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To the test: Routers

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING EXTRA WHEN DECIDING WHICH ROUTER TO STOCK? NEED AN INDEPENDENT ANALYSIS TO HELP DRIVE A PARTICULAR SALE? THE MARGIN’S COMPARATIVE REVIEW PUT FIVE OF THE LATEST 802.11AC WIRELESS ROUTERS, SUITABLE FOR HOME OR SMALL/MEDIUM BUSINESSES, THROUGH A RIGOROUS AND COMPREHENSIVE TEST TO DETERMINE THEIR INDIVIDUAL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES.

At the heart of almost every home or office network, you’re going to find a router. Wired or wireless, routers connect all local devices like computers, printers and servers to each other as well as the internet.

Because routers are simultaneously connected to both the local network and the internet, they’re perfectly positioned to enforce a specific security policy. For that reason all modern routers are fitted with a firewall to manage incoming and outgoing traffic. For system administrators a router is also the perfect way to better manage bandwidth, resources, security and devices.

Currently there are a few types of wireless router available. A key difference lies in the number of frequencies that they operate on. Single-band wireless routers are cheaper, but can only communicate on the overcrowded and thus slower 2.4GHz frequency. Dual-band wireless routers can simultaneously use the faster 5GHz frequency. However, while faster, the range of 5GHz is also considerably shorter than that of 2.4GHz routers.

Within these two categories of routers, there are again two camps. You’ve got the ones that utilise the older 802.11n wireless transfer standard and models that work with the latest, faster 802.11ac protocol. All routers are backwards compatible, meaning they also support every previous, older wireless protocol.

In order to make full use of these latest frequencies and wireless standards, devices like a notebook or tablet need to explicitly support this technology as well.

Asus RT-AC87U Asus RT-AC87U
Asus RT-AC87U

The Asus RT-AC87U router features an embedded VPN (Virtual Private Network) server that facilitates a secure connection to a home or office network over the internet. It also supports full Quality of Service (QoS), giving the router’s administrator detailed control over the (prioritising of) inbound and outgoing data traffic. It’s a shame it won’t automatically check for firmware updates. On the other hand, the router proved to be quite easy to install and configure.

The Asus RT-AC87U is one of two devices in this test that claims to reach ultra high speeds of max 2330 Mbit/s. According to Asus that speed is achieved by combining both the 2.4GHz (max 600 Mbit/s) and 5GHz bands (max 1750 Mbit/s). Our test showed a different picture with realistic speeds of max 126 Mbit/s on 2.4GHz and max 387 Mbit/s on 5GHz. Although these results are far from what Asus claimed, and all manufacturers for that matter, the RT-AC87U is actually the best performing router of all five. The RT-AC87U’s energy consumption of 12.8 Watt in idle mode is the highest of all tested models. While actively connected with three notebooks its energy consumption of 13.3 Watt is only surpassed by that of the Linksys router (item 3).

RRP R3 700

VPN server Yes

Automatic firmware check No

Product page goo.gl/8S78hc

Distributor Mustek/Pinnacle

Performance 8/10
Energy consumption 6/10
Overall 8*

D-Link DIR-880L D-Link DIR-880L
D-Link DIR-880L

As with the Asus router, both installing and configuring was easy. This is the result of an installation wizard leaving us with a fully secured wireless network afterwards. The DIR-880L is the cheapest router of all five and houses a VPN server and can even periodically check for new firmware, download it and notify the administrator it’s ready to be installed. Although this router does offer QoS features to gain better control over the up- and downstream of the internet connection, it lacks the option to prioritise specific applications and ports. Like all other routers within this comparative test, the DIR-880L can be hooked up to a printer or external hard drive via USB to serve as a file-or printer server.

This D-Link DIR-880L has a maximum theoretical wireless speed of 1900 Mbit/s when combining both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Naturally, our test results showed lower, more realistic speeds of 116 Mbit/s on 2.4GHz and 378 Mbit/s on 5GHz. Although still pretty good, performance of the D-Link router is not as good as the Asus model (item 1). Energy consumption, however, is nice and low with only 7.8 Watt in idle mode and 11 Watt when serving three separate notebooks.

RRP R3 100

VPN server Yes

Automatic firmware check Yes

Product page goo.gl/hROjKh

Distributor Mustek

Performance 7/10
Energy consumption 7/10
Overall 7*

Linksys WRT1900AC Linksys WRT1900AC
Linksys WRT1900AC

The Linksys WRT1900AC router is one of two devices in this test that doesn’t offer a VPN server to facilitate secure, remote access to the home or office network over the internet. The device also doesn’t fully support QoS to manage bandwidth, but does check automatically for new firmware.

This Linksys router has a maximum theoretical speed of 1900 Mbit/s, just like the D-Link model (item 2), but still proved slightly faster. This is most likely as a result of the extra antenna when compared to the D-Link, which has three. Energy consumption, however, is not its strong suit. The Linksys WRT1900AC requires the highest amount of energy of all five routers, 12.5 Watt when idle and 16.5 Watt when connected to three notebooks.

Both installing the device, and configuring it, was a breeze because of the very intuitive and illustrated installation wizard. After completion, we were left with a fully secured wireless network.

RRP R3 500

VPN server No

Automatic firmware check Yes

Product page goo.gl/7yJYJr

Distributor Westcon

Performance 8/10
Energy consumption 6/10
Overall 6.5*

TP-Link Archer C9 TP-Link Archer C9
TP-Link Archer C9

TP-Link’s Archer C9 has a claimed maximum speed of 1900 Mbit/s but lacks an integrated VPN server, certain QoS functions to manage bandwidth and won’t automatically check for new firmware. For a device with a relatively high RRP, we expected more versatility. On top of that, the Archer C9 proved to be the slowest of all five. The fact that it has one antenna less than most of the other models won’t help in that department.

Its range, on the other hand, is surprisingly adequate, which in turn compensates for the relatively low speeds. The Archer C9 also has the lowest energy footprint of all tested models with just 7.6 Watt in idle mode and 8.2 Watt when actively linked to three notebooks. Both installing the C9 and configuring all its settings wasn’t very difficult, but we found the wizard to be less intuitive and fool-proof than those of the other routers.

RRP R4 000

VPN server No

Automatic firmware check No

Product page goo.gl/hYKhKC

Distributor Phoenix Distribution

Performance 6/10
Energy consumption 8/10
Overall 6*

Netgear R7500 Nighthawk X4

Netgear’s R7500 router is the most expensive one of those tested. For that amount of money, the device has a claimed theoretical maximum speed of 2350 Mbit/s. Looking at our own test results; we have to admit the R7500 is quite fast. However, it can’t keep up with the Asus router (item 1). Unfortunately, the R7500’s range can’t match those of the other routers, therefore negatively impacting its total performance. On the flipside, its energy consumption is low with 8.3 Watt in idle mode and 9.2 Watt when wirelessly hooked up to three notebooks.

The R7500 features an onboard VPN server and fully supports QoS to manage bandwidth. For the most expensive router it’s a bit disappointing that it won’t check for new firmware once in a while. The installation and configuration wizard was very intuitive and left us with a secure network after completion.

Indicative retail price R 7 900

VPN server Yes

Automatic firmware check No

Product page goo.gl/osukMc

Distributor Tarsus

 

In conclusion:

Anybody looking for a relatively fast wireless router with all the bells and whistles will find the Asus and D-Link to be their best bets. The Netgear R7500 also delivers great speed, but not enough to justify its relatively high price point. TP-Link’s device has the second highest price, but scores low on versatility and performance. Finally, the Linksys router is relatively cheap, but lacks specific options and has the highest energy consumption of all five routers, driving up costs in the long run.

 

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