The latest 802.11ac wireless routers support improved performance, reliability and range. We round up the six best 802.11ac wireless routers you can buy in the UK in 2014. (Also see: What's the best wireless router 2014.)
As we mark its second-draft birthday, the latest version of Wi-Fi known as IEEE 802.11ac – or simply 11ac – is slowly becoming available in computing products. While the first 11ac wireless routers were launched in August 2012, it was only when laptops and mobile devices started gaining 11ac capability that these next-gen routers became of much use. See all Wi-Fi and networking reviews.
That happened when the first 11ac mobile devices finally trickled out last year, with first the HTC One (M7) smartphone and then the Apple MacBook Air series, released in June 2013. Yet, even today, the greater majority of laptops, phones and tablets on sale rely on 11n for their wireless connectivity.
That looks all set to change this autumn, if, as expected, Apple’s iPhone and iPad gain 11ac compatibility.
Six best 802.11ac wireless routers 2014: Why an 11ac router is a good idea
Lessons learned over 15 years and more of development means that 11ac is better than every version of Wi-Fi before it. The principle benefits of 11ac are increased throughput and longer range. In other words, data can be sent much quicker, and you’re more likely to maintain a usefully fast connection when you’re further away – even several rooms or floors removed from your wireless router.
One way the latest wireless version been optimised is by using multiple aerials, as we’ve already seen with 11n Wi-Fi. But 11ac raises the speed here through more efficient modulation, to a maximum of 433Mb/s per stream. Compare this with 150Mb/s for 11n on the 5GHz radio band. So in a three-stream setup, as we find with all the 11ac routers reviewed here, the total theoretical peak wireless sync speed is 1300Mb/s.
Expanding on a technique actively in use with 11n wireless on the 5GHz band, two wireless channels can be bonded together to increase data capacity. The current draft of 11ac allows channels 80MHz wide (already four times that of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi); but there’s talk of expanding this to 160MHz-wide channels in the future.
Another trick used to good effect is beamforming, a way to aim radio energy more directionally from router to laptop. This is achieved through a phased-array technique, where signals from one aerial are fractionally delayed compared to another, to create areas of constructive interference in the direction required.
Six best 802.11ac wireless routers 2014: Why an 11ac router is a bad idea
The 11ac specification still only in its draft form today. But, like 802.11n, which wasn’t formally ratified until several years after the first 11n products appeared, you can be sure that your new 11ac-equipped laptop will work successfully with any existing 11ac wireless router.
As ever with consumer electronics technology though, there’s always something better just around the corner. Ignoring the next-next-generation of Wi-Fi – likely to be called 802.11ad and potentially moving into whole new radio spectra – there’s still plenty of improvements planned for 11ac. One mooted change will be to use four spatial streams, from four separate antennas, to give a total theoretical sync speed of 1732Mb/s. Another possible upgrade may be the widening of radio channels, from 80- to 160MHz, which may even double throughput.
However, it’s not clear how many of the new features being discussed for 11ac will be available to the wireless routers currently on sale. While wider-channel capability may be available after a router firmware upgrade, we can be more sure that to create a four-stream network, you’ll need a router with four antennas and four separate radio amplifiers – and that means buying anew.
Six best 802.11ac wireless routers 2014: What to look for
For best results, look for an 11ac wireless router with at least three aerials – although, in some cases, these will be mounted discreetly inside, so check the specs or our expert reviews to be sure what you’re getting.
You can safely ignore claims of 600Mb/s speed for 11n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band – even though all the brands represented here except Apple are doing just that. It’s the bogus ‘600’ number that’s currently inspiring router brands to print AC1900 on the boxes, the sum of 600 and 1300 from two independent radio systems.
The top theoretical Wi-Fi speed in the 2.4GHz spectrum is 450Mb/s; but with encouragement from chipset impresario Broadcom, router makers are marketing a speed breakthrough based on a proprietary and non-standard technique.
Unique to Broadcom, and outside of the IEEE 802.11 standard, they have cooked the books to use 256-QAM technology from 11ac on the older 11n connections, promoted by Broadcom as ‘TurboQAM’. Without going into the unavailability of the necessary 40MHz channels, suffice to say there are no laptops or mobile devices which can join this particular wireless network. It’s worth noting that in the real world, the best theoretical wireless sync speed on the 2.4GHz band using three streams is 217Mb/s. This can give a best-case real-world throughput closer to 170Mb/s.
For the router’s hardware design, you may prefer something that looks less like GCHQ’s Bude listening station, and more like something you’d want in your lounge. Our extensive lab testing suggests that internally mounted antennas can be just as effective as routers that rock the stealth bomber look.
With many homes still finding a need for wired ethernet connections, it makes sense to have a good number of ethernet LAN ports. These are all, thankfully, at least gigabit spec nowadays, and four ports seems to be standard issue, with the exception of the Apple AirPort range which settles for just three. Even a limited array can be easily and cheaply extended though with a gigabit switch at any time, although that creates more wires and boxes and wallwarts to hide. Some brands are now touting ‘smart routers’, which can allow access to the router’s setup admin interface by people outside of your home network. Given the number of security vulnerabilities already included in most domestic routers (see tinyurl.com/qzsn4st), we would not encourage additional ways to compromise your home than is necessary. In our experience with Linksys, for example, this ‘smart’ technology actually blocked our initial setup of the router until we’d created an online account with the maker just to access the router.
Above all, a home router needs stability and security, as it’s the gateway to every wired and Wi-Fi-connected device you use at home. These are harder to gauge before you install and use the product, but it’s worth checking online forums for reported issues, and looking at the history of the manufacturer for timely patches and security updates.
Bear in mind that none of these routers here have built-in ADSL modems, so they are best suited to those with cable broadband. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a separate ADSL modem that plugs into the router’s WAN port.
Six best 802.11ac wireless routers 2014: How we test
All wireless routers in this group were tested at the same site, a house with few neighbouring networks. Any outside wireless networks were on the 2.4GHz band and low level, while radio channels for testing were chosen well away from such networks. RF interference was reduced by switching off all client Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi radios.
Data throughput speed tests were conducted at two different ranges, 2m line-of-sight and 10m – with one intervening internal wall. This longer-range test was set up with router and test laptop at normal incidence, and the wall was a standard UK 150mm-thick plaster/wood stud type. We measured real performance on both radio bands, using the 802.11n protocol on 2.4GHz and draft-802.11ac on 5GHz.
Wireless speed measurements were made between a Mac mini (late 2012) as a server with gigabit ethernet connection to the router under test, and a MacBook Pro (15in, Retina, late 2013) as the wireless client. The laptop was selected as the only known model equipped with built-in 3x3 MIMO draft-11ac wireless capability.
Both computers were running WiFiPerf 1.6 to measure data throughput and tests were run over a two-minute timespan. To better simulate real-world transfers such as data backup, the application was set for TCP rather than UDP traffic. We made measurements from both client to server (MacBook to Mac mini) and vice versa. The final numbers for each distance are a mean average of the two results (in Mb/s).
With all these higher-specification routers now equipped with USB ports, we ran QuickBench storage benchmark tests to gauge their speeds. Average speed results are reported with 2- to 10MB data using the normal convention for storage-device speed of megabyte per second (MB/s).
Note, that while many routers now boast USB 3.0 ports, you will not see anything close to the promised ‘5Gb/s’ speed with which the interface is attributed – while USB 3.0 storage drives can reach up to 440MB/s, the highest speed we recorded was 56MB/s.
For a domestic appliance left on all year round, power consumption should be a consideration. We measured this figure with the router idle and no active wireless clients; and again with the router working wirelessly.
Six best 802.11ac wireless routers 2014
£250 inc VAT
The Linksys is a well-constructed unit with distinctive style and strong build quality. It’s wireless performance can only be described as disappointing. It’s possible that future firmware tweaks could improve its prospects, but, as it stands, the industrial-looking WRT1900AC is markedly over-priced and under performs.
£132 inc VAT
The TEW-818DRU looks like great value, but it lacks a few user-friendly features, and its performance is rather spotty. If you’re on a tight budget, look out for the first-generation Netgear R6300 which has been discounted to around a similar price.
£170 inc VAT
£169 inc VAT
4/5 stars - PC Advisor Recommended
The AirPort Extreme is superbly built and engineered internally, while its performance on 11n, in particular, is outstanding even if its 11ac speed was behind the leaders of the pack. If you have a Mac or even just iPhone or iPad, it’s a doddle to set up and use, and is well supported with essential firmware and software updates.
£173 inc VAT
4/5 stars - PC Advisor Recommended
The DIR-880L is an easy-to-configure wireless router with enough advanced features to also keep some power users happy. Its nearby wireless performance with 11ac was the best of on test, and it also worked well at range, gaining it a worthy Recommended award.
£190 inc VAT
4.5/5 stars - PC Advisor Best Buy
Netgear’s R7000 make good use of available components from its Broadcom supplier. Faster routers are available for 11n, but from every 11ac wireless router we’ve tested, the Netgear sets the benchmark of what’s possible with the draft technology.