Reviews
Linksys WRT1900AC Smart Router

By Sharad Hirjee - September 12th, 2014

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In early 2014 Cisco completed the sale on the Linksys division to Belkin, making them one of the biggest players in the home networking space. Cisco had been taking the Linksys line of routers in a direction that featured very slick, antenna free, devices that appeared to emulate UFOs (as if the manufacturers were trying to create hardware that did not resemble any previous network hardware). Freed from the shackles of Cisco’s development plan, the new company needed to make a bold statement and they did it by paying homage to the legendary WRT54G in the creation of the WRT1900AC Smart Router.

Launched back in 2002 the WRT54G was powered by a 125Mhz Broadcom BCM4702 and had a whopping 16MB of RAM and 4MB of flash memory1. Of course, this was around the time that high-speed internet was becoming more prevalent and it was common for people to have multiple devices at home. This iconic black and blue device is still used by many, despite lack of support for 802.11n/ac. With more than 50 million units sold, appealing to both computer enthusiasts (due to open source compatibility) and regular folks (due to the simplicity of use out of the box), this router was so successful that it was even used to represent the Internet on an episode of South Park.

Now let’s fast forward back to the present, where we queue up the WRT1900AC, a grown-up version of its baby brother – and this one packs a punch! First of all, the WRT1900AC is physically massive: It takes a good amount of space to house it (the dimensions are 246mm wide x 194mm high x 52mm deep) and it weighs a whopping 2kg, making it twice the size of its little WRTG54G brother. It also comes with a Ferrari price tag, which at $279 is the most expensive consumer router that I have ever tested – but once you look under the hood of this Ferrari, you’ll know why. The hardware specifications of this monster dwarf those of the computer that I used to connect to my old 54G. The WRT1900AC is powered by a 1.2GHz ARM-based dual-core processor, with 128MB of flash storage and 256MB of DDR3 RAM. This is a differentiator, as the competition in the AC1900 space are using use slower processors (for instance, the Netgear R7000 runs at 1 GHz, while the Asus RT-N68U clocks in at 800MHz).

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The rear of the device. Mostly typical interfaces with an interesting hybrid port for USB/eSata.

Opening the box reveals very supportive and upscale foam packaging with cut-outs to protect the router and its included 4 external antennas (and to keep them all safety in place). The power cable features inline AC to DC conversion, meaning that the plug is a standard plug rather than a massive one, so you don’t block any other sockets in your wall plate or power bar. It also comes with a standard Ethernet cable and CD with documentation to round out the package. Setting up the router is a simple and quick process.

There are two ways to configure this router. Beginners should go online and use the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi webpage, which walks you through the set-up process step by step. More experienced users can skip that option and use the traditional method, and it won’t take very long to have the router up and running. Like its predecessors the WRT1900AC is a smart Wi-Fi router, meaning that you can monitor, control and configure the router from anywhere in the world via PC (or with an app on your smartphone). The interface for this feature makes router fiddling easy to do – but lacks the granularity of a traditional interface (which probably doesn’t matter to the average consumer anyway).

One of the things that I really like about the WRT1900AC is that the hardware design is both functional and practical. The unit is well-balanced and is a solid wall-mount option, which is a flexibility that I certainly appreciate (and something that I missed on previous equipment that I have owned). The design team hit a home run with the heat dissipation systems. There are several large strategically located heatsinks and a fan at the top that is only triggered when needed and is very quiet when running. I really had to push the router hard to get the fan on at all. While Linksys says that the unit is sturdy enough so that you can stack something on top of it, I would not recommend it – access to ample airflow is what allows those heat dissipation systems to work so well, and cordoning off any escape routes for excess heat is just a bad idea. Heat is the nemesis of processors and circuit boards, as every enthusiast knows; the cooler you can keep the equipment, the better it will operate, especially under heavy CPU load.

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Under the hood. Check out the heatsinks.

In another trend-defying change, Linksys has ditched the internal antenna and has gone back to an external configuration featuring four movable antennas to assist in getting you a little more range. Some of the Linksys documentation mentions the future availability of a high-gain antenna, but at the time of the writing of this article, this option is not available. Besides, that may be like putting a Nitrous Oxide booster on a Ferrari (read: overkill), as this router sports a Wi-Fi range that is better than all of the other routers that I have tested (in some cases 20 to 30 feet further).

The most impressive performance stat about this router is the transfer speed revealed by interfacing with a NAS (Network Attached Storage – which is the capability of the router to make the content of connected hard drives available to other devices on the network). When I transferred some media file from my hardwired PC to a USB-connected Seagate External HDD, the data transfer was sustaining speeds of almost 80MBps. This would likely improve with an eSATA-connected drive as the router does have a new USB-eSATA combination port available – the first one that I have seen available on a router. This is visible in the performance of the media servers as well; when browsing through the media contact on my server (about 1.7 TB worth), the cataloging and refresh times were notably better than the dedicated NAS device on my network today. In comparison the EA4200 would barely get to 7MBps and the EA 6500 would max out at 11MBps. What this means is when you go to watch that HD movie on your smart TV this router is never going to leave you waiting for buffering of content. I was able to simultaneously stream three HD movies to different devices and the router dealt with the load easily.

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The software interface for the router. Easy peasy.

The dual band as well as 802.11ac capabilities as well as the beast of a CPU built in to this router make the wireless performance the fastest that I have tested. Using the 802.11ac 5GHz the theoretical max speed is 1.3Gbps. I maxed out at around 400Mbps in test file transfers at a fairly close range – but this is to be expected in practical, real-world performance.

I had a few issues with the router that prevent me from considering it perfect. First of all, Linksys has stated that this device is open source ready, which I would have liked to test; but at this time OpenWRT, DDWRT and Tomato do not have any options available for this router. This is the biggest miss for me as the included feature set feels like it is a bit lacking, and given the hardware capabilities I had very high hopes to be able to run Open VPN and potentially some other advanced applications. Other issues: there is a known issue with Nest devices (which seems to be a topic in forums for both Linksys and Nest); it seems that there may be issues with some external drives – resulting in errors on an unrecognized device. I can only hope that Linksys is working on these issues.

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I wish my desk was this neat.

Those nit-picks aside, this is the fastest router with the best range that I have tested – period. If speed is your requirement: this is your device; however know that this is a Ferrari and not a Cadillac. The features and capabilities of the software fall a bit short, but the raw power of this unit is awesome. I truly hope that the open source communities are able to solve the issues preventing them from supporting this router, or that Linksys releases a firmware that has more advanced capabilities (and addresses the Nest and HDD issues). If and when that does happen they may have another home run on their hands.

1 – Most of our smart phones today have multiple times more processing power than the PCs of yesteryear.
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    One response so far:
  2. By mark
    Posted on Sep 29, 2014

    there is opensource firmware in development, I myself am running the image on my WRT1900AC, and it is running quite well. Check it out:

    https://github.com/Chadster766/McWRT/wiki

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