmit. As with Wireless USB, however, it still requires a set-top receiver that plugs into your TV, and that means buying Netgear’s $100 Push2TV.

WiGig

Future tri-band routers will operate three wireless networks on the unlicensed 2.4-, 5-, and 60GHz frequency bands simultaneously. Initial WiGig solutions will likely cover short distances, but there’s talk of deploying reflectors and repeaters to enable the 60GHz signals—which can deliver data-transfer rates up to 7Gb/s—to cover wider areas within the home.


The WiGig spec will use the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum to transmit high-definition video and audio short distances without cables.

The WirelessHD specification seeks to deliver similar data-transfer rates, but we’re putting our money on the WiGig Alliance thanks to its strategic partnership with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which has already done such a great job of ensuring the interoperability of IEEE 802.11 devices. It could be a year or two before we see the first WiGig products hit store shelves.

Wi-Fi Direct

Wi-Fi Direct is another initiative promoted by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Today, the typical wireless network involves clients connected to a wireless access point (typically a router), which is connected to a wired gateway, which is in turn connected to the Internet. Most of these networks operate in infrastructure mode, with the access point acting as a central hub.

That mode works well enough when you’re dealing with a few computers sharing a common broadband connection and a printer. Throw in smartphones, media-streaming devices, digital picture frames, and empowering guests to share your network’s resources—without giving them carte blanche access to your data—and things quickly become unwieldy. Wi-Fi Direct envisions products that have embedded software access points that would enable the casual formation of an ad hoc network. This would enable your guest to establish a wireless connection between their smartphone or laptop and your printer directly, without involving your router or granting access to the rest of your network. By the same token, a digital media player could stream music and video directly to your TV or A/V receiver.

A security protocol similar to Wi-Fi Protected Setup would prevent unauthorized connections, while a protocol similar to Microsoft’s UPnP or Apple’s Bonjour would enable each device to exchange information about its capabilities. The Wi-Fi Alliance says it expects to begin certifying Wi-Fi Direct products in late 2010.

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