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Gigabit Wi-Fi? Not so fast.

Feb 25, 201318 mins

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]

[OTHER WI-FI PRODUCTS: Four Wi-Fi tools deliver mixed results]

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.

Either way, the management tools are intuitive and reasonably straightforward. The Linksys router was able to identify the host names of some of the network devices, but not all of them. Notably it seemed unable to identify wireless devices such as smartphones by anything other than their IPv4 address.

However, the EA6500 is able to be fully functional on IPv6 assuming your path to the Internet allows it. Unfortunately, many ISPs haven’t implemented IPv6 fully yet, so this feature remains for the future, although this router does have the ability to connect to an IPv6 tunnel from a third-party provider.

The EA6500 came to the test accompanied by the Linksys WUMC 710 Universal Media Connector. The pair performed as well as any of the other 802.11ac router pairs. The throughput speeds were the same in either direction, with test results showing approximately 370Mbps to 380Mbps. Wired throughput for this router was also similar to the others, at about 750Mbps. Setup for this device consists entirely of pressing the WPS buttons on each media bridge and the router and waiting a few seconds. The EA6500 includes a card that is supposed to work with NFC-equipped mobile devices to make connecting them automatic, but none of the available mobile devices worked with it.

Netgear R6300

The Netgear R6300 was marginally faster than other routers in this test with throughput numbers at approximately 375Mbps to 380Mbps. However the difference in throughput is small enough that you’re unlikely to ever notice it in real-world use.

Netgear uses an application called Netgear Genie to configure and manage the router. Genie is included as a Web application in the router’s firmware, and it’s also available as an application for Windows and Macintosh computers, and as apps for Android and iOS devices. Genie is long on graphical illustrations of the router’s operation and environment, and can show you a picture of your network configuration, channel usage of the Wi-Fi environment and even real-time Internet speeds.

The Netgear R6300 supports IPv6 in a variety of ways and will support third-party tunnels. The IPv6 configuration includes a series of menu choices that let you tell the router how it should interact with an IPv6 environment, whether it should use an IPv6 DHCP server and where to find its required services. Like the other routers, the Netgear R6300 includes a four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch, and the Internet port will support gigabit speeds.

Netgear used a design similar to the slanted panel that Asus uses for its router, and like the Asus, it’s stable in this configuration. However, unlike Asus, it does not have those three external antennas. Netgear said in its press information that the device includes six Wi-Fi antennas hidden below the surface of the router, three each for 2.4GHz and 5GHz so that it can provide three spatial streams in each band. There’s also a lighted “NETGEAR” logo that glows in the center of the face of the router which turns on after the device has booted.

Netgear sent a second R6300 which the company had already configured in bridge mode to allow high-speed Wi-Fi traffic to move between the two devices. However, I went through the setup myself after resetting the second router to factory defaults. You enter the bridge mode by using Genie to set the required settings, which include the SSID of the router, the password, the type of security and the frequency band. While this isn’t all that hard to accomplish, it would be nice if Netgear implemented Cisco’s WPS setup method. Fortunately, you should only have to do this once.

As mentioned before, the Netgear R6300 router had performance results as good or better than every other router in the test. While it supports a number of router apps for your smartphone and computer, Netgear avoids the intrusiveness of the Cisco cloud, and it didn’t demonstrate the tendency to lose settings, fall over, have asymmetrical results or be overly complex. Its basic setup and management make Netgear’s R6300 a top contender.


Of the five routers tested, Netgear’s R6300 is the one I’d spend my own money on if I were in the market for an 802.11ac router. It’s fast, dependable, free of bad habits, and it’s easy to manage on a day-to-day basis. The router includes a number of handy management tools, including the ability to track performance over time, and the ability to control the level of access on a client-by-client basis. It’s too bad there are no real client devices currently available to take advantage of the R6300’s speed and reliability (or for that matter, any 802.11ac router). Such devices will come, eventually.

Rash is a freelance writer living in Virginia. He can be reached at

How We Tested 802.11ac routers

Despite their speed potential, these 802.11ac routers are still wireless Ethernet routers intended for home or small business use. This means that for the most part there are no surprises when it comes to setting them up. In this test, I followed the normal procedure of connecting the router to the cable Internet device and then launching the setup wizard which is either in the cloud, contained in the router’s firmware or delivered on a CD. This works fine for most installations.

Once I got the router set up in a typical configuration, I changed a few things around so that the routers would work on a network that doesn’t use whatever the vendor thought the standard setup might be. In addition, I checked the channel setup for 802.11ac to make sure that the router was set to deliver an 80 MHz channel in the 5GHz band. Of course I also changed the default SSID and password.

Once I was satisfied that the router was performing its basic task, I set up the second router as a bridge or in the case of Linksys and Buffalo, I configured the media bridge. The routers and the media connector support wired connections as well as wireless, but when you connect to them wirelessly with an 802.11n device, the best you can do is 802.11n performance. The only way to get 802.11ac is with a wired connection.

I tested the performance of the devices using ixChariot from Ixia Communications, and I tested the other operational characteristics using a Fluke OneTouch AT network tester. I also tested the Wi-Fi characteristics using a Lenovo ThinkPad T-410 computer that supports three spatial streams using 802.11n.

I focused most of the testing on the ability of these devices to work with 802.11ac, and to accomplish that I used a pair of Hewlett Packard Professional Workstations each running Windows 8 and the ixChariot test client Version 7.30.

IxChariot is designed to pass traffic between two Windows computers simulating typical Layer 7 network traffic. One of the workstations was connected to the media bridge, which communicated wirelessly to the 802.11ac router, then to a Gigabit Ethernet network connected to the other workstation. I also made use of a USB storage device and a Buffalo Technology LinkStation 4TB media server. All wired connections used CAT6 cable to ensure that a full 1 GB throughput was available.

I tested the throughput at least five times to ensure consistent results. I also tested the router using a wired connection so that I had a baseline showing what performance the router was capable of delivering, and I tested the network without the router in place so that I’d have a baseline for the overall network.

It’s worth noting that the network speeds on all of these 802.11ac devices varied considerably during the tests. However the average throughput numbers were remarkably consistent between brands.