The RT-AC88U is Asus' latest true dual-band router, not to mention the best router the company has had to offer so far.
It's the first home router with eight Gigabit LAN ports with additional support for Dual-WAN (one of the LAN ports can be converted into a WAN port) and port aggregation (two of the LAN ports can be combined into a single superfast connection.)
(Note: Asus also makes the RT-AC3100, which is essentially the same as the RT-AC88U, including its appearance, but which has just four LAN ports.)
On top of that, it has a robust and fun-to-use Web interface, a slew of excellent network-monitoring features, a built-in VPN server, and the ability protect your home network from malware and intruders. What's more, the router supports MU-MIMO, and includes unique features for gamers. In all, I've never seen a router with more to offer than the RT-AC88U.
Performance-wise, the router excelled in my tests, delivering top Wi-Fi data rates, long range and a stable wireless signal. If you're in the market for a top-notch home router with little compromise, you can't go wrong with the RT-AC88U. But at $280, it's not cheap. If you have the money, though, it's worth the investment -- especially for users with lofty needs. (Pricing for the UK and Australia have not been announced, but the US price works out to around £185 and AU$390 at current exchange rates.) It's also a better buy than other, more expensive routers such as the Netgear X8 AC5300 or even the Asus' own AC5300 router, the RT-AC5300. Each of these has have a high price tag, but doesn't offer nearly as much.
If you just need a modest home network, however, check out the other options that might fit your need and budget better on this list of top 802.11ac routers.
AC3100 vs. Ac5300
The naming conventions of Wi-Fi routers has always been confusing. Since the introduction of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, there have been many Wi-Fi designations, such as AC1750, AC1900, AC3200, AC5300... and now we have ourselves the new AC3100, which -- to make matters worse -- D-Link actually calls AC3150.
The numbers following "AC " refers to the total Wi-Fi bandwidth a router has. Companies calculate this number by adding the top speed for each band of the router. For example, an AC1900 router, such as the Asus RT-AC68U, has a top speed of 1,300Mbps on the 5Ghz band and 600Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band. Add those two numbers and you get 1,900. Though most routers are dual-band (meaning they have two bands, one on the 5Ghz frequency and the other on the 2.4Ghz frequency), some routers come with an additional band on the 5Ghz frequency and are aptly named "tri-band" routers. No matter how many bands a router might have, your device connects to only one band at a time. This is one of the reasons why the AC designation number can be misleading, because it doesn't show how fast a single client can connect to a router.
|Wi-Fi designation||Router type||Total Wi-Fi bandwidth||5Ghz speed (theoretical)||2.4Ghz speed (theoretical)|
|AC5300||Tri-band||5,334Mbps||2,167Mbps x 2 bands||1,000Mbps|
|AC3200||Tri-band||3,200Mbps||1,300Mbps x 2 bands||600Mbps|
|AC3100 / AC3150||Dual-band||3,167Mbps||2,167Mbps||1,000Mbps|
|AC2500 / AC2400 / AC2350||Dual-band||2,333Mbps||1,733Mbps||600Mbps|
So how fast is AC3100? As shown on the charts above, an AC3100 router is as fast as an AC5300 router, both sharing the same top speed on the 5Ghz band of 2,167Mbps and 1,000Mbps on the 2.4Ghz. Note that these are just the top speeds on paper. In real-world usage, the actual sustained speed of a Wi-Fi connection is always much lower than the theoretical speed.
The RT-AC88U uses the Broadcom NitroQAM chipset, which is the same chipset used in current AC5300 routers such as the RT-AC5300, or the Netgear R8500. The only difference is the RT-AC88U doesn't have the additional 5Ghz band. That said, the only time when you'll find the difference between an AC3100 router and an AC5300 router, in terms of Wi-Fi speeds, is when you have 10 more or concurrent active 5Ghz clients on the same network. In this case, an AC5300 router, thanks to its two 5Ghz bands, can support more concurrent clients without slowing them down.
On the inside, the RT-AC88U is powered by a 1.4Ghz dual-core processor, 512MB of DDR 3 system memory and 128MB of flash storage. In all, it's one of the most powerful routers on the market.
Asus RT-AC88U router specs
|Wi-Fi standards||802.11a/b/g/n/ac with MU-MIMO|
|Wi-Fi bandwidth||2,167 Mbps (5Ghz) and 1,000Mbps (2.4Ghz)|
|Chipset||Broadcom BCM47094, BCM4366 and BCM4366|
|Flash memory||128 MB of NAND|
|System memory (RAM)||512MB of DDR3|
|WAN||1 Gigabit WAN (Internet) port|
|LAN||8 Gigabit LAN ports|
|Antenna||Four detachable dual-band antennas|
|USB||01 USB 3.0 port and 01 USB 2.0 port|
|Features||ASUS WRT firmware, AiCloud, AiProtection, High-power mode, Download master application, Dual-WAN, Port Aggregation, VPN server, Guest network, DLNA server, Automatic IP, Static IP, PPPoE (MPPE support), PPTP, L2TP, IPv4, IPv6.|
The RT-AC88U supports Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, which is designed to handle Wi-Fi bandwidth efficiently. MU-MIMO was first introduced with the Qualcomm MU/EFX 802.11AC Wi-Fi chip. The RT-AC88U, however, uses the first Broadcom Wi-Fi chip that supports this technology.
Prior to MU-MIMO, all 802.11ac routers treat all Wi-Fi clients the same, regardless of their Wi-Fi power. Since a router typically has more Wi-Fi power than a client, in a particular wireless connection, the router is hardly used at full capacity. For this reason, most Wi-Fi connections are not efficient, where the router wastes its power for lower-tier clients and hence doesn't have enough power to maintain connection quality for multiple clients.
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 each tier of devices in the network, so that multiple devices can connect at the same time without slowing one another down.
MU-MIMO has been quickly adopted by both routers and clients, and it's predicted that by the end of next year, most, if not all, new Wi-Fi devices will support this technology.
Familiar design, eight versatile Gigabit LAN ports
The new RT-AC88U looks almost exactly the same as the RT-AC87U, with four detachable antennas and two USB ports. And like its older brother, the RT-AC88U has its USB 2.0 port on the back and the USB 3.0 port on the front, which is not an ideal place. This is because, due to its much faster speed, the USB 3.0 port is preferred for hosting a permanent storage device. So, having this port on the front will translate into clutter when you want to the router to also serve as a network storage server.
The RT-AC88U has one big difference, however. It now has eight Gigabit LAN ports (as opposed to four found in most other routers). In fact, it is the first home router with this number of LAN ports. This is a huge improvement, considering it has the same physical size as the RT-AC87U. More LAN ports means more wired clients, such as a server or a printer, that you can connect to the router before having to resort to using a switch.
And there's more to the RT-AC88U's LAN ports. You can aggregate the first two ports to deliver a superfast 2Gbps connection -- a bonus for those with a high-end NAS server -- and use any of the first four ports as a second WAN (Internet) port. This means if you have two broadband connection (such as one Cable and one DSL connection) you can use them both with the router to make sure your network is always online. On top of that, the router's USB ports can also be used to host a USB cellular dongle for those wanting to share a cellular broadband connection with the rest of the network.
Excellent Web interface
The RT-AC88U has a typical setup process for a router with a Web interface. All you have to do is plug the router in and point a browser from a connected computer to the router's default IP address (192.168.1.1). The first time, the interface will greet you with a Web-based wizard, which walks you through a few steps, including creating a password for the interface itself and the Wi-Fi networks.
After the initial setup, you can use the interface to manage the router. This interface is among the best I've seen, and is well-organized and self-explanatory. It has an interactive network map that displays the connected devices in real time. Each device is identified by its name as well as its vendor. You can click on a connected device to interact with it, view more information about it, or even rename it to your liking, which is a huge improvement from earlier versions used in older Asus routers. (Previously connected clients have been identified by their MAC address, which is a string of numbers and letters.) This means when there are many clients connected to the router, you can easily find out which one is which.
From this network map, you can also quickly access the router's other settings, such as Dynamic DNS, Wi-Fi settings, the settings of the Internet connection (WAN) and so on. You can also access other settings by using different sections of the interface. For the most part, everything is very clearly explained or self-explanatory.
Apart from the router's settings, you can use the Web interface to manage the router's many features.
Unique and helpful features
The RT-AC88U is the most feature-rich router I've seen. It has all the features previously found in older Asus routers, such as the RT-AC3200 or RT-AC87U, and then a few more of its own.
It would take a long time to list all of the features the router has to offer, but few main features that it share with other Asus routers include AiProtection, Adaptive QoS (quality of service), multiple guest networks, VPN server, and the versatile USB ports.
AiProtection is powered by Trend Micro, and designed to protect the entire home network against viruses and malware from the Internet. Furthermore, if a client has already been infected, this feature will also stop it from sending out personal information. AiProtection worked quite well in my trial, even though it's hard to say if it can protect your home network completely. Also, note that if you turn this feature on completely, certain settings or features of the router -- namely those prone to security risks, such as port-forwarding, UPnP, remote access and so on -- will stop working.
Adaptive QoS prioritizes the Internet bandwidth according to the type of traffic: Web surfing, gaming, video and audio streaming, VoIP/instant messaging, file transferring and others. You can use the mouse to arrange these categories by priority, and the router will take care of the rest. You can also opt for the Traditional QoS where you must define rules manually. On top of that, there's a function called "apps analysis" that allows for real-time monitoring of the Internet activity of any connected client as well as the total download and upload bandwidth being used. This is a very helpful tool if you want to find out which client or application is abusing the Internet connection.
Apart from two main Wi-Fi networks (one for each band), the RT-AC88U supports another six guest networks (three for on each band.) By default, all of these networks are disabled but you can turn each on via a click. After that you can customize this network's name, schedule and even its security. A guest network allows connected clients to access the Internet but not other local resources, such as files or printers.
The router's two USB ports can be used for multiple purposes. They can host external hard drives, cellular modems or USB printers. When a hard drive is connected, you can share the data stored on it with local clients or remote clients over the Internet, and you can even set up syncing, native Time Machine backup support and PC-less downloads. Overall, the RT-AC88U (along with other 802.11ac routers from Asus) has by far the most options in terms of what you can do with the router's USB ports.
The RT-AC88U has a built-in PPTP VPN server that can host up to 10 remote clients. This, plus the ability to use one of its LAN ports as a second WAN port, make the router a great fit as a gateway for a small office.
Other than those features, the RT-AC88U is the first I've seen that can also work as a client for WTFast, also known as the gamer private network (GPN), which is a global data network designed specifically for MMO gamers. WTFast GPN ensures the optimal transmission of your game data between your computer and the game server. Since the router can work as a client, you won't need to install WTFast client on each of the computers on your network. Note however, that the WTFast feature can support multiple clients, but only one client is supported free of charge.
In all, the RT-AC88U has by far the most to offer among all home routers I've reviewed.
I tested the RT-AC88U with the latest firmware version, 126.96.36.199.380_858, and it proved to be the fastest router I've seen on the 5GHz band. Note that there are currently no clients that can handle the router's top speed, but with existing AC1900 clients, which are the fastest on the market, the router delivered a sustained real-world copy speed of more than 645Mbps at close range (15 feet). When I increased the distance to 100 feet, it then averaged 335Mbps. Both of these numbers topped the charts.
On the 2.4GHz band, the router scored 229Mbps at close range and just 102Mbps at 100 feet (30 meters) away. While not the fastest in this category, the router was among the top three routers.
And the RT-AC88U had great range, about the same as that of the RT-AC87U with the effective range of between 170 to 200 feet (60 meters). It also passed my 72-hour stress test with no problems at all. During this time, it was set to transfer data constantly between multiple devices, both wired and wireless, all of different Wi-Fi standards and connected to all of its bands; none of the clients disconnected even once.
Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are plenty of walls as well as many Wi-Fi devices, including those from adjacent buildings, 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.
When coupled with a portable drive, the RT-AC88U NAS performance wasn't as impressive as its Wi-Fi numbers. Via a Gigabit connection, the router registered the sustained speed of 30MBps for writing and 34MBps for reading. This wasn't by any means slow, but compared to other routers with the same feature it was also far from the fastest. Nonetheless, at these speeds, the router can work well as a home NAS server, with enough bandwidth for media streaming as well as file sharing and backup. In fact, it's much faster than Apple's Time Machine and hence a much better alternative.
The RT-AC88U is easily the best router from Asus to date and one of the best dual-band routers on the market. With excellent performance and a ton of features, it's a great buy for anyone who wants to get the most out of their home network. The fact that it has eight Gigabit LAN port (instead of the usual four) means you can plug many more wired clients into it before the need for a switch arises. And if you're an MMO gamer, the router's support for the WTFast is definitely worth the extra cash.
In short, there's no other router that offers more. But if you don't need fancy features and just want a stable router to share your Internet connection, also consider the Asus RT-AC68U, the Netgear R7000 or the Linksys WRT1900ACS. These are also great routers and at a lower cost.