If you want a robust router for your home network that works so well that once set up you can just forget about it, the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500 is not necessarily for you. This is a router that you will check on regularly, not so much because you have to, but more because you want to.
The router is the first in the Linksys EA series that Ciscolaunched two months ago. It didn't get reviewed until now because the heart of the new series, the Cisco Connect Cloud solution, went live just last week. After playing with the new cloud-based approach to home routers for a few days, I can confidently say that it will change the way you think about networking entirely, mostly for better.
Note that this is the review of the Linksys EA4500 router. I did a separate review of the Cisco Connect Cloud solution for home networking that
The Linksys EA4500 is very similar to the
That said, the EA4500 is not perfect; it lacks support for 802.11ac and doesn't offer a way for users to manage it without having to log in with an Cisco Connect Cloud account. Its 2.4Ghz band's performance could also use some improvement.
Nonetheless, at around $170, the new router makes an exciting home networking solution and an excellent investment. Those who are more comfortable with the traditional way to manage a home network, or feeling uneasy -- and rightfully so, because Cisco Connect Cloud requires a constant connection to Cisco to work, which might lead to privacy risks -- should also check out other great alternatives, such as the
Design and ease of use
The Links EA4500 look exactly the same as the Linksys E4200 and Linksys E4200 v2. Similar to the rest of routers in the Linksys E and Linksys EA series, the EA4500 more resembles a jewelry box than a networking device, with its flat shape and glossy, smooth-finish top. The router shares the same compact power adapter as the Linksys E4200 v2.
Like the E4200 v2, the new EA4500 4-gigabit LAN ports and 1-gigabit WAN port on the back. There's also a push button for the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) feature, a recessed reset button, and a USB 2.0 port that can host a printer or a USB external storage device for the router's network-attached storage (NAS) function.
Like all routers in the EA Series, the E4500 originally comes with a classic Web interface, and Cisco Connect software that helps novice users set up and manage the router very easily. However, starting June 26, the new Cisco Connect Cloud firmware has been automatically pushed to EA series routers, except for those that have been explicitly opted out of the automatic firmware update setting. For those who have been anticipating Cisco Connect Cloud, this is a good thing. For others it might just be an unpleasant surprise.
This is because together with the new firmware, the router can no longer be administrated without a Cisco Connect Cloud account, which requires a live Internet connection to work. While it's quite easy to get an account (and it's free), this also means the router is now connected to Cisco at all times, whether or not you want it. On top of that, the new interface is so different from the previous version that most users will at first have problem finding where things are.
Basically, the new interface now has two parts, Apps and Router Settings. Apps, or embedded apps, are the features of the router, while Router Settings contains all the common wireless router settings. Though I find this is a better way to organize things, it's completely different from any other traditional Web interface for routers and understandably has a bit of a learning curve to say the least.
Note that if you buy a new EA4500 now, chances are it's already preloaded with Cisco Connect Cloud firmware.
Personally, I find the Cisco Connect Cloud a welcome change; I was able to program the EA4500 to do all I needed for an advanced home network network with lots of customized settings. I did notice one odd thing about the new Cisco Connect Cloud interface: the password for a DynDSN service, if you use one with the router, is no longer masked as asterisks but appears in plain characters. This poses a risk of losing your DynDNS account if somebody happens to see your computer's screen when you're changing the router's settings.
Whether you have an existing EA4500 router with an updated firmware or one that comes with Cisco Connect Cloud firmware preinstalled, it's very easy to get the router up and running. The only step you need to do is go to the router's IP address, which by default is 192.168.1.1, sign in via a Cisco Connect Cloud account and associate the router with that account by typing in the router's admin password (by default it's admin). From then on, each time you want to change the router's settings or manage its features, you can sign in via the Cisco Connect Cloud portal, or via the Cisco Connect Cloud mobile app.
Note that currently, the only easy way for you to manage the router without having to sign in with Cisco Connect Cloud is disconnect it from the Internet. In this case, however, you can only manage the Router Settings part, minus the Security portion. On the other hand, even if you're fine with the fact that your home router's connected to Cisco, note that the router's settings and features can't be changed if the Cisco Connect Cloud portal is down. The router itself will still function with its existing settings, however.
The good news is if you want to avoid having to use the Cisco Connect Cloud entirely, you can. You just need to switch back to the classic Web interface by downloading the previous version of the firmware from the Cisco Support page and then reflashing the router. After that, make sure you don't opt for the automatic firmware update.
Like the E4200 v2, the EA4500 is a true dual-band router, meaning it has two separate access points -- one for the 2.4GHz band and the other for the 5GHz band -- that can work simultaneously. Each band of the router offers up to 450Mbps Wi-Fi speed, effectively making it an N900 router. The router's USB port can host an external hard drive of any capacities. In my trials, it worked fine with drives that are larger than 2TB, formatted in NTFS file system (Windows). This means you can connect a drive with existing contents to the router and share that to other network devices, either via regular file sharing protocol or streaming. The router support UPnP and DNLA streaming standards. The router doesn't support hard drive formatted for Mac, however.
The biggest features of the router, as well as that of the EA series, is the
I tried the Media Prioritization feature out and it generally worked well. The idea of this feature is that you can quickly move up to three devices and/or Web services to the high-priority list. These devices/services then will have priority access to the Internet against those that are not on the list. Note that how well this feature works depends a lot on how fast your Internet connection is, generally, the faster the better. This is because the router won't disconnect nonpriority devices from the Internet entirely to allocate more bandwidth to prioritized devices.
The router's storage feature also worked as intended. The router was able to provide enough power to run any bus-powered portable drives I tried with it. It supported sharing data on the drive both via easy way, where everybody in the network has the same level of access to the entire drive, or via a more advanced way in which you can create accounts with access restriction. This is similar to how this feature worked in the previous, more classic version of the firmware.
Despite the new, advanced firmware, the router's Guest Access feature, available only in the 2.4Ghz band, still doesn't allow you to name the guest network to your liking. Instead it'll take the name of the main network and add the "-guest" suffix to it. This means that guests will know that they are, well, guests, and will be able to deduce the name of your main network.
The Cisco Linksys EA4500's performance was very similar to that of the Linksys E4200 v2 in my testing.
The router excelled on the 5Ghz band, scoring some 23MBps (or 187Mbps) in close range (15 feet) test, basically the same as the E4200 v2. When I increased the distance to 100 feet, it still did very well at 22MBps (177Mbps). This is very impressive, since most routers show a much larger data-rate degradation over range. In this same test the E4200 scored much slower at 15MBps.
It was a different storage on the 2.4Ghz, the E4500 was consistently slower than E4200 v2, registering 62Mbps and 41Mbps for close and long range tests, respectively, compared to 149Mbps and 36Mbps of the E4200 v2.
In the EA4500's defense, while the two routers were tested at the same location -- my office at CNET headquarters -- the E4200 v2 was tested a while ago when there were fewer access points and Wi-Fi devices. Recently, there has been an increased number of Wi-Fi devices around the office that I have no control over, which might or might not be the reason why the test result on the 2.4Ghz band has been consistently lower than expected.
In that same environment, the EA4500 did very well in the range test, offering up to 280 feet in range. Ideally, howover, you want to use it within 170 feet or so for stable and fast Wi-Fi connections. The router also passed 48 hours on our Wi-Fi stress test, on both bands, during which it didn't disconnect once.
Similar to the E4200 v2, the EA4500 also did well as a NAS server. When coupled with an external hard drive, via a Gigabit Ethernet, it offered some 19MBps (or 153Mbps) for writing and about 20MBps for reading (163Mbps). These were very fast speeds for a router working as a NAS server, though they were still a little slower than the E4200 v2.
Service and support
Cisco backs the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500 with a one-year limited warranty, and you can also return it after 90 days of purchase. The company's toll-free phone support is available 24-7, as is online chat with a support representative. The company's Web site includes software, drivers, and firmware downloads as well as an FAQ section.
With Cisco Connect Cloud, the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500 offers your home network features you have never imagined possible before. And even without these, when running the old firmware, its till makes a great router with fast 5Ghz Wi-Fi speed, good range and stable signal.