If I remember correctly, the first wireless router I ever bought was a Linksys WRT54G. I’d had a couple of wired ones before that, and knew from experience that cheap routers can be very frustrating. Many of us now use the internet almost 24/7, and buying a sub-par router is like buying a good stereo with terrible speakers. It’s the central hub in your network, on which all other devices depend. It makes sense to get something decent.
The WRT legacy
The original WRT has a couple of things going for it. It offered great performance at a reasonable price, it proved to be very stable and reliable, and it was hackable. There’s a number of 3rd party open source firmwares available for the 54G, offering features that linksys themselves never implemented. This has helped make the WRT54G a technology icon, and a device that many technology enthusiasts look back on fondly.
Linksys was acquired by Cisco in 2003, and I’ve owned two Linksys/Cisco routers. A mid-range WRT320N and the then-flagship E4200. Both proved rather disappointing. The 320 just wasn’t special, although reliable. The E4200 seemed very fast when I just got it, but suffered from severe overheating issues. Last year, Cisco sold Linksys to Belkin, and fortunately, it looks like they are trying to restore the Linksys brand to its former glory.
A new WRT
The WRT1900AC is the first WRT router released by Linksys since the acquisition, and it’s something special. It’s big, expensive, powerful and sports a vintage WRT look. It’s likely to appeal to many former 54G fans, and that’s probably what Belkin is aiming for. They offered to send me one to review, and I’ve been using it for a little over a week now.
There are three things I expect in top-end domestic routers like this one.
- Excellent performance
- Ease of use
Considering 1900AC’s retail price of €279,90, I think the very least it should do is tick all these boxes. You can get other 802.11ac routers for a hundred euros less, so Linksys’s new offering will be hard to recommend if it doesn’t.
I do not have access to a test lab, so all the tests I ran were highly unscientific. Fortunately, what I do have is a home with reinforced concrete floors. The Linksys E4200 was the first router that you could successfully connect to from the third floor, albeit at frustratingly slow speeds. The Asus RT-N66U that I’d been using since made Netflix usable in these “blind” spots. But only using the 2.4GHz frequency band. The 5 GHz signal offered very high speeds, but not much range.
Once I’d set up the 1900AC, I ran a couple of tests. I didn’t have any other 802.11ac devices available, so I walked around the house with my phone, and used the Speedtest app to determine the internet connection speed in various locations. To my suprise, I consistently got 60 mbps over 5 GHz. 60 mbps is my ISP limit, and thus the highest possible result this test could yield. I ran the tests multiple times to be sure. In my real world situation, it turned out, the WRT1900AC made a big difference.
Considering this router’s high WAN-to-LAN speed and gigabit network ports, wired connections should also be very good. And one area where the WRT1900AC apparently excels is external storage. It’s got two USB ports, one of which doubles as eSATA while the other supports USB3. This means you can connect fast harddrives and SSDs directly to the router, and access them from the network. Tests on other websites have shown that the Linksys offers very good read/write speeds compared to other routers.
Only time will tell whether or not the 1900AC will prove to be as reliable as its legendary ancestor. One week in, I have yet to notice a single glitch, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Like the Asus, this router has a substantial heatsink, and there’s even a fan. I’ve only heard it spin up once, and found it to be very loud. This may very well be a hardware defect in my unit, and I’ll need to investigate further. But the good news is that it only kicked in after an hour of copying many gigabytes between two machines on my network. During normal operation, the WRT is completely silent. And I’d certainly prefer some noise over the alternative, stability issues.
Ease of use
When I reviewed the E4200, I was disappointed with its web interface. It looked outdated, and hadn’t really progressed since the original WRT54G. By contrast, the 1900AC offers a very slick, modern user interface, that can optionally be accessed from the cloud using the “Smart Wifi” service. I found this to work really well.
Once you’re logged in, emphasis is placed on things you’re likely to change more often. All the usual settings are there, but the top menu entries include things like a (graphical) network map and parental controls. Routers are often “set and forget”, but if you do frequently change settings, chances are you’ll like the WRT1900AC. In any case, it good to see a Linksys router that’s intuitive and easy to use.
The firmware’s ease of use does come at a cost though. It does not offer many features. Home users are likely to find everything they need, but enthusiasts may be disappointed. That’s where the WRT1900AC’s last standout “feature” comes into play. Belkin calls the WRT “Open Source Ready”. They’re working with open source developers to help create alternative firmwares. From what I read in forums, this collaboration isn’t going very smoothly yet, but that may change. It might have to, if Linksys is hoping to sell this product to enthusiasts.
With its fast hardware, the 1900AC could be an ideal platform for open source firmware projects like OpenWRT. It should be powerful enough to run advanced routing functions, and possible serve as lightweight network server. If Linksys succeeds in creating an open source ecosystem around the new WRT, that could truly justify its high retail price. As it is now, with the stock firmware, it’s simply a very, very fast router with loads of – partly unused – potential.
So, does it make sense to pay €279 for a home router? I guess it depends. If you need the absolute best wifi reception available, and prefer a router that’s easy to set up over one with tons of features, then it might. If you’re looking for something with lots of advanced features, or would prefer to use an aftermarket firmware, I’d recommend waiting to see if Linksys makes good on its open source promise.