High-performance router with the AC1900 chipset (April 16th, 2014)
Product Manufacturer: Linksys
- Fast AC speeds
- Easy to set up
- Cloud-based management
- AC not yet widely adopted
- Speed gains not noticed without higher-end AC wireless cards
As 802.11ac networking begins to makes its way into more and more devices, you may find yourself considering an upgrade for your home network. One option is Linksys' EA6900, a new top-tier networking device from a long-standing name in the world of routers. Linksys says the EA6900 is a compelling option that offers a router that is not only fast and reliable, but also extremely simple to set up. After giving it a spin, some of the only concerns we can see people having with the device relates to the lack of a few advanced features that power-users might crave.
Visually, the EA6900 is nearly identical to the EA6500 and EA6400, and is most notably distinguished by the three dual-band dipole antennas that attach to the back. The outer shell consists of a matte black case that is accented by a silver strip running down the center. Simple and clean might be two of the best words to describe the design -- although "clean" could be questioned, as the case seems to be a magnet for fingerprints and smudges.
One thing to note is that the router has been designed to only be used while lying horizontally. While some competitors offer stands to mount devices vertically, thereby saving precious desk space, the curved shape of the EA6900 does not allow for this. However, Linksys has integrated two holes into the bottom of the device for simple wall mounting.
Otherwise, the EA6900's design is fairly standard. A single indicator LED is found on the top of the device, while the back houses your standard fare of connectors, including one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, one Gigabit WAN port, and four Gigabit LAN ports. For the first time on an EA-series router, the back also plays host to ports for three detachable external antennas. Despite having these external antennas, the EA6900 still manages to keep a fairly small footprint, measuring in at 10.1 inches x 7.3 inches x 1.6 inches.
Following Linksys' included Quick Start Guide could not be much simpler. The entire set up process is broken down into five steps, which include powering on the device, connecting a modem to the WAN port via an ethernet cable, connecting to the pre-defined SSID (or attaching a computer to one of the router's LAN ports), opening a web browser for adjusting the final settings, and completing the Smart Wi-Fi set up.
After creating a Smart Wi-Fi account and linking a router, it becomes possible to access the router's web interface from any Internet-connected device. Furthermore, a number of mobile apps have also been made available that use Linksys Smart Wi-Fi to extend the functionality of the router. For example, HipPlay can be used to stream media files from a drive connected to the router directly to an iOS device.
Like the set up process, the router's management software has been designed to be easily understood by users of any experience level. The management home page presents users with a basic overview of important information, such as Network Health and a list of devices currently accessing the network, as well as quick access to features like Media Prioritization and Parental Controls. All of the information is organized into a series of "cards" that can be reorganized to only display what the user finds most important.
Underneath this simple interface lies all of the advanced features that more tech-savvy users will look for. A menu bar along the left side of the screen provides access to a number of additional settings for a more detailed setup. The only thing users might miss is the lack of full VPN support, and the ability to flash the router with open-source firmware. For some buyers, the lack of VPN could be a deal-breaker.
On top of local management, Linksys also offers a Smart Wi-Fi cloud services which allows registered users to manage router settings remotely. When we first looked at this service a few years back, when it was originally known as Cisco Connect Cloud, and it was a little finicky and unreliable. However, it seems that many of the bugs have been worked out over time. Changes made remotely showed up almost immediately, just as if they had been made while directly accessing the router. While the average user may not benefit from feature, we can attest that it comes in especially handy when trying to troubleshoot a network for someone back at home while you are out and about.
We tested the EA6900's 802.11ac capabilities using an Asus PCE-AC68 PCI Express card, as well as Linksys' own Dual-Band AC1200 Wireless USB Adapter. Our main test involved transferring a 3.73GB file across the network while timing the total time for the transfer to complete. We tested under similar circumstances multiple times, and then used an average time to calculate a throughput value.
Running at close range with the Asus PCE-AC68 on the 5GHz band, we were able to transfer the file in a minute flat, which worked out to a throughput of 63.7MB per second. The 2.4GHz band averaged much slower speeds at 14.5MB per second. By comparison, using the same setup but limiting the router to "N" networking resulted in throughputs of 39.8MB and 22.6MB per second on the 5GHz and 2.4GHz band respectively.
Meanwhile, the USB adapter was only able to offer an average throughput of 25.3MB per second on the 5GHz band, and 11.8MB per second on the 2.4GHz band. It was not unexpected that the USB adapter would provide slower speeds than a top-tier PCI Express card, but it was a little disappointing to see that speed was over 50 percent slower while running on the 5GHz band. It will certainly work in a pinch, but if you are looking to really benefit from the AC1900 chip, then you will want to consider a higher end wireless card.
Unfortunately due to our testing environment -- a small apartment in downtown Toronto -- we were unable to test performance at great ranges; however, we can note that even when operating from the most extreme distances we had available, no noticeable performance problems became present.
There is no denying that the Linksys EA6900 offers some of the best performance on the consumer market right now. What you must consider before making the jump, though, is the cost. The router carries a MSRP of $229, which is not unreasonable for a high-performance router, however it is not yet a standard for devices to include support for the faster protocol. In order to take advantage of the faster speeds, many devices need to be upgraded -- and as we saw in our testing, not all "ac" cards are equal. Running the 802.11ac network with Linksys' own USB 3.0 adapter resulted in slower speeds than using a PCI-E card limited to the N network.
With all this said, we still highly recommend the EA6900 to customers looking for a top-tier networking solution. The router is able to handle many devices running on the same network without any noticeable hiccups, and Media Prioritization ensures that the needs of bandwidth-demanding devices are always met.