Wireless routers already have a crazy amount of jargon attached to them, but apparently there's always going to be room for more. The latest piece of Wi-Fi tech to enter the vernacular is MU-MIMO (pronounced "moo-meemoh").
With a typical router, Wi-Fi devices (like your smartphone, laptop or media streamer and so on) of a lower Wi-Fi speed tier will adversely effect the performance of higher-speed devices in the same network. MU-MIMO routers like the Amped Wireless RTA2600, on the other hand, are much more efficient when doling out data, giving each connected device just as much as it needs; no more and no less. This means that with a MU-MIMO router, you can connect multiple devices at once without seeing a drop in speed for any of them.
The problem is that, in order to get the full benefit of this technology, both the router and the connected device need to support it. And right now there are very few devices that use MU-MIMO. In fact, the Linksys A8500 is currently one of only a few other routers that also supports MU-MIMO. The Linksys EA8500 is also faster and has more features than the RTA2600 and currently costs $40 less.
In addition, compared to traditional routers (the fastest of which range from $150 to $200), at $280 the RTA2600 is too expensive, doesn't offer as many features, and isn't as fast. (It's not currently on sale in the UK or Australia, but $280 converts to around £185 or AU$400.)
That said, for the alternatives that might better meet your budgetary and performance needs, check out CNET's list of the best home routers.
The RTA2600 is one of the most powerful routers from Amped Wireless to date. It features a dual-core 1.4GHz processor, 128MB of flash storage and 512MB of DDR3 system memory. The router also supports USB 3.0 with one port on its right side, with another USB 2.0 port on the back. All of these can be used to host storage devices.
The router has the usual four Gigabit LAN ports and one Gigabit WAN (Internet) port on its back. Also on the back are four detachable antennae, making the back area quite crowded. On top, the router has an array of LED lights to show its status, but you can turn all of them off (or on) via a button that's also on the back.
The RTA2600 is surprisingly compact, considering its specs. It's just about two-thirds the size of the Linksys EA8500. It's designed to sit flat on a table or shelf but can also be mounted on a wall.
As a Wi-Fi router, the new router features the new multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output (MU-MIMO) technology offered by Qualcomm MU/EFX Wi-Fi chip. On paper, this means the router is a quad-stream (4x4) router that has a top speeds of 1,733 megabits per second on the 5GHz band, and up to 800Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, earning it designation as an AC2600 router.
In a nutshell, Qualcomm's new MU-MIMO 802.11AC Wi-Fi chip can handle Wi-Fi bandwidth more efficiently, thus is capable of delivering betters data rate to multiple connected clients at a time.
More specifically, existing 802.11ac routers (or Wi-Fi access points) employ the original MIMO technology that treats all Wi-Fi clients the same, regardless of the clients' Wi-Fi tier. For example, a 3x3 802.11ac router, such as the Linksys WRT1900AC, has a max Wi-Fi rate of 1,300Mbps, and the iPhone 6 is a 1x1 Wi-Fi client with a max data rate of just 433Mbps. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards in this article.) But when the two are connected, the router still uses the entire 1,300Mbps transmission to the phone, wasting roughly 867Mbps. This is like ordering a small cup of coffee and having the barista pour it into an extra large cup.
With MU-MIMO, multiple simultaneous transmissions of different Wi-Fi tiers are sent to multiple devices at the same time, enabling them to connect at the speed each client needs. In other words, having a MU-MIMO Wi-Fi network is like having multiple wireless routers of different Wi-Fi tiers. Each of these "routers" is dedicated to a tier of clients in the network, so that multiple devices of different grades can connect at the same time without slowing each other down. This is similar to having multiple baristas in a coffee shop, each assigned to give out particular cup sizes of coffee so that customers can get the exact amount of beverage they ordered at a much speedier pace.
Like with all Wi-Fi technologies, MU-MIMO supports all existing Wi-Fi clients, but it works best with clients that also supports MU-MIMO. That said, you won't able able to experience MU-MIMO in its full benefit with existing pre-MU-MIMO clients, though the new technology did help improve the performance in my testing.
Like previous routers from Amped Wireless, the RTA2600 was easy to set up. Out of the box, it even comes with a network cable already plugged into its WAN (Internet) port. You just need to connect the other end of that cable to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem, then plug the router into an electrical outlet and you're done. The router comes preconfigured with two Wi-Fi networks (one of each band), the information for which is printed on its underside. That's all you need to get up and running.
If you want to further customize the router, however, you will need to access its Web interface by pointing a browser from a connected computer to the router's default IP address, which is 192.168.3.1. The default login is admin for both password and username.
The RTA2600's interface is similar to that of previous Amped Wireless routers. It has a granular menu on the right, in which each item opens to sub-menu items that will display their content in the middle. The settings, are generally self-explanatory ,and there's also a quick context-based Helpful Tips button that explains what each section does.
Overall, the interface itself is user-friendly and responsive. There's one caveat, however: the router requires a restart for almost all changes to take affect, and it takes quite a long time -- more than a minute -- to restart. Other routers I've reviewed can apply many changes without having to restart at all.
If you want to customize your Wi-Fi networks, the RTA2600 has that covered. The router has in-depth settings for Wi-Fi. There is one main Wi-Fi network for each band, plus four optional guest networks. In all, you can create up to 10 separate Wi-Fi networks and customize settings, bandwidth, security and so on for each one. You can even adjust the router's output power and range between 100 percent (default) and 15 percent, in case somehow you want to reduce the router's Wi-Fi coverage.
However, some other features of the router are rather shallow. For example, the dynamic DNS feature, which allows users to associate a plain-language domain name to the router's WAN IP address, only works with DynDNS.com and not any other provider. The network storage features, which is available when you connect an external hard drive to the router's USB port, supports only local file sharing and FTP. There's no support for media streaming to network media players or Time Machine backup.
Popular features like Firewall, Quality of Service (QoS), Web filtering and so on are also either too simplistic or require a lot of work to manually program them. Overall, compared with the Linksys EA8500, I find Amped Wireless RTA2600's advanced features to be lacking and less refined.
The RTA2600's performance is basically that of the Linksys EA8500 turned down a notch. Supporting MU-MIMO, it worked well in my testing with Wi-Fi clients of different tiers, allowing them to connect at their top speed. For example, a 1x1 802.11ac laptop would connect to the router at 433Mbps while at the same time, other 3x3 clients would connect at 1,300Mbps. While I had no problem getting the clients connected at the desired speeds (as shown by the software tool), the actual real-world speed of each connection wasn't as fast as that of the EA8500.
On the 5GHz band, when used with 3x3 clients, the router registered a sustained copy speed of 378Mbps at close range (10 feet). When I increased the range to 75 feet, it now scored 250Mbps. These were quite fast but noticeably slower than the EA8500 and even slower than many AC1900 routers.
It's important to note, however, that the power of MU-MIMO is not in the speed of a single connection, but that of each connection in a mixed environment in which many clients of different Wi-Fi grades are used together. For this, the RTA2600 did well. As I added more clients of slower speed to the network, the speed of the original test connection remained largely unchanged.
On the 2.4GHz band, however, the RTA2600 did much worse, with a sustained speed of just 98Mbps and 45Mbps for close and long range respectively, when working with a 3x3 802.11ac client.
The router's range was slightly shorter than that of the EA8500, with the effective range topping at about 150 feet. While I was able to detect and sometimes connect to the router from farther away, as much as 250 feet, the signal wasn't strong or stable enough to maintain a solid connection.
Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are walls and many other Wi-Fi devices that are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal, and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
The RTA2600 also excelled in my stress test. It worked for days transferring large amounts of data back and forth between multiple clients and didn't disconnect even once.
Despite the powerful hardware and the USB 3.0 support, the RTA2600's network storage performance wasn't impressive.
In test via a Gigabit connection, it scored a sustained speed of just 31 megabytes per second for writing and 59MBps for reading. While these weren't exactly slow for a router, they were just half of what you could get from the Linksys EA8500, which shared the same specs.
At this speed, when coupled with an external hard drive, the router can work relatively well as a storage server for casual file sharing. Since it doesn't have any media streaming or backup features, it's recommended that you get a dedicated NAS server if you want to have a viable network storage solution.
Should you buy the RTA2600? The short answer is no. The biggest reason why is that $280 is a lot of money to spend on a router that is currently slower than several cheaper ones.
However, if you're dead set on buying a MU-MIMO right now, so that you're ready when supporting devices hit the market, we'd recommend you go instead with the Linksys EA8500. It has the same suggested price as the RTA2600 (and a cheaper street price) but has faster performance and includes many more useful features.
Still, prices on both routers are high, and while the MU-MIMO technology may eventually make an impact on your network speed, there just aren't enough devices that support it yet, so right now there's no real benefit.
By next year there may be more options to choose from, and prices on the current routers may also be much lower. As it stands now, I'd recommend going with a regular MIMO router such as the Linksys WRT1900AC, the Netgear R7000 or the Asus RT-AC68U . All of these cost significantly less and offer faster performance, longer range and more features.