Fast Wi-Fi is great. Fast, long range Wi-Fi is even better. Like a good pair of shoes, tyres or skis, investing in a powerful router can save you money in the long run and future-proof your home network. For my money, right now, the Linksys WRT-1900AC has no equal in the world of wireless networking.
Note: I'll be adding images of Linksys' Smart Wi-Fi Web interface in later today, sorry for any inconvenience. Stay tuned.
What Is It?
The Linksys WRT-1900AC is a $299.95 wireless router, using the latest and greatest 802.11ac high-speed Wi-Fi networking standard. It's able to hit theoretical maximum speeds of 1300Mbps on its AC network, and simultaneous 600Mbps on 802.11n; these speeds are a world ahead of what we were able to hit with even the best wireless a year or two ago.
The WRT-1900AC is both the spiritual and physical successor to Linksys' WRT-54G, an utterly customisable and tweakable 802.11g router released in December 2002. That router still has a stalwart following amongst network geeks who are fond of installing custom firmware, and Linksys wants the WRT-1900AC to bring those users onto a newer and vastly more powerful wireless networking platform.
In terms of specifications, the WRT-1900AC is the cream of the crop in networking right now. It's the most powerful router you can buy, with a dual-core 1.2GHz processor using ARM's low-energy architecture, 256MB of DDR3 RAM and 128MB of onboard flash memory storage -- these are specs that, in the early 2000s, would not have been out of place in a Pentium III desktop PC.
Similarly, it's totally kitted out with almost every feature that you'd expect from a high-end wireless router. You can run a guest network for which you can set 'net access permissions, or you can set the WRT-1900AC up as a wireless bridge or wireless repeater to rebroadcast your existing home Wi-Fi or wired networks. Running the router in Repeater mode is useful for boosting both existing Wi-Fi bands on the router you already have, while Bridge gives one band a boost while setting up a separate network on the empty band. (This is a great way to add 802.11ac to your network while maintaining 802.11n and boosting your existing coverage.)
A faintly ridiculous four external wireless antennas, each of which can be detached and replaced with higher gain units, lets the router capably handle 802.11ac beamforming, which selects the three most appropriate antennas (relative to their physical placement) to maximise transfer rates and wireless connection quality. Of course, as you'd expect at this price range, the WRT-1900AC enables simultaneous dual-band 2.4GHz 802.11n and 5GHz 802.11ac networking, as well as virtual guest networking on both bands.
What Is It Good At?
The design of the WRT-1900AC harks back to its predecessor, and that's such a good thing. Vaguely sci-fi-ish looks aside, the WRT-1900AC is built of incredibly sturdy plastic and aluminium, which serves both as a heatsink and protects the router's delicate internal components. With four mounting holes on the base of each foot, you can hang the router on your wall or in a networking cabinet or rack; those same raised feet mean that there's plenty of air space for convective cooling keeping everything at a reasonable temperature.
Outright speed is where the WRT-1900AC keeps its ace card. At close range, with a capable 802.11ac client laptop -- and this means a fast Wi-Fi chip, enough processing power, and a decently fast SSD -- I recorded average transfer rates of 94MBps from 2m away, dropping only slightly to 82MBps at 10m distance and 61MBps at 15m. These are, by a significant margin, the fastest wireless-AC router speeds I've seen in the real world.
Similarly, USB transfer rates, both over USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, blow away any competitor (like the Netgear Nighthawk). If you're looking for a fast, wireless, versatile network storage device, look no further. Linksys' WRT-1900AC is, over wired and wireless networks, more than fast enough to stream 1080p or even higher-resolution video files from an adequately fast USB drive (SSD or Extreme Pro flash drive, naturally). You can even handle live backups of your PC or laptop to a networked drive, far more seamlessly than in the past.
Linksys WRT-1900AC: Performance
Wireless: 802.11ac, 2m: 94MBps 802.11ac, 10m: 82MBps 802.11ac, 15m: 61MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 2m: 48MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 10m: 46MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 15m: 43MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 2m: 45MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 10m: 41MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 15m: 32MBps USB 3.0: 1GB: 58MBps 5GB: 57MBps USB 2.0: 1GB: 26MBps 5GB: 25MBps
Four gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, one gigabit Ethernet WAN port, two USB ports -- one of them USB 3.0, one of them combination USB 2.0 and eSATA -- make for a connectivity suite that should keep all but the most data-hungry networkers happy. My main complaint would be that one extra Ethernet port would be handy; but to be honest, having high-speed 802.11ac and powerful 802.11n meant that I could get rid of a couple of wired devices that I had connected to my network previously.
The Web interface for PC and Mac, with Linksys's Smart Wi-Fi branding, is the only effective portal you have to initially set up the router, connect it to the Internet, and change any Wi-Fi or other connection settings. It's graphics- and Java-heavy, and uses a fair bit of processing power to run on your PC; because of this it can feel a little laggier and less responsive and clunkier to use than an older, arguably less advanced router interface.
Like any modern router, the WRT-1900AC makes good use of its Internet connection, syncing with Linksys' Smart Wi-Fi online interface to let you control various aspects of its operation. I mainly used this to check that my 'net connection was still up and running while I was out of the house -- for a little peace of mind -- and also to see if anything untoward was happening in terms of bandwidth usage. It's a handy extra that, while most users will never need it, could come in handy for some.
What Is It Not Good At?
The WRT-1900AC is expensive -- there's no getting around that. At a time when you can get an otherwise fairly capable 802.11ac router or even modem-router for less than $200, Linksys's top model is a full $100 more; the $299.95 price tag is down to $295 at some retailers but you won't find it any cheaper. That extra 50 per cent price premium could easily push the WRT-1900AC out of some buyers' price ranges.
It's also worth mentioning that despite having four antennas, the WRT-1900AC is only a 3x3 MIMO router; the fourth antenna is to provide beamforming backup rather than to further boost transfer rates. Some recently announced, but not yet available, routers like the ASUS RT-AC3200 have theoretically superior speeds -- although you might not want to wait for them to hit store shelves.
The Linksys Smart Wi-Fi app for Android and iOS is merely OK. Where the WRT-54G was so barebones and so adjustable and so versatile, and the desktop Web interface for the WRT-1900AC enables a fair bit of tweaking, the Android and iOS smartphone and tablet apps are comparatively restrictive -- in my experience they're primarily for checking status and minor fiddling rather than any serious setup or adjustment. You can use the desktop interface on a mobile device, but it's a difficult ask that requires a lot of zooming and scrolling.
In a few very dedicated and fervent Web forums, Linksys is getting a lot of angry attention for including a fan in the WRT-1900AC. To users who have had the infallible WRT-54G running since its 2002 launch, a fan is just another point of failure for an increasingly complicated device. In reality, though, the fan doesn't spin up unless the WRT-1900AC's internal temperature raises to a level that might affect the processor or other components, and to me it's a welcome feature that adds a little extra peace of mind. If it does happen to fail in a few year's time, when the WRT-1900AC is out of its (unfortunately only one-year) warranty, just crack open the router and replace it.
Should You Buy It?
You have to consider the Linksys WRT-1900AC as a long-term investment; this is the way to justify its otherwise quite painfully high price tag. Like the venerable WRT-54G, the WRT-1900AC should stand the test of time and should be a rock-solid part of your home or office network for a long time to come.
There are a few caveats with this router, one of which is the sometimes frustrating Web interface. If you're the kind of person that likes tinkering with network settings even after the initial setup process is complete, you'd better be prepared to do so with a laptop -- the mobile app is markedly inferior.
But with that in mind, there are very few things that the WRT-1900AC is not good at. As well as being the outright transfer speed king in wireless-AC routers at the moment, it's also one of the best for overall effective wireless range. The design is well thought-out, the Web interface is good enough and has useful online connectivity, and I honestly think that it's just worth that bit extra.