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Gigabit Wireless? Five 802.11ac Routers, Benchmarked

Gigabit Wireless? Five 802.11ac Routers, Benchmarked
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Five years ago, we didn't have homes with a dozen wireless nodes and the need to run HD video to multiple screens. Today we do. Our 802.11n networks, especially on the 2.4 GHz band, are swamped. Can 802.11ac save the day? We test six routers to find out.

At some point, every modern freeway was a dream to drive. The pavement was fresh and the lanes were all but empty. But inevitably, congestion set in. People learned to hop on the freeway to quicken their daily travel needs. As populations steadily grew, so did the number of cars clogging the streets. What was once a breezy late afternoon jaunt eventually became today’s four-hour exercise in asthmatic gridlock.

Automotive analogy aside, we’re really talking about the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum. In the first days of 802.11b (circa 1999), the freeway may have posted a paltry 11 Mb/s, but there was hardly anyone else on the road. Fast forward to the present. Despite evolving through 802.11g and 802.11n, the 2.4 GHz band became a congested mess clogged with notebooks, netbooks, wireless speakers, Bluetooth peripherals, smartphones, tablets, set-tops, TVs, consoles, appliances, and all manner of other devices. These gadgets compete for what boils down to essentially three (after considering bandwidth overlap) possible transmission channels under 802.11b. A 20 MHz-wide 802.11g/n network has four such channels, while a 40 MHz-wide 802.11n network has just two.

True enough, 802.11a, which resides on the 5.0 GHz band, offers more non-overlapping channels (23, to be exact). While 802.11a offered comparable 54 Mb/s speeds to 802.11g, the 2.4 GHz solution won out in the market thanks to the fact that longer wavelengths have better ability to pass through obstructions. With an oscillation roughly twice that of 2.4 GHz, a 5.0 GHz signal was more likely to die in less distance than its competitor, and so 802.11b/g went on to become the dominant public wireless communication standard. By the time 802.11n arrived supporting both radio bands, wireless had become so popular that interference and congestion was a significant problem for many users. While 802.11n employed several technologies to help improve wireless performance, it was clear that the 2.4 GHz band was becoming ever more bogged down. For a more thorough look at these problems and some of 11n’s answers to them, we strongly recommend reviewing our two-part series, Why Your Wi-Fi Sucks and How It Can Be Helped and What To Do About It.

Today, the successor to 802.11n, dubbed 802.11ac, is far enough down the road of standardization that vendors have the confidence to start releasing product. At present, 802.11ac is working under Draft 4.0. The 802.11 Working Group expects the standard to be finally approved by late 2013, although by then the technology will already be pervasive in the market.

The first 802.11ac chipset, from Quantenna, began shipping in November 2011. In April 2012, Netgear arrived with the first 802.11ac consumer router, fueled by Broadcom innards. Other vendors soon followed. By the end of 2013, we expect mid- to high-end consumer routers to have completely switched over from 802.11n.

But for now, 11ac is new, still relatively scarce, and priced accordingly. Is it worth it? We’ve seen pre-standard Wi-Fi advances that didn’t merit their price tags in the past. Are we in for another round of disappointment, or is today’s price premium for 11ac a bargain for the performance boost? We only know of one way to find out.

Display 68 Comments.
Top Comments
  • 25 Hide
    fwupow , January 14, 2013 4:31 AM
    Man it sure sucks when you type a long comment and it gets vaporized cuz you weren't logged in.
  • 20 Hide
    iknowhowtofixit , January 14, 2013 6:53 AM
    "Folks, the time to start your 802.11ac adoption is now."

    I think this review proved that it is time to wait for 2nd generation wireless AC routers to appear before rushing to purchase.
  • 13 Hide
    memadmax , January 14, 2013 7:56 AM
    I was a 802.11g and n "adoption" tester....

    Never again...

    I'll give ac a year or two before I jump on it...
Other Comments
  • 11 Hide
    The Scion of Balance , January 14, 2013 3:24 AM
    Do the graphs really meant Mb/s? If so, isn't it still very slow?
  • -4 Hide
    boulbox , January 14, 2013 4:02 AM
    Well, i can't wait until i can make my router give wifi all the way to my to my work area.(only a few blocks away)
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 14, 2013 4:02 AM
    I've tested both the R6300 and the RT-AC66U in my home. The R6300 beats it hands down. The average homes won't have the traffic that your artificial software creates. Even your tests show that R6300 in 5ghz mode is faster. People will buy these for gaming and HD movie viewing and the R6300 has better range as well. I've paired my R6300 with an ASUS PCE-AC66 desktop wireless AC adapter and I can acheive 30 MB/S (megabytes) to my HTPC in a 2 story house. That's an insane speed. The RT-AC66U only managed about 15 to 18 MB/s. Also make sure the R6300 has the latest firmware, which is V1.0.2.38_1.0.33. But in conclusion, the R6300 and the RT-AC66U are like a SRT Viper and ZR1 Vette. They are both great pieces of hardware to fit most users needs. Get the ASUS If you got a ton of traffic and a lot of 2.4 ghz devices. Grab the R6300 if you are looking for a friendly setup, max speed, and max range.
  • 25 Hide
    fwupow , January 14, 2013 4:31 AM
    Man it sure sucks when you type a long comment and it gets vaporized cuz you weren't logged in.
  • 7 Hide
    DeusAres , January 14, 2013 4:39 AM
    I'd be happy with a 2Mb/s connection. It'd be better than this horrible 512 Kb/s connection I have now. At least then, I may actually be able to watch youtube vids in 360p.
  • 5 Hide
    fwupow , January 14, 2013 4:42 AM
    Here's the gist of what I typed before it was rudely vaporized.

    I have a dual-band router (Netgear N600). I also purchased a couple of dual-band client USB adapters Linksys AE2500 or something to that effect.

    So the USB adapter works fine for a desktop, but having that crap sticking out the side of a laptop, netbook or tablet? Busted in 10 minutes. I hooked one up to my netbook and fried it within a couple of weeks because I'm a Netbook in bed guy. You wouldn't think it could get so hot from a USB port but it does.

    So the reality is that you have all these devices that can't be upgraded to dual-band and enjoy very little if any benefit from the new-fangled dual-band router.

    The other beef I have with routers is that they're terrible with the way they split up bandwidth between multiple devices. Instead of responsively reassigning bandwidth to the device that needs it, the router continues to reserve a major slice for a device that I'm not using.

    If you live in an apartment building, it's actually rather rude to use the full 300Mbps capacity of the wireless N band, since you may well succeed in effectively shutting your neighbor down. There's so much happening in the 2.4GHz band nowadays, it's unreal. Your own cordless keyboards/mice/controllers etc can malfunction from being unable to get a packet in edgewise.

    For these dual-band routers to be really useful, we need manufacturers of smartphones, tablets, laptops, netbook and such to build dual-band clients into them because adding the functionality with some sort of dongle just doesn't work.
  • 20 Hide
    iknowhowtofixit , January 14, 2013 6:53 AM
    "Folks, the time to start your 802.11ac adoption is now."

    I think this review proved that it is time to wait for 2nd generation wireless AC routers to appear before rushing to purchase.
  • 13 Hide
    memadmax , January 14, 2013 7:56 AM
    I was a 802.11g and n "adoption" tester....

    Never again...

    I'll give ac a year or two before I jump on it...
  • 2 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , January 14, 2013 8:46 AM
    my wireless N produces 300 Megabits which would equal around 37 Megabytes. My highspeed internet doesn't come cloe to reaching 37 megabytes and i don't transfer tons of files wirelesly and my wi-fi rangs is pretty good .So i'm perfectly fine with my 300MB N wireless router right now. Besides that none of my devices spport ac anyhow so it would get bottlenecked from reaching its full potential.
  • 4 Hide
    Kaldor , January 14, 2013 11:56 AM
    What were they using for a wireless network adapter on the client side?
  • 5 Hide
    chuckchurch , January 14, 2013 12:18 PM
    iknowhowtofixit"Folks, the time to start your 802.11ac adoption is now."I think this review proved that it is time to wait for 2nd generation wireless AC routers to appear before rushing to purchase.


    Exactly. The 'client' adapter they used if anyone didn't catch it was a Cisco/Linksys router-sized device. Not practical by any means. It'd be totally insane to make any product recommendations prior to real client adapters being available, or more accurately, embedded ones are available. I think a wireless salesman wrote this article.
  • 5 Hide
    Wisecracker , January 14, 2013 12:36 PM

    They can't put lipstick on this pig.

  • 5 Hide
    cknobman , January 14, 2013 1:00 PM
    This review reinforced the reputation for Belkin making trash networking products. Its hard to believe they stay alive in the market.

  • -5 Hide
    master9716 , January 14, 2013 1:09 PM
    The Scion of BalanceDo the graphs really meant Mb/s? If so, isn't it still very slow?

    No actually , If you transfer from hardrive to hardrive you probably get a max output of 45MB/s The asus is close to 35MB/s wich is almost maxing out ur drives power. Ofcourse if you have a good performance you can get upto 80MB/s or a little more Not counting SSD to SSD transfer rates- Also remember that you will be able to transfer 4k HD content with the same amount of data that 1080p took
  • 2 Hide
    tigerwild , January 14, 2013 1:23 PM
    I have the Asus RTN66U... so when does the Tomato firmware that swaps it out to RT-AC66U capability get released? :p 

    Shibby save us with another awesome tomato release!
  • 1 Hide
    The Scion of Balance , January 14, 2013 1:26 PM
    Quote:
    No actually , If you transfer from hardrive to hardrive you probably get a max output of 45MB/s The asus is close to 35MB/s wich is almost maxing out ur drives power. Ofcourse if you have a good performance you can get upto 80MB/s or a little more Not counting SSD to SSD transfer rates- Also remember that you will be able to transfer 4k HD content with the same amount of data that 1080p took


    Probably so. However, on the graph it's written Mb(Megabits), not MB(Megabytes). Since tehnically 8b=1B, 35Mb/s=4.38MB/s and that's very slow. That's why I asked if the graph meant Mb/s or MB/s.
  • 0 Hide
    MKBL , January 14, 2013 1:41 PM
    I wonder which option is better in terms of performance/price ratio between 802.11ac and powerline networking. It seems that you still need 802.11ac compatible wireless adapter in each device (PC, tablet, etc.) to take advantage of the "gigabit" connection, which means the total cost of 802.11ac will be much higher than the router price. On the other hand, from mid- to high-end powerline networking may provide similar performance or better with less cost, if not concerned about smartphone/tablet. But those devices need relatively low bandwidth than PC/laptops, so they can work just fine with existing 80.11n router. Of course powerline networking has serious disadvantage of no or limited portability/expandibility. But in a regular household, it's not big a deal because you don't add additional devices every year or two in normal circumstances.
  • 2 Hide
    phate , January 14, 2013 3:09 PM
    Are all these routers fully backwards compatible? I would assume so... Anyway I would have like to seen results with some other devices running b/g/n adapters.

    Most networks - in my experience - are some sort of hodgepodge of different devices. So ac speeds are only really relevant if the results also translate over to the other spaces.
  • 7 Hide
    CaedenV , January 14, 2013 4:11 PM
    Hey William, I have a few questions for a followup article:
    1) Wired performance: All of these things sport wired gigabit connectivity, but as with wireless we all know that wired performance can have wired bottlenecks and problems of its own. I am sure they are all better than wireless or 100/t... but what kind of throughput are we talking about? Personally (and I know I am not alone on this), I like wireless for portable devices, but for something that never moves like a TV or a PC it is really not that much extra effort to run a line under carpet or through a vent.
    -Specifically I am curious to know if any of these routers can run their ethernet in a gang mode so that I can have 2 gigabit lines to a server, and 2 lines to my PC (and 1 line to my wife's PC) so I can have enough throughput to offload all of my HDDs to a central location and have a truly silent PC without having to use a seperate switch or router. I do video editing, and obviously cannot afford 10GbE in the home, so this type of setup is needed to get the 150+MB/s throughput needed for real video editing (until consumer 5GbE or 10GbE becomes available... where is that tech anyways?). I am currently using a wireless G router, and then an old (and noisy) gigabit switch (using 5 ports on a 24 port switch lol), and to be able to consolidate both devices would be really nice.

    2) High traffic performance: We all know that G and N suffer once you populate a network with a lot of devices, or have multiple networks congesting the same area. While I personally have very low traffic in my area (very low-tech neighbors), I know a ton of readers live in apartments, or have businesses with a ton of machines, and it would be nice for them to know how many devices you can have before having to worry about a serious performance fall-off. As most devices are still on N it would also be curious to see if these new routers can support more devices on N before seeing fall-off than traditional N devices.

    3) Internet performance: I have 'decently fast' internet at my home, but that is still only ~25Mb/s. But when wireless G is at 54Mb/s it makes it rather hard to justify getting anything faster than G for your average home user that is simply using wireless on 1-3 devices for internet access, and there is very little file sharing going on. Are there any real-world tests to show some significant performance boost for such simple 'internet only' uses? Perhaps lower ping rates, or more consistent performance at that 25Mb/s level?

    4) Power savings: I think more than anything that 11ac is going to show most of it's usefulness in power savings for future portable devices (and I think that ties in a lot with why they are marketing it as 5G to tie in with the cell network speak of 3G and 4G). I look at my friends phones that are only 1-2 years old, and they have to disable the wifi to get a full day's battery out of the phone because wifi's idle simply takes too much power. Compare that to new phones (or even higher quality old phones) which you can leave the wifi on all day and not have a significant battery issue. Even my 5 year old laptop gains an hour or more of battery life (a near 1/3 life boost) simply by turning off the wifi switch, so obviously the new radios in devices are getting much better at battery life without sacrificing much in the way of performance. Also cell providers like ATT and VZW have a lot of incentive to push 5G on phones and in houses to off-load cell traffic.
    Anywho, I guess what I am curious about is if the actual network speed is what gains the battery performance, or if it is merely having a more modern radio which brings such gains. As mentioned already, I am running 11g both at work and at home, and so 'all things being equal' the battery impact of wireless appears to have more to do with how modern the device is rather than the speed of the wireless network. I understand the 'race to sleep' argument, but if your internet coming in is only ~5-30Mb/s then I relay wonder if the end device will be able to sleep much at all. Because no matter if your network is 54Mb/s or 1300Mb/s the slow drip of the internet connection is going to keep those radios awake the entire time the internet is up. So is the 5G battery improvement really going to be from the network speed? Or is it merely going to be a factor of having a smaller and more efficient radio package to begin with regardless of what network it hooks up to?
    -Note: this is not the same thing as comparing 3G to 4G/LTE networks where the actual internet speed is faster allowing the device to gets it's job done faster and go to sleep faster. When on a network the internet speed is a relative constant (and almost always slower than 11g), and I am curious if changing the wireless from 11g to 11n/ac provides any battery gain on any given device for a set workload.



    Anywho, Great article! My old wireless G router is starting to have troubles, and needs to be reset every 4-6 weeks, so I am really curious about getting either a high end 11n device, or a midrange 11ac device before the year is out. And if I can find one that can last the 8+ years that my current linksys G router did then all the better! We don't see a lot of wireless articles here on Toms, and it is something that is increasingly important as people put heavier workloads and take bigger machines off of wired connections.
  • 2 Hide
    jhatfie , January 14, 2013 4:12 PM
    I tried both the Netgear R6300 and Asus RT-AC66U in my 3 story home. I did some pretty thorough testing and the ASUS bested the Netgear overall with superior coverage and slightly better speeds in my home. Performance with both was very good, but the Asus edged by a good enough margin that I returned the Netgear. With the Rt-AC66U router on my bottom floor in my office I get amazing throughput to every corner of my house compared to my old WNDR3800. Using a Linksys WUMC710 bridge to my HTPC on the second floor I see average transfer speeds of over 30-35MB/sec. Best I could achieve with the 3800 was around 10MB/sec. Using a A6200 AC adapter on the 3rd floor I still see fantastic transfer rates of 20-25MB/sec. Wireless N on the 5Ghz band is impressive as well reaching my whole house where the WNDR3800 would barely have solid signal to my HTPC.
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