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Like its predecessor, the DGL-4500, D-Link's new gaming router combines great potential, dubious real-world benefits, and a high price.
If that sounds like faint praise, it is. The D-Link 5500 isn't a great router. At least not yet. Five years ago, the DGL-4500 started out in the same boat, but after a few significant firmware updates, eventually became something worth spending your money on. If history is any indication we should expect the same from its younger brother. But, the 5500 isn't there yet.
While the new router's intelligent QoS feature, called StreamBoost, worked as expected and helped prioritize Internet bandwidth for online real-time applications, I was disappointed by its overall performance, and the Web interface left a lot to be desired. Whether or not you're into online gaming, I believe you can get a much better deal with any of these alternatives.
Familiar physical design, totally new hardware
The D-Link DGL-5500 Gaming Router comes in the now-familiar vertical cylindrical design, first available in the DIR-645. It's almost exactly the same in appearance as the DIR-868L -- just shorter and slightly narrower -- looking somewhat like the new Mac Pro, or more like a computer speaker than a router.
Unlike the DIR-868L, however, the DGL-5500 can't be wall-mounted. This is not a big deal, however, since most of the time a router is hidden in a corner or under the desk.
What is a big deal is that on the inside, the DGL-5500 is totally new. It's the third 802.11ac (or AC for short) router from D-Link (the other two being the DIR-868L and DIR-865L) but unlike the previous two, it uses an 802.11ac chip from Qualcomm. This chip includes a feature called StreamBoost that intelligently monitors Internet traffic in real time and prioritizes the traffic based on type of application. The new router also supports only the second tier (dual-stream) setup of the 802.11ac standard, with a cap speed of just 867Mbps. Other AC routers can offer up to 1.3Gbps Wi-Fi speed.
Like all AC-enabled routers, the DGL-5500 is also a true dual-band 802.11n (N for short) router that offers up to 450Mbps of each of the two 5GHz frequency bands. In short, it supports all existing Wi-Fi clients on the market, regardless of their Wi-Fi standard revisions.
On the front the router has two round green LEDs that show thepower and Internet status. There are no other status lights for the network ports, which some users might miss. On the back, it has four gigabit LAN ports (for Ethernet-ready clients), one gigabit WAN port (to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem), and a USB 3.0 port to host a USB device, such as a printer or an external hard drive. Also on the back are a power on/off button and a WPS button, which initiates a 2-minute window during which other WPS-enabled devices can enter the router's Wi-Fi network.
Setting up the DGL-5500 is typical of setting up a home router, as in this How To post. Basically, you plug the router into an outlet and connect its WAN port to an Internet source with an network cable (one is included with the router). Use another cable to connect a computer to one of the router's LAN ports. If you don't have a second cable, you can also use a Wi-Fi client (such as a computer or a tablet) and connect to the router's default Wi-Fi networks. The router comes with a label with this information printed on it.
Now, from the connected computer you launch a browser and you will be greeted with a Web-based setup wizard that walks you through the process in a few simple steps. You can always go back to the router's Web interface by pointing a browser from a connected computer to its default IP address, which is 192.168.0.1. The default log-in password is blank (keep the field clear).
New, sleek, but impractical Web interface
The DGL-5500's Web interface is updated from the traditional well-organized and granular interface of most D-Link routers. The interface is now much sleeker with smooth animation during transitions. Main items are organized in a menu to the left and sub-items are organized in different tabs on top. The main part in the middle of the interface displays the settings of the current sub-item for you to customize. It's generally self-explanatory.
As I used the router, however, I found that the interface could use a lot of improvement: major configuration items are scattered in a disjointed way and some common settings are missing.
Take StreamBoost, the selling feature of the router, for example. This feature senses Internet traffic and automatically prioritizes the bandwidth, in real time, to make sure lag-sensitive applications such as online gaming and video chatting get priority while other, less important activities, such as file downloading, take a back seat. While this feature functioned well for the most part in my trials, the way it's organized in the interface is terrible at best.
First of all, to turn StreamBoost on or off, you'll need to go to Setup in the main menu and then the StreamBoost tab. (Here you can also opt in to StreamBoost's Automatic Update, which regularly updates information on what application needs what type of priority. Joining this is generally a good thing, however, it does mean the router will send Qualcomm information about your network.) Once on, StreamBoost prioritizes the Internet by applications as well as by clients, which you can manually adjust in an entirely different part of the interface, the Priority tab in the My Network section. This separation makes StreamBoost and the priority list seem unrelated. It would be better if StreamBoost and all of its related settings were in one place.
Secondly, the priority list itself is very badly designed. Once StreamBoost is turned on, the interface arbitrarily puts all connected clients in a numeric order with No. 1 as the top priority. If you have multiple computers in a network, rearranging this list to match your desired priorities is usually a must, but unfortunately not easily. This is because you can move only one client at a time and only one step at a time. For example, if you want to move a computer from 3 to 1 you have to first move it to number 2, and then from 2 to 1. In other words, if you have 10 computers in your network and need to move the one at the bottom to the top, you will have to move it 10 times. It would be much less frustrating, especially in a large network, if you could just drag and drop the clients at will.
Also, I found it a little problematic that all the connected clients are put on this one priority-hierarchy list once StreamBoost is turned on. This means there's no way for you to put a few clients at the same level of prioritization.
Other parts of the interface weren't well thought out, either. The visual network map, which is very helpful in general, doesn't always show all connected clients, and the interface at times freezes up or lags during a transition.
In all, while the new Web interface seems much richer and more advanced than the old traditional D-Link interface, it needs a lot of polishing. For now it's a little confusing and frustrating to use. Hopefully this will be improved via a firmware update.
No remote access
While the awkward StreamBoost design was manageable, I couldn't fathom why the DGL-5500 didn't have built-in support Dynamic DNS (DynDNS) services. DynDNS associates your WAN IP address with a meaningful, easy-to-remember URL. This enables you to easily set up remote access to the router's Web interface, as well as set up over-the-Internet application servers within your network, for free. For hard-core gamers and advanced users, DynDNS support is a must, because you then can run your own game-related server at home, such as TeamSpeak. The lack of DynDNS makes things a lot harder and also doesn't make sense. Most, if not all, routers I've reviewed have this feature. D-Link told me that it will add DynDNS in the next firmware updates, however, and personally, I wouldn't consider using this router at all until then.
To add injury to insult, the DGL-5500 is not classified by D-Link as a cloud router, meaning it also doesn't work with D-Link's Mydlink portal (the DIR-868L supports both Mydlink and DynDNS). All this makes this router the most unfriendly to Internet-based remote applications that I've seen.
The DGL-5500 is the first 802.11ac router I've reviewed that supports only the second tier (dual-stream setup) of the AC standard, meaning its top speed when used with AC-enabled clients is just 867Mbps, not 1.3Gbps. For more on Wi-Fi standards, check out this post.
A bit of a disclaimer: I tested the DGL-5500 router at CNET's offices where there are walls and many other Wi-Fi devices that are out of my control. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
That said, in my testing, the router's performance was quite good but not as good as you'd expect from a device that costs so much. For the AC standard, which only works on the 5GHz frequency band, I tested it with both a generic AC media bridge and a D-Link USB DWA-182 AC adapter, and the speeds, though quite fast, were slower than other AC routers give. More specifically, the router gave a sustained speed of 158Mbps over a short distance (15 feet) and 114Mbps long distance (100 feet away). These numbers were about those of a regular 5GHz 802.11n router and about the slowest among AC routers I've reviewed. Again, since the DGL-5500 is the only dual-stream AC router on the chart (all others are three-stream), it was normal that it didn't score comparably. Whether this was the typical performance of a dual-stream AC router will be determined when more dual-stream AC routers are reviewed.
When working with regular 802.11n clients, the DGL-5500 generally did below average on the 5GHz band, with sustained speeds of 156Mbps and 98Mbps for short and long ranges, respectively. On the 2.4GHz band it did better compared with others, scoring 59Mbps and 41Mbps for short and long distances, respectively.
The DGL-5500's Wi-Fi range wasn't impressive, either, with the range on the 2.4GHz band, some 270 feet away, being much longer than that of the 5GHz band, which was just about 220 feet. The router's effective range, however, was just about 100 feet.
In stress tests, where it was set to work continuously with multiple Wi-Fi clients for a long period of time, it passed easily on the 5GHz band. On the 2.4GHz band, it showed the first disconnection after just about 7 hours. This is not a big deal since the client was reconnected immediately, but other routers can go for 24 hours or more without disconnecting at all.
The D-Link DGL-5500 isn't ready for prime time and right now StreamBoost is the router's only feature of note. Interested parties should wait until D-Link significantly updates the firmware, hopefully improving both performance and the clunky Web interface. A beefy price cut should also be a prerequisite before purchase.