Belkin AC 1200 DB 802.11ac router: not quite ready for prime time
You'll pay less for this router, but you'll get a lot less performance, too.
If you're balking at the prospect of spending nearly $400 to buy an 802.11ac router and an 802.11ac bridge to go with it, Belkin has a less-expensive alternative for you. With a street price of $160, the Belkin AC 1200 DB costs about $40 less than the 802.11ac routers from Asus (the RT-AC66U), D-Link (the DIR-865L), and Netgear (the R6300). Unlike the similarly priced Buffalo WZR-D1800H, however, Belkin's router delivers lower specs, too.
The other four 802.11ac routers I tested use 802.11ac and 802.11n radios that support three spatial streams on each frequency band, but the Belkin AC 1200 DB's radios support only two. As a result, whereas each of the other four routers delivers a wireless 802.11ac network with maximum theoretical throughput of 1.3 gigabits per second, plus a concurrent 802.11n network with maximum theoretical throughput of 450 megabits per second, the Belkin AC 1200 DB's theoretical maximums are 867 mbps and 300 mbps, respectively.
The AC 1200 DB has a vertical orientation, which should result in better range than routers that sit flat on a surface, even though its antennas are hidden inside its plastic enclosure. There is no provision for mounting the router on a wall. Belkin provides two USB 2.0 ports on the back of the router, to support network-attached storage and a shared printer. I didn't try to connect a USB printer, but the AC 1200 DB was much slower than the other 802.11ac routers at writing large files and small files to an attached USB hard drive. It also finished dead last at reading those files from the attached drive.
The AC 1200 provides a DLNA-compliant media server, parental controls that let you block access to unseemly websites, and a rudimentary quality-of-service engine that Belkin dubs Intellistream. QoS is supposed to shape your network traffic so that lag-sensitive applications such as games, media streaming, and VoIP receive higher priority than lag-insensitive apps such as BitTorrent downloads. But Belkin doesn't allow you to configure any QoS settings manually; Intellistream is supposed to do that for you automatically after you run a diagnostic speed test. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the speed test to run to completion. Belkin clearly needs to improve Intellistream in order to make it useful and worthy of recommendation.
The AC 1200 arrived from the factory with channel bonding disabled on its 2.4GHz radio but enabled on its 5GHz radio. When I forced the 2.4GHz radio to combine two 20MHz channels to produce an 802.11n network with 40MHz of bandwidth, the router responded by earning two second-place finishes.
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 AC 1200's 802.11n performance (on both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz frequency bands). To measure the router's 802.11ac performance on the 5GHz frequency band, I obtained an engineering sample of Belkin's new Video Link 802.11ac media bridge, which I connected to the AVADirect's ethernet port. The Video Link closely resembles the router.
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.
The AC 1200 delivered disappointing 802.11ac performance at close range, with the client 9 feet away from the router and in the same room. With TCP throughput of just 162 mbps, this 802.11ac router was even slower than the 802.11n Asus RT-N66U router I used as a reference point.
As the chart below indicates, the AC 1200 DB's performance didn't improve when I moved the client to my kitchen test environment, 20 feet away from the router with one wall separating them from the router. Once again, the Belkin AC 1200 finished dead last on the throughput test.
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 the Belkin actually outperformed Buffalo's router when the client was on the coffee table in this room.
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). As the chart below indicates, the AC 1200 DB's TCP throughput dropped by nearly half in this location, but it still provided more than enough bandwidth to 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 AC 1200 DB performed slightly better when I moved the client and the media bridge to the first of my two outdoor test 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. Here again, Belkin finished in last place, owing to its two-stream radio.
My second outdoor location was a picnic table situated 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 Belkin's router achieved TCP throughput of 78.2 mbps--far better performance than Buffalo's WZR-1800H managed. The first-place finisher at this location, D-Link's DIR-865L, delivered an astonishing 152 mbps.
Benchmarking 2.4GHz 802.11n performance
Most of the routers I tested in 2.4GHz mode backed off of channel bonding due to the faint presence of other routers using the same spectrum, but the Belkin AC 1200 stuck to its guns and continued to provide 40MHz of bandwidth. Stomping on neighboring wireless networks won't win you any friends, though, and it will be interesting to see if Belkin allows this to continue once the Wi-Fi Alliance begins certifying 802.11ac routers.
In any event, channel bonding enabled the AC 1200 DB to earn a first-place tie and a second-place finish when the client was closest to the router, despite its providing only two spatial streams, as the following chart illustrates.
Belkin's 2.4GHz network dropped to fourth place when the client was set up in my home theater or out on my patio, finishing ahead of Buffalo's WZR-D1800H ineach case. It bested both the Buffalo and D-Link routers when the client was farthest from the router. That third-place finish is impressive for a two-stream router.
Benchmarking hardwired ethernet performance
The AC 1200 DB's four-port gigabit ethernet switch performed as expected, delivering TCP throughput of 943 mbps--right in line with most of the rest of the field.
To evaluate the AC 1200 DB's performance as a network-attached storage device, I connected a 500GB Western Digital My Passport USB drive to one of the router's USB ports. I used a stopwatch to time how long it took the unit to copy a few files from a PC to the drive over the network (a write test), and then I copied a few files from the USB drive to the networked PC over the network (a read test). The PC was hardwired to the network.
I created a large-file test by ripping a DVD (Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk to Dawn) to the PC's hard drive. My advice: Don't buy this router if you think you might ever want to use the Belkin router's USB port for network-attached storage. Copying this 4.29GB file from the PC to the portable hard drive required a mind-blowing 2211 seconds (almost 37 minutes). The fastest router I tested, Asus's RT-AC66U, accomplished the same task in less than 5 minutes. If I had any drawing skills, I'd have tweaked the chart below to show the Belkin (and the D-Link) routers busting through the right-hand border representing the chart's 10-minute limit. Even so, both routers outperformed the Buffalo, which didn't recognize my NTFS-formatted hard drive at all.
The Belkin (and the D-Link) routers performed much better when the task was to read that single large file from the attached USB hard drive. As the chart below shows, the Belkin outperformed every other router on this benchmark.
Unless you rip a lot of movies from DVD or Blu-ray discs, you'll rarely move a single large file to a hard drive attached to your router. A more common task is to move batches of small files back and forth across your network. To evaluate each router's performance in this scenario, I created a single folder containing 595MB of small files (subfolders containing music, graphics, photos, documents, spreadsheets, and so on).
As depicted by the chart below, the AC 1200 was much faster at copying lots of small files to an attached drive than at copying a single large file. But its performance on the former task still looks anemic when compared to that of the rest of the field: The router needed more than 6 minutes to write 595MB of small-file data to the drive.
The same criticism applies to its performance in retrieving a large number of small files from an attached hard drive, as indicated by the chart below.
Belkin's AC 1200 DB wireless router is lighter on specs, features, and performance than the rest of the field. Its two-spatial-stream radios prevented it from finishing first in any tests, but it did surprise me by finishing second on two of my benchmarks (albeit while testing its 2.4GHz 802.11n performance). In fact it delivered better 2.4GHz 802.11n performance than several of the more sophisticated routers, thanks to its dogged insistence on maintaining channel bonding in that spectrum.
The value of having two USB ports--one for sharing a printer, and the other for sharing a USB hard drive over the network--is severely diminished by the router's performance while hosting a storage device. With one exception, the AC 1200 DB was excruciatingly slow when reading and writing files over the network. This is clearly a checkbox item for Belkin, rather than an essential feature. Anyone with serious network storage needs would be well advised to buy a dedicated NAS box, but if you must rely on the less-expensive alternative of using router-hosted storage, you should avoid this particular router.
Note: This review is part of a roundup. Click here to read the introduction to the story and find links to the other 802.11ac routers reviewed at the same time.