Chris Ford spends much of his time working for a telco, and thanks to a love of technology, this has spilled into the rest of his life. With five housemates and numerous devices all sharing the same connection, it can get a little complicated. As one of the winners of our recent Synology RTI900ac competition, Chris took the device through its paces for us. This is his in-depth review.
Our house (there are 5 of us) has just a wee bit of technology - router, NAS, wireless extender, ethernet over powerline, Windows desktop, Mac desktop, Linux desktop / media centre, 4 Windows laptops, a Macbook, 4 iPhones, an Apple TV, at least 2 iPads, an Android phone, 5 Lifx WiFi bulbs, 2 strings of WiFi Christmas lights and 2 Belkin WeMo plugs; and that is before any of the stream of vistors comes in with their phones, tablets and laptops.
As a result we push consumer networking gear pretty hard, often to the point of breaking. Our existing router needed to be reset on an almost daily basis (super annoying and frustrating to everyone). It was time for something new. Over the years we've had routers from a few vendors (Linksys, Netgear, Billion), but when I saw that Synology was bringing out something new I was really interested in giving that a try. Our NAS is a Synology DS412+, and I've been extremely happy with it. It's been rock solid (only restarts to install software updates), and the management software (DSM) is really easy to use. So I held similar hopes for the RT1900ac.
The $229 Synology RT1900ac is a high-speed AC1900 router -- it’s capable of a combined 1900Mbps transfer rate, across the 1300Mbps-capable 802.11ac 5GHz band and 600Mbps-capable 802.11n 2.4GHz band.
Four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports and one Gigabit WAN port will satisfy your connectivity needs. The File Station service lets users access files from any locally-attached storage drive connected to the RT1900ac -- there’s a side-mounted USB 3.0 port and SD card reader.
Streaming is a breeze, and you can also play content from external storage, on a DLNA compatible TV or media player. It's perfect for gaming, too, since you can prioritise bandwidth to the devices you need the most. So you won't be able to blame it on the lag anymore.
What Is It?
Synology has done a good job with some simple, solid packaging. It's not the unboxing experience you'll get from Apple, but unless you're me, unboxing a new router isn't supposed to be exciting. In the box you'll find the router, power supply, LAN cable, clip on stand and 3 rather dramatic looking WiFi antennae.
It's plastic, but what do you expect from a consumer device? However, it looks and feels reasonable well made. It feels like they have paid attention to detail, similar to other Synology products I've seen.
The clip on stand only goes on one way, so the router doesn't really lie down nor stand up, rather you have the choice of two jaunty angles. I'm not sure how I feel about this - it's fine standing up on my shelf, but I can imagine issues with placement in some instances
What's It Like?
This is only a router, so if you are on ADSL or Cable (like I am), you'll need to keep a modem hooked up in bridge mode. In my case this meant putting the Synology router up on the shelf next to my Telstra cable modem, hooking it up with a short LAN cable between them and then shifting the other LAN cables across (direct connection to my NAS and my desk PC).
Setup was mostly a breeze, and any problems I had was me futzing around trying to get my cable modem into Bridge mode. On first connection you get a simple setup wizard that goes through the basics - admin account, WiFi, mode (Router or AP), and WAN connection (Auto IP for bridged cable connections, PPPoE for bridged ADSL connections). This gets the router up an running in very quick time.
Once I had the router set up and working I was really interested to test the WiFi performance. As I said earlier, we have a LOT of WiFi connected devices and so coverage and performance matter to us.
My cable modem is a Telstra Gateway Max (a re-badged Netgear C6300 with nobbled software) and I've had pretty good experience with its 802.1ac WiFi coverage. I'm pleased to say that within the accuracy of my measurements, using Telstra's WiFi Maximiser app, I get really good coverage across most of my house. My cable entry point is right at the back, and it's over 20 metres, over 3 splits levels and through 3 concrete block walls to the front.
Over a few weeks the WiFi has remained rock solid.
One of the positives about the Synology NAS line is the great web based management tool (DSM). Synology has taken the same path with their web based router management (SRM). If you've used a Synology NAS, then the user interface will feel very familiar. If you haven't, you'll still find it very easy to use.
The Network Center app is where you'll find all the Router configurations. You'll find all the things you expect to find, and maybe a few that you haven't seen on many consumer routers.
There seems to be reasonably robust parental controls with URL based blacklisting and whitelisting with preload lists and categories you can use. You can select filter lists and set up time of day scheduling on a per device basis which is nice because it will let you block your kids while leaving your connections alone. This won't stop a super techy kid who can do DNS lookups and type in IP addresses, or maybe do MAC address spoofing of course (not that I've ever done anything like that ...).
There is also a section on Traffic Control - this lets you configure quite a few different traffic management and quality of service settings if you so desire. You can turn on WiFi beam-forming for 6 connected devices (I presume at the expense of speed for any other devices). On a per device and per application basis, you can set guaranteed minimums and maximums for throughput. I haven't really played with this, but I can imagine setting minimums for things like gaming or streaming, and setting maximums on that housemate who is just constantly torrenting movies or downloading giant ISOs.
The traffic control section also provides some traffic statistics - real time or over the last 24 hours by device or by application. Lets you see who your big users are. My stats interestingly show how much internet traffic is now encrypted, with 81% of my download traffic over the last 24 hours being SSL.
On the LAN settings you can do all the normal things, manage DHCP, setup static routing etc. One little annoyance was that you can only setup a single DNS server in the DHCP settings. I use an external third party DNS service, and they have redundant DNS, however, on the Synology router you can only enter one. This is a step backward from the DHCP server functionality on the NAS DSM software (where I have been running my DHCP up 'til now - the nobbled Telstra software on the Gateway Max doesn't let you set this at all). Hopefully Synology will remedy this in a future release.
In addition to the web GUI, Synology have released a companion mobile app, DS Router, that allows you to monitor the state of your network, connected devices, traffic and even control many of the functions of your router - all from the comfort of your bed or couch.
Like their NAS software, Synology provides the option to download and run additional applications on the router. In SRM 1.0 this is a fairly small set of applications. Two that are perhaps more NAS centric - Download Station and Media Server, and three that are more networking centric - VPN Server, DNS Server and RADIUS Server.
The Synology router can perform light NAS duties via the addition of USB attached external storage. This will allow you to share this storage on your network, and with Download Manager (a P2P client) and Media Server (a DLNA server), turn your router into a little media server.
The VPN server lets you set up your router to accept incoming VPN connections (either PPTP, L2TP or OpenVPN). Great if you want to get remote access to your network, however, you can't do this and use the built-in VPN client at the same time (not a limitation of the underlying Linux OS, more of a limitation in the GUI management layer). This is a little frustrating. I'm keen to setup the VPN server to allow secure access my network when I am in the office, but in a world of data retention and other privacy issues I also use VPN services to access the internet. I was hoping to set the router to permanently connect via an outbound VPN and route all internet traffic that way, but it looks like I will have to choose one or the other. Alternatively, I'll have to get my hands dirty and SSH into the router and see if I can set it up myself - after all, under the covers this is a Linux box.
Editors note: if you use PPTP, you can set up the Synology RT1900ac as a VPN server and client at the same time (though not for L2TP or OpenVPN at the moment).
Should You Buy It?
As is probably clear, I am a fan of Synology products and have been very happy with my NAS. As such, I had fairly high hopes and expectations of the RT1900ac router. I'm pleased to say that my expectations have mostly been met. There are a few niggles, but I'm happy to put that largely down to this being V1.0, and am hopeful we'll see them fixed in future software releases (which Synology, at least on their NAS range, do fairly regularly).
If you are in the market for a new router, then I don't think you would go wrong getting the Synology. At $229 RRP it's priced pretty fairly (most ac1900 devices seem to have a street price just under $200) for what you get.