Outwardly the Cisco Linksys EA4500 is essentially identical to our award-winning Cisco E4200 wireless router. There’s the same compact clutch-bag design with metallic centre strap detail and satin-black finish, and just the product name changed below the white light-up Cisco logo.
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A few tweaks to the hardware have been made, or at least suggested, by the way the Cisco EA4500 is now marketed as a ‘450+450Mbps’ wireless base station. That is, Cisco is now claiming that you can experience 450Mbps performance on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies.
The real headline changes are not in the hardware but the firmware, specifically a complete makeover to the interface software that drives this home hub.
Cisco EA4500: Cisco Connect Cloud
Cisco calls this new system Cisco Cloud Connect (CCC), and as the name suggests it’s a cloud-based management system, and one which courted controversy when it launched in June this year.
Cisco Cloud Connect has not been universally popular with existing users, who objected to having the update pushed on to their router in an automatic update. The main issue centred on the terms and conditions imposed by this new service.
In the user’s favour, the new cloudy system really simplifies your ability to access the entire router with full administrator privileges when you’re outside the home network.
You can do so from a Mac, Linux or Windows PC, or from a smartphone that can run an iPhone or Android app. The remote-access feature would also be useful if you ever need to lend help to a family member from a distance, or simply to keep tabs on who’s joined your wireless network while you’re out of town.
The con that offsets this pro is that you also effectively grant Cisco the same privilege to access your router at any time. When first launched, Cisco reserved the right to monitor your use of the internet, your network traffic, your internet history.
Further, in this initial release, the US corporation wanted to block its customers from using the router to access pornography or to download material that infringes copyright.
In the event of any transgression, Cisco reserved the right to discontinue your use of its service – a clause that customers read to mean that the router would be disconnected from the internet.
Cisco has tied itself up in bureaucratic Big-Brother knots before, as we discovered when we reviewed the Cisco E4200 router. That time, it was the Windows/Mac easy setup software that expected you to agree to a boilerplate corporate EULA that allowed Cisco to collect information about you and your use of the router while using the device.
An exchange of emails between PC Advisor and the company’s PR and legal teams did not satisfy us then of the benelovence of the company’s terms of service. We did however find it relatively straightforward to set up the E4200 without using Cisco’s binding software.
While computer software that you load on your PC has long required the user to click through crippling restrictions to the user’s rights, we did not welcome the introduction of such terms in order to use a network router, a piece of hardware that now oversees our entire digital life at home.
Since the Cisco Cloud Connect service first launched in June 2012, the privacy backlash resulted in most of the abusive conditions being removed from the end-user license agreement and the CCC Terms of Service.
Cisco has retracted the more troubling conditions, while the company’s VP of Home Networking Brett Wingo issued more than one apology for the ‘inconvenience we have caused’. He also tried to assure customers that ‘Cisco Linksys routers are not used to collect information about Internet usage’, in contrast to the earlier terms that detailed that the company would be entitled to do exactly that.
By overstepping the line on personal privacy, Cisco lost the trust of many of its customers who – based on our reading of pages of complaints – have now sworn to never use the company’s products again.
If Cisco wants to convert its customers to cloud-based router administration, taking the full responsibility of guardian of the keys to our network kingdom, it needs to be diligent to avoid these costly mistakes. It needs to first build our trust in its products and policies.
But we’re still troubled by the get-out clause that Cisco retains for CCC firmware users, the right to change its terms of service at any time without any more notification than a silent revision to a secluded webpage.
Since the privacy debacle Cisco has made the original ‘classic’ and non-cloud-based firmware v2.07.37 available to download again, to return affected routers to their pre-‘upgrade’ state.
It’s not clear if it will continue to maintain and update the classic firmware with essential security and bug fixes. Nor if future products such as the anticipated flagship 802.11ac wireless router, the Cisco EA6500, will be offered with software that avoids the use of Cisco’s Connect Cloud.
Cisco EA4500: Hardware
There’s been a subtle evolution of hardware since the E4200 we originally reviewed. A Mark II version of the E4200 was released to no fanfare earlier this year, with the added feature of ‘450 Mbps’ wireless speed on the 2.4GHz as well as 5GHz band.
The EA4500 seems to be physically identical to this E4200v2. We set up the EA4500 as designed, first trying with the included setup CD for Mac and Windows. This tried to automatically configure our internet connection to our bridge-mode modem upstream, but timed out after a few minutes. We would have been more surprised if the software had been smart enough to guess the IP address of a static line.
Cisco EA4500: Software
In use, the interface is more cuddly and simplified; and we found most of the old features available, albeit sometimes hidden in unexpected places within the interface.
It’s slower to operate, though, often very slow; it can feel like every click of a radio-button or change of settings takes seconds to register as you wait for the cogwheel to spin, presumably as any changes have to authenticate with Cisco’s American servers. On the plus side, whether you’re accessing your router from the comfort of your home or from another city, it operates equally slowly.
The Cisco Connect Cloud system makes it impossible to fully administer your router without going through the Cisco servers. One trick we found was to disconnect the WAN line and then log on to the router using its own password (‘admin’ by default). But you’re then given only a simplified interface until you connect to internet again to sync with Cisco’s servers.
We also encountered problems logging in to the router through the designated www.ciscoconnectcloud.com portal whenever local network traffic was high, even though other websites loaded normally.
Among the new features touted for the Cisco Connect Cloud routers are additional apps. A Dashboard interface lets you put commonly used facilities on the front page of the admin interface.
Third-party developers can also create mobile device apps, and several are currently available such as Block the Bad Stuff (parental control/malware filter) and Gemini IP Camera Viewer.
Cisco is convinced that more categories of home appliances will be ‘connected’ to the home router before long. The classic example is the internet fridge, although heating and air-conditioning systems, lighting circuits, and closed-circuit TV are all as likely to depend on the home router in the modern home.
Cisco EA4500: Performance
We tested both wavebands at 1m close range and 9m distant. Despite the ‘450Mbps’-specified 2.4GHz facility, we were unable to see a transmit rate (TR) that exceeded 300. That suggests that only a two-stream MIMO antennae configuration is in active use, although it’s unclear if that limitation is with all our laptop hardware or just the Cisco router.
At 1m, we saw data transfer speeds average 112 Mbps, falling to 55 Mbps at 9m. Those figures cannot meet one-quarter of the specified ‘450Mbps’ speed, and are in line with the deceptive advertising used by all other wireless router manufacturers.
Switching over to 5GHz, the short range test now saw occasional TR readings of 450, although 270, 300 and 405 were more common. In real terms, our wireless setup could average 135 Mbps at 1m, falling to 93 Mbps at 9m.
A commonly touted feature for the modern home router is quality of service (QoS) prioritisation. The CCC firmware for the EA4500 offers an easy graphical interface for setting this up, where you can select by client device or by software application, dragging an icon of either to a hierarchical hit-list of up to three favoured services/devices.
This worked better than with the E4200, which we discovered after our original review would halve all internet speed when ‘Skype’ was selected for prioritisation – even when the VoIP service was not running.
Unfortunately in our tests with the EA4500, again running Skype, the QoS was too poor to allow uncorrupted webchatting at the same time as other heavy internet activity.