September 15, 2012, 7:13 AM — Asus currently builds the best consumer-oriented 802.11n router--the RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless N900, which I used as a reference device to compare new 802.11ac routers against. After testing the company's $200 RT-AC66U, I believe that Asus also markets the best 802.11ac router currently available, too, though the offerings from several other manufacturers come close.
The new RT-AC66U and the older RT-N66U look almost identical: Bucking the industry trend of hiding antennas inside the enclosure, both of these routers provide three removable and upgradable dipole antennas that you can reposition to deliver the best wireless performance. They're mounted to the exterior of a satin-black, diamond-plate-finish plastic enclosure. The routers can lie flat, sit semivertically on the provided stand, or be mounted to the wall.
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The RT-AC66U provides two USB 2.0 ports, so you can attach both a USB hard drive and a USB printer, and then share the devices over the network. I didn't evaluate try to connect a printer to the router's USB port, but the RT-AC66U was very fast at transferring files to and from an attached 500MB 2.5-inch USB hard drive. Asus is working on a new Android and iOS app called AiCloud that will enable users to sync, access, and store data on an attached hard drive, using a multitude of devices over the Internet.
Whether you plan to use your router to stream media, to host files, or to download files using P2P services such as BitTorrent, the RT-AC66U has you covered. It offers DLNA and iTunes servers for video and music, ftp and Samba servers for file hosting, a VPN pass-through for secure remote network access, and a program called Download Master for downloading Torrent files to an attached storage device, without requiring a host PC.
This dual-band router can run a 450-mbps 802.11n network on the 2.4GHz frequency band and a 1.3-gbps 802.11ac network on the 5GHz frequency band simultaneously. The RT-AC66U I tested arrived from the factory with its 5GHz radio configured to deliver 80MHz of wireless bandwidth (draft 802.11ac).
Benchmarking 5GHz 802.11ac performance
I used an AVADirect laptop equipped with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M CPU, 4GB of memory, and an integrated Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 Wi-Fi adapter to run my benchmark tests. The Ultimate-N 6300 can send and receive three simultaneous 150-mbps spatial streams (450 mbps in total); most adapters are limited to handling two (300 mbps in total). This was all the streaming I needed to evaluate the RT-AC66U's 802.11n performance (on both the 2.4- and 5GHz frequency bands). To measure the router's 802.11ac performance on the 5GHz frequency band, I configured a second RT-AC66U as a media bridge and connected that to the AVADirect's ethernet port.
To test the router, I positioned the client successively at five spots inside and outside a 2800-square-foot, ranch-style home (distances from the router are noted in each chart below). I used the open-source IPERF benchmark (and the JPERF Java graphical front end designed for it). To measure the router's downlink TCP throughput, I set up the laptop as a server and used a desktop PC hard-wired to the router as the client.
At close range, with the client 9 feet away from the router and in the same room, the RT-AC66U was more than twice as fast as the reference 802.11n router, delivering TCP throughput of 466 mbps. This was the second-highest performance of the five 802.11ac routers I tested at this location (the Netgear R6300 was slightly faster).
I was surprised to discover that the RT-AC66U performed even better when I moved the client into the kitchen, 20 feet away from the router with one wall in between. I suspect that the media bridge was being oversaturated at the closer proximity, though the orientation of the media bridge is another variable. In the bedroom, the bridge faced the router: In the kitchen, it was perpendicular to the router. Whatever the cause, the RT-AC66U's TCP throughput jumped to a staggering 525 mbps at this location--the fastest performance in the field by a wide margin.
The next two benchmark runs took place inside my home theater. This is a room-within-a-room design, with four walls of 2-by-4 framing and drywall inside four walls of 2-by-6 framing and drywall, with about 6 inches of dead air and fiberglass insulation separating them. My intent was to optimize the room's acoustics, not to build a Faraday cage, but many lesser routers and other wireless devices have had trouble penetrating it. However, none of the 802.11ac routers I tested had any difficulty reaching the client in this room, and three of them--including the RT-AC66U--sustained TCP throughput at more than twice the rate of the reference 802.11n router. As you can see from the chart below, the Asus was the fastest of them all, at 192 mpbs.
Since many people will want to connect the gear in their home entertainment system to an 802.11ac network, I decided to measure TCP throughput with the media bridge inside the built-in equipment cabinet in my home theater (the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall cabinet is constructed from cabinet-grade plywood, including the back). The RT-AC66U's TCP throughput dropped by just a few megabits per second in this scenario. In fact, I found that I could wirelessly mount and stream a Blu-ray ISO image of the movie Spiderman 3 from a Windows Home Server 2011 machine in my home office to a home theater PC in the entertainment center, including its high-definition soundtrack.
The RT-AC66U's performance dropped off only slightly when I moved the client and the media bridge to the first of my two outdoor locations, an exterior patio enclosed by three walls and one half wall with glass windows. In the real world, I doubt that anyone would try to set up a media bridge outdoors because dragging the bridge and finding an outlet (and likely an extension cord) are too inconvenient. But I wanted to see what kind of range the RT-AC66U would deliver, and I wasn't disappointed. It was the second fastest (behind Netgear's R6300) among the five routers I tested.
The RT-AC66U's performance was even more impressive when I moved the client and bridge out to a picnic table completely outside my house. At this location, the router and client were 75 feet apart and separated by three insulated interior walls, and one insulated exterior wall clad on one side with fiber-cement lapboard. Under these conditions, the reference 802.11n router delivered TCP throughput of just 30.2 mpbs, but the RT-AC66U roared along at a whopping 125 mbps. The only thing more surprising that the number is the fact that the Asus finished in second place at this location, bested by the D-Link DIR-865L, which delivered 152 mbps.