It’s ironic that many of the schools that have wireless data networks are still using the antediluvian 802.11b standard that’s potentially older than many of its students. For them, as well as those who have kept up with the technology, there has never been a better time to upgrade to the 802.11ac protocol, which offers increased speed and reliability while maintaining compatibility with the older protocols. The Linksys WRT1900AC router is a great place to start because it not only brings out the best in the current WiFi set up but has lots of unexpected extras.
The 802.11ac protocol has matured quickly and offers top speed, reliability and compatibility with older equipment. The blue and black WRT router is big and looks like a larger version of the company’s WRT 54G router of a decade ago. The big difference is that the new WRT is a fully up to date dual-band 802.11ac router that’s powered by a 1.2GHz dual core processor, which is slightly faster than the Netgear Nighthawk’s processor; both have 256MB of RAM and 128MB of flash storage on hand.
In fact, it’s so powerful that it is the only router I’ve seen that has a cooling fan. It’s in the middle of the case’s top, so don’t put anything on top that would block its air flow.
It uses the latest beam-forming technology that matches the router’s transmitted signal to the client’s needs. Rather than three antennas – as is the case with the Netgear Nighthawk and other AC routers – the WRT system has four small antennas that serve an important purpose. The router connects via the three antennas with the strongest signals. Not only can you rotate them into the best orientation, but they are replaceable. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no accessories, like optional higher gain antennas or a matching USB client radio, for the WRT.
While the system will likely be set up on a shelf horizontally, there are mounting holes underneath for vertical orientation, such as in a small closet. The manual includes a thoughtful template for mounting the unit on a wall.
Despite being able to connect at top speed with the latest hardware, it can communicate with clients as old as the original 802.11b standard. It can also work with anything from an iPad or Android slate to a Chromebook, Mac or PC, can connect via IP version 4 or 6 and you can assign static IP addresses or let the router do it automatically using DHCP. A big step forward is the ability to reserve a DHCP address for any client.
With one of the easiest setups around, you start by plugging everything in and then access the router via the Linksys’s Smart WiFi Web site instead of a software CD. The system’s default connection details are printed underneath as well as on included stickers. It took me all of 5-minutes to connect, set up and start using the WRT router. It worked just as well in router as in repeater mode and connected to a variety of access points, clients and accessories, like networked hard drives and printers generally on the first try.
The WRT system connects via the latest security protocols and can create a helpful network map with all the connected devices detailed, although its identification is sometimes off. It labels some as a generic Network Device, categorized a network storage system as a computer and ignored connected access points. Still, it’s a great way to define and document your LAN without a pencil and paper. You can even set up a guest network for visitors who need Internet but not allow access to network storage drives.
At any time you can connect to the router via its IP address, although it doesn’t work with iPad or Android slates; Linksys does have iOS and Android apps for doing everything from adjusting its settings to providing real time network status, content filtering and sharing content. With built-in software that measures the network’s Web connection, it can be the first stop when the Web disconnects. It uses Ookla’s reliable site, but its visual speedometer tops out at 20Mbps, although the WRT can record speeds much higher. It can also track Internet usage by device, but can’t be set to periodically poll the Internet and keep a log of results.
Like just about any other wireless router, the WRT’s back has RJ-45 LAN ports for input and four wired gigabit outward-bound connections, but adds USB 3.0 and an eSATA connection that doubles as a USB 2.0 port. This lets you easily connect hard drives and printers to the network.
The unit’s front has LEDs that cover the router’s abilities, but they are all cool blue rather than the expected garish yellow and red ones on the competition. There are lights for power, Web connection, wired LAN connections, USB, eSATA, WiFi Protected operation and whether the 2.4- and 5GHz bands are active. If your server closet looks like a Christmas tree, you can leave just the power light of the WRT illuminated.
One of the most advanced networking devices available, the WRT has sophisticated Web site filters and can operate as a file transfer protocol server for transmitting large files. Its software can prioritize which devices get first dibs on the data flow that is so much simpler than typical quality of service software that it might actually get used.
Like a networking Swiss Army knife, the WRT can be used as a router, a wireless bridge, a repeater or an access point. On the downside, the WRT router can’t work with LDAP directory servers for authenticating clients; the company is working on an upgrade. In fact, the WRT router has open source software that will undergo continual revision and refinement by programmers.
As is the case with most new equipment, there are oddities to the WRT’s operation, like the inability to use a space in the network name when it is set up in bridge mode. Linksys is working on fixing this bug.
It had a range of 145-feet –10-feet farther than the Nighthawk’s range – in an older building with a combination of brick and plaster construction. Using TotuSoft’s LAN Speed tests, the WRT router was able to consistently deliver 884Mbps of bandwidth over the 2.4- and 5GHz channels. With 16 computers of various age and platform as well as several printers, hard drives and projectors connected, the router didn’t bog down or slow.
The WRT router comes with all you need to get started and a 1 year warranty for $250. That’s $50 more than Netgear’s similar Nighthawk AC router, but the WRT does more, with an extra antenna and the ability to define and fine-tune a network makes it second to none.
+ Excellent performance
+ Prioritization of clients
+ 2.4- and 5GHz operation
+ Can attach printer and hard drive
+ 4 antennas
+ Online monitoring
- Requires cooling fan
- Lacks directory server access
- No matching USB client radio