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.
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.
What we liked the most about the RT-N56U is its DiskAid feature that allows for quick access to the router over the Internet, using Asus' free Dynamic DNS. Normally, to use a DDNS service, you have to create an account and associate it with a router -- a pretty hard job for the uninitiated. In the case of the RT-56U, however, all you have to do is pick a unique name and then after three mouse clicks the service is up and running. After that you can remotely access the router via the Web address xyz.asuscomm.com, where xyz is the unique name. For example, you can access the router's storage at ftp://xyz.asuscomm.com. Or, to access the router's Web interface via the Internet, you can turn this feature on and then point a browser from a remote computer to ftp://xyz.asuscomm.com.
The router's Web interface also comes with a very handy context-based help feature: each time you click on a setting to change something, a small part on the right of the interface will automatically display the detailed information of that setting. This makes using the router a really pleasant experience.
Other than the above, the router also supports all the standard features and security measures found in other routers. These include, but are not limited to, DHCP server, port forwarding, virtual server, all variations of wireless encryption methods, and so on.
We were very happy with the router's performance both for its wireless networks and its built-in storage feature.
For the 5GHz band, in a throughput test where the router was set up to be 15 feet from the client, it scored 112.6Mbps. At this speed, it can blast through 500MB of data in just around 30 seconds, which is the fastest we've seen for a wireless router. When we increased the range to 100 feet, the router still scored 76.1Mbps, which is the second best score on that test, just a tad slower than the 79.1Mbps of the Linksys E4200.
The RT-56U didn't do as impressively on the 2.4GHz band, but still managed to stay among the top three routers we've reviewed. In the throughput test, it scored 57.2Mbps and in the range test it offered 34.4Mbs. Finally, in the mixed-mode test where it was set to work with both N and legacy wireless clients, the router scored 52.6Mbps, which is a very good number.
The router offers a very good range with both bands: around 280 feet in our testing environment. It also passed our 48-hour stress test for both bands. During that time it didn't disconnect once.
We didn't have high expectations for the RT-56U's storage performance, but it surprised us by being the fastest of all reviewed routers that have USB ports. The router scored 95.4Mbps for writing and 104.2Mbps for reading. While these numbers, as expected, are much lower than those of a dedicated NAS server, they are fast enough for casual backing up, data sharing, and media streaming.
Despite its tiny size, the RT-56U has good ventilation and therefore managed to stay cool and quiet even during heavy operation. It went though our testing without any problem at all.
Like with the RT-N16, Asus backs the RT-56U with a two-year warranty. At the company's Web site, you'll find downloads, FAQs, a manual, and other support-related materials. If you want to contact the company's tech support, however, it's better to do that via e-mail as there's no technical support phone number listed at the Web site.
Asus got it right with the RT-56U. This is an all-around great router for home users and it has a friendly price tag.