Home Reviews Networking What excited me in 2016 – flagship Wi-Fi routers

What excited me in 2016 – flagship Wi-Fi routers

OPINION It seems this time last year we were extolling the virtues of AC 2600 dual band routers and in 12 short months, we are up to AC5400, Tri-band, MU-MIMO, Beamforming, and all the marketing jargon that goes with it.

Exciting, however, is not a word you associate with routers – they are set and forget, last for many years, and you only consider replacement when you start to find choke points. This year’s AC5300-5400 crop have been driven by the need to stream 4K TV, VR, IoT devices, more games, and perhaps the understanding that a faster router than your ISP provided will solve many home network issues.

Ironically, all the AC5400 routers reviewed have very similar internal components – Qualcomm ARM CPU, Broadcomm networking chip, a gigabit hub, USB ports, and eight active or passive antenna. Hardware-wise there is little between them as the table at the end shows.

The key differences are in implementation and marketing. They all run a similar open source router operating system, all have a Web interface, all have Android, iOS and hopefully Windows and macOS apps, and some add value via adding media servers or cloud back-up.

Before we discuss the contenders, let's clear up a few terms and possible misconceptions – all important when selecting a router.

A router will not increase Internet speeds. If all you have is ADSL (say 5-25Mbps upload) then buying a flagship router is overkill unless you have a large home area to cover. You may be better off spending a fraction of the price on a AC1200 to 1900, dual band router. If you have NBN 100Mbps then you obviously do so to stream music and video, so an AC5400 router will work best.

All reviews, particularly earlier ones, are unreliable. Point in case was that earlier this year ASUS firmware was found to be a security risk. ASUS responded with patches. There are also questions about the security of some brands, cloud services etc. Take all these with a grain of salt and use the router as a router – ignore the fancy added-value stuff.

Assume that all routers have the base feature set: 64/128-bit encryption, WEP, WPA2 personal and enterprise, browser-based set-up (the app is listed separately below), MAC filtering, DMZ, VPN, WPS, Firewall NAT/SPI, guest network and parental controls.

This year was also the year of added features like Beamforming and MU-MIMO – multi-user MIMO supporting multiple devices – and while it is good, many devices or endpoints don’t support MIMO. Most devices over 12 months old conform to Wi-Fi N and earlier AC standards. The same goes for the new Wi-Fi AD standard creeping in on the new Netgear Nighthawk X10 – it will be a few years before AD endpoints are ubiquitous.

With that in mind, I am not going to give the vote to one router over another except to say that there are subtle differences that may suit your needs – for example wall or desk mount, number of Ethernet ports etc. As many routers have a policy of continual upgrade of features via firmware and apps, reviews also tend to be a little out of date.

The model and manufacturers link are below.

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400

r lINKSYSMax-Stream is more a sub-brand that denotes interoperability with other Max-Stream products. For example, this works with the RE7000 AC1900+ Wi-Fi range extender and presents as a single SSID (service set identifier – modem name) and network. This does not usually occur when you use disparate brands.

iTWire review here.

Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8, AC5300

r netgearThe Nighthawk X8’s main claim to fame is that it uses four external active antenna and four internal antenna (total eight) and has a nice blue-tipped glow to it.

I found this router perhaps the most mature in its firmware implementation and the active antenna made a small but noticeable difference at longer ranges.

iTWire has a review here.

ASUS RT-AC5300

r asusASUS was first to release an AC5300 tri-band router and as previously mentioned its firmware was insecure. It has been fixed now. Its main feature is the eight “bat-wing” antenna and the aggressive styling – it is aimed at gamers and apparently has an “exclusive built-in games accelerator”. Its website also contains the most marketing hype of all – yes, it looks good. But the reality is it uses the same components as the others.

iTWire has a review here.

D-Link DIR-895L, AC5300

r dlinkBright red crab-like shell, eight antenna, would not look out of place in the Death Star.

iTWire has a review here.

Conclusion

As I poured over my testing notes, I realised that all performed similarly. The Netgear Nighthawk had a little more coverage due to active antenna whereas the Linksys had the Max-Stream MU-MIMO integration edge with its extender.

To prove that all AC5300 routers are equal look at the table below.

  Linksys EA9500 Netgear R8500 ASUS RT-AC5300 D-Link DIR-895L
Tri-band Yes Yes Yes Yes
 

2.4GHz 1000Mpbs

5GHz 2166Mbps

5Ghz 2166Mbps

Same Same Same
Data streams 4 per band Same Same Same
MU-MIMO Yes Same Same Same
Seamless roaming Yes with other Max-Stream products With same brand extenders Same Same
Antenna 8 passive 4 active and 4 passive 8 passive 8 passive
Internet WAN port RJ45 Same Same Same
Gigabit Hub 8 6 (two can be aggregated) 4 4
USB 2.0 1 same no same
USB 3.0 1 same same same
Guest SSID Yes same same same
App iOS and Android plus Windows, macOS Same same same
CPU 1.4GHz dual-core same same same (originally shipped with 1GHz)
Wall mount no yes no yes
Price RRP $699 but shop around and you may find it at <A$550 A$699 but shop around to find it for <A$600 <A$500 A$699.95 but shop around to find it for <A$600

And just to throw a curve ball, Netgear’s new AD 7200 router, R9000 Nighthawk 10 ups the ante by adding a Plex media server and a four-core 1.7Ghz processor. Of course, there are very few AD endpoints at present, but you can bet that others will follow suit very shortly. And all will start around A$799.

What to buy?

Linksys (a Belkin company), D-Link, and Netgear are all dedicated networking companies and provide excellent support. ASUS is more a PC components company that makes routers, and that is reflected in the street prices. Remember, under the skin they are all much the same so you cannot go wrong with any of them.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!