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Linksys WRT1900AC Wireless Router review: Fast, powerful router justifies its hefty price

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The WRT1900AC is totally different from previous high-end routers by Linksys: It's the most powerful router on the market, and it delivers.

Retro router
8.3

Linksys WRT1900AC Wireless Router

The Good

The Linksys WRT1900AC Wi-Fi router delivers powerful networking hardware, has great Wi-Fi range and excellent data rates, and supports add-on storage with unsurpassed NAS performance. It boasts a cool retro design and allows enthusiasts to swap in alternate third-party firmware.

The Bad

This is the most expensive -- and possibly the largest -- router on the market. The current default software doesn't offer enough configuration options for Wi-Fi experts, and the Web interface might require some getting used to for first-time users.

The Bottom Line

If you can afford the hefty price tag, the Linksys WRT1900AC Wi-Fi router is easily one of the best home routers on the market.

Unlike the Linksys EA6900 that flunked at launch, the WRT1900AC proves itself right out of the box to be one of the fastest Wi-Fi routers on the market, exhibiting exceptional range. When hosting a storage device, it also provides network storage performance equal to that of many high-end dedicated NAS servers.

The router has a few minor shortcomings, however, including its high price tag of somewhere between $250 and $300 (around AU$280 and up in Australia), and the lack of customizations for its Wi-Fi networks. The Web interface, while organized, is also a little unintuitive, especially for first time users.

But if you're willing to pay the premium, the new Linksys WRT1900AC is worth the wait and will be an excellent router for any home, especially for advanced users who want to take advantage of its custom firmware and other nerdy features. (If you're looking for more affordable alternatives, check out CNET's list of best home routers.)

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The new Linksys WRT1900AC bears more than a passing resemblance to the design of the good, old WRT54G that came out more than a decade ago. Dong Ngo/CNET

Retro design, powerful hardware

The new WRT1900AC arrives with a completely new design compared with routers released by Linksys over the last few years. Indeed, this model harkens back to the "classic" decade-old, blue-and-black Linksys design. It's reminiscent of the earlier WRT series (such as the WRT54Gs ), albeit much larger than those models. It's wall-mountable, but it retains the stackable design of previous Linksys gear (the company will soon release a switch that will be able to sit on top).

Of course, the new WRT router now comes with much more powerful components than its ancient predecessors. In fact, it's the most powerful home router on the market to date, running a 1.2Ghz ARM-based dual-core processor, and containing 128MB of flash storage as well as 256MB of DDR3 RAM. This powerful hardware is even more significant considering that Linksys says the router will also support third-party firmware. OpenWRT is pledging to release compatible firmware sometime this month, and DD-WRT and Tomato might have theirs by June.

Despite that the device features four antennas (rather than the three you'll find in other high-end routers), it's a three-stream router, not a four-stream (4 x 4) model. As an AC1900 router, the WRT1900AC will deliver speeds of up to 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz frequency band and up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards.)

On its back, the router has four gigabit LAN ports and one gigabit WAN (Internet) port. It also comes with one USB 3.0 port and another port that can work as either a USB 2.0 or an eSATA connection. This is the first router I've seen that supports eSATA. You can use these ports to host up to two external storage devices at a time.



Top Wi-Fi speed CPU Peripheral ports

Dimensions Weight
Asus RT-N68U 1.3Gbps (5GHz) / 600Mbps (2.4GHz) Dual-core 800MHz 1 USB 3.0 / 1 USB 2.0

8.7 x 6.3 x 3.3 inches 1.4 pounds
Linksys EA6900 1.3Gbps (5GHz) / 600Mbps (2.4GHz) Dual-core 800MHz

1 USB 3.0 / 1 USB 2.0

10.1 x 7.3 x 1.6 inches 1.2 pounds
Linksys WRT1900AC

1.3Gbps (5GHz) / 600Mbps (2.4GHz)

Dual-core 1.2GHz

1 USB 3.0 / 1 USB 2.0/eSATA

9.68 x 7.63 x 2.04 inches

2.11 pounds

Netgear R7000 1.3Gbps (5GHz) / 600Mbps (2.4GHz) Dual-core 1,000MHz

1 USB 3.0 / 1 USB 2.0

11.2 x 7.3 x 2.0 inches 1.65 pounds

On the front, the WRT1900AC comes with an array of fancy LED lights that show the status of the router. I find these lights very helpful, but if you don't like them, you can turn all of them off (except for the power light) via the router's Web interface.

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The new Linksys WRT1900AC comes with one USB 3.0 port and also supports eSATA. Dong Ngo/CNET

Easy to set up, flexible network management

If you just want to use the new router right out of the box, there's default settings printed on its underside that allow you to use it as soon as you have plugged it into power and connected its WAN port into an Internet source, such as a broadband modem. But with the WRT1900AC, you'll want to do more than that.

The router allows you to access its Web interface, hence the ability to manage your home network, both locally and, as an option, over the Internet. For the latter, you'll need a free Linksys Smart Wi-Fi account.

Locally, you can always access the router by pointing the 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. If you opt to use the remote management from anywhere in the world, you can log in by going to linksyssmartwifi.com and logging in via your Smart Wi-Fi account. In both cases, the Web interface is exactly the same. Those with a Smart Wi-Fi account can also access a sizable collection of mobile apps, including the free Linksys Smart Wi-Fi mobile app (Android and iOS) to manage the router's settings and features, again via the Internet

In my trial, the remote management feature worked well, both when I used it with a browser and via the mobile app. Unless you're extremely concerned about your privacy, the a Linksys Smart Wi-Fi account adds a lot of value to the WRT1900AC.

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The Network Map is a great way for users to visually manage their home networks. Dong Ngo/CNET

Nice set of features

The WRT1900AC shares the same interface as that of previous Smart Wi-Fi routers but with many improved features. The Network Map now has a lot of customizations -- you can view connected devices by connection types (wireless or wired) or device types (computers, mobile devices, printers, and unknown). You can quickly add or edit a connected client to a IP reservation/blocking pool, give it a name, or view more information about the client. In all, the Map is a great feature for anybody to visually manage their home network.

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. With the WRT1900AC, you can change the name of its guest networks (two of them, one for each band) to what you prefer, a first among Linksys Smart Wi-Fi routers. With previous models, the guest networks' names would be based on the name of the main networks with a "-guest" suffix. You can allow up to 50 guests at a time.

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The WRT1900AC comes with a ventilation fan that runs only when the router gets hot. Dong Ngo/CNET

The router's USB ports can be used to connect to external storage devices of any capacity. You can use external hard drives formatted in HFS+, FAT32, or NTFS. In my trials, while the USB 2.0/eSATA port worked well, the USB 3.0 port didn't provide enough juice to power a few of the portable drives. (It did with most drives, however.) 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 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.

Other than that, the WRT1900AC 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. However, for first-time Smart Wi-Fi router users, the interface might require a learning curve. It also doesn't provide the level of customization they might like for the Wi-Fi networks.

Miscategorization and lack of customizations

While very organized and for the most part self-explanatory, the layout of the WRT1900AC's Web interface might be confusing to those who have never used it before. This is because you don't find the standard categories, such as Administration, Basic, Advanced, System, and so on. Instead there are four categories under Router Settings, including Connectivity, Troubleshooting, Wireless, and Security and each of those doesn't necessarily contain the information you are looking for.

For example, MAC filtering -- a security feature that blocks a client from connecting using its MAC address -- is not shown under Security, or even Connectivity. Instead, you'll find it in the Wireless section. Similarly, the Dynamic DNS and port-forwarding are filed under Security rather than under Connectivity. You'll find firmware updates in the Connectivity section instead of Troubleshooting, and so on and so forth. Basically, you have to dig around in the interface to find what you need, and if you feel like a common setting is missing, chances are it's just hidden somewhere.

The interface doesn't allow for customizing the Wi-Fi network, either. For example, on the 5GHz band, you change its 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 chances are the Auto setting (the default) will get the job done. However, 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 speed.

Excellent Wi-Fi performance, unprecedented NAS speed

I tested the WRT1900AC's Wi-Fi performance on the "Auto" setting for both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands -- since this is the only way for it to offer top speeds -- and it performed very well.

On the 5GHz band, I noted that the clients could connect to the router easily at 1.3Gbps. At close range (15 feet), I got a sustained copy speed of 65MBps (or 521Mbps). When I increased the distance to 100 feet, that speed now registered at 341Mbps. Both of these scores are among the fastest on the market.

CNET Labs' 5GHz Wi-Fi performance

Asus RT-AC68U 521.4 336Linksys WRT1900AC 520.67 340.7Linksys EA6900 520.5 251.2Trendnet TEW-818DRU 465 306.7Netgear R7000 431 295Motorola SurfBoard eXtreme SBG6782-AC 292.6 145.8Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station 287.2 204.6D-Link DIR-868L 271 221Amp Wireless RTA15 205.5 165.5D-Link DGL-5500 157.8 113.8
  • Short range
  • Long range
Notes: Data rate of Wi-Fi routers measured in megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance

On the 2.4GHz band, it was a little different story. It seemed that on the Auto setting, the clients didn't connect to the router consistently at the same rate, but that changes between 175Mbps and 600Mbps. In the end, the average score was 168Mbps for close range and about 50Mbps at long range. These aren't slow, but comparatively they're not among the fastest, either.

CNET Labs' 2.4GHz Wi-Fi performance

Linksys EA6900 241 95.8Asus RT-AC68U 225 211.4Linksys WRT1900AC 168.3 50.34Trendnet TEW-818DRU 156.5 65.6Trendnet TEW-818DRU 156.5 65.6Trendnet TEW-818DRU 156.5 65.6Netgear R7000 117 62Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station 79.4 38.4Amp Wireless RTA15 74.6 35.2D-Link DIR-868L 63.3 55.6Motorola SurfBoard eXtreme SBG6782-AC 63.1 18.8D-Link DGL-5500 58.6 41
  • Short range
  • Long range
Notes: Data rate of Wi-Fi routers measured in megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance

I was also very pleased with the router's Wi-Fi range, which was among the farthest I've seen --up to more than 300 feet in my testing. Obviously the closer you are, the better data rates you'll get, and the effective range of this model is about the same as other high-end router -- around 175 feet or less. The router also passed my 48-hour stress test without a hiccup. During this time of transferring large amounts of data between multiple Wi-Fi clients it didn't disconnect 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.

CNET Labs' router network storage performance

Linksys WRT1900AC 75.9 105.24Netgear R7000 38.6 60.41Asus RT-AC68U 41.2 53.86Apple Time Capsule (Summer 2013) 25.8 28.67Linksys EA6900 14.0 14.52D-Link DIR-868L 12.5 12.81
  • Write
  • Read
Notes: Data rate of router when coupled with an external hard drive via a gigabit connection; measured in megabytes per second

The WRT1900AC's NAS performance was the most impressive. When couple with a portable drive connected to its USB 3.0 port via a gigabit connection, the router registered a sustained speed of 75MBps for writing and 105MBps for reading. These are by far the fastest among all routers that have this feature, and even faster than many high-end dedicated NAS servers.

Despite its high-end components, the WRT1900AC managed to stay cool during my testing. It never became hot enough to trigger the little ventilation fan on the inside. For this reason, it was also very quiet.

Conclusion

The WRT1900AC is easily the best Wi-Fi router Linksys has made in a long time, and it's one of the best 802.11ac routers on the market. To add to its value, there will soon be third-party firmware made for this router. This means, among other things, if you're taken aback by its interface, you'll have a choice to change to an entirely different one.

The only real drawback is its hefty price. If you plan on using it as a NAS server (with your own add-on storage, of course) -- or if you plan on taking advantage of the custom firmware option -- it's well worth it. Otherwise, you'll want to check out the Netgear R7000 and the Asus RT-AC68U instead; both are also great routers at lower prices.

Retro router
8.3

Linksys WRT1900AC Wireless Router

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 8Performance 9Support 8