It's been more than 18 months since the first 802.11ac routers hit the market, and the IEEE still hasn't approved the draft standard. If you think Congress moves slowly, you haven't been tracking the pace at which the IEEE has been considering the draft version of 802.11ac. Those engineers could teach our senators and representatives a thing or two about the deliberative process.
The Wi-Fi industry, however, certainly isn't waiting: The leading router manufacturers are already shipping their second-generation 802.11ac routers, and several have introduced 802.11ac client adapters, too. Not sure what all the fuss is about? Here's a quick refresher: 802.11ac routers and client adapters enable the fastest wireless networks you can buy, but they're also backward-compatible with older Wi-Fi gear, including 802.11a/b/g/n devices.
Whereas the previous fastest standard, 802.11n, provides aggregate bandwidth of up to 450 megabits per second, gear based on the 802.11ac standard delivers aggregate bandwidth of up to 1300 mbps. Both of those numbers are physical link rates--real-world data transfers are much lower--but 802.11ac products can be incredibly fast.
If you're looking to stream HD video around your house, the 802.11ac standard is the way to go, even if some of your client devices support only 802.11n. These new routers are backward-compatible, and since they have more powerful radios than previous-generation devices do, they deliver higher throughput and longer range with both 802.11ac clients and older 802.11n clients. If you want a more in-depth look at 802.11ac, read the TechHive explanation.
Before we get into the reviews, I wanted to give a quick explanation of the industry's labeling practices, because they can be confusing. A router (or client adapter) marketed as AC1750, for example, is a dual-band model capable of operating on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands concurrently. The "AC" indicates that it supports the IEEE 802.11ac standard, which is backward-compatible with 802.11b (2.4GHz) and 802.11g (2.4GHz) hardware, as well as with 802.11n (both 2.4GHz and 5GHz) devices. The "1750" designation indicates that the product is capable of sending and receiving three 150-mbps spatial streams on its 2.4GHz 802.11b, -g, or -n Wi-Fi network (450 mbps in aggregate), three 150-mbps spatial streams on its 2.4GHz or 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network, and three 433-mbps spatial streams (1300 mbps in aggregate) on its 5GHz 802.11ac network. (Total that up, and you get 450 plus 1300 equals 1750.) Vendors might also describe this type of hardware as a 3x3 device.
An AC1200 device can support two 150-mbps spatial streams (300 mbps in aggregate) on its 802.11b, -g, or -n network (on both frequency bands) and two 433-mbps spatial streams (866 mbps in aggregate) on its 802.11ac network. The industry simply rounds up 300 plus 866 to 1200. Vendors might also call this type of hardware a 2x2 device.
A few devices that use Broadcom's TurboQAM technology (more on that later) are marketed as AC1900 hardware. TurboQAM uses a more powerful encoding scheme to squeeze an extra 50 mbps into each 802.11n spatial stream (600 mbps in aggregate), adding 600 to 1300 for a total of 1900. Such products are still labeled as 3x3 devices.
How I tested
I put six dual-band routers from Asus, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and Trendnet through the wringer. Well, I didn't flatten them between a pair of wooden rollers, but I did perform a comprehensive evaluation of their performance. First I tested each device as a 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11n router, using a laptop outfitted with an Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 Wi-Fi adapter. That adapter is a 3x3 dual-band 802.11b/g/n product, meaning that it can send and receive three spatial streams, each capable of carrying data at 150 mbps (450 mbps in aggregate) on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands.
I then tested all six with the same laptop but using a Linksys WUSB6300 802.11ac USB Wi-Fi adapter. Since very few notebooks ship with integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapters, and legacy hardware such as Intel's Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 doesn't support 802.11ac, using a USB adapter is the easiest way to take full advantage of an 802.11ac network.
Next I repeated my tests using a Linksys WUMC710 802.11ac wireless bridge. If you need to connect more than one client to your 802.11ac network--say, a home-theater PC, an A/V receiver, and an Xbox One--this the most efficient means of doing so, because the bridge has four ethernet ports. In this scenario, you hard-wire the clients to the bridge, and then establish a wireless connection between the bridge and the router.
For my last wireless test, I reconfigured a second, identical router from each manufacturer as a wireless bridge. This test is similar to the one using the Linksys bridge, but it enables each router to operate at its maximum speed. The one drawback to both scenarios is that the bridge (or the router that you've configured as a bridge) needs to plug into a dedicated electrical outlet--it can't draw power from another networked device.
In each of the scenarios described above, I measured TCP throughput at four locations inside a single-story, 2800-square-foot, stick-built home. Since each of these new routers is outfitted with at least one USB port (some have two), I also measured their performance as NAS (network-attached storage) devices by connecting a 500GB WD My Passport USB 3.0 hard drive and measuring how fast the routers could read and write files over a wired ethernet connection.
Common features of 802.11ac routers
Here's a quick look at the features you can expect to find in most 802.11ac Wi-Fi routers.
Beamforming: Routers that don't support beamforming broadcast their signals in all directions--think of a pebble dropped in a still pond, and the ripples spreading out in concentric circles. With beamforming, the router and the client can exchange information about their respective locations to determine the most effective path over which data should travel. They can then focus and concentrate their signals to use the available bandwidth more efficiently. Both the router and the client must support beamforming for this technique to work, however. Read "All about beamforming" for an in-depth explanation.
Cloud services: Some routers allow you to manage them from an Internet connection. More-advanced models let you access storage attached to the router from the cloud, and a few even give you the power to access devices connected to the router from the cloud.
Dual-band functionality: Each of the routers in this roundup is a dual-band model. That means they're capable of operating networks on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The 2.4GHz frequency band is exceedingly crowded, but a router's ability to support it is important because you might have older devices that can operate only on that frequency. If your client device can connect to a 5GHz network, however, use that instead.
Guest network: A guest network is a separate wireless network that your visitors can use. It allows them to reach the Internet but prevents them from accessing other PCs or storage devices operating on your network. A guest network is a courtesy that small-business owners can offer their customers, and that individuals and families can offer their visitors.
Media servers: Expect to get a UPnP (Universal Plug-n-Play) server at a minimum. This feature enables the router to stream music and video to client devices on the network. More-advanced routers will also offer a DLNA-certified server (the initialism stands for Digital Living Network Alliance). If you have a DLNA-compatible HDTV, A/V receiver, or other consumer-electronics devices on your network, they'll be able to stream media from sources such as NAS boxes connected to your router. If you're an iTunes fan, you'll appreciate having a router with an iTunes server.
Parental controls: This feature is ostensibly designed for moms and dads who want to shield their children from seamier side of the Web, but small-business owners might also find it useful when deployed in moderation. It enables an administrator to establish rules as to when individual computers can access the Internet, and it can block particular websites or even entire categories of sites. If parental controls are the most important feature you want in a router, take a look at SkyCloud Systems' Skydog. It's based on the older 802.11n standard, so it's not nearly as fast as the routers in this roundup, but it has the best management features I've ever seen.
Quality of Service: If you depend on your router for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), frequently stream music and video around your network, or play online games, you'll want a router with good QoS (Quality of Service) features. Most high-end routers have at least the basics, meaning that the router can analyze traffic being uploaded to the network and can distinguish between lag-sensitive packets (VoIP and video Web-chat streams, for instance) and non-lag-sensitive packets (such as file transfers). The router will assign higher priority to the former, to prevent dropouts, and lower priority to the latter (because any dropped packets can be re-sent with little impact). A more advanced router will allow you to customize its QoS settings or even permit you to write your own rules. Some routers can also manage downlink traffic and are capable of assigning higher priority to lag-sensitive data streams, such as Netflix streams.
USB ports: High-end routers typically carry one or two USB ports. You can use one port to share a printer and the other to share storage--in the form of a USB hard drive--among all the computers on your network. Some router manufacturers are taking the step of building a hard drive into the router itself. If you need fast storage, however, you'll be better served by a dedicated NAS box.
Okay, enough preamble. Let's get to the reviews!