The Ultimate Router Battle

You've been getting by with the cheapie router you bought two years ago, so why should you upgrade now? Performance. And features. We asked seven manufacturers to send us the best consumer routers in their stables regardless of price tags.

In most cases, that meant a simultaneous dual-band router capable of running 802.11n wireless networks using the typical 2.4GHz frequency band and the less-crowded 5GHz band, plus a guest network that isolates its clients from your primary LAN. In all cases, it meant a router with an integrated four-port gigabit switch and at least one USB port for sharing a printer or a storage device over the network (some have two USB ports to support both functions). In an interesting twist, however, no one submitted a product using a three-stream wireless chipset promising raw throughput of 450Mb/s.

We're absolutely fine with that, because our first experience with this bleeding-edge standard, courtesy of Trendnet's single-band TEW-691GR, left a bitter taste on our tongues. The TEW-691GR was very fast, but only at very close range. As we observed in our review, you can't buy a USB Wi-Fi adaptor with three antennas today, so much of that extra bandwidth is effectively wasted.

So who's got the best offering, an established name or a scrappy challenger?

Asus RT-N16

A solid, if unexciting, bargain.

The Asus RT-N16 is a single-band router with three removable (and therefore upgradeable) antennas, but the third antenna didn't help the router rise above third place overall in terms of TCP throughput. It did, however, do a solid job of penetrating our media room.

The RT-N16 is equipped with two USB ports, so it can support both a portable USB hard drive and a printer. USB storage devices are shared using SMB/CIFS, so the shares appear when you use Windows to browse your network. This is a far superior alternative to forcing you to install a client to access the shares as some of the other routers do.

Asus has developed a very user-friendly GUI for the RT-N16's firmware, and the EZQoS utility makes it easy to assign bandwidth priority to various applications (with settings for VoIP, games, video streaming and the built-in FTP server). There's an integrated BitTorrent client too. If the stock firmware doesn't float your boat, you can replace it with a version of the popular open-source alternative DD-WRT.

The RT-N16's stock firmware includes a UPnP media server, but it's not DLNA-compliant. This means the router is not a great choice if you're looking to stream media from an attached drive to an Xbox 360 or a PS3 gaming console.

You'll find our complete Asus RT-N16 network and NAS benchmark results here.

Belkin Play N600 HD

Homey don't play dat

The Belkin Play Max's claim to fame was a fat set of hardware features and a generous collection of apps that ran not on the router but on client PCs connected to the router. In relaunching the Play Max as the Play N600 HD, Belkin has kept all the hardware features but axed three of the apps (the music library tool Daily DJ, the backup utility Memory Safe, and the MP3 tagger Music Labeler).

No big loss as far as we're concerned; we're far more interested in the hardware. Like its predecessor, the Play N600 HD features two wireless radios, so you can operate distinct networks on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, plus a second guest network (on the 2.4GHz band only) that provides internet access while isolating visitors from your LAN. You'll also find two USB ports, so you can share both a mass storage device and a printer across your network (but not with clients on the guest network).

The Play N600 HD's wireless routing performance using the 2.4GHz band was distinctly middle of the road, placing third in two of our test locations and tying for third in another. On the other hand, it managed a relatively strong second-place performance in our challenging media-room test. Performance on the 5GHz band was roughly the same, except that it couldn't penetrate our double-walled media room at all.

Belkin includes a BitTorrent client that's useful for finishing Torrent downloads without tying up a host PC; but as you can see from our benchmark charts, the router's NAS performance is abysmal.

You'll find our complete Belkin Play N600 HD network and NAS benchmark results here.

Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti

This bison no longer roams

Of the three routers we're taking second looks at, none has changed more than Buffalo's WZR-HP-G300NH. That's because Buffalo has thrown the firmware we tested earlier out the window and adopted the open-source DD-WRT.

Comparing our earlier benchmark numbers to the performance we recorded this time out, however, we much prefer the kickarse award–earning router we tested in January to the one in front of us now. That router turned in the best throughput we've ever seen with our client in our well-insulated media room and in our furthest outdoor location; this one took fifth place finishes in both tests (in a field of seven). We have little doubt the reason for this performance discrepancy is due to the fact that no matter how we configured the router, we couldn't coax Buffalo's WLI-UC-G300HP01B USB client adaptor to connect to it at a stated data rate faster than 130Mb/s.

This is a single-band router that enables you to run virtual wireless networks with distinct SSIDs, but these aren't true guest networks that provide internet access while isolating guest clients from your primary LAN. The router is equipped with a single USB port that's limited to NAS functions-you can't use it to share a printer attached to your network. It does, however, feature a DLNA-compliant media server, and it can be converted to a wireless bridge/repeater when you upgrade to a newer router down the road.

You'll find our complete Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti WZR-HP-G300NH network results here. We didn't test NAS performance because this router doesn't support NTFS-formatted drives.

D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N

Does "Xtreme" refer to the price tag?

In terms of features, D-Link's DIR-855 came the closest to matching Netgear's routerlicious WNDR3700. It's a simultaneous dual-band model that allows you to run guest networks on either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies, it provides a USB port for sharing either a printer or a storage device, it's equipped with three removable/upgradeable antennas, it sports an OLED display, and its firmware is a tweaker's paradise.

But the benchmark performance we experienced with the DIR-855's 2.4GHz radio in no way justifies its astronomically high street price of $US240. Netgear's WNDR3700 V1 spanked the DIR-855 on both frequency bands, has almost as many features and costs $US90 less than D-Link's router.

The DIR-855's 2.4GHz radio scored fourth or fifth everywhere except at our outdoor location, where it placed first. Its 5GHz radio performed better, coming in second (behind the WNDR3700) in our two close-range tests, and third and fourth in two other tests.

On the bright side, D-Link's firmware boasts more customisable settings than any other router in this field. You can configure both radios to operate on a schedule, so you can shut off your entire wireless network when you're away from home (with independent schedules for your guest networks), you can grant or deny guests access to your LAN, and more. But in the final analysis, we'd be a lot more impressed if the DIR-855 was a whole lot faster and much cheaper.

You'll find our complete D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N Duo Media Router network and NAS benchmarks here.

Linksys E3000

Same as it ever was?

The Linksys E3000 is actually a rebadged WRT610N. We're taking a second look at it now because it remains Cisco's best consumer router; as such, we owe it to our readers to compare it to the best of what the rest of the industry has to offer.

We updated the router with the latest firmware for this review and downloaded fresh drivers for the Linksys AE1000 dual-band USB client adaptor, so we were quite surprised to see the router perform more poorly than it did when we tested it several months ago. Cisco Connect remains the easiest tool we've ever used to establish a connection to a router, but Cisco's "fix" for a problem we described in our initial review has rendered the router a whole lot less appealing.

In that earlier review, we discovered that using the router's web interface to change the router's SSID broke Cisco Connect. The new firmware not only forces you to use Cisco Connect to change the SSID, it uses the very same SSID for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. So when your client Wi-Fi adaptor surveys the airspace, it sees only one network plus the guest network. That's just dumb.

You'll find our complete Linksys E3000 network benchmark results here. We didn't test NAS performance because this router doesn't support NTFS-formatted drives.

Trendnet TEW-673GRU

My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

We thought the 1.5 x 1.25 inch LCD on Trendnet's TEW-673GRU was pretty cool at first. It informs you of the router's status, provides real-time performance numbers, displays the time and date and more. But our enthusiasm wilted when the display became corrupted to the point of being illegible. That's unfortunate, because there's a lot else to like about this router.

The TEW-673GRU is a dual-band model with two USB ports to support both a printer and a portable hard drive. It finished second in terms of TCP throughput on the 2.4GHz band (taking third place on the 5GHz band), and it turned in the fastest transfer speeds as a NAS device.

But it's not all hot fudge and cherries with this sundae. You need to install a utility on each client PC in order to grant access to the attached storage device, for instance, and only one client can utilise those ports at a time. And while the TEW-673GR delivered high throughput to our outdoor patio using both radios, neither was able to penetrate our media room or reach our second outdoor location. The router isn't capable of operating a guest network either, and its integrated media server is not DLNA-compliant.

You'll find our complete Trendnet TEW-673GRU network and NAS benchmark results here.

Netgear RangeMax V1

The winner and still champeen!

It wasn't much of a contest: Netgear's WNDR3700 V1 retained its crown as our Best of the Best router with spectacular TCP through-put, a strong feature set and an even stronger price/performance ratio. It's the second-most expensive router we tested, but it's worth every penny.

The WNDR3700's 2.4GHz radio delivered the best performance at every client location except one (where it placed second), and its 5GHz radio finished first in six of our seven locations. D-Link's DIR-855 firmware is more customisable, but Netgear's router offers several important features D-Link can't match, including a DLNA-compliant media server, the ability to configure either radio as a wireless bridge/repeater, and NAS functionality that doesn't require a client-side utility.

If your ISP subjects you to download limits and penalises you for overages, you'll appreciate the WNDR3700's traffic meter. This tool measures both online time and download volume and can be configured to prevent you from exceeding either quota. Unfortunately, the meter measures in aggregate, so you can't establish limits on a per-client basis. We also find it odd that Netgear doesn't support printer sharing on the WNDR3700's single USB port.

We suspect the primary reason the WNDR3700's press-time street price was so low is because Netgear was clearing inventory to make way for the WNDR3700 V2. Netgear is promising to double the router's memory, deliver a 50 percent performance boost on the 5GHz band, and provide full support for IPv6. We can't wait.

You'll find our complete Netgear WNDR3700 V1 network and NAS benchmarks here.

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