Tuesday, 05 April 2022 16:23

Review: D-Link Eagle Pro AI M15

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D-Link churns out new home and SOHO networking products at a rapid rate, and the latest family is the Eagle Pro AI series. Here, we review the Eagle Pro AI M15 AX1500 mesh system three-pack.

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Let's start by getting the physical side out of the way.

The $379.95 Eagle Pro AI M15 units are compact, measuring approximately 9cm in each dimension. The plain white case would be acceptable in most home and office environments, but the pale blue top could clash with some decors. We'd have a slight preferernce for an all-white (or white and grey) design.

The mains adaptors are also compact, and the good news is that they don't block adjacent sockets on a two or four-way power point. But they do have short leads, so unless you're prepared to use extension cables your choice of locations may be very limited. Furthermore, with most homes having power outlets low on the walls, you can't elevate an M15 unless it's very close to the outlet.

One of the three units serves as as the router (we'll refer to it as the primary), while the others are additional mesh nodes (secondaries). We used the Eagle AI app on an iPhone to set up the primary and experienced a couple of false starts, but we persisted and it turned out to be a case of 'third time lucky.' What went wrong remains a mystery, and when the process works it really is simple.

Once the primary was up and running, a firmware update was waiting so we installed that before going any further.

Connecting the secondary units – which can be done via Ethernet or Wi-Fi – was more problematic. After we followed the instructions, the app displayed the message "Your device is already configured. You can change your device settings at any time by tapping on the device's icon on the landing page. OK." However, only the primary unit was active.

D-Link provided a beta release of the M15 firmware that now appears to be generally available, and that solved the problem. Once the secondary units were connected, we were able to manually update their firmware to the same version via the web interface, though it should now install automatically.

Talking of the web interface, we were disappointed to find that the Eagle AI app has limited functionality, and tapping the Advanced mode button merely takes you to the hardware's web interface which has a static rather than fluid design, making it awkward to use on a phone.

We strongly recommend download the M15 manual from the D-Link site (at the time of writing it was at https://files.dlink.com.au/products/M15-3PK/Manuals/M15_A1_Manual_v1.02(WW).pdf), otherwise you may never know what it's capable of – only minimal documentation is provided in the box

We chose to start by putting the Eagle M15 into bridge mode, largely because in recent months we've heard from several people who have to use the routers supplied by their RSPs because they have bundled, fixed-line phone services but are dissatisfied with the Wi-Fi performance of that hardware.

With just the primary node installed in a first-floor room (to take advantage of existing cabling), a Wi-Fi 6 device could get 49/19Mbps – very close to the nominal 50/20Mbps speed – in most parts of the house. The exception was the most distant area, which nevertheless still saw 18/2Mbps. That's not great, but it is sufficient for less-demanding applications.

Adding a second unit roughly in the middle of the ground floor gave 48 or 49/19Mbps at every location we tested, even though the secondary unit was not optimally placed in terms of signal strength as reported by the app. (NB: The M15 is also available in a $279.95 two-pack.)

It would be useful if the app provided more smarts in terms of working out where to position second and subsequent nodes, but at least it reports whether a secondary's signal strength is poor, good or excellent. If it's not getting a good signal, try rotating the unit by 90 degrees – that's all it took to take our setup from poor to good.

Another factor to consider when positioning the units is whether you want to take advantage of the Gigabit Ethernet ports. Each unit has two: one for wired connections to a modem or router (or to other M15s if you prefer not to use Wi-Fi for backhaul), and a second for connecting devices to the network via Ethernet. A separate Ethernet switch is therefore required to connect more than one device (perhaps a smart TV and a game console) to an M15.

Once the Eagle M15 is operational, take a moment to consider whether its default settings are right for you. For example, you may want to switch from WPA2 to WPA3. And while it can be convenient to combine the 2.4 and 5GHz networks in to one virtual network (D-Link calls this Smart Connect), this arrangement has been known to cause problems with some 2.4GHz-only devices. Be aware that Smart Connect cannot be deselected when Wi-Fi mesh operation is active.

Unless you rely on round-the-clock Internet connectivity, consider setting the device to automatically check for (and install) firmware updates. If you don't, at least establish a schedule for checking manually: serious vulnerabilities are sometimes found in router firmware, yet many people don't even know that updates are released for routers just as they are for phones, tablets and computers.

The ability to schedule Wi-Fi hours of operation can be useful, whether to to impose a curfew or just to slightly reduce electricity consumption.

We have used routers that really benefitted from their ability to automatically reboot themselves daily or weekly. While the Eagle M15 has that feature, we did not enable it as the system was rock solid throughout the month-long test period.

Not surprisingly, the Eagle Pro system comes into its own when it is actually used as a router, and the full set of features become available.

With the move to IPv6 underway, it's good to know that it is supported by the M15, even if you don't use it today.

The Guest Zone is by now a familiar feature of wireless routers. While the primary purpose is to allow visitors to access your internet connection without being able to poke around the rest of your network, it can also be useful to reduce the risk of an IoT device being used as a stepping stone to an attack on your computers, phones and tablets.

Parental controls have also become an expected feature, although we're not sure how widely used they are. Functions include limiting hours of use, throttling the speed during specified hours, and website filtering. While website filtering works with HTTPS URLs (unlike some routers we've tested), it apparently only looks at the domain part of the URL. So specifying "example" prevents access to example.com and example.com.au (among others), it doesn't block attempts to reach itwire.com/example-page or similar.

D-Link's AI Traffic Optimizer feature gives low priority to high-bandwidth devices, and claims to give enough bandwidth to connected devices (subject to priority) to give a "quality online experience". But within that, QoS settings (normal, high priority, low priority) can be applied per device to ensure the available bandwidth goes where it is most needed. Interestingly, the priority can be applied just for a specified period, so you can for instance give a game console high priority for two hours one evening, and the next day prioritise a computer being used for videoconferencing.

When you activate the traffic optimizer, the router automatically checks the internet speed using Speedtest so the capacity is based on the prevailing conditions rather than the nominal connection speed.

The AI Wi-Fi Optimizer is supposed to "provide the personalized Wi-Fi reporting, tuning Wi-Fi channel intelligently and intelligent beamforming makes better Mesh". How much AI actually goers into channel selection and beamforming is moot, although it was interesting to know that the system had changed Wi-Fi frequencies three times during a week to avoid interference.

The reports also included an observation that "There's one device transmitting large quantities of data during the network congested period.. we recommend lowering its priority". That device was a notebook used for videoconferencing, so lowering its priority probably wouldn't be a good idea. But there are circumstances where this could be valuable information because a particularly busy device did merit a reduced priority, so it would be better if the Wi-Fi Optimizer more obviously worked in conjunction with the Traffic Optimizer.

Another recommendation was to consider restricting internet access between 10pm and 6am because two devices (one of them was a secondary M15 node), but unless there are children in the house or you lack self-control, why would you bother to restrict access?

Alexa and Google Assistant support allows a small selection of functions (eg enable or disable guest Wi-FI; upgrade the firmware) to be activated by voice command. Which is fine if that's your thing, but it isn't ours.

At the other extreme, traditional router features are included such as port forwarding, virtual server (neither of those are as important as they once were), static routes, and dynamic DNS support.

The primary Eagle M15 unit can also be put into extender mode to extend an existing network, but in that configuration it does not work as the basis of a mesh network, so we think this will be rarely used.

In conclusion, we're not completely convinced of the amount of AI involved, but the Eagle Pro AI M15 does work well, with just two of the three nodes needed to provide good Wi-Fi coverage in what can be a challenging environment due to the long and narrow two-storey floorplan. And it delivers that performance from unobtrusive hardware units that take up little space, which can be an issue even in larger homes where mesh networks come into their own.

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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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