An Urban Wireless Jungle

If you ask us, we think tri-band routers are the best choice for homes with many connected devices. But with so many options to pick from, which is best? We are glad you asked, and we are only too happy to help. You’re welcome.

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If you ask us, we think tri-band routers are the best choice for homes with many connected devices. But with so many options to pick from, which is best? We are glad you asked, and we are only too happy to help. You’re welcome.
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First seen at IFA 2015 in Berlin last year, the RT-AC5300 router from ASUS looks completely bonkers. And because of its unusual looks, it has been called an alien, a crab and a spider, amongst other things. We think that it’s a very fitting design for a high-end flagship router and it looks plain awesome. It has red accents, angular sides, sharp surfaces, and no less than 8 external antennas! It brings to mind Lamborghini’s equally wacky Veneno hypercar, and that’s a good thing.

The only downside to its outrageous design is that it’s physically huge. It is also really heavy at nearly 2kg, so wall-mounting is a no-go.

Round the front are LED status indicators, and one thing that we would have preferred is to have LED status indicators for each of the individual Gigabit Ethernet ports. As it is, there’s only a single indicator for all four of them, which isn’t very helpful if you are trying to determine which port is faulty.

Speaking of LAN ports, there are four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports and a single Gigabit Ethernet WAN port. The first and second LAN ports support aggregation, which means that they can be combined to form a single super-fast Ethernet connection. Of course, this requires a client that can support this feature, but it’s becoming quite common for high-end consumer NAS systems to support aggregation. The RT-AC5300 router also features USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports, as well as buttons to instantly turn off the Wi-Fi and LED indicators. There’s also an additional button for WPS setup.

Powering all of this is Broadcom’s new 4x4 5G XStream platform which consists of a 1.4GHz dual-core BCM47094 ARM Cortex A9 processor and three BCM4366 4x4 radios. These radios are also MU-MIMO capable, so if you have the right client devices, you can expect an overall network performance boost too. Setting up and managing the router was easy thanks to the ASUSWRT setup interface. It’s not the prettiest, but it’s fairly straightforward to use, loads quickly and gets the job done. We like how it provides a good balance between ease of use and options for more advanced users. It also has companion mobile apps that allow users to remotely manage the router, schedule files for torrent clients, and more.

+Radical design. Class-leading performance and features. Support for port aggregation.
-Heavy and takes up a lot of space.

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Another router initially revealed at CES 2015 over a year ago, the D-Link DIR-890L caught our eyes for its bright color and bold design. Even though the ASUS RT-AC5300 is now the most extreme looking router around, the DIR-890L isn’t that far behind. It has a highly angular pyramid design and features six sizable external antennas. But the most visually arresting thing about it is its bright red paint. It’s also very large, measuring nearly 40cm in width and weighing nearly a full kilogram.

Running down the middle of the router is a column of LED status indicators, but again, no indicators for the individual Gigabit LAN ports. It’s worth noting at this point that the Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports themselves also do not have their own status indicators.

Underneath the hood, the DIR-890L router is powered by the Broadcom 5G XStream chipset, which consists of a single dual-core Broadcom BCM4709A running at 1GHz and three additional offload Broadcom BCM43602 processors each dedicated to one of the D-Link DIR-890L’s three radios. This is the same chipset you’ll find in just about every other AC3200-class router today.

Setting up the D-Link DIR-890L router was a breeze thanks to D-Link’s easy to navigate and intuitive setup user interface. Most options are easy to understand and access and there’s usually an “Advanced Settings” button for more tech-savvy options to tweak to their hearts content. We especially like how the DIR-890L’s QoS management system is device-based rather than application-based, meaning to say that connections are prioritized by ranking devices connected to the router. Apps-based QoS management systems are trickier to setup as they usually require the application’s port settings, which can be hard to obtain.

Users can also downlink the mydlink Cloud app from the App Store or Google Play to remotely control and manage their routers. However, like its competitors, the implementation of such apps still leaves much to be desired since some features are missing from the app. D-Link also offers another app called SharePort that lets users access files on external storage devices connected to the router using their iOS or Android device.

+Bold, attractive design. Strong, all-round performance.
-Large and bulky. Remote management apps not polished.
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Of all the tri-band routers available today, the Linksys EA9200 is arguably the most conservative in looks. Since it is designed with a stand, it sits tall at around 30cm, including the antennas, but as a result, it takes up lesser desktop space than its rivals. All in all, it’s actually relatively compact for a tri-band router.

The other thing to notice is the fact that the EA9200 makes do with just three external antennas, unlike the more common six. In reality, the EA9200 router does have six antennas; it’s just that three of them are hidden internally. According to Linksys, the decision to do so was to give the EA9200 router a less busy appearance, plus they were certain that performance would not be compromised.

Round the front panel is a Linksys logo that lights up, but apart from that, there’s little else. There aren’t any LED status indicators, and the only way to know if something is wrong is if the Linksys logo starts flashing - it should glow solidly. There are however LED indicators on the WAN and LAN ports and even for the USB ports, but since these are on the back of the router, their helpfulness is limited.

As we mentioned earlier, almost every AC3200-class router is powered by Broadcom’s 5G XStream chipset, and the Linksys EA9200 is no different. The chipset consists of a single dual-core Broadcom BCM4709A running at 1GHz and three additional offload Broadcom BCM43602 processors each dedicated to one of the router’s three radios.

One thing we really like about the Linksys EA9200 is its ease of use. Linksys’ Smart Wi-Fi user interface is arguably the most user-friendly one in the industry and offers a thoughtful balance of ease of use and control. It is not uncommon that advanced router features like parental control and QoS can be daunting to configure and use; the Linksys EA9200 makes everything look inviting and accessible.

Through the Smart Wi-Fi app that available on iOS and Android, users can remotely control and edit their router settings, change passwords, enable Parental Control, and even access content on external storage devices connected to the router.

+Compact, clean design. Very strong all-round performance.
-Only vertical standing. Inconsistent performance at range.
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The Netgear Nighthawk X8 is another massive router. It measures a whopping 31cm x 26cm and weighs about 1.7kg. Because of its width, it looks like a Blu-ray player with antennas. Still, it’s less outlandish compared to the ASUS RT-AC5300, and the only unusual thing about it is its undulating top panel that resembles waves in the sea.

To the left of this panel is a column of LED status indictors, and the Nighthawk X8 router has indicators for each of its Ethernet LAN ports. On the front-facing panel, you get buttons to turn the Wi-Fi and LED indicators on and off, and a single button for WPS setup.

Moving to the rear, we can see a single Gigabit Ethernet WAN port and six Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports. Considering the amount of connected devices we have these days, having six ports is a refreshing change. Two of these six ports also support port aggregation, which means they can be combined to create a single super-fast connection.

The Netgear X8 only has half the number of external antennas compared to the ASUS RT-AC5300. However, Netgear claims they are more efficient because these are active antennas, meaning the signal amplifiers have been moved from the motherboard onto the external antennas themselves. This supposedly improves signal quality and performance.

Underneath it all, the Nighthawk X8 uses the same Broadcom 4x4 5G XStream platform as the ASUS RT-AC5300. This means a 1.4GHz dual-core BCM47094 ARM Cortex A9 processor and three BCM4366 4x4 radios. MU-MIMO is supported, but compatible clients are required if any performance gain is to be seen.

Like all other Netgear routers, the Nighthawk X8 comes preconfigured. A sticker on the router indicates its SSID and also its password, so you could use it straight out of the box. The Netgear Genie setup user interface is not the easiest to use, despite the option for Basic or Advanced settings. Furthermore, certain features like Parental Controls and ReadySHARE require additional registration or software, which makes it tedious and frustrating to setup.

There’s also a Genie app available for iOS and Android devices, but it is limited in use and missing some features that are found on the router’s web browser interface.

+6 LAN ports. Support for port aggregation.
-Incredibly pricey. Some features frustrating to use.
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The TP-Link Archer C3200 is quite unusual in the realm of AC3200 routers because of its relative compact size. It’s shaped like a Mini-PC and channels much of the same aesthetic spirit as the Linksys EA9200.

The antennas are especiallynifty, because while they aren’t removable, they can be neatly folded away into specially cutout tunnels on the top panel.The top panel also has vents that allow heat to escape to keep the router cool.

The front panel is where users will find a row of LED status indicators, which are less comprehensive that we would have liked them to be. There are no individual indicators for the Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports - a fault found in many other routers. So if the lights for the LAN ports go off, you’ll need to spend some time to figure out which exact port is malfunctioning.

And again, the TP-Link Archer is powered by the same Broadcom 5G XStream chipset found in other AC3200-class routers. This chipset consists of a single dual-core Broadcom BCM4709A running at 1GHz and three additional offload Broadcom BCM43602 processors each dedicated to one of the router’s three radios.

Setting up was a bit of mixed bag because the Archer C3200’s user interface isn’t as polished as its rivals; many times, it isn’t apparent where some of the options are. Most of all, the QoS option is a pain to configure because you must manually define applications, IP and port ranges. Fortunately, the Archer C3200 actually comes preconfigured and a sticker on the router will indicate its preconfigured SSID and password.

Like most high-end routers today, the Archer C3200 can also be remotely controlled and managed using TP-Link’s Tether app, which is available for iOS and Android devices. The app is a pretty basic, but it shows you a network map that lets you see devices connected to your router, and also allows you to manage your Wi-Fi and guest networks settings, and also activate or deactivate your parental control settings.

+Most affordable. Pretty good performance.
-User interface isn’t as polished. Lacking features found in rivals.
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5GHz Downlink Speeds (Mbps)

(higher is better)

The ASUS RT-5300 router’s performance was the strongest of the lot. Though it wasn’t the quickest router at 2 meters, its recorded speed of 173.71Mbps is still very respectable. What’s more impressive, however, is its downlink speed at our farthest test range of 17 meters. At this extreme range it still managed 155.21Mbps, which is a good 12% fastest than the second-placed TP-Link Archer C3200.

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5GHz Uplink Speeds (Mbps)

(higher is better)

Again, the ASUS RT-5300 router impressed us with its strong overall performance. It’s recorded uplink speed of 156.51Mbps was the highest at 2 meters, and its showing at 17 meters wasn’t too bad either. At 17 meters, the RT-AC5300 router managed 95.83Mbps, which is only a shade slower than the Linksys EA9200 router’s 103.09Mbps.

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5GHz File Transfer Speeds (Mbps)

(higher is better)

The ASUS RT-5300 router cemented its position as a speed demon by recording the fastest speeds in our file transfer test. In this test, we recorded its speed as the router was tasked to download a 1GB file. Its performance at 17 meters was especially noteworthy as its recorded speed of 186.05Mbps was a very significant 18% faster than the second-placed D-Link DIR-890L router.

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AC5300 and AC3200, ever wonder what do these numbers mean and how do manufacturers come up with these numbers? To begin, the numbers indicate the total data transfer rate supported by the routers and it is quoted in Mbps or megabits per second. 8 bits is a byte, so 5,300Mbps is equivalent to 662.5MB/s, whereas 3,200Mbps is 400MB/s.

Also important to note is this quoted total data transfer rate is achieved by adding up the bandwidth offered by all broadcasted networks. In the case of an AC3200-class router, its single 2.4GHz network offers 600Mbps while its two 5GHz networks offer 1,300Mbps. Add them all up and you get 3,200Mbps.

For AC5300 routers, because they support 4x4 spatial streams and a special new technology called NitroQAM, the maximum bandwidth of each stream is boosted. This results in 1,000Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 2,150Mbps on each of the 5GHz band. Add them all up and you get 5,300Mbps.

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ASUS has been especially dominant in the realm of high-end performance routers and they didn’t disappoint with the RT-AC5300 router. When they unveiled the RT-AC5300 router at IFA 2015, it took the networking world by storm with its impressive specifi cations and radical design.

Besides its looks, the RT-AC5300 router can actually boast of blazing fast performance and a rich set of features. Performance was strong on both uplink and downlink sides, and it was also consistent throughout all tested ranges. In addition to its class-leading performance, the RT-AC5300 router comes loaded with useful features including two aggregated LAN ports, remote router management, cloud storage functionality and AiProtection. For anyone looking for a high-end router that can do it all, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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