Tuesday, 17 December 2019 11:24

Review: D-Link Exo AC3000 smart mesh router DIR-3060

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One of the big selling points of this router is that it incorporates McAfee Home Protection. The other is that it can serve as the heart of a mesh network.

D-Link assumes you'll use its mobile app to set up the DIR-3060. For smartphone and tablet free homes, it seems possible to do the job via the router's web interface, but there's no explanation of that in the instructions.

After the installation process, the app invited us to download new firmware. We had already opted for automatic updates, but it seemed sensible to not wait for the next automatic check, which was scheduled by default for 3.30am.

According to D-Link, the old firmware is retained in case something goes wrong with the update process, so there's little risk of bricking the device if there is a glitch while the update is being installed. That's not a problem we have personally experienced, but it can happen and so updating firmware is usually accompanied by at least a little trepidation.

Something we noticed during the setup and update processes was the app tends to try to reconnect before the router is ready. If that happens to you, don't panic, just let it retry.

The DIR-3060's features include four Gigabit Ethernet ports; two USB ports (one USB 2, the other USB 3) with shared storage support over UPnP (which worked just fine), Samba and FTP; 24 port forwarding rules; 24 virtual server mappings; 24 static routes; dynamic DNS support; and VPN support including the ability to export a VPN profile for iOS and macOS devices.

The quality of service (QoS) feature works at the device level. One device can be put into the highest priority group, two set as high priority, and eight given medium priority. Any other devices on the network goes into the lowest priority group. QoS is easy to set up - simply drag an item from the list of devices into the desired priority group. The only other task is to set the speed of your internet connection so that the QoS engine can determine how to prioritise the traffic – that can be done with the assistance of the built-in Ookla Speedtest client, more on which below.

This approach has the benefit of simplicity, but does not provide the flexibility that comes with the option of controlling the priority of various services. For instance, you can't give high priority to a computer used for online gaming or video streaming without also prioritising file downloads to the same device.

Firewall features such as stateful packet inspection (SPI) and anti-spoofing are disabled by default. According to D-Link, the assumption is that most customers will rely on the McAfee security features (more on that below) rather than the DIR-3060's native capabilities.

The Ookla Speedtest client built into the router means the results aren't coloured by any LAN or WAN issues. So if a first-level tech support agent asks you to connect a computer directly to your modem to check the actual speed (Wi-Fi problems are a notorious cause of underperforming internet connections), you can explain to them why that's not necessary. The speeds reported by this feature were higher and much more consistent across different spots in and around the building than those reported by the Speedtest app on the phone used for testing.

We found that the DIR-3060 provided a strong signal throughout a long and thin house (just like our DSL-5300 'daily driver'), but if it isn't adequate for your premises you can add one or more D-Link DAP-1820 AC2000 mesh-enabled range extenders to create a single mesh network. We didn't receive a DAP-1820, so we can't say how easy it is to set up or how much difference it makes.

Up to ten user accounts (one taken by the admin account) provide controls over router features, for example, you might want Samba access to a USB storage device but only for certain users – perhaps you want to be the only person who can put content onto the drive but allow anyone to watch or listen to it via a UPnP-capable device or app.

The router's web interface can reveal the network speeds achieved over Ethernet and the three Wi-Fi bands.

If you like the idea of talking to your router, a small set of Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands are available: enable and disable guest wi-fi, ask for guest wi-fi name and password, reboot router, and upgrade (ie, firmware update) router. We found this a bit gimmicky, but could be a convenient way of making the guest credentials available.

Like the D-Fend DIR-2680 released earlier this year, the DIR-3060 includes McAfee Home Protection for five years. Realistically, that's probably the life of the router.

The idea is to protect devices that can't run security software, such as smart globes, but it also helps protect computers, mobile devices, and the router itself. For example, it purports to detects abnormal IoT device behaviour, at least in part by benchmarking normal activity. But if a device has been co-opted into a botnet before the DIR-3060 was installed, won't that be considered normal? We tried to get answers to these and other questions, but McAfee was unable to make a suitable spokesperson available.

We are particularly concerned about the privacy implications. In particular, it appears that all URLs accessed by users are sent to McAfee for reputation (eg, anti-phishing measures) and parental control checks, but none of the material we received or found online could reassure us that the company has a 'zero logging' policy.

When an issue is detected – eg, a camera starts transmitting data to a malicious site – the McAfee platform is supposed to block the device, warn the administrator via the D-Link defend app (a branded version of McAfee's app, available for Android and iOS), and give them the option of leaving the block in place or allowing the device to reestablish communication with the outside world. Nothing untoward occurred – or at least nothing untoward was detected – during the test period, so we can't say how well this capability works.

D-Link defend features voice support, but only via Alexa. Testing was performed in an Alexa-free household, but voice commands such as "Alexa, ask D-Link defend to pause the internet for all kids" and "Alexa, ask D-Link defend to block unblock [deviceName] on my router" seem genuinely useful, especially if you have an always-on Alexa device such as a smart speaker rather than just the Amazon Alexa app on a phone or tablet.

We were somewhat perturbed when the defend app warned "Careful, your internet could be more secure" but failed to say what needed to be done. Thanks for telling us, but that's not helpful.

Another issue was that opening the defend app from the main D-Link Wi-Fi app (you can't open it from the device's home screen) sometimes resulted in the unhelpful message: "Something went wrong - try later."

Other McAfee features include the ability to block selected devices while you're away from home, black and white lists, parental controls (enforced on devices rather than users, which could be frustrating if children of different ages share a computer, even though administrators – parents – can authorise temporary access to otherwise forbidden sites), access schedules, and a two-year, unlimited client licence for McAfee LiveSafe (the company's endpoint security product for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS).

As a router, the DIR-3060 works very well. While we understand the reasons for implementing most of the security capabilities in the cloud, we can't actually recommend it in the absence of information about McAfee's privacy policies regarding the use and possible storage of data sent by the router, and exactly how the service determines 'normal' behaviour of a connected device.

With an RRP of $399.95 (though it's not hard to find better pricing), this isn't a cheap router. But a common cause of poor internet speeds (apart from FTTN issues) seems to the inadequate routers provided by some RSPs, especially in terms of Wi-Fi performance. It's worth paying extra for something that can handle the throughput and provide decent Wi-Fi speeds around the house. The DIR-3060 fits that bill, and the security features are a useful bonus if you're happy with the way they are implemented.

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Stephen Withers

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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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