Gigabit Wi-Fi? Not so fast.

802.11ac routers average close to 400Mbps in performance tests of five products

The newest Wi-Fi technology -- 802.11ac -- promises blazing speeds of up to 1.3Gbps, according to claims made by the leading vendors.

We tested five of the first 802.11ac routers to hit the market and found that the products were indeed fast, and probably faster than anything you'll ever need for home office or small business scenarios - but they're not that fast.

Our test subjects were the Netgear R6300, Cisco's Linksys EA6500, the Asus RT-AC66U, the D-Link Cloud Router 5700 and the Buffalo Technology AirStation AC1300. Since 802.11ac clients aren't available yet, we tested throughput speeds between two devices from each manufacturer.

The testing also examined the usability of the routers on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to see how they reacted to events such as the loss of Internet connectivity or power, how well they fit into existing networks and how easy they were to manage. It turned out that we also tested how physically stable they were. (Watch a slideshow of this story.)

We found that regardless of what brand of router you choose, you're going to get throughput speeds in the range of 350Mbps to 380Mbps with the router and media bridge about 25 feet apart. These numbers are for Layer 7 traffic, which is what you'll be using when you stream media.

[LOOK AHEAD: Technologies to watch 2013: Gigabit Wi-Fi]

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The winner in our testing was the Netgear R6300, which delivered top-end performance, was easy to use and didn't suffer from outage-related problems. Oh, and it didn't fall over.

802.11ac basics

The 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard is the next step beyond 802.11n. The new Wi-Fi routers work in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, and they're compatible with devices using previous standards.

To get those amazing speeds, 802.11ac creates a channel that's 80MHz wide, and it uses MIMO antennas that support three spatial streams. The three streams make use of multi-path signals and reflections to enhance the signal.

What this means to you is that an 802.11ac router will work with your existing Wi-Fi hardware, but to that hardware it'll just appear as a normal 802.11n router. The only way to get the extra speed is to use a compatible device on the other end.

Since there are few such devices available, the best way to actually see these speeds is either to use a media access device or to use a second router configured as a media access bridge. To see the extra speed, you have to plug your laptop or other device into the bridge using wired Gigabit Ethernet.

Here are the individual reviews:

Asus RT-AC66U

As was the case with the dual-band 802.11n Asus router which we previously reviewed, the Asus device is long on style and long on ease of use. Fortunately, Asus made the stand that holds the router at an angle considerably more robust than was the case on earlier models, and it no longer falls over when you attach cables.

The company has also created an app for Apple iOS and Android devices that provides access to USB connected storage. Day-to-day management activity takes place using the built-in management Web page. Asus provides a service called AiCloud that lets you link the router to cloud-based storage from Asus and from other cloud providers.

There's not much to doing the basic setup on the Asus RT-AC66U. The steps are basically the same as for all routers, including attaching the router to a wired Ethernet connection on a computer, connecting it to your Internet source and turning it on. Asus includes a built-in wizard that leads you through the steps. You do need to provide a wireless ID (SSID) for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz parts of the router, and you need to provide a password. Beyond that, the process is done and you're on the Internet.

Setting up an Asus RT-AC66U as a media bridge uses the same Web-based software as the other router functions. But the process only requires that you provide the SSID of the router to which you want to connect, the password, and the frequency band you plan to use. After that it works.

I found the Web-based management page to be intuitive and complete. Despite its consumer flash, this is a serious router that can work just fine in small business applications. This router has full IPv6 support, and it has beamforming to focus its signals on devices that are using the router. The Internet port supports gigabit speeds, which is handy if you live in Kansas City where Google is installing its high-speed Internet experiment.

While Asus claims speeds up to 1300Mbps, that's based on the router being 3 meters (a little over 9 feet) from the media bridge, which is unrealistic in the real world, since at that distance you could just run a cable.

Our test distance of 25 feet is somewhat more likely to reflect real-world use. As you'd expect with Wi-Fi, the greater the distance, the lower the speeds. Because of this, the actual measured Layer 7 throughput of 360Mbps is consistent with the claims from Asus.

These throughput measurements are slightly lower than the other routers in the test, and I suspect that the culprit is the router part of the device rather than the radios. Throughput tests using a wired connection were also somewhat slower than other routers in this test, averaging 700Mbps with Layer 7 traffic. In addition, the Asus router simply stopped working at one point. I had to reset the router to factory defaults and start again from the beginning.

Overall this is an excellent router, and the slight differences in throughput are unlikely to be significant. It's worth noting that the Asus RT-AC66U seems to be immune to interference. Its wireless performance was the same regardless of how much Wi-Fi interference we provided.

Buffalo Technology AirStation AC1300 / N900 Dual Band Router

Buffalo Technology provided an AC1300/N450 dedicated media bridge for this review along with the AirStation AC1300 router. When you get the Buffalo product, the first thing you do is set up the router using the wizard that's built in to the firmware. Once that's done, you press the WPS button on the media bridge, then on the router, and in a minute or two everything is set. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it should be.

Besides the fact that the setup instructions are printed in a typeface so tiny they're nearly impossible to read, the instructions for setting up the media bridge are wrong. The instructions state that when the configuration is complete, the indicator light glows steadily, when in fact it flashes quickly. Unless you check, you'll never know whether the media bridge is actually working.

Fortunately, you can ignore the impossible-to-read setup guide. This router is basically a plug and play device. As soon as you attach it to the Internet, a source of power and a computer, then turn it on, it starts working. Of course, you will want to give it an SSID and a password for the wireless network, but the built-in wizard leads you through that, and it starts running as soon as you connect to the router.

The AirStation AC1300 comes with a gigabit Internet port and the built-in help files describe how to attach the router to an existing LAN, as well as how to configure the DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) to avoid IP address conflicts. There's also a USB port which an included instruction manual says will only work with a USB printer. This, like the rest of the printed documentation, is wrong, since the USB port works just fine with storage devices.

Most of the annoyances of the Buffalo products are just that - annoyances. Once you have the router running, it works fine. However, one area in which the Buffalo AirStation AC1300 disappointed was in its performance. Or more accurately, in half of its performance. In our Layer 7 tests, throughput from the router to the media bridge was as fast as the fastest -- 380Mbps. But when we sent traffic from the media bridge to the router, it dropped to slightly over 300Mbps.

The AirStation is the only router in this test that can be mounted either vertically or horizontally, and it includes a set of snap-on feet to keep it from falling over. Beyond that, the Buffalo AirStation AC1300 router is well designed and easily manageable.

However, it's limited for some purposes since it does not support IPv6. It's a good router for those who just want the basics, and who want an easy setup with the media bridge.

D-Link DIR-865L Amplifi Cloud Router 5700

What makes D-Link different from other routers is that D-Link gives you the option of setting up and managing the router using your mobile device. D-Link also provides iOS and Android apps that let you manage the router and see activity on the router (including what websites people are using), and it will show you the devices that are connected.

You can also attach storage to the USB ports on the router and access that using Android and iOS devices as well as any computers on the network. One unfortunate limitation is that D-Link limits the size of your storage device to 500GB.

Another unfortunate feature of the D-Link Cloud Router 5700 is in its physical design. It's tall and narrow, and if you've attached cables to the Ethernet and Internet ports of the router the weight of the cables can make it fall over frequently. Those Ethernet ports and the Internet port, incidentally, all operate at gigabit speeds.

D-Link provided a pair of the Cloud Router 5700 devices, one of which I configured as a media bridge. The process starts off with D-Link's configuration wizard and leads you through to a site survey in which the new media bridge will show you the Wi-Fi routers it can see. You select one, provide the necessary information such as the password, and you're connected.

With the media bridge in place, the performance tests revealed that the Cloud Router 5700 provided Layer 7 bandwidth similar to most of the other routers -- about 375Mbps. The throughput was the same in either direction and, like the other routers in this test, the throughput speeds did not seem to be affected by interference in the form of other Wi-Fi signals.

The D-Link Cloud Router 5700 can also be configured using your iOS device by downloading the QRS Mobile app from the Apple App Store, or by scanning a QR code in the manual. D-Link also provides a cloud services app that lets you have access to the material stored on the USB storage device attached to your router. The cloud services are available to Android and iOS devices.

On the other hand, the D-Link Cloud Router 5700 makes it easy to use the device by providing wizards for more than just basic setup. For example, there's an IPv6 wizard that will lead you through the usually mysterious process of getting the router up and running in a wide variety of IPv6 situations, including the use of third-party IPv6 tunnels. Considering that the day will come when your comfortable world of IPv4 will end, this could be a very useful feature.

Linksys EA6500 Smart Wi-Fi Wireless Router

The Linksys EA6500 Smart Wi-Fi Router depends heavily on Cisco's cloud-based management service to set up and manage. In fact, the initial setup of the device requires a connection to Cisco's cloud for the first steps. This is handy in one sense since it means that Cisco (which owns Linksys) can add or improve management features without requiring a firmware update.

On the other hand, trying to configure the Linksys EA6500 without an Internet connection becomes problematic. During the course of testing, the EA6500 lost its Internet connection three times, twice when Cox Communications, which provides high-speed Internet service to the lab, had a glitch, and once when the router was disconnected and needed its Internet settings refreshed after it was reconnected.

In all three cases, getting access to the router's built-in management software was difficult, but possible. In the third instance it proved impossible, which required that the router be reset to its factory settings and started up like a new router.

But the need to connect to Cisco's cloud has potential privacy issues that made big news in mid-2012 when Cisco changed its terms of service to allow the company to push software updates, record usage data, and potentially block routers from using some specific Internet sites, such as file-sharing sites suspected of piracy. Cisco has since rescinded its unauthorized push updates, but it retains the ability to trace usage information.

Currently, the router gives you a set of choices when you try to browse to its IP address to manage the device. Either you're taken to a login screen for your Cisco cloud account, with a link to let you log in to the router's firmware instead, or you're taken to the router's firmware login, with a link allowing you to log in to the cloud instead. You're not required to have a cloud account, so you can just use the router's firmware to manage it, and you're not required to allow Cisco to push updates.

The Cisco cloud does provide a few router apps that you can use to control and monitor your network using apps for iOS and, in the case of access control, there's also an app for Android. Otherwise, there's little difference between what you see with cloud access and the local router management using the firmware on the device.

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