If you're thinking of upgrading your home network, you've got a huge range of choice of which wi-fi router to buy. Within the $300 to $500 price, one strong contender is Synology's RT2600ac — an upgraded version of the excellent RT1900ac, it has even faster wi-fi and the same suite of excellent add-on features like an integrated media server and VPN client. If you like tinkering with your network, you could do a lot worse than the RT2600ac.
What Is It?
The Synology RT2600ac is a $389 wi-fi router that brings together the latest networking hardware and Synology's quickly maturing Synology Router Manager software. It's not a modem router — you'll need a standalone modem for your ADSL, cable or NBN connection still — but gives your home network the advantage of being a much faster and more robust setup. If you're streaming data between the devices in your house — maybe you have a bunch of movies saved to a network hard drive — then this gives you a great reason to upgrade to a high-powered router.
Under the hood, the RT2600ac is a powerful piece of technology: it boasts a combined 2.53Gbps theoretical speed across its different wireless network bands, with up to 800Mbps possible across the long-range 2.4GHz 802.11ac and 802.11n bands and 1733Mbps on the short-range 5GHz ac and n frequencies. That's achieved through a combination of tech like beamforming and MU-MIMO that comes courtesy of the 802.11ac Wave 2 standard. As well as that, you've got four gigabit-class Ethernet LAN ports and gigabit WAN connectivity should you require it, with the option for dual gigabit teaming for very special individuals by combining WAN and the first LAN port, although this isn't something I expect any home user to ever need.
If you're the kind of savvy home or small business netadmin that loves to snoop on every single bit and byte of traffic that heads in and out of your network, the RT2600ac is the router for you. Synology Router Manager has a huge amount of detail on every single device that's hooked up to your network, however it's configured, and it's that kind of flexibility that is doubly impressive given how easy it is to understand and to make changes. Setting up SRM is a bit of a time-consuming process if your network isn't the standard 'ADSL modem plugged into the WAN port' deal, but the amount of adjustability after the fact is fantastic.
For a router with the RT2600ac's massive customisation options, fast throughput and flexibility, I found myself wishing it had more than four LAN ports available to use. There's space on the rear I/O panel, there's processing power for days, and considering Synology's target market might well have a dual-gigabit-capable DiskStation NAS set up. The RT2600ac doesn't support dual gigabit teaming for anything other than WAN connections, though, so that DiskStation point is moot for now, but maybe if the router had more LAN ports it would be a possibility. As it is, you can't connect more than a few devices through wired.
It's worth remembering that Synology's support of 4G dongles continues to not be a strong point — you can't plug in a hotspot or USB 4G dongle and have the 'net up and running through the RT2600ac's fantastically powerful wi-fi straight away. Similarly, you can't connect the RT2600ac to an external wi-fi network and use it as a wireless access point (update: you can do this with Synology's 1.1.4 software update). If you're running your 'net off a 4G hotspot (like I am at the moment), then an alternative router like Dovado's Tiny AC and its SpotBoost feature might be a better choice.
Synology has a mobile app called DS Router, but it's nowhere near as good as Synology's desktop web apps for monitoring the 'net — especially when it comes to making any kind of changes to your network setup once it's already up and running. I gave it a couple of gos and then uninstalled it — if you've got a PC anywhere close by it's always going to be a far superior choice. DS router is OK for keeping track of what devices are connected to your network at any one time, just not great for much more than that.
We've all struggled with online gaming while a friend or family member is downloading a bunch of data, or with Skype chats that drop out intermittently for no apparent reason. Synology's RT1900ac router lets you organise just about every aspect of your home's wired or Wi-Fi network, down to specific devices, specific Web addresses and specific speeds. If you want to make sure your Xbox or Playstation is getting a straight pipe to the 'net, or if you want to stop your kids from looking at Facebook on their laptops after 10PM, this is the device you need in the middle of your house.
Should You Buy It?
The Synology RT2600ac should appeal to the same 'net-savvy individual that was tempted by the RT1900ac. The $389 asking price is a significant amount of money for a router, but at the same time it's not much when compared to its rivals from Asus and Linksys and Netgear. What it does give you is a wireless networking hub that has a huge amount of customisation in its inteface and features — you're essentially buying a mini-PC that can control your network throughput as well as running double duty as a torrent downloading box or a VPN client or a private cloud server.
Synology's top router makes its mark as a device that gives you minute control over your home network. If you're concerned about the time your kids are on the 'net, or what sites they're visiting, you have the option to restrict those by schedule or by DNS lookup. You can monitor your uploads and downloads to see what's taking up your bandwidth, and then take action from there. It's also one of Synology's hallmarks that that level of control extends to all the apps that live on the RT2600ac in the first place, whether they're talking to the local network or the wider 'net.
If you have other Synology products already in your home network — one of its DiskStation NASes, for example — then the RT2600ac is a smart investment. Its interface is easy to understand in the first place, but this is doubly true if you're already familiar with DSM on its network storage devices. Synology SRM is one of the best router interfaces I've used in the past few years, and with good reason: it's both powerful and uncomplicated. That's rare, especially in the rarefied air of high-end routers and other network hardware.
At the end of the day, though, it's great that the hardware that the RT2600ac has as a base is solid. It's a router that can handle anything that's thrown at it, because the addition of 802.11ac Wave 2 supports a bunch of fancy features and high-tech behind the scenes upgrades to make sure your wi-fi is just as fast and versatile as wired. Synology's Smart Connect SSID bouncing, too, means that you only have one wi-fi network visible to old devices and new alike. It's small things like that that make the Synology RT2600ac such an impressive piece of hardware.