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Linksys EA8500 Max-Stream AC2600 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router review: Excellent for multidevice homes, but too expensive for modest needs

As the first router that supports MU-MIMO, the Linksys EA8500 is a great choice for those with many devices of different Wi-Fi speeds, if they can afford it. Here's CNET's full review.

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Dong Ngo
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Dong Ngo

SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

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10 min read

The Linksys EA8500 Max-Stream AC2600 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router is the first router to use Qualcomm MU/EFX Wi-Fi technology, which promises better performance for a crowded mixed network. And in my testing, it delivered.

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8.3

Linksys EA8500 Max-Stream AC2600 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router

The Good

The Linksys EA8500 delivers excellent 5GHz Wi-Fi performance, especially in a network of mixed clients. Its network storage speed surpasses even some high-end NAS servers.

The Bad

The router is pricey and its Wi-Fi performance on the 2.4GHz band is below average. The storage feature doesn't support Time Machine backup.

The Bottom Line

Homes with lots of devices will benefit from the Linksys EA8500's speedy Wi-Fi and storage performance, but those with modest needs should look for something cheaper.

The speedy router proved especially good when hosting a network that consisted of mixed 5GHz Wi-Fi clients, enabling each device to connect at its top speed. In addition, it also had excellent Wi-Fi coverage and stable Wi-Fi signals. Best of all, when coupled with external hard drive, the EA8500 delivered the network storage data rate by far the fastest to date among routers, rivaling that of even high-end dedicated NAS servers.

On the down side, the EA8500's Wi-Fi performance on the 2.4GHz band is below average and it network storage feature doesn't support Time Machine backup. Furthermore, at $280 (£177, AU$350, converted) it's one of the most expensive routers on the market. The the Asus RT-AC68U, for example, costs just around $200 and will offer similar Wi-Fi experience, without great storage and mixed Wi-Fi performance.

All things considered, though, this is a great router for homes with many clients of mixed Wi-Fi grades. And if you're also looking for a quick solution to share data and host media for local streaming, the EA8500 is as good as it gets.

For the alternatives that might meet your need and budget better, however, check out CNET's list of best home routers.

The Linksys EA8500 comes with four large detachable antennas. Josh Miller/CNET

New Wi-Fi technology

The Qualcomm MU/EFX 802.11AC Wi-Fi chip features Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, designed to handle Wi-Fi bandwidth efficiently, hence capable of delivering betters data rate to multiple connected clients at a time.

Specifically, existing 802.11AC routers (or Wi-Fi access points) employ the original MIMO technology (aka single-user MIMO) and that means they 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 example, a three-stream 802.11ac router, such as the Linksys WRT1900AC, has a max Wi-Fi rate of 1,300Mbps, but the iPhone 6 has a max Wi-Fi rate of just 433Mbps (single stream). (Read more about Wi-Fi standards.) When the two are connected, the router still uses the entire 1,300Mbps transmission to the phone, wasting 867Mbps. This is similar to going to a coffee shop to get a small cup of coffee and the only option is the extra large.

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 down one another. This is similar to having multiple coffee attendants in the shop who gives out all different cup sizes of coffee so that customers can get the exact amount of drink they need, faster.

At least this is what MU-MIMO promises to offer. In reality, in order for MU-MIMO to work at its best, the technology needs to be supported by both the router and the connected clients. And since most existing clients on the market don't support MU-MIMO, for now, you will not see MU-MIMO in its full benefit though it did help noticeably in my testing.

The router has the usual number of network ports: one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0/eSATA port. Josh Miller/CNET

Powerful hardware

Other than the support for MU-MIMO, the EA8500 itself is a powerful router offering up to 1733Mbps on the 5Ghz band and up to 800Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. The router is powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, 128MB Flash storage and 512MB DDR3 RAM memory, the most souped up hardware specs I've seen to date. On top of that, it has four Gigabit LAN ports, one Gigabit WAN (Internet) port, one USB 3.0 port and one USB2.0/eSATA combo port.

Design-wise, the EA8500 looks very similar to the EA8350 that came out last October, with four detachable antennas. These antennas are much larger and longer, however, promising better coverage. The EA8500 doesn't have any indicator lights, other than the power status light on top that shapes into the Linksys logo. While home users won't mind this omission, savvy users will likely miss the ability to troubleshoot the network by looking at little LEDs.

The new router is designed to stay flat on a surface, but it can also be wall-mounted, though it doesn't include any mounting screws.

Ease to setup, optional remote management

The EA8500 share the same Smart Wi-Fi firmware as the rest in Linksys' Smart Wi-Fi family, including the recently-reviewed WRT1200AC and the once-flagship WRT1900AC. This means it's very easy to set up, and use.

If you just want to use the new router right out of the box, there are default settings printed on its underside. All you have to do is connect its WAN (Internet) port to an Internet source (such as a cable modem) and plug it into power, and you're done. If you want to further customize (and you really do), you'll need to access the router's Web interface.

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The Network Map is a good place to view your entire network. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Locally, you can access the router by pointing a browser from a connecter computer to the router's IP address, the default is 192.168.1.1, and the default password to log in is admin. As you log in, the router will prompt you to opt for the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi remote management option. To do this you need to enter the credentials of a Linksys Smart Wi-Fi account (free registration available at linksyssmartwifi.com) and then associate the router with this account by typing in its admin password. After that one-time process, instead of using the default IP locally you can always go to linksysmartwifi.com, log in with your account and manage the router, from anywhere in the world.

Locally or remotely, the Web interface is exactly the same, well-organized and responsive. Those opted to use a Smart Wi-Fi account can also use Linksys Smart Wi-Fi mobile app (Android and iOS) to manage the router's settings and features, using their mobile device. The mobile app allows access to only a handful of the router's settings and features, however, and can't replace the Web interface entirely.

Keep in mind that as for any vendor-assisted remote management service, using Linksys Smart Wi-Fi means that you might expose your privacy to the vendor since Linksys can potentially know all of your online activities.

Familiar set of features

If you've used a Linksys Smart Wi-Fi router before, there's no learning curve with the EA8500. It shares the same interface as well as features as any Smart Wi-Fi routers released in the last five years. The Interface is organized with a list of items on the left and widgets in the main page. Each menu item or widget will take you to a feature or setting of the router.

The router has a Network Map that displays all connected clients sorted by connection type (wireless or wired) or device types (computers, mobile devices, printers, and others), each with its own icon. By clicking on an icon, you can quickly add or remove a connected client to an IP reservation/blocking pool, or view more information on it.

The second big feature is the Media Prioritization, which allows you to drag and drop connected clients between the High priority and Normal priority lists. (The former will have priority access to the Internet.) There's also a handy Internet Speed test (available only locally) and a simple Parental Control feature that allows you to block certain connected clients' access to the Internet or just to certain Web sites. You can also schedule the time when the blocking is in effect.

The router's USB and eSATA ports can be used to connect to external storage devices of any capacity. When a drive is plugged in, you can share its content with other network devices, either via regular file-sharing protocol or through streaming. By default, all clients in your home network can access all the content stored on a connected drive, but you can also turn on secure sharing by creating user accounts. The router supports UPnP and DNLA streaming standards, meaning content stored on the connected drive can be played back by network media streamers, set top boxes and game consoles.

Other than that, the Linksys EA8500 offers all the other common features and settings found in most new routers, such as IPv6, DynDNS, port-forwarding, WPA/WPA2 Wi-Fi encryption methods, and so on.

Minor shortcomings

Similar to its siblings in the Smart Wi-Fi family, the Linksys EA8500 has a few minor shortcomings.

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A 1x1 client is shown connected to the EA8500 at its top speed. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

First the interface doesn't allow for deep customizations of the Wi-Fi networks. For example, on the 5GHz band, you can change its network mode setting to Auto, N-only, A-only or A/N, but you can't make it work in AC-only mode. You can't pick a frequency higher than 40MHz, either. While this is not a big deal, and the Auto setting will work out in most cases, savvy users will miss the ability to customize the Wi-Fi networks to their own preferences; for example, making the 5GHz work only with AC clients to get the best performance.

Secondly, the router's Speed Test is grossly inaccurate and in my testing showed much lower numbers than the actual Internet speed I had at the time of testing.

Finally, the router's network storage feature doesn't support Time Machine backup. This significantly reduces its usefulness to Mac users. Note that many routers from Asus and Netgear feature Time Machine backup when hosting an external hard drive.

A new type of excellent Wi-Fi performance

Like with most 802.11AC routers, the strength of the EA8500 is on the 5GHz band -- 802.11AC doesn't operate on the 2.4GHz band -- and it was fast in my testing.

At a close range of 15 feet, it registered a sustained real-world speed of more than 430Mbps. When I increased the range to 100 feet, it averaged some 270Mbps. Note that this was the performance measured when the router was working with just one three-stream (3x3) client. And that didn't show what the EA8500 could do best.

The EA8500 was most impressive when used with multiple clients (I used five clients in my testing) of different Wi-Fi tiers, including single-stream (1x1), dual-stream (2x2) and three-stream, at the same time. First of all, I noticed that in this case, most clients were consistently indicated to be connected to the router at their max speeds, which were 1.3Gbps, 867Mbps and 433Mbps for 3x3, 2x2 and 1x1 clients, respectively. This was new; with all other 802.11ac routers, the clients' indicated connection speeds always fluctuated a great deal. Secondly, the real-world speed of each client when the router was hosting all of them was, for the most part, the same as when the router was working with just one of them. Furthermore, the clients took a very short time to connect to the router.

This clearly was the indication that MU-MIMO indeed improved the overall performance of a mixed network. Note that of five devices I used with the router for testing, only three of them featured a Wi-Fi adapter that also supported MU-MIMO.

CNET Labs' 5GHz Wi-Fi perforamnce

Linksys WRT1900AC 520.67 340.7T-Mobile CellSpot 570.6 340Asus RT-AC68U 521.4 336Linksys E8350 511.1 304.6Netgear R7000 432.1 295.4Asus RT-AC3200 513.7 289Asus RT-AC87U 504.4 278.6Linksys EA8500 437.8 272.4Linksys WRT1200AC 522.6 246.8Linksys EA9200 577.8 242.7Netgear R7500 381.7 242.4Netgear R8000 482.2 241.6D-Link DIR-868L 271 221D-Link DIR-880L 525.6 212.8Asus RT-AC66U 339.2 178.5Securifi Almond+ 277.6 173.4Amp Wireless RTA15 205.5 165.5D-Link DIR-890L/R 601.7 160.9
  • Close range
  • Long range
Note: Measured in megabits per second, longer bars mean better performance.

On the 2.4GHz band, however, the EA8500 was no different compared with other 802.11ac, the indicated connection speed fluctuated a great deal and the real-world speed wasn't impressive, either. The router scored 139Mbps and and 57Mbps for close and long range, respectively, and was blow the average on the charts.

CNET Labs' 2.4GHz Wi-Fi performance

T-Mobile CellSpot 249.56 214.34Asus RT-AC3200 235.7 66.4Linksys EA9200 226.2 40.9Asus RT-AC68U 225 211.4Netgear R7500 188.8 119.3Asus RT-AC87U 170.7 56Linksys WRT1900AC 168.3 50.34D-Link DIR-880L 160.8 89.5Linksys E8350 139.4 68.3Linksys EA8500 138.7 57.1Netgear R8000 134.4 57.6D-Link DIR-890L/R 121.8 34.4Netgear R7000 117.4 63.2Securifi Almond+ 87.9 23.2Amp Wireless RTA15 74.6 35.2D-Link DIR-868L 63.3 55.6Linksys WRT1200AC 57 41.6Asus RT-AC66U 36.8 15.2
  • Close range
  • Long range
Note: Data rate of Wi-Fi routers measured in megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance

I was very pleased with the EA8500's Wi-Fi range, which was among the farthest I've seen, up to 300 feet in my testing. Obviously the closer you are, the better data rates you'll get, I did notice that on the 5GHz band, the connection started to lose its bars from about 175 feet away, but even with a one-bar connection, I was still able get quite decent real-world speed, fast enough to stream Netflix in HD.

The EA8500 also passed my 48-hour stress test without any hiccups. During this time, the router was set to transferred a large amount of data between multiple Wi-Fi clients and it didn't disconnect even once.

Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are walls and many 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.

Outstanding NAS performance

Thanks to its powerful hardware, the EA8500 was most impressive with its network storage performance. I tested the router with a portable drive connected to its USB 3.0 port, and via a Gigabit connection, the router registered the sustained copy speed of more than 90MBps for writing and more than 105MBps for reading. These numbers make the EA8500 the new champion among all routers that have this feature, even significant faster than the Linksys WRT1900AC that had held this title for a long time. In fact, the EA8500's network storage performance was faster than that of many high-end dedicated NAS servers.

CNET Labs' router network storage performance

Linksys EA8500 90.8 105.52Linksys WRT1900AC 75.9 105.24Linksys WRT1200AC 70.9 88.88Netgear R8000 42.6 71.76Asus RT-AC68U 41.2 53.86Netgear R7000 38.6 60.1Securifi Almond+ 38.5 48.5Linksys E8350 37.8 85.47D-Link DIR-890L/R 35.5 65.23Netgear R7500 33.9 65.86Asus RT-AC3200 27.5 28.79D-Link DIR-880L 27.4 44Asus RT-AC87U 27.2 32.31Apple Time Capsule 25.8 28.67Linksys EA9200 25.6 48.57Asus RT-AC66U 16.7 9.6D-Link DIR-868L 12.5 12.81D-Link DIR-827 8.5 15.8
  • Write
  • Read
Note: Data rate of router when coupled with an external hard drive via a gigabit connection; measured in megabytes per second

This fast network storage speed means the EA8500 enables users to have a cheap yet powerful NAS solution for local data sharing, and media streaming. If the router supported Time Machine backup, (which it unfortunately doesn't, for now), it would also make a great backup server for Mac users.

Conclusion

The EA8500 replaces the WRT1900AC as Linksys' best router to date, not because it's offers faster connection to an individual client but because it's more efficient and delivers better overall performance for the entire network. On top of that, its speed when hosting a storage device is currently second to none among routers.

Similar to the case of the WRT1900AC, the EA8500 is very expensive at launch, which is the router's biggest obstacle for success; at $280, it's cost-prohibitive to most users. That said, it's a better idea to wait for a while for its price to go down, especially since chances are you don't have MU-MIMO clients at home yet, anyway. Note that there will be other MU-MIMO routers coming soon to the market later this year, meaning you will have more options, at least in terms of cost.

For most homes, a good AC1900 router, such as the WRT1900AC itself, the Netgear R7000 and the Asus RT-AC68U , which are a lot cheaper and will take care of your networking needs just fine. If you already have one of those, chances are you won't experience a noticeable difference upgrading to the EA8500. While the EA8500 brings Wi-Fi performance to a new level in some particular scenarios, it's not a must-have.

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8.3

Linksys EA8500 Max-Stream AC2600 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 9Performance 8Support 8