Friday, September 25, 2015

Best Wireless AC Routers


Which little box of tricks should be part of your setup?

To take advantage of the fastest wireless speeds, you need a router that can handle them. That means upgrading from your old Wireless N or Wireless G models and getting one capable of full-speed Wireless AC.

But whether you’re upgrading an existing network or setting one up from scratch, a new router can represent a fairly large amount of money. It’s a daily necessity for most people and will undoubtedly be worth the expense over time, but that makes it even more important to buy the right one.

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Whatever your situation, it makes sense at this point for the next wireless router you buy to have Wireless AC compatibility. Support for Wireless AC has already been added to many successful product lines, from Apple smartphones and tablets to high-end Ultrabooks and gaming PCs, and it’ll probably soon phase out Wireless N entirely in consumer electronics, if it can’t already be said to have done that. Wireless AC speeds start at 433Mbps and, in practical terms, top out at a rather satisfyingly fast 3.2Gbps – a tempting prospect, for sure.

Of course, a Wireless AC network starts with a Wireless AC router. So what should a good Wireless AC router look like? What features should you be watching out for? And what, if anything, do you need to avoid? In this guide, we’ll examine a range of devices to help you answer those questions and more.

Best Budget Router: TP-Link Archer C20i

TP-Link Archer

This low-price Wireless AC router saves money in two main ways: it doesn’t have a built-in modem (you have to connect it to an existing modem or router using the uplink port), and it only has Fast Ethernet, rather than gigabit Ethernet. As concessions go, neither is particularly crippling, but it does mean it’s firmly a budget model and more compromise than bargain. Yes, the cost is what makes it attractive, but that’s not to say it’s a complete turkey either.

Indeed, the Archer C20i is pretty solid for a sub-£40 Wireless AC750 router, especially since it was pretty much the first one ever. It has dualband 802.11ac rated at speeds up to 750Mbps. While you don’t get some of the high-end features seen in the other (and crucially, more expensive) Archer models, you do get a USB port, which allows you to share storage and printers over the network through built-in software. It’s an incredibly useful feature and a genuine rarity on entry-level wireless routers.

Although TP-Link’s hardware is sometimes a bit too basic and flimsy feeling, the C20i is one of its more solid releases. The upright form factor hides three internal antennas for stable, omnidirectional connectivity, and the software is made to meet modern needs – a guest network allows you to easily share your connection with visitors, while built-in parental controls allow you to restrict access and bandwidth by IP. At this price, it’s hard to overlook it.

Best Budget Router (with Modem): TP-Link Archer D2

TP-Link Archer D2

Cut from a similar cloth as the Archer C20i, TP-Link’s Archer D2 gives a slightly better experience for anyone who wants to skip the hassle of connecting their router to a separate modem by containing an integrated ADSL modem, allowing all-in-one functionality and keeping the WAN port free for other uses, whether that’s as a spare LAN port or for some other networked device.

The extra hardware does double the cost, but then the modem isn’t the only thing you get out of the bargain. As well as an AC750 wireless connection, the Archer D2 incorporates gigabit Ethernet for faster wired connections too. It’s worth noting that while it contains four Ethernet ports, that’s four total – three gigabit LAN and one gigabit LAN/WAN port, whereas more expensive or wired-only models usually incorporate four LAN and one WAN. It’s not a huge loss, especially given the price, but it’s unusual enough to be worth pointing out.

As with the C20i, you also get a multi-functional USB port in the bargain, and although it’s only USB 2.0, we wouldn’t expect any significant slowdown from using it over a network. Built-in software allows you to share printers, media and other files over your network or through a built-in FTP server if you’re accessing it from outside your home. Security and networking features include a guest network, parental controls, and IP-based bandwidth restrictions. With prices coming in at just £70, we can’t help thinking there must be a catch somewhere. Let us know if you find one.

Best All-Round Router: Asus RT-AC55U

Asus RT-AC55U

Another modem-less router, the Asus RT-AC55U comes from a long line of quality routers by Asus, and at the low end of the market it’s outperforming the competition significantly. More than enough to justify its costs compared to other modem-free wireless AC routers? We think so.

A dual-band AC1200 router, the RT-AC55U is great for bandwidth-intensive use, such a media streaming, and has Smart QoS (How QoS Improves Performance) functions that let it prioritize traffic and bandwidth allocation for your preferred use, be that online gaming, file downloads or VoIP streaming. A traffic monitor helps you keep track of your data usage, and Asus’s proprietary AiRadar technology combines beamforming, power amplification and RF fine-tuning to keep coverage, data speed and connectivity stable.

If you like your router to give a little extra, this model also gives you access to Asus AiCloud, an online storage service with iOS and Android native apps and a web interface accessible from any web-capable device. Router-to-router sync allows you to instantly share files between supported devices as long as they’re both on the internet, so transferring files between friends and colleagues couldn’t be easier. Of course, there’s offline storage too, with built-in USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports allowing you to share two devices simultaneously.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, this router can be configured at a single click to work as a media bridge or access point, giving you three devices in one. We can see almost nothing wrong with it, and if you want to keep your spending under $US150, it’s definitely the one to go for.

Best ADSL Router: Netgear D6200

Netgear D6200

Another dual-band AC1200 router, the Netgear D6200 is still technically midpriced because the extra money you spend on it is going on a built-in modem. The Netgear name has long been associated with high-quality routers, and this one isn’t any different in that regard. HD streaming is more than possible on a router of this speed, and the ReadyShare Cloud allows both local and remote network access to any attached storage device.

A gigabit WAN port is an essential inclusion on routers of this type, allowing you the potential to attach an upgraded modem without junking your router. Whether you’re looking to the future or want the ability to switch to cable without replacing all your hardware, the D6200 lets you do it safe in the knowledge that the WAN port isn’t going to turn out to be a speed bottleneck.

Unlike many models of router, the NetGear D6200 comes with a true remote management tool: Netgear Genie is available for PC, Mac, iOS and Android, and allows you to manage, monitor and repair your network from virtually any device. Other features include an AirPrint wrapper, which turns any networked printer into an Apple-compatible printer, and a media-manager, which allows access to media files accessible from the network. You can even turn your connection profile into a QR code so other hardware can easily connect to your network by scanning it.

All things considered, we reckon that the Asus RT-AC55U has slightly more features but that’s punching significantly above its weight. If you want a router with a built-in ADSL modem as well, this is an ideal choice.

Best High-End Router: Asus RT-AC87U

Asus RT-AC87U

The Asus RT-AC55U might be good, but if we had unlimited money to spend on a consumer router, there’s a very good chance this would be the one we’d go for. The Asus RT-AC87U is about as fast as consumer routers get, with multi-band communication speeds that allow it to reach a theoretical maximum of 2300Mbps – enough for smooth 4K and ultra-HD video playback over a network, and ideal if you have a 4K TV that needs media server access.

It’s a cable router, but the uplink port and gigabit Ethernet sockets mean you can get it working on an ADSL connection if you want (or you can go for its linemate, the slightly slower Asus AC1900 DSL-AC68U). It has both a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 expansion ports, capable of sharing storage, mobile internet and printers, and its backend is fast, modern and super-easy to use – a world away from the generic web-based interfaces most routers apologetically serve up.

As if that wasn’t enough, it has more features than you could shake a stick at. It supports no less than six guest networks, can be run as a bridge, access point or repeater and comes with free access to a variety of Asus services, including cloud services and anti-virus protection. It is, quite simply, the Rolls Royce of router hardware, and if it seems expensive, that’s only because it’s got everything. At least you know that if you spend the money, you’ll never have to but another router again.

Fastest Router: D-Link DIR-890L

D-Link DIR-890L

If you want to get the fastest wireless speeds available in any home, the D-Link DIR890L is probably the device you need. Sure, it’s priced like it’s made out of gold, but a blistering AC3200 – that’s 3.2Gbps – is probably going to offset any fears that it isn’t living up to its price.

The router uses Tri-Band technology to achieve these speeds, meaning it has no fewer than six external antennas. A 600Mbps 2.4GHz network combines with two 5GHz 1300Mbps networks for superior speed – and while it does require you to have the network adapter capable of hitting similar speeds if you want the full effect, it’s best used for houses where there are multiple devices operating simultaneously with high demands.

The features are generally high-end, with parental controls, device black and white listing, internet activity monitoring and built-in guest network functionality. Intelligent prioritisation will connect you to the fastest of its networks where possible, and a 1GHz processing core means even heavy traffic won’t slow it down, keeping lag times as low as possible. USB sharing and gigabit Ethernet are, of course, included.

Still, for nearly $US300, you’d expect the hardware to be good, so it’s lucky that it really is. It’s an ideal piece of hardware for professional gamers looking to prevent lag, media streaming users with an eye on 4K or higher-than-average communal use. Provided you can afford it, there’s nothing but good things to say about it.

Best Mid-Price Model: Belkin Wireless AC1200

Belkin Wireless AC1200

If you want a more conventional router, with a built-in ADSL modem and the ability to take advantage of even faster multiplexed Wireless AC transmissions, the Belkin AC1200 is worth checking out. It’s expensive compared to most other routers, but compared to other Wireless AC routers, it’s surprisingly reasonable. If nothing else it’s dropped almost £100 in the last year alone, so it should give you an idea about the state of pricing in the Wireless AC router market.

Most of the feature-set is fairly standard, with four gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 3.0 ports for detachable storage and some one-touch configuration buttons, but again you’re getting the reliability and quality of the Belkin name. If anything’s likely to be a problem, it’s that the AC1200 is quite old as Wireless AC routers go, and that means it’s very much a first try at getting one right. Newer and more expensive Belkins offer performance that, while not necessarily faster, is certainly less variable. For some people, that’s not going to make the price easier to swallow, but it’s hard to get better for less. If you’re not willing to spend $US150 + on mid-level equipment, Wireless AC might not be for you.


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