Networking supertest: router reviews

If you’re still languishing on a network that struggles to stream Full HD movies – let alone 4K streams – it might be time to think about upgrading your hardware. New router and range extenders are pushing wireless further than it has even gotten, with some devices even legitimately capable of rivalling Gigabit Ethernet wired connection for performance if not reliability.

We’re also finding that router vendors are getting better at implementing the stuff that doesn’t always make it to the specification sheets. Antenna design and signal amplifiers are much better than they were just a few years ago, so you’ll get better reception than on your older devices.

Firmware has also improved, with better mobile configuration support, remote storage access, parental controls and even VPN support becoming serious capabilities on newer devices. For these capabilities alone, it’s worth investigating an upgrade.

Below we’ve looked at three categories of devices. First up are broadband routers – that is, devices without an inbuilt modem. If you’re lucky enough to have NBN fibre or have an existing modem and just want the new wireless capabilities, these are your go to.

Next are ADSL modem routers, which are for ADSL users (although many of them can also serve as a general broadband router).

Finally there are range extenders, for when your wireless signal doesn’t quite reach all the corners of your house.

How we tested

To get an impression of how the wireless devices will work in a common home scenario, we tried using each wireless device at a range of 15m with two intervening plaster walls. We connected to the devices with both a Samsung Galaxy S5 mobile and a laptop connected to a Linksys WUMC710 bridge.

We used an app called WiFi Analyzer on the mobile to get a signal power reading for each device to see how well the signal was holding up at that range.

Signal power is measured in dBm relative to a 1 mW reference signal, and the number is on Wi-Fi networks is always a negative. The lower the number (remembering that it’s a negative), the worse the signal, so -90dBm is worse than -60dBm.

We also performed file copy tests using the laptop, of a 1GB file streamed over the wireless network.

What we haven’t done here is put the test results in a table, since when it comes to wireless the results are hardly definitive. There are a million variables affecting wireless performance, and you might get quite different results in your home. Still, where the results we received are notable we’ve talked about them in the individual reviews.

ADSL modem routers

ASUS DSL-AC68U Dual-band Wireless-AC1900 ADSL/VDSL Modem Router

Asus DSL-AC68UAsus has been on quite a tear lately with its router products. The RTAC87U was our pick of the broadband routers and this is certainly a contender for the best DSL router available right now.

A big part of that is thanks to the WRT-based firmware that Asus have built. Asus have put a consumer-friendly sheen on it, with easy setup, security audits and online guides, but if you drill down its feature set is unrivalled amongst production firmware on consumer routers.

In particular we love its VPN server and client capabilities (perfect for our increasingly paranoid world) as well as Asus cloud services that let you access USB storage devices remotely and from a mobile. Thanks to ASUSWRT, it also lets you use a USB 3G/LTE modem in a USB port for failover internet access – though it unfortunately only has one USB port. Its only shortcoming really is the weak parental controls.

The hardware is solid. It’s not as advanced as the RTAC87U, but still delivers 3X3 MIMO streams for 1300mbps/600mbps wireless with a solid (around -60dBm) signal at range when we tested it. One of the Gigabit ports can be reassigned as a WAN port when you need it. The router also supports VDSL2, which in theory makes it ready for a VDSL NBN rollout if that should ever happen.

Verdict: It’s certainly a contender for the best DSL router available right now.

Price: $290
From: Asus

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Billion BiPAC 8800AXL

billion BiPAC 8800AXLOnce the darling of DIYers, Billion seems to have fallen off the radar of late, still, the newish 8800AXL has its appeals – not least of which is that it bucks the uncomfortable trend towards larger and larger routers. It’s not compact, by any means, but compared to some of the monsters we’ve looked at here, it’s dainty.

It also covers all your network needs. There’s an ADSL port as well as a gigabit WAN port. It can also handle 3G/LTE modems plugged into one of its two USB ports, letting them serve as a primary of failover internet connection. Four gigabit LAN ports round out the back plate.

When it comes to wireless, the 8800AXL supports full 1300mbps AC from its internal antennae (though weirdly only 300mbps wireless N). It wasn’t exactly a powerhouse when we tested it, however, with its signal power never better than -70dBm at 15m and transfer rates of about 14.3MB/s at that range.

The firmware feature set is fairly rudimental as well, and not terribly user friendly. Forget parental controls or router VPNs, and even the USB storage feature is quite basic.

Verdict: It’s cheap, and 3G/LTE support is cool, but you can do better with everything else.

Price: $143
From: Billion

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

D-Link DSL-2900AL Viper AC1900 Modem Router

D-Link DSL-2900ALD-Link has cottoned on to the notion that, for a certain segment of the buying public, looks matter. Yes, even for routers, and so we have the funkiest looking router we’ve seen in the DSL-2900AL Viper.

But it’s certainly not all style over substance here. The router boasts an impressive list of features in both software and hardware. It supports three MIMO streams for both AC and N, offering up to 1300mbps and 600mbps respectively, the latter using the 256-QAM “hack” that not all client devices support. In spite of, or perhaps of, its unusual design it produced very strong WiFi signal when we tested it, hovering around -60dBm power and transferring data at 31.5MB/s.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is the redesigned firmware in the D-Link. It’s easy for beginners to set up and manage, but offers a lot to tinkerers. We’re particularly fond of its SharePort feature, which let you browse media attached to a USB port from within a browser (in addition to the usual SMB and DLNA access), and the mydlink cloud service, which lets you access those files from outside your home network.

Verdict: A modem router with both style and substance.

Price: $300
From: D-Link

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Fritz!Box 7490

Fritz!Box 7490For whatever reason, VoIP routers are a rare breed these days – which is a shame, because there are real benefits to having VoIP capabilities built in. There are a few very good ones left, like the Fritz!Box, which now supports AC wireless.

It takes voice dead seriously: it’s not tacked on by any means. It has PSTN failover, cloud saves of contact lists, call records, multiple voice message boxes, alarm/wake-up calls and much more. It also serves as a DECT base station for up to six cordless phone handsets. When it comes to voice, it’s a phenomenal solution.

Thanks to the upgrade to AC, it’s also no slouch when it comes to other networks as well. 1300mbps AC is supported as well as 450mbps N, and there are four gigabit LAN ports, one of which can be re-assigned as a WAN port if you ever get the NBN. Its wireless signal was solid when we tested it, around the -65dBm mark at 15m.

Setup is straightforward and there are plenty of options for power users too, like some handy wireless diagnostics. It’s a great product, perfect for VoIP users and pretty good for everyone else.

Verdict: Good network features and outstanding VoIP capabilities.

Price: $300
From: Fritz!

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Linksys XAC1200

Linksys XAC1200In terms of its core technology and features, the Linksys XAC1200 does very little to stand out from the pack. In terms of user friendliness, however, it’s a cut above.

You’re walked through the process, with plenty of explanation on the way. Even advanced techniques, like traffic prioritisation and USB sharing, it’s all drag and drop user friendliness.

The XAC1200 has an unusual design that lets the XAC1200 double as both a regulation NBN-ready broadband router and ADSL router. There’s no ADSL port on the router itself; it just has a regulation Ethernet WAN port. The ADSL modem is actually built into the (massive) power brick; you connect your phone line to that.

While we loved the setup, the signal produced by the router’s internal antennae was disappointing. At 15m, its signal strength wasn’t great when we tested it: -76dBm and -77dBm respectively in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. And that’s on a router that doesn’t boast the fastest wireless hardware to begin with.

Verdict: It’s not terribly feature-packed, and the wireless is disappointing, but for user-friendliness it can’t be beat.

Price: $220
From: Linksys

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

TP-Link Archer D9

TP-Link Archer D9Aside from the inclusion of an ADSL modem and a substantial price premium, the Archer D9 is nearly identical to the Archer C9. And that’s not a bad thing: it has a strong wireless signal at range and has some very good USB and bandwidth management features.

The hardware is capable of delivering 1300mbps 802.11ac as well as 600mbps 802.11n, although that latter number comes with a big caveat. Like other AC1900 devices, the Archer D9 borrows modulation tech from 802.11ac that’s not officially supported by 802.11n. Given that, most client devices will see it as 450mbps 802.11n rather than 600mbps.

The firmware from TP-Link keeps improving, but it still seems to float in a weird middle ground between the consumer friendliness of the likes of Linksys and the go-nuts feature builds of WRT-based devices. It has some good stuff: bandwidth metering, CD-based easy setup, USB options, DHCP-controls, firewall rules; but also some mediocre stuff, like its parental controls or lack of VPN support.

Verdict: It still falls a little short as a consumer device, but the hardware is certainly capable.

Price: $259

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Broadband routers

ASUS RT-AC87U Wireless AC2400 Dual-band Gigabit Router

Asus RT-AC78UIf you asked us to describe our perfect consumer router, the Asus RT-AC87U would come close to ticking nearly every box. This thing has WRT-based firmware pre-installed, 1734mbps quad-stream wireless AC, VPN client and server support, 3G/LTE modem support, cloud based access to shared storage and it even comes with 100G of cloud storage free.

It uses Asus outstanding custom WRT build, ASUSWRT. It’s built on the same foundations as DD-WRT and OpenWRT, but with a nicer consumer friendly usability layer placed on top, along with a cloud service that lets you access shared files remotely and on mobiles.

And then there’s the wireless hardware. It supports 4X4 MIMO for 802.11ac – which translates to a peak performance of 1734mbps, higher than any other router we’ve seen. We couldn’t actually test the full speed, because we don’t yet have a client device that supports 1734mbps, but tested at 1300mbps we found we could transfer files at a little over 32MB/s at 15m, with signal power hovering at around -60dBm.

Verdict: The power is no joke, and the firmware is pretty great as well.

Price: $300
From: Asus

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Belkin AC1750 Wi-Fi Dual-Band AC+ Gigabit Router F9K1115au

Belkin AC1750This router is so user friendly it comes in the box with all the cables already plugged in, and the setup process is very simple, with a handy guide built into the shipping box.

That’s not to say it isn’t technically capable. As the name indicates, the AC1750 can hit 1300mbps 802.11ac and 450mbps 802.11n. There’s also a USB 3.0 port for file sharing and media serving.

When we tested it, the wireless signal strength was solid enough, hovering between -65 and -69dBm at 15m and managing throughput in excess of 28MB/s for 802.11ac.

The firmware is about what you’d expect for a consumer router: it covers the basics well, but you won’t find advanced capabilities like VPNs here. We should note, however, that its parental controls are particularly strong, with categorised blacklists drawn from Norton to filter adult and inappropriate content. This is streets ahead of most router parental controls, which are typically nothing more than user-made site restrictions.

Verdict: Easy to use, technically capable and with excellent parental controls.

Price: $280
From: Belkin

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

D-Link DIR890L AC3200 Ultra WiFi Router

D-Link DIR890LLike the similarly specced Netgear Nighthawk X6, the DIR890L is huge. And like the Nighthawk, it deploys the newest AC “spec”: AC3200. That means it creates two independent 802.11ac networks, each theoretically capable of 1300mbps. As we note in the Netgear review, we’re not really sure what the point of that is outside of corner-case scenarios where you have a bunch of different devices all streaming HD video at once, but it does sound impressive.

In spite of our admittedly cynical view of AC3200, the router is still an impressive specimen. It’s signal power and transfer speeds were top-notch when we tested them, rarely dropping below -60dBm and copying data at 32.7MB/s.

The updated D-Link firmware is also a winner. It doesn’t have the parental features of the Netgear, and the mobile app and media streaming setup is not as good – but the cloud service that lets you access files remotely is pretty darn useful. All up, we’d probably favour the Netgear slightly, but it was a pretty close call in the end.

Verdict: Another huge AC3200 router. It doesn’t disappoint.

Price: $329
From: D-Link

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Linksys WRT1900AC

Linksys-WRT1900ACIn 2002 Linksys released the WRT54G router, which boasted a revolutionary Linux-based open source firmware. Linksys later abandoned that firmware, but the open source community would take it and go on to make DD-WRT, Tomato and OpenWRT.

Fast forward to 2015, and Linksys has released the WRT1900AC, a device that recalls not just the aesthetic of the WRT54G, but also makes the claim to be “open source ready,” with Linksys working with OpenWRT to make it easy to upgrade to the firmware and building in a powerful (for a router) dual core 1.2Ghz processor. That doesn’t mean it comes with OpenWRT in the box, however – which was very disappointing. Instead it comes with Linksys’ own very easy-to-use but feature-limited firmware.

Still, the hardware is capable of 1300mbps AC wireless (despite four antennas) and 600mbps N. There are four gigabit Ethernet ports and a gigabit WAN port, as well as a USB 3.0 port and a combo eSATA/USB2.0 port. Its signal strength at 15m was OK when we tested it, hovering around -68dBm in both bands.

Verdict: It’s disappointing that it doesn’t ship with OpenWRT, but the hardware is designed to handle it should you chose to upgrade.

Price: $280
From: Linksys

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Netgear R8000 Nighthawk X6

Netgear Nighthawk X6The Netgear Nighthawk X6 is enormous, and with its six antennae can drive it to unprecedented speeds – it’s one of the first AC3200 routers available.

There’s a big asterisk next to that number, however. An individual device can only connect at 1300mbps. The six antennas are not being used to create a single six-stream MIMO network; they’re used to create two discrete 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, each with their own SSID and password. Given that, we genuinely struggle to see what advantage for consumers this has over, say, a four stream device like the Asus RT87U.

Setting aside the debatable value of AC3200, the X6 is still an excellent router. Netgear’s setup and configuration is very user and mobile-friendly, and it will automatically detect if you have an existing network in place. Its support for media streaming to both network players and mobiles through ReadyShare is outstanding, as is Netgear’s live parental control feature. It also proved exceptionally speedy when we tested it, with signal power at 15m never dropping below -57dBm and throughput for file copies in excess of 34MB/s.

Verdict: We’re not sold on AC3200, but the router is otherwise excellent.

Price: $290
From: Netgear

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

TP-Link Archer C9

RE200 (US) 1.0 网站导图For a company that has only been a player on the international network hardware scene for ten years, TP-Link has done extremely well for itself. It’s now the biggest wireless LAN equipment maker in the world by a considerable margin.

More importantly, it’s products have improved dramatically. The hardware was always decent, but the software on its routers has also improved. Sure, logging into the admin page still assaults you with a terrifying array of technical details, but the CD or the “Quick Start” button will walk less technical users through the setup process. Still, some things aren’t covered by the quick setup, like file sharing settings for its two USB ports and the too-complex but still weak parental controls.

Firmware aside, the C9 hardware is good, with three MIMO streams for 1300mbps wireless AC and 600mbps wireless N. It may look like a spiky haired Teletubby, but it produced a very strong signal at range in our tests with a strength of around -56dBm in 2.4GHz and -65dBm in 5GHz at 15m.

Verdict: The wireless signal clarity is a particular highlight.

Price: $179

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Range extenders

Belkin N600 Dual-band Plug-in Wi-Fi Range Extender F9K1122au

Belkin range extender F9K1122AUThe Belkin N600 Dual-band Plug-in Wi-Fi Range Extender (aka the F9K1122au) might not be the most advanced range extender, but it does have a few features that make it worth a look.

For a start, it’s better looking than most with a consumer-friendly industrial design. It also supports cross-band, which is a major plus for wireless range extension: it means that it receives on one band (2.4GHz or 5GHz) and retransmits on the other, which eliminates one of the big problems with many range extenders – the halving of bandwidth due to retransmission.

But it’s still using dated technology. It only supports 802.11n up to 300mbps, and its single Ethernet port is only Fast Ethernet (limited to 100mbps). Meanwhile, when we tested it, its signal power at 15m was not exactly what we’d call strong, typically in the -90dBm range and occasionally dropping altogether if we held our test device just so. Given that, it’s a product that’s hard to recommend.

Verdict: Support for cross-band technology is good, and setup is a breeze, but the technology is limited.

Price: $90
From: Belkin

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

D-Link DAP-1650 Wireless AC1200 Dual Band Gigabit Range Extender

D-Link DAP-1650Like the Netgear EX7000, the D-Link DAP-1650 is a free standing range extender that’s superior to any power point extender we’ve seen. What’s more, this one actually looks pretty cool, with a cylindrical design similar to that of the DSL-2900AL Viper.

The DAP-1650 is not just a range extender, either. Like the Netgear, it also functions as a very capable stand-alone access point and wireless bridge. It supports 867mbps wireless AC and 300mbps dual band wireless N, has four gigabit LAN port and a USB port. The last come with D-Link excellent SharePort media sharing capabilities, including a mobile app and a cloud service for remote access.

Thanks to its browser-based setup wizard (there’s also a mobile app), we had it set up very quickly, and it proved quite capable in the field. Signal power remained consistently strong to 15m, and we found we could transfer data at just under 17MB/s with a direct connection. When switched into extender mode at 15m + 15m, that dropped to an average of about 5.3MB/s – still plenty for most HD media.

Verdict: It looks cool and works better than any power point extender we’ve seen.

Price: $120
From: D-Link

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Linksys RE4000W N600 Plug-in Wi-Fi Range Extender

Linksys RE4000WLike its Belkin stablemate, there are good things to be said about the Linksys RE4000W, including its excellent setup process and support for cross-band transmission to increase throughput. But it also suffers from the same flaws: dated wireless technology and (for us at least) problems with reception at range.

It’s also rather too large, likely dominating a double power point and preventing you from plugging anything into the point next to it. The design is otherwise pretty plain, but nicely curved with a single indicator light. It has two Fast (100mbps) Ethernet ports.

When we tested it, it generally sat at around -88 to -92dBm signal power at 15m – although we experienced no total dropouts during testing. Given that, connect rates were quite low, and we often experienced significant lag when accessing web sites over an extended network, even with cross-band active.

Ultimately, cross-band and an easy setup CD are nice, but they’re no substitute for 802.11ac.

Verdict: Nah. Get yourself an AC-capable extender..

Price: $95
From: Linksys

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Minitar MR750AC Wireless AC Repeater/AP Router

Minitar MR750ACMinitar’s MR750AC is a range extender of the power-point type, sitting discretely on a wall socket. And it is discreet, being considerably smaller than both the Belkin and Linksys repeaters.

Nonetheless, it supports 802.11ac, albeit in a minimalist fashion. It’s limited to just 433mbps in the 5GHz channel. It can hit 300mbps for 802.11n, though it does not appear to support cross-band. It certainly struggled to perform when we tried it out: at 15m with a direct AC connection we could transfer data at just 4.3MB/s with signal power usually in the -85dBm range. When it repeated an 802.11ac network (from the Netgear Nighthawk X6), the speed dropped to just 1.1MB/s – OK for web browsing, but forget media streaming.

Oddly, the Minitar technically functions as a stand-alone router, with one of its two Fast Ethernet ports being able to be assigned to WAN duty. As a router, however, its functions are extremely minimal, with a retro interface and few options.

Verdict: It’s cheap and it’s small, and it technically supports AC, but there’s not much else recommending it.

Price: $69
From: Minitar

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Netgear EX7000 Nighthawk WiFi Range Extender

Netgear EX7000The EX7000 is probably more accurately described as a free standing wireless access point and bridge with range extension capabilities. It’s about the size of a full router and has a USB 3.0 port for media sharing as well as a five-port Gigabit Ethernet switch built in, making it an excellent Wi-Fi to wired bridge. The only thing separating this from a fully functioning internet router is a dedicated WAN port.

It supports three-stream 802.11ac, for a maximum speed of 1300mbps (as well as 600mbps for 802.11n, with cross-band support). That essentially puts it at the top of the heap when it comes to range extenders. It delivers in the real world, too. At 15m, we were getting better than -60dBm signal power continuously, and direct transfer rates of around 29MB/s when using it as an access point. Using it as an extender to the Nighthawk X6 (15m + 15m) dropped that number to just under 10MB/s, which is still pretty good for 30m total.

Setting it up as a range extender is very simple. You can use WPS, or set it up using your mobile or PC from a web browser. Setting up additional features, like ReadyShare media streaming from the USB port, is also relatively straightforward.

Verdict: As fast and powerful (and expensive!) as range extenders come.

Price: $250
From: Netgear

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

TP-Link TL-WPA4220KIT 300Mbps AV500 WiFi Powerline Extender Starter Kit

打印Calling the TP-Link TL-WPA4220KIT a range extender is not exactly accurate – at least in the “traditional” sense. Unlike most range extenders, it doesn’t rebroadcast a wireless signal – instead it creates its own distinct wireless network and transmits data back to the main router using a 500mbps HomePlug AV powerline connection. And it works great, with only a couple of milliseconds of additional lag, and no halving of available bandwidth. It’s also very easy to set up with fast pairing and cloning buttons.

The package looks like a regulation HomePlug AV powerline pair, but with one of the points substantially smaller than the other. The larger of the pair also houses the WiFi radio (as well as a second Ethernet port).

While we love the concept, there are flaws in the TP-Link implementation. For one, there’s no AC support, only 300mbps wireless N. For two, the wireless signal from the WiFi radio was kind of weak; at 15m it was around -85dBm and occasionally popping up over -90dBm. And third, it only has Fast (100mbps) Ethernet ports, which puts a severe cap on potential speeds. Even so, the powerline WiFi combo beats most range extender solutions by a long shot.

Verdict: The concept is great and the price is good. The implementation could be a little more up-to-date, however.

Price: $118

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5