Have a house full of the absolute latest and greatest in technology? A brand new Ultra HD television, a shiny new 12-inch MacBook, a top of the line wireless-connected desktop PC? Then you need a Wi-Fi router that can blast along all the data that these devices use to communicate back and forth . Linksys' EA8500 Max-Stream is the first of a new breed of Wi-Fi routers with MU-MIMO, a new piece of network tech that has the potential to quadruple the bandwidth available to your Wi-Fi devices.
What Is It?
The Linksys EA8500 is the first router that you can buy with MU-MIMO technology. Multi-user MIMO basically sets aside a portion of network bandwidth per device connected to it, and as such you'll be able to transfer at higher speeds to more devices simultaneously. Linksys has also flagged somewhat higher outright performance during single-device transfers, so there's a quantifiable improvement even if you don't have a house full of other top-of-the-line routers and assorted networking hardware. MU-MIMO is a great feature, and it's one you'll start seeing in more and more laptops, tablets, smartphones and other routers.
- Processor: Qualcomm IPQ8064, 1.4GHz
- RAM: 512MB
- Wi-Fi Speed: AC2600, 802.11n 800Mbps +802.11ac 1733Mbps
- Storage: 128MB ROM
The Linksys EA8500 is the first router with MU-MIMO in Australia, with 4×4 802.11ac that promises a potential of four simutaneous high-speed data transfers versus the same speed from only a single device on a lesser 802.11ac router. You’ll only get it on the absolute newest Wi-Fi AC clients, for what it’s worth, but the router also has (simultaneous) 802.11n and operates over 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless channels. Linksys says it’s seen effective Wi-Fi transfer speeds more than doubled, a 2.5x increase compared to existing tri-band routers when three clients or more are connected. With a single client, speed boosts can be as much as five times.
In terms of its hardware and design, the Linksys EA8500 is much like any other high-end router. You'll find four gigabit Ethernet ports on the rear, along with a WAN port for connecting a dedicated (ADSL/cable/NBN/4G mobile broadband) modem, USB 3.0 storage and a multipurpose USB 2.0/eSATA storage/printer I/O connector. Four tall, skinny, blade-style antennae stick out of the EA8500's four corners, there's a dedicated Wi-Fi on/off toggle and a WPS push-to-connect button, as well as a (sometimes invaluable) on/off physical power switch and a recessed reset button.
What's It Good At?
This is one extremely fast Wi-Fi router on its 5GHz 802.11ac band, whether you're transferring to one device or to several simultaneously. 802.11n 2.4GHz performance is slightly less spectacular, but still among the best of the best of new routers. Networked storage performance is similarly speedy if not the absolute best we've ever seen. The EA8500's range, too, is not the longest we've tested but maintains largely acceptable Wi-Fi transfer speeds up until the usable edge of its coverage. In summary, if you need a fast router, the Linksys EA8500 certainly fits the bill.
Linksys EA8500 Max-Stream: Performance
Wireless: 802.11ac, 2m: 90MBps 802.11ac, 10m: 75MBps 802.11ac, 15m: 50MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 2m: 33MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 10m: 33MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 15m: 29MBps USB 3.0: 1GB: 77MBps 5GB: 76MBps USB 2.0: 1GB: 22MBps 5GB: 22MBps
Linksys' Web user interface honestly makes it a breeze to set up, configure or re-jig the EA8500's network settings; you can easily run through a quick setup process and get up and running, or dive deeper into more advanced configuration options if you desire. The interface isn't quite as bonkers in-depth as something like the WRT1900AC, but for anyone with regular household needs -- that is, you don't need or want to get too into the nitty-gritty of adjusting Wi-Fi or network minutiae in too much detail. It's worth mentioning that at least on the EA8500's test firmware, there was no option for port forwarding.
Being a Smart Wi-Fi router, too, you can use Linksys' Android and iOS apps to check in on the EA8500 whether you're on the same network as it or whether you're out and about and logging in via Linksys' remote Smart Wi-Fi portal. These apps have become a lot better over the past year, and they're now genuinely useful and add value to an already good user interface. You can check the devices that have logged in to the router, too, so it makes for a useful piece of hardware to take stock of who's home and what they're doing.
It's also worth mentioning how incredibly well the EA8500 works as a NAS; that USB 3.0 connector on the back plus Linksys' secret networking sauce makes for SMB network shares that absolutely zip along. In practice it's every bit as fast as the more enthusiast-focused Linksys WRT-1900AC, and that means you'll have no difficulties streaming a high bit-rate 1080p or Ultra HD compressed video file from the EA8500 to a compatible TV or media streamer. I tested the router's NAS capabilities using a Samsung USB 3.0 solid state drive, but any USB 3.0 portable hard drive should be able to saturate the network connection -- a cheap flash drive might not.
What's It Not Good At?
Because it's pretty damn quick and can be configured to appear as a networked storage drive on your home PC or laptop, you can pretty reasonably use the EA8500 for backing up your computer. That's only relevant if you're using a Windows PC, though, because the router doesn't support Time Machine backups through Mac OS X. This isn't a huge deal for most households, especially since you'd still be better off buying an actual Time Capsule, but it's worth considering whether some of its equally priced, equally powerful competitors will cover that need for you without an extra cost.
The biggest problem with the Linksys EA8500 is, in a way, that it's a little ahead of its time. MU-MIMO clients like laptops and smartphones and tablets are a little way away from being easily available, and that makes the EA8500 both hard to actually test and hard to recommend as a rational purchase right now, since you can't use it to its utmost. Nonetheless, there's a tangible improvement to be seen with a MU-MIMO router and MU-MIMO-capable devices -- you'll just be buying for future performance as well as the current state of the art.
All of this is amplified slightly by the fact that the EA8500 is very expensive for a router, especially considering it doesn't have an inbuilt modem for ADSL, cable or NBN -- meaning you'll either need to buy an additional product or reconfigure the existing device that you already have. It's not hugely expensive considering that any single half-decent laptop or smartphone will cost near twice as much, but it's relatively expensive when you compare it to other mid-range and high-end non-modem routers out there.
Should You Buy It?
If you have a bunch of high-speed 802.11ac Wi-Fi devices on your network, and you do a lot of file transfers and high bit-rate Netflix and networked video streaming, then a MU-MIMO router like the Linksys EA8500 makes sense and makes for a genuine improvement over an older router -- even if it's also 802.11ac. There's a modest improvement for single-device transfers and throughput, but it's the transfers that take place while you're already leaning hard on the Wi-Fi network that are significantly faster.
But that presupposes your home network having a bunch of the latest MU-MIMO Wi-Fi gadgets in it, and for those gadgets to be running at full blast all the time. The second is more likely than you'd think -- extra network bandwidth is always a welcome thing, and it only takes one flat-out connection in your house to slow other Wi-Fi to a crawl -- but the first requires a serious investment in technology. You have to have a house full of brand new, high-tech gear to really get the best out of the Linksys EA8500.
For that reason, buying a EA8500 is future-proofing your home network, even moreso than buying a regular ol' 802.11ac Wi-Fi router. You'll need to be making a serious investment to do so -- this is a $430 piece of technology, guys -- but especially if you're building a new house or making serious renovations or upgrades to an existing one, then it's a cost that you can justify and one that will pay itself off in peace of mind.
Linksys has a great heritage in top of the line consumer networking hardware, and the EA8500 has the software clout to back that up. It's not perfect -- the router won't back up from Time Machine, it oddly doesn't have port filtering for outbound data -- but whether you're a newbie who just wants a powerful Wi-Fi network that you can set and forget, or someone that wants to get a little more into network configuration, then the Linksys EA8500 will do a great job.