When Apple released its 2013 updates to the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule Wi-Fi routers in June, the company added support for the latest and fastest wireless standard, 802.11ac. Our first look at the 802.11ac AirPort Extreme showed very promising performance, with speeds nearing 550 megabits per second in some scenarios, a result that was nearly five times faster than the preceding 802.11n standard.
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But Apple was not the first to the next-gen Wi-Fi game. Although 802.11ac won’t be finalized as an IEEE standard until 2014, networking companies have been producing devices under the draft specification for nearly 18 months. Curious to see how Apple’s efforts compared to its competitors, we sought to gather a range of 802.11ac routers for testing.
Competing in our benchmark are four products: Apple’s 2013 802.11ac AirPort Extreme, the Netgear R6300 (a.k.a. AC1750), the Linksys EA6500, and the Belkin AC1200. Note that while Belkin has since released the AC1800, when the routers were sent to us, the AC1200 was the roughly $200 product from the company. We sought to compare all products with retail prices at approximately $200 which is comparable to Apple’s $199 price tag for the AirPort Extreme. Street prices for all products will, of course, vary.
Aside from the routers, our testing hardware included a 2013 13-inch MacBook Air (Apple’s only current product with built-in 802.11ac support) and a 2011 27-inch iMac wired directly to each router via a Category 6 Gigabit Ethernet cable. While we wanted to perform a wider variety of tests such as file transfers, there is currently a bug in OS X that limits file transfer speed over 5GHz 802.11ac connections, making the results of such tests meaningless. We anticipate that Apple will solve this bug shortly via an update to OS X Mountain Lion and certainly by the release of OS X Mavericks this fall.
We therefore performed straight bandwidth tests using JPerf, a GUI framework for the excellent Iperf network monitoring and testing utility. The iMac was configured as the server and the MacBook Air as the client. TCP connections over the course of 30 seconds were then measured in megabits per second between the computers (please note the difference between megabits and megabytes; 8 megabits equals 1 megabyte). Due to inevitable variations in the connection between the devices, the tests were run 10 times for each protocol with each router at each location. Results were then averaged to provide a good long-term look at performance.
We’re interested in two key areas with these tests: 5GHz 802.11ac performance and 2.4GHz 802.11n performance. 802.11ac may be significantly faster than its predecessor, but it’s stuck in the higher 5GHz frequency, which does not have the range of the more crowded 2.4GHz frequency. Therefore, for situations in which a router must “go the distance” in terms of signal strength, we’re looking for better range, even at the expense of speed compared to 802.11ac.
We tested each router independently, with all other wireless devices disabled during the tests, and measured the bandwidth from five locations. These are the same five locations from our initial look at the AirPort Extreme, and we’ll repeat their descriptions here for those who missed the first article:
Location 1: The same room as the routers, on a wooden table approximately ten feet away.
Location 2: One floor beneath the routers, in a room directly underneath. Approximately 15 feet from the routers through a single wood floor.
Location 3: The same floor as the routers, in a room on the opposite side of the building; approximately 45 feet away through two walls.
Location 4: One floor above the routers, in a room on the opposite side of the building; approximately 50 feet away through three walls and a wood floor.
Location 5: Outside the building (same floor as the routers), down the street about half a block. Note that 802.11ac, stuck in the shorter range offered by 5GHz, was unable to connect at this location, so the test only compares 2.4GHz 802.11n performance.
I Feel the Need…
Without further ado, the results:
First is 802.11ac speed. As revealed by our original look at the AirPort Extreme, Apple’s router achieved the fastest overall throughput at 547Mb/s while in the same room as the MacBook Air. Belkin and Linksys took a narrow second and third place, while the Netgear fell significantly behind. We were surprised by this result, and we ensured that the router was configured for maximum performance, but the slower speeds persisted throughout the 10 iterations.
As we get farther away from the routers, the performance gap narrows, with the exception of location 3, where the Netgear turned the tables and outperformed its competition by about 30 percent. Overall, the AirPort Extreme is the best 802.11ac performer from nearly all locations, with the Linksys in a close second place.
When we turn to 802.11n the performance spread is much narrower, although there are some clear results worth noting. Again, the AirPort Extreme leads in nearly all locations in terms of performance, including the tricky “location 5,” where the Belkin and Netgear routers struggled at low speeds. The Linksys, which took second place in 802.11ac performance, also does well with 802.11n.
While the Netgear holds its own at locations 1 through 4, its weak performance at location 5 makes it a poor choice for those who need long-range Wi-Fi signal support. Finally, the Belkin, while posting acceptable numbers at locations 1 and 2, really underperforms throughout the rest of the testing.
It’s Getting Hot in Here
Beyond pure performance, we also wanted to take a fresh look at thermals. Many router owners have experienced the agony of an overheating router, and Apple’s previous generations of short square devices were notorious for reaching uncomfortably high temperatures.
Apple sought to rectify this with the addition of a fan and plenty of intake and venting locations. The other routers in our test bench rely on traditional passive cooling, so we wanted to compare the efficacy of these different approaches for this new generation of networking products.
First, let’s look at noise. We’ve seen comments here and elsewhere that indicate that some AirPort Extreme owners find the new router to be loud, presumably from the fan. We think these experiences may be due to faulty routers. We’ve seen two 802.11ac AirPort Extreme routers in our office (the first one was faulty, but for reasons unrelated to the fan), and neither was loud, or even noticeably audible under any reasonable condition. If we put the router in a quiet room, put our ear right up to the bottom and listen carefully, we can hear a very faint hum from the fan. At any reasonable distance, including having the device right on your desk, you won’t hear it as long as it’s working properly.
And that’s good news, because the addition of the fan makes a significant difference in terms of temperatures. Our previous generation AirPort Extreme reached surface temperatures of between 115 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit; the new AirPort Extreme doesn’t top 90 degrees, and spends idle time in the mid–70s.
In addition to the AirPort Extreme, we put the other routers under load (i.e., several simultaneous sustained wireless and wired transfers for 15 minutes) and measured surface temperatures. Even with passive cooling, these routers maintained higher, but acceptable, temperatures. The Belkin peaked with surface temperatures of just over 103 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Netgear and Linksys were right behind with 101.8 and and 100.6, respectively.
It should be noted that all of the routers were situated during testing on an open bookshelf with access to plenty of naturally circulating air. If you cram your router into a closed cabinet filled with other heat-generating devices, your operating temperatures will obviously be significantly higher.
Of course performance isn’t the only factor to consider when comparing routers. Other factors such as ease of setup and configuration, expandability and sharing options, and unique features also play a role.
In terms of setup, we still find Apple’s AirPort Utility software to be the easiest to use. The free software is included on every Mac and is available to download for Windows. There’s also an iOS app available which allows you to setup and configure a new router without the need for a computer at all.
But Apple’s approach is, unsurprisingly, restrictive. Other routers have long used web-based setup via local pages hosted on the routers themselves. This allows any device with a browser to access a router’s configuration settings, including platforms such as Linux and Chrome where Apple’s AirPort Utility is simply not available. These web-based configuration pages have traditionally been a bit more complicated to understand and navigate, especially for users with no networking experience, but manufacturers have also made significant progress with their UI and added automation features for ease of use.
Many routers also now ship with preconfigured wireless networks with unique passwords. The Belkin and Netgear routers both included cards or stickers with these unique login credentials. While it’s always a good idea to set up your own network and secure password, novice users can start using some routers right out of the box with relative security.
Another differentiating factor for these routers is the port layout. The Belkin, Netgear, and Linksys routers all feature four hardwired gigabit Ethernet LAN ports (not including the WAN port for connection to the broadband modem, meaning a total of five ports), while Apple’s AirPort Extreme is limited to three LAN ports. Adding additional ports can be easily accomplished with a simple network switch, but buying and making room for a switch might be a cringe-inducing moment for a new AirPort Extreme owner who has just that one extra Ethernet line they need to connect.
All of the routers also include USB ports for connecting shared devices such as hard drives and printers. The Belkin and Linksys routers each feature two USB ports, while the Netgear and Apple routers have just a single port. All of the ports on all routers are unfortunately limited to USB 2.0. While previous Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11n were slow enough to make a USB 2.0 connection sufficient for shared hard drives, the new speeds for 802.11ac are pushing, and sometimes exceeding, the bandwidth limits of USB 2.0. Devices such as a connected printer won’t notice the difference, but it would be nice to see USB 3.0 support in future versions so that transfers to fast USB 3.0 hard drives won’t be limited by the wire at the router.
This isn’t an in-depth review of each router, and there are therefore more features from each product that we’ve declined to detail for the sake of focus. Briefly, these include features like internal traffic prioritization (so you can configure, for example, your TV’s Netflix device to always take priority on your internal network), DLNA support for attached devices, and the ability to make attached printers compatible with AirPrint. You can check out each product’s specification page for the full list of features.
The Bottom Line
That said, we sought primarily to examine performance, and get an idea of how each router would change our wireless workflow. 802.11ac is still in its infancy, and devices that support it, while growing in number, are still relatively rare. But the inevitable growth of the 802.11ac market, plus these routers’ impressive performance with 802.11n, make them strong contenders for those looking to upgrade.
Overall, we declare Apple’s AirPort Extreme to be the best choice for Mac and iDevice owners. The ease of setup with AirPort utility, cool and quiet operation, and top performance make it an easy choice. If you’re looking for something that didn’t emerge from Cupertino’s labs, the Linksys EA6500 is also a great choice. Its traditional web-based setup, relatively cool operating temperature, and impressive speed and range will ensure that users of any operating system or device can get setup with a wireless network easily. Plus, its second USB port and additional gigabit LAN port give it even more flexibility than the AirPort Extreme.
But these are just our recommendations based on our specific testing. It’s well known that wireless networking is extremely difficult to judge definitively in any sort of universal or generic way. Many factors such as the presence of other networks, the location of the router, the operation of other devices such as appliances and cordless telephones, and the materials of the building in which the router is housed can all significantly alter the performance and range of a router.
Our advice is to purchase a router from a retailer that accepts returns. That’s the only way that you’ll be able to judge a router’s performance within your unique environment. That said, starting out by trying the AirPort Extreme or Linksys EA6500 is a good way to go.
All routers tested here are available now at prices current as of the date of this article’s publication: 2013 Apple AirPort Extreme ($199), Linksys EA6500 ($195), Netgear R6300 ($192), and the Belkin AC1200 ($130). If you skipped the first part of the article that describes the Belkin’s price discrepancy with its competitors, we’ll repeat that when we requested products for this article, the AC1200 had a retail price of $199. Belkin then released the AC1800 and dropped the AC1200’s price. We’ll update this article if we get an AC1800 in for testing.
We’ll be back to test these routers further once we have more 802.11ac hardware, and once Apple fixes the AFP file transfer bug in OS X. We’ll also continue to hound manufacturers who weren’t represented here to send us their products for testing. Until then, let us know if you have any questions about the routers by using the comments, below, or contacting us via email or Twitter.