Editors' note, December 14, 2015: This review was updated with its overall rating lowered to reflect its position compared with newer routers.
The compact and well-designed RT-N56U Dual-Band Gigabit Wireless-N Router is a major step up from its bulky and buggy predecessor, the RT-N16 . It offers the fastest 5GHz speed to date and very good overall performance for both wireless and storage features.
The only two minor blemishes we find in the RT-56U are its Web interface, which, though intuitive and responsive, takes a long time to apply changes; and its lack of support for the new three-stream 450Mbps wireless standard, which competitor Cisco Linksys E4200 offers.
To make up for this, the Asus is much cheaper than the Cisco at around $130. If you're looking for a well-rounded true dual-band router that also offers decent built-in network storage features for your home, look no further than the Asus RT-56U.
Design and ease of use
The router is not designed to be wall-mountable but it comes with a detachable base to work in a vertical position. It can also be placed on its bottom, like all routers.
Despite the new compact physical size, the RT-56U packs a heavy punch. On the back, it has four Gigabit LAN ports (for wired devices) and one WAN port (to connect to an Internet source such as a broadband modem). Next to the ports, there are also two USB ports designed to host printers or network storage. This is the first router of this ultracompact size to come with two USB ports. Most compact routers we've reviewed don't have a USB port at all. Between the USB ports and the LAN ports is a tiny reset button that restores the router to its default manufacturer settings.
On top, the router comes with an array of tiny blue lights labeled with the function each displays the status of--the USB port, the wired network, the two wireless networks (2.4GHz and 5GHz), and the power.
It's very easy to get the RT-56U up and running. First, plug the router in and turn it on. Next, from a computer that's connected to the router via a network cable, open an Internet browser, such as Firefox. You will be greeted with a quick Web-based wizard that walks you through a few simple steps to set up the wireless networks and get connected to the Internet. In our case, this took less than three minutes. The setup is foolproof and probably the fastest way to set up a router we've seen -- possibly even faster than the case of Cisco's E and Vale series, which are extremely easy.
After the wizard, you can use the router right away or stay in its Web interface to further customize its features. Later on you can log in to this interface again at any time by pointing a browser of a connected computer to its IP address, which by default is 192.168.1.1.
The RT-56U's Web interface is very similar to that of the RT-N16 but is much improved in terms of performance and utility. The new router also has more features. The only nag we had is the fact that the interface takes a long time to apply changes. It displays a countdown message that goes from 1 to 100 percent at a rate of about 2 or 3 percent per second, meaning almost every change takes close to a minute.
The interface has a nifty network map that show a schematic of all the devices connected to its network and USB ports. It also has a very easy-to-use quality of service (QoS) feature called EzQoS that lets you quickly prioritize what type of services--gaming, media streaming, VoIP or Internet applications--that you want the network to prioritize for each connected device. There's even a comprehensive "Traffic Meter" that shows the use of the Internet as well as wired and wireless networks in real time or in the past 24 hours.
The router's USB ports support external hard drives formatted in either FAT32 or NTFS, and its storage feature works very well. In our trial, the router could handle two bus-powered external hard drives, the Seagate GoFlex Pro and the Western Digital My Passport , at the same time. So without needing too many wires running around, the router can offer up to 3TB of network storage (with two 1.5Tb external hard drives attached, such as the Seagate GoFlex Ultra-portable)--not too shabby a number for a device of its size.
Once the hard drive is connected, you can choose to share its entire existing contents as public (simple share), meaning everyone can have full access to it; or you can choose to share it with accounts. Choosing the latter option lets you create multiple user accounts and assign access privileges, (read only, read/write, no access) for each account to each of the share folders. We tried all these different settings, via a section called USB Application within the router's interface, and they worked as intended.
There's no need to install software on any of the network computer to access the router's storage. You can just browse for it using a network browser, such as Windows Explorer, the same way you would to access another computer in the network. On a Mac, the router will appear automatically in the Finder. The RT-56U also supports media streaming and can stream digital content stored on the external hard drive to UPnP-compliant network media streamers.