A change is coming and it cannot be avoided. Over the next 18 months a transition will take place that sees every new phone, tablet and laptop come with a new wireless standard: 802.11ac. The good news is 802.11ac (or “wireless ac” for short) will be compatible with its predecessors 802.11b, g and n. The downside is that to get the full benefits of wireless ac you will need to buy a compatible router. This group test is to determine whether you should upgrade your network and, if so, which router you should buy.
What is 802.11ac and why does it matter for businesses?
On paper the primary reason to upgrade to a wireless ac router is speed and the typical claim is it performs up to four times faster than 802.11n. Interestingly, it doesn’t actually claim to reach any further than wireless n, simply to work more quickly within the same range. For businesses the benefits are clear: as more and more mobile devices enter the workplace bandwidth can be increased to avoid networks grinding to a halt.
In addition wireless ac operates in the 5GHz frequency band, and this is far less cluttered than the 2.4GHz band which the majority of wireless n routers share with common office items like cordless telephones, security cameras, Bluetooth and even microwave ovens. Consequently operating at 5GHz means far less signal interference and though “dual band” (2.4GHz and 5GHz) wireless n routers have been on the market for some time their take up remains small. Of course, the transition to wireless ac routers will add congestion to the 5GHz band, but it won’t suffer the same environmental interference so will never likely reach the same congestion levels of 2.4GHz.
Furthermore, a nice by-product of wireless ac routers is they pack in the latest innovations. This means Enterprise grade WPA2 security as standard, USB ports for quickly adding storage or printers to a network, and advanced graphical user interfaces that make it easier and more intuitive to tailor preferences to your needs. Some routers even pack cloud platforms allowing them to be remotely accessed, which gives businesses greater control over their workplace at all times (as well as simplifying technical support).
Shared Features. In any group test there will be products with significant similarities and with routers this is doubly so. Rather than repeat these for each model, we will deal with them here.
The most obvious shared aspect is support for the 802.11ac standard, and in doing so all these routers are fully backwards compatible with 802.11b, g and n. Each router has four Gigabit (1000Mbit) Ethernet ports, the fastest wired networking standard, which is also compatible with older 10Mbit and 100Mbit Ethernet standards.
Critically, WPA2 Enterprise grade security is provided by each router along with guest networks which let visitors connect to your Wi-Fi without granting them access to your office network or router settings. Devices can also connect at the touch of a button because WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) is included on every model. Parental controls figure on each router as well and while they are primarily aimed at assisting parents in keeping children away from unwelcome websites, they can also be used to block access to the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Sharing is well taken care of too since each model comes with at least one USB 2.0 port for sharing storage or a printer across your network (we will mention any differences in this respect). And there is IPv6 support across the board, which future proofs compatibility with the ever increasing number of new devices being connected to the Internet.
While catering more for consumers, each router also offers DLNA wireless media streaming to other DLNA compatible devices. Lastly, all routers are completely silent in operation and while they get warm to the touch they do not get hot.
Finally, a tip before we begin: the best Wi-Fi reception comes from positioning a router in a central office location at least a few feet off the ground.
Okay, on with the evaluation of the routers...
Linksys EA6700 (£169.99)
Key differentiators: Smart Wi-Fi cloud platform, Simple Tap NFC, USB 3.0 port and USB 2.0 port, wall mountable
As the first router in our group test, the first thing that will strike you about the EA6700 is the cost. Wireless ac routers retail at twice the price of cheap single band wireless n routers and they’re at least 60 per cent more than their dual band wireless n counterparts. So while Linksys is traditionally a premium brand in this case its price is not out of the ordinary.
What is unusual, however, is the EA6700’s number of differentiators. Most interesting is its Smart Wi-Fi cloud platform which allows users to access their routers from any location using a web browser or Android and iOS smartphone apps. This enables a business to remotely add or remove devices, restrict specific websites, change passwords and prioritise traffic types (known as Quality of Service or QoS) across the network. Smart Wi-Fi is the first router cloud platform and still the most comprehensive with a slick and intuitive user interface and support for third-party applications.
The EA6700 also comes with an NFC enabled Simple Tap card that allows NFC devices like smartphones and tablets to be added to the network just by touching them to the card. Along with D-Link, Linksys is also the only manufacturer to fit a USB 3.0 port onto a router and it is the only one to supplement it with a USB 2.0 port as well
In terms of looks the EA6700 is also arguably the most attractive of the routers on test with a subtle matt and silver finish – it’s also wall mountable. This is the company’s second generation wireless ac router.
D-Link DIR-868L (£139.99)
Key differentiators: mydlink Cloud platform, USB 3.0 port, cylindrical design
The first 802.11ac routers were launched a year ago, but for two years D-Link has been building aspects of the standard into its premium wireless n routers. Its biggest success story was the addition of SmartBeam (now known as Beamforming) which improves performance at range by detecting connected devices and focusing signal in their direction instead of casting it out equally in all directions.
Consequently the 868L boasts Beamforming not just in its wireless ac, but in wireless n as well which should give current devices a significant performance boost at range.
D-Link also matches Linksys with its own Cloud platform called mydlink. It isn’t as graphically impressive as Linksys’ Smart Wi-Fi and it doesn’t have the same wealth of settings, but it intelligently emails you about any unexpected changes to your network to keep you in the loop at all times. It comes with a bevy of Android and iOS apps, too, so you can monitor and access media remotely.
The 868L’s design is also a clever differentiator. Routers may not label it, but they typically have a front which produces better performance in one direction than another. The 868L’s cylindrical design is claimed to get around this problem ensuring uniformly good reception around the house or office, though this does mean it cannot be wall mounted. As with Linksys the 868L is D-Link's second generation wireless ac router and one of the cheaper new models on test.
Asus RT-AC66U (£159.99)
Key differentiators: all-in-one router, access point and wireless bridge, 2 x USB 2.0 ports, AiCloud platform, wall mountable
The laptop, tablet and phone maker has developed a strong reputation for blazing fast routers in recent years which means we have high hopes for the AC66U. It is also the most flexible product on test because it can work not only as a router, but as an access point to extend range and a wireless bridge to bring wireless connectivity to a wired-only device. Both access points and bridges cost far less than the AC66U, but it provides a second life for the device when you upgrade your router in years to come.
Asus doesn’t have a full cloud platform like Linksys and Netgear, but its AiCloud service provides remote access to audio and video on your office network, and can also sync important media files and data to the company’s Dropbox-like WebStorage service. Like the EA6700, the AC66U also has a pair of USB ports for connecting external storage or printers, though they are both limited to USB 2.0.
In keeping with its performance orientated reputation the AC66U has the most uncompromising look of any of these routers with its three large antennas. They can be removed for a more streamlined aesthetic, but it somewhat limits the point of upgrading to 802.11ac in the first place. To aid positioning, it can also be wall mounted.
The AC66U is Asus’ first wireless ac router and launched nearly a year ago, but it has received a regular flow of firmware updates to keep it near the head of the pack.
Western Digital My Net AC1300 (£139.99)
Key differentiators: FasTrack traffic prioritising technology, integrated network diagnostics, 2 x USB 2.0 ports
Western Digital is a relatively new addition to the router scene having only sold devices for the last few years. That said, the storage specialist has enjoyed a great deal of success with well-made models that can stand toe-to-toe with the performance of more established networking brands.
This time around WD’s key selling point for the My Net is speed, and it claims its FasTrack technology is the key to it being faster than other wireless ac routers. FasTrack is an integrated media prioritising system which recognises high bandwidth activities like media streaming and VoIP services to ensure they perform optimally at all times without grinding the network to a halt.
Helpfully WD has also built a network diagnostic tool into the My Net’s settings to monitor connectivity issues and unauthorised access which it looks to address automatically. Given WD’s history in making hard drives it is also no surprise to see it include a pair of USB ports on the My Net, though they are only USB 2.0.
The My Net has arguably the most generic design of the routers on test and cannot be wall mounted, but its bland look doesn't draw attention like the Asus and D-Link models. The My Net is WD’s first wireless ac router.
Belkin AC1800 DB (£179.99)
Key differentiators: InteliStream traffic prioritising technology, 2 x USB 2.0 ports
The peripherals manufacturer may not be the most well-known router maker, but it has actually been producing commendable models for a number of years. The AC1800 DB, however, marks its first step into the wireless ac standard and it comes with a surprisingly high price tag to match.
What Belkin hopes will tempt you to the AC1800 DB is IntelliStream, its own media prioritising technology to rival WD’s FasTrack. Like FasTrack it will hunt out high bandwidth traffic caused by media and siphon it off to make sure it runs smoothly without affecting the speed and reliability of the rest of the network.
Like WD, Netgear and Buffalo, the AC1800 DB lacks its own cloud platform so you won’t be controlling the router remotely, but it has worked with Norton security on its parental controls and can be set to automatically block unsafe or content inappropriate to a productive office.
The curvy design of the AC1800 DB is also wonderfully retro in a 60s science fiction style, and while it cannot be wall mounted its stand means that the router takes up little desk space.
Netgear R6300 (£129.99)
Key differentiators: Netgear Genie app, QR codes, 2 x USB 2.0 ports, price
Like the Asus, the R6300 has been on sale for roughly a year but unlike the Asus its price has fallen to within touching distance of premium 802.11n dual band routers – making it a highly tempting purchase.
On the flipside the reason for the R6300’s price drop is likely due to its relatively few features. The best of them is the company’s Netgear Genie Android and iOS app which lets you manage and monitor your network from your smartphone, though it isn’t a full cloud platform as it must be connected to the R6300's network to operate. This somewhat negates the use of Genie’s video streaming functionality, though it can be used to connect devices to the network using QR codes which is a clever touch.
Elsewhere there is little to shout about. The R6300’s slab-like design isn't particularly attractive and while it packs in two USB ports there is no USB 3.0. The R6300 is primarily a simple, wall-mountable 802.11ac router at an affordable price. It is Netgear’s first wireless ac router.
Buffalo AirStation AC1750 (£109.99)
Key differentiators: price
Simple as the Netgear R6300 may be, it is swamped with features compared to the budget model in our test, the Buffalo AirStation AC1750. The AirStation was actually the first 802.11ac router on the market back in June 2012 and even then it launched for the bargain price of £139.99. Now coming in at under £110, the AirStation is cheaper than many premium dual band wireless n routers.
As you might expect this means the AirStation has no significant features beyond those shared with other routers, and it cannot be wall mounted. As the first wireless ac router the AirStation stunned many with its next generation wireless performance, but whether that still holds up in this test will determine if it remains a bargain or yet another example of how quickly technology moves on.
How we tested
The only reliable way to test the performance of a router is using a local network. Even the fastest fibre broadband speeds will not push the limits of the 802.11ac standard so we connected the routers to a professional NAS (network attached storage) and transferred files of increasingly large sizes (up to 4.5GB) to work out an average speed.
We did this at three set distances: two metres line of sight to attain the peak performance of the router, 10 metres line of sight to see how the signal degrades with distance, and 13 metres with two standing (solid) walls in between because obstacles are the biggest hindrance to wireless signal.
Along with 802.11ac speeds we tested 802.11n performance on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. 2.4GHz wireless n is used by virtually every device on sale today while 5GHz wireless n is gaining momentum. Our aim was to learn whether cutting edge wireless ac performance is necessary, or if a single or dual band wireless n router remains sufficient.
Performance will be quoted primarily in megabytes per second (MBps) as this is the measurement shown during the file transfers. We have also converted them to megabits per second (Mbps) which will be quoted in brackets as network and broadband advertising typically uses this instead of megabytes.
The calling card of 802.11ac is that it offers up to four times the performance of wireless n and we found it achieves this in comparison to 2.4GHz wireless n, while coming in at roughly twice the speed of 5GHz wireless n.
The fastest router on test proved to be the Asus RT-AC66U recording a lung-busting 802.11ac peak performance of 39.1MBps (313Mbps) at 2m. Second was the Linksys EA6700 at 36.7MBps (294Mbps). As distance increased, however, the EA6700 edged ahead with speeds of 35.2MBps (282Mbps) at 10m and 28.8MBps (230Mbps) at 13m through two solid walls.
Just behind in third place was the D-Link DIR-868L followed by the Belkin AC1800 DB and WD My Net AC1300. The Netgear R6300 kept up with these routers at short range but faded badly at maximum distance. Sadly the Buffalo AirStation AC1750 finished a long way behind them all with speeds of 27.6MBps (221Mbps) at 2m, 16.2MBps (129.6Mbps) at 10m and a very disappointing 4.2MBps (33.6Mbps) at 13m where the walls clearly took a major toll.
Interestingly all wireless routers except for the Netgear R6300 and Buffalo AC1750 produced 5GHz 802.11n performance in excess of any speeds we have seen from dedicated dual band wireless n routers. The Linksys EA6700 was the fastest at 2m and 10m with speeds of 24.5MBps (196Mbps) and 22MBps (176Mbps) respectively, but it fell away at 13m with the solid walls knocking it down to just 7.7MBps (62Mbps), a result which was slower than all the routers except the Netgear and Buffalo. Given its Beamforming history it was no surprise that by far the fastest 5GHz wireless n router at 13m was the D-Link DIR-868L at 14.1MBps (112.8Mbps) with the Asus RT-AC66U in second with 11MBps (88Mbps). Behind these came Belkin, then WD, Netgear and finally Buffalo.
While the routers’ 2.4GHz wireless n performance also outstripped speeds from any dedicated single band routers we have seen, they also highlighted the huge leaps offered by 5GHz wireless n and wireless ac. Here Asus was the fastest with speeds of 11.6MBps (92.8Mbps), 10.6MBps (84.8Mbps) and 5.3MBps (42.4Mbps). The D-Link came second with Linksys just behind in third, the WD in fourth, Belkin in fifth and predictably Netgear and Buffalo in sixth and seventh respectively.
We also tested the transfer speeds for storage connected to the routers via USB. The Linksys EA6700 led the way at 7.1MBps (56.8Mbps) but it remains a long way off USB 2.0's maximum speeds let alone that of the router's USB 3.0 port. The D-Link's USB 3.0 port was predictably second but only at 4.9MBps (39.2Mbps), and the company actually disables USB 3.0 by default saying it can affect 2.4GHz wireless n performance – something we did see in the EA6700 at 13m. The Western Digital router came just behind this hitting 4.8MBps (38.4Mbps) with the remaining routers all finishing in the 3.xMBps range (over 24Mbps), which is just about enough to stream HD media reliably. Still, this illustrates that router connected USB storage remains a long way from offering the real world speeds supplied by Gigabit Ethernet, so it should be a short term option rather than a permanent solution.
Here are those results in full, with both the MBps (quoted first) and the Mbps speeds underneath (the fastest MBps speed in each test category being bolded):
Belkin AC1800 DB
WD My Net AC1300
5GHz AC 2m
5GHz AC 10m
5GHz AC 13m
5GHz N 2m
5GHz N 10m
5GHz N 13m
2.4GHz N 2m
2.4GHz N 10m
2.4GHz N 13m
The performance benefits of 802.11ac are very real, doubling 5GHz 802.11n and proving four to five times faster than the ubiquitous 2.4GHz 802.11n. If your office is restricted to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi then the benefits in upgrading to wireless ac are very compelling, and you will future proof your network for years to come.
The argument for upgrading from a 5GHz 802.11n compatible network, however, is less powerful. Yes, you can double the speed of your network by switching to wireless ac, but 5GHz wireless n remains fast enough even at distance to do justice to fibre optic broadband and local networks of small to medium size offices. We would therefore hold off until you start accruing a decent amount of 802.11ac compliant devices, and during this time router prices will continue to fall.
If you do make the leap to wireless ac our router of choice is the Linksys EA6700. It is the fastest wireless ac router at practical distances, the fastest 5GHz wireless n router at distances of up to 10 metres. While its 2.4GHz wireless performance may only be third fastest, it remains the best all-rounder. It also has a fantastic cloud platform (Smart Wi-Fi) and is the slickest, easiest and most comprehensive router to customise and control remotely.
At £30 less the EA6700 the D-Link DIR-868L would be our second choice for its performance and evolving mydlink cloud platform, with the brutally quick Asus RT-AC66U a close third. The WD My Net AC1300 finishes fourth ahead of the similarly performing Belkin AC1800 DB due to the latter's high price. Sadly the Netgear R6300 (sixth) and Buffalo AirStation AC1750 (seventh) finish quite some way behind the rest, meaning they are not the bargains their price tags suggest.