Linksys has been a house hold name in the consumer router business for many years. And while the company itself has changed hands a time or two before, they’ve hung in there and continued to pump out some pretty awesome products. The most notable to anyone who’s been in the tech scene for a while is undoubtedly the old 54WRTG. The reason it took off was two-fold. For starters it was a very capable, powerful router for the time. Secondly, an underground dev community sprung up around it with several different OS versions that could be flashed to the 54WRTG’s brain which in turn unlocked even more performance and features.
Fast forward to 2014 and things have evolved. G and even N are no longer the wire less networks of desire. 802.11ac is the new hotness. Naturally, Linksys wants to get back into the living rooms of countless people for years to come by pulling a bit from their iconic past. And that is how the WRT1900AC was born. It’s a beast of a router (both in terms of features and actual size). So let’s see how Linksys of 2014 compares with that of Linksys over half a decade ago.
Hardware & Build Quality
The first thing you’ll notice when you rip open the box like a giddy school girl is that Linksys went all out on fit and finish and presentation. Perfectly formed foam holds the router in place in the box, with the box itself featuring a nicely detailed graphic and spec breakdown.
Your typical router is small, compact and as of late, trying to be more of a “fancy” electronic meant to not hide away on a shelf or wall. The WRT1900AC in contrast isn’t exactly a “sexy” device. It’s physically large, has a pretty angular/boxy design and goes back to their iconic black and blue design scheme.
The front of the device has a long LED panel that shows a bunch of things such as network status for both 2.4 and 5GHz networks, connected peripherals and more. Don’t worry. All of the lights can be disabled if you wish.
Around back you’ll find a nice assortment of ports. There’s your input for the internet of things and 4 extra ports to plug in whatever your heart desires, an eSATA/USB port combo and a USB 3 port. What’s nice is that combined with the WRT1900AC’s software, you can take normal “dumb” hard drives and turn them into network storage super easily, along with configuring them for FTP type storage among other things.
The 4 removable antennas don’t flex or feel nearly as cheap as some i’ve felt.
Design aside, the router is built like a tank. You really shouldn’t worry about this router getting bumped. It’ll take it.
Raw specs for those of you that geek over such things:
- CPU: 1.2GHz dual-core Marvel Armada SoC
- 128MB of flash memory | 256MB of DDR3 RAM
- A fan and gigantic heatsinks
- 4 Gigabit network ports
- 1 USB 2.0/eSATA combo port
- 1 USB 3.0 port
Software & Web Interface
While I’d like to see if the WRT1900AC’s fanbase explodes with creativity and custom operating systems like its predecessor, I must say, Linksys didn’t do a bad job with the software they shipped here. It’s intuitive, rather decently designed (read: at least it doesn’t make your eyes bleed) and presents you with a decent amount of features, some more bare bones than I’d like (like parental controls). Everything from parental controls to separate settings for guest 2.4/5GHz networks and your normal 2.4/5GHz networks, port forwarding, blocking, etc. etc. is present regardless if you’re accessing it via a mobile app or browser. That said, more media-centric users looking for thinks like iTunes server support and direct FTP access (more below) will be disappointed to know that no such support is currently supported.
One potential sticking point is that in order to fully take advantage of all the WRT1900AC’s features (like the remote router access), you need to sign up and create a Linksys Smart WiFI account. Ironically, at the initial setup stage and again during the writing of this review, the Smart WiFi mobile app isn’t working right. Signing in with my username and password lead to a generic error and telling me to try again later. Thankfully, since your router is tied to an account online, you also have the option of logging into the app with the admin router password.
One nice area of the WRT1900AC’s software is the storage area. Normal networkable drives generally have their own interface to deal with. But your typical external drive with no smart features or network abilities can be plugged into the WRT1900AC and turning into not only network storage on the local network, but also remote FTP storage. What makes it all the more better is that setting it up is easy and quick with the WRT1900AC’s software. The only problem as noted above is that you need an app to take advantage of this storage and can’t directly access via a browser.
One of my personal favorite areas within the WRT1900AC’s admin console is the real-time network map. Seeing everything on your network or filtering it to a specific type of device or connection is about as quick and easy as it can get (as you can see in the image above).
Other options include parental controls (though, not terribly robust ones as of yet) as well as settings for media prioritization, guest networks, status reports and more. With time I expect Linksys to expand on some of these areas. And lets not forget that Linksys has boasted of the WRT1900AC’s open source-ready focus. While current alternative firmware support is spotty and in its infancy, there is a growing community of newcomers to this particular router. The old favorite that the WRT1900AC is based off of had a massive following many years after its release. Linksys has given this router a beastly spec sheet and a decent amount of help to the development community. So it’s (hopefully) only a matter of time before things really take off.
In the land of high end routers (and at $200~$300 this is certainly up there), speed and range are the two biggest items to focus on. And in that regard this router is about as good as it gets currently. (See update below.)
Transferring ~1 GB of random picture and video files from an LG G2 connected over the 5 GHz AC band was accomplished in roughly 10 minutes. This first metric doesn’t seem all that fast. Though I must note the transfers are to an external hard drive (with a 5,400 RPM hard drive) connected via eSATA to the router itself downstairs. Copying a 600 MB file from a different external plugged into the router back to the same LG G2 happened in ~45 seconds. Again, not crazy fast but remember, this is a couple of rooms away and on a different floor. With more and more people using smartphones in conjunction with personal clouds, such tests and scenarios are worth knowing.
For the more traditional speed tests I tested in 3 different spots within line of sight and tried (both on the AC equipped phone and N equipped MacBook Pro) which resulted in a pretty large spread of speeds ranging from 40-90 MBps. Truth be told, I could get super detailed about each MB and measured to the inch distance from the router. But at the end of the day, the end result is all the same: it is at worst, noticeably faster than pretty much any other router on the market and at best, a speed demon.
One thing worth noting is that compared to some other higher end routers on the market, 2.4 GHz speeds could sometimes fall below the competition at any given range (based on figures found online from a number of reputable sources). Translation: sometimes 2.4 GHz performance isn’t as boast worthy as the 5 GHz N/AC performance. Considering people dropping $200+ on a router are probably focusing on just a couple things (namely speed), we don’t see this being much of an issue, if at all.
The Linksys WRT1900AC is a beast of a router both in performance and price (and maybe even size). For pure performance seeking shoppers that want the most bleeding edge and fastest router, this is your router. Stop looking. The search is over. There’s very little to find fault with here aside from the high price point and lack of a couple of fleshed out features. Quite simply, this is (for now) the best router I’ve ever used. And with a few small updates to build out some of the features already present (or add additional support for open source firmware), things will only get better. Linksys could easily have another multi-year success on their hands.
During longer term testing it’s become apparent that the level of “awesome” we were initially smitten with has worn off and the raw numbers are starting to tell a different story, as is the continued lack of any real traction in the open source firmware department. First, speeds.
After getting an older Netgear R6300 in-house and running some tests we found the (again, older by several months) R6300 to consistently out perform the Linksys 1900ac in both raw speeds as well range (and of course, speed at any given distance). The rather large external antennas on the Linksys would lead one to assume excellent signal would be easily obtainable. And while raw signal is pretty simple to achieve, the speeds with that signal are often slower than what we have been 1) seeing personally on a few other routers of lesser quality and 2) below many other routers based off of reviews from larger websites with far larger back catalogs of router performance reviews.
Secondly, a big factor for our original recommendation and higher scoring of this review was based on the assumption that the “official” open source firmware support would take off much like the old WRT54G which enjoyed raging success and a huge 3rd party following. Several months in now, the same happiness and open source love is not materializing. You see, while Linksys (the manufacturer of the router itself) is all for the open source mantra and what it entails, a few of the component providers of key pieces of hardware within the 1900ac itself are either not really into supporting/releasing/updating open source drivers or simply incredibly slow at doing so. The most recent journeys through a few enthusiast forums for Linksys routers as well as some open source router firmware forums make it sound like we’re still several (probably many) weeks out from getting some key patches (for example, from Marvell) back into the hands of the open source community so they can continue working on 3rd party firmware.
The increasingly more relevant discrepancy in speeds and performance compared to other flagship routers now out on the market that either cost less or offer more features as well as the continuing lack of any real 3rd party firmware options mean the high price tag make the 1900ac less and less an easy recommendation. Add to that the relatively poor update support from Linksys themselves and you’ve got a recipe for a floundering product, one with a ton of potential but seemingly ignored.
All that said, we feel it’s only right to alter the score accordingly because honestly, at this point in 2014 the 1900ac is not the 9.0 we originally felt it to be.
If you have any questions, thoughts or concerns, please feel free to leave them below in the comments, email us or reach out on Twitter/Facebook.