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

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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.

8.3 Overall
  • Setup 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Support 8

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.

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.

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