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ASUS RT-AC66U & PCE-AC66 802.11AC Network Kit Review

AkG

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Only a few short years ago, ASUS was a relative unknown in the consumer networking marketplace, a marketplace which was dominated by only a few key major players. This near-monopoly set the cost of entry absurdly high and pushed many consumers towards lower level products. While they may have not been around as long as Cisco or D-Link, ASUS quickly broke onto the scene and set about building an enviable reputation in the home networking environment. Their latest home networking devices – the RT-AC66U router and PCE-AC66 PCIE adapter card - show exactly how they’ve has been able to attain respect in this cut-throat segment.

ASUS’ previous generation ‘Dark Knight’ RT-N66U is widely considered as one of the most well rounded consumer grade routers available due to its adaptability, high performance and ease of modification. However, its replacement, the RT-AC66U, will make it seem slow by comparison.

The RT-AC66U is one of the few 802.11AC Draft routers available, thus allowing it to triple the theoretical performance of its predecessors. Instead of a very reasonable (yet slow compared to ‘wired’ Ethernet) 450Mbits/sec downstream, this new generation of wireless networking device is rated for an impressive 1.3Gbit/sec connection via the 5GHz band. Since it uses the 802.11 standard ASUS’ AC66U is also fully backwards compatible with 802.11N devices and can use the 5GHZ band for an 802.11AC network while simultaneously using the 2.4GHz range for all 802.11N network traffic.

The PCE-AC66 is another part of ASUS’ home networking equation since it can be installed into a PC via a PCI-E x1 slot, granting access to the RT-AC66U’s ultra fast 802.11AC signal. This would give any PC the ability to wirelessly stream data at a rate which approaches Ethernet speeds without the hassle of running the necessary cables into another room.


With such a massive increase in potential performance, wireless home networks may no longer be considered inferior second class connection points, where ease of installation makes up for their shortcomings in bandwidth. These next generation 802.11AC wireless devices may only offer two thirds of the theoretical bandwidth of full duplex wired gigabit Ethernet networks, but for the first time ever consumers will have a mainstream wireless option which has the potential to offer ‘good enough’ performance to satisfy their ever increasing network bandwidth demands.

Even though 802.11AC is still only a “draft” standard rather than fully certified – and if history is any indication will stay a draft standard for a while - ASUS feels more than comfortable in supporting its bleeding edge wireless interface. Of course since it is a brand new standard most consumers will not have any 802.11AC equipment which can take advantage of all its improved performance. This is why along with a brand new router, ASUS has released the aforementioned high performance PCE-AC66 PCI-E adapter card, making for the ultimate upgrade ‘kit’. Both of these devices are part of what ASUS calls their ‘FAST’ Networking solutions meaning they promise to be Fast eAsy (to use) and STable.

Since these are bleeding edge networking devices, neither is precisely inexpensive. The RT-AC66U will set you back $185, whereas the PCE-AC66 PCI-E wireless adapter will set you back $90. This means to upgrade your wireless network and a single computer you will have to be willing to shell over a whopping $275. This is rather expensive compared to 802.11N network of the same size but ASUS hopes their new 802.11AC kit’s unique abilities will more than justify such a steep entry cost.

 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the RT-AC66U Router

A Closer Look at the RT-AC66U Router



The RT-AC66U’s black shipping box could easily be mistaken for either one of ASUS’ motherboard or video card packages. However, the rather tasteful image of the RT-AC66U itself on the front of it will quickly put such mistaken identities issues to rest.


The accessories which accompany the RT-AC66U consist of a well done installation booklet, an external power adapter, installation CD, three large external antennas and a plastic installation bracket which allows the RT-AC66U to be in a more vertical instead of the typical horizontal orientation. We strongly recommend using this bracket as it allows for much better air flow in and around the rather large heatsink inside the RT-AC66U.


From an overall design and aesthetics point of view the RT-AC66U is nearly identical to the Dark Knight N66U it replaces. Both devices have the classic ASUS wedge shape appearance, ‘Black Diamond’ styling atop the plastic fascia, triple external antenna arrays and even similar blue LED status array that you can see from across a brightly lit room.


The A66U has a relatively compact footprint, measuring 207 x 148.8 x 35.5mm and is relatively lightweight. Meanwhile, its flip-out base is quite rigid and won’t collapse at a mere touch.



The back of the RT-AC66U is also nearly identical to the Dark Knight router it supersedes. From left to right there is the power-in port for the external power supply, On/Off button, dual USB 2.0 ports, a recessed reset button, WAN Ethernet port, four 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports and the typical WPS activation button. At either end and in the center between the WAN and LAN ports are the three dual band external antenna ports.

As with the previous N66U, the AC66U comes with three adjustable and detachable antennas which have been included an aftermarket high gain antennas are compatible with it as well. The only issue with this layout is the use of USB 2.0 ports rather than the newer USB 3.0 interface. Such an upgrade would have allowed this router to also act as an entry level – but high performance - Network Attached Storage device as well as the typical networked printer hub. As it stands, a typical USB 2.0 external storage device will be severely bandwidth limited for even 802.11N let alone 802.11AC networks, but it can still be used in a pinch.

All is not lost though. During this summer’s Computex not only did ASUS announce Time Machine support for their various Black Diamond series routers, but also a pair of new routers: the AC56U and AC68U. Both of these new routers will boast USB 3.0 ports. If such a feature is important to you, either the budget orientated AC56U or soon to be flagship AC68U may be worth waiting for.


By removing the plastic external chassis, a quick glance shows a very similar internal architecture to that of the RT-N66U. Both rely on a large heatsink on one side with a thin secondary heat plate on the backside of the PCB.

With both cooling devices removed some differences do become apparent, the largest of which is the loss of the previous generation’s micro-SD slot. ASUS advertises this router as having one, but it was removed from this particular model before release. They are aware of this oversight and plan on changing the AC66U’s listed specifications to reflect the new reality. Considering this was an internal-only slot and opening up a router voids your warranty, its loss will only impact a minor subset of users.


Besides the ‘missing’ microSD slot, there are also many differences in the components used. The previous N66U relied upon the Broadcom BCM4706 CPU, Broadcom BCM53115 Ethernet switch controller, and a Broadcom BCM4331 wireless 802.11 controller for both its 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands. The N66U also made use of 256MB of ram and fairly small 32MB NAND IC for storage.

The new RT-AC66U may indeed use the same Broadcom BCM4706 for its CPU, the Broadcom BCM4331for its 2.4GHz networking capabilities and makes use of two 128MB DDR2-800 RAM ICs, but ASUS has upgrade the onboard storage from a single 32GB NAND IC to a 128MB SLC NAND chip. Wired Ethernet is also now taken care of by the newer Broadcom 53125 Gigabit Ethernet Switch.

Since this is ASUS’ first 802.11AC router the 5GHz band controller chip obviously has also been upgraded to Broadcom’s BCM4360 802.11AC. This 600Mhz System On a Chip is the most powerful unit in Broadcom’s current 802.11AC lineup. The 4360 supports true 3 x 3 802.11AC configurations with full 80Mhz channel bandwidth capabilities.

Much like the ‘N900’ designation of the N66U, the combination of the 450Mbit/sec capable BCM4331 and 1.3Gbit/sec capable BCM4360 controllers is where the ‘AC1750’ designation for the AC66U comes from. Both controllers’ combined potential throughput is 1.750Gbit/sec when used simultaneously. This is an unlikely scenario but it does represent a rather large improvement in overall performance compared to the last generation’s products.

Since the AC66U is once again a Broadcom-based router, third party firmware support is a distinct possibility. Though the stock firmware acquits itself nicely with a very impressive blend of user-friendly and intuitive UI backed up with a lots of advanced features, some users will want even more by rooting the device.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the PCE-AC66 PCI-E Network Adapter

A Closer Look at the PCE-AC66 PCI-E Network Adapter



Unlike most PCI-E wireless network adapters, the PCE-AC66 comes with more than a simple installation pamphlet, driver CD, low profile adapter bracket and detachable antennas. There is also a magnetic base adapter. This ingenious little accessory transforms it from a directly attached antenna device to a remotely attached one. Each corner of this triangular base has a standard network cable adapter which you install one of the three antennas to. The long cable at the back of this device then attaches to the standard ports on the back of the PCE-AC66 itself.

This combination of flexible antenna cables, coupled with the strong magnets in the underside of this means you can mount it to any device within approximately one meter of the PCE-AC66 card. So instead of having the antennas hidden on the computer’s backside and ‘peaking around’ the networking-absorbing metal of your typical PC case, consumers can place it in an interference-free location. This alone will drastically increase your network’s signal strength and in turn allow the PCE-AC66 to be installed in system much further away from the router.


Moving onto the PCE-AC66 itself we were struck with the similarities between it and a typical passively cooled low-end GPU. This is because nearly the full width and length of this half height PCI-E 2.0 x1 card is covered in a rather impressive heat sink. It may be a single slot height heatsink but its eye catching red color scheme makes it anything but ‘low profile’.


The reason for such a robust cooling solution being required is the PCE-AC66’s reliance on a hot-running, high performance networking controller. During our extensive testing, the heatsink did get rather warm which led us to believe that without it, this device wouldn’t function properly. As long as the PCE-AC66 is mounted inside a case with moderate internal airflow, overheating should never become an issue.


By removing the large – but deceptively light – heatsink we can get a better look at the PCE-AC66’s architecture. Considering the number of 802.11AC’s controller ICs available at this time is very limited, it comes as no surprise that ASUS once again opted for Broadcom’s BCM4360 SoC. The Broadcom BCM4360 is the most powerful chip in Broadcom’s current 802.11AC lineup and is one of the very, very few 802.11AC controllers which can support the 1.3Gbit/s 3x3 version of the 802.11AC specification.
 
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AkG

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Setup and Installation

Setup and Installation



Installing the PCE-AC66 is as easy as turning off your system, locating a free PCI-E slot, attaching it to a PCI-E x1 slot, restarting your system and installing the drivers and software which come with it. The hardest part will be deciding between the low-profile directly connected antennas or the rather large magnetic mounting option. Either one is a solid choice though the magnetic base does provide for additional fine-tuning of the 802.11 network’s reception.


The included software consists of one very lightweight program: the Asus PCE-AC66 WLAN Control Center software. This program isn’t actually needed since Windows 7’s (or Windows 8’s) built-in wireless controller works perfectly fine with this device.

Using the program does grant the ability to see signal strength in actual –dB’s and customize the antenna’s transmission power. Finding the optimal transmission power will take a few moments of trial and error as it will depend on the distance between the router and the ASUS PCE-AC66’s antennas. Setting it too high can actually have a negative effect on performance but for our normal ‘zone 3’ environment the 100mW (or +.20 mW) was optimal.


Moving on to the RT-AC66U, installation is nearly as straightforward and hassle free. Integrating the typical wireless router into an existing network can be quite stressful as the sheer number of options and features at your command is overwhelming. With that being said, RT-AC66U is not your typical router and ASUS should be commended for streamlining this process as much as possible.


After plugging in the router and the various cables you will need – such as your Internet modem and wired Ethernet portion of your home network – all you need do is run the software which comes on the included CD. The software will scan, and connect to the RT-AC66U via your default web browser and then walk you through the setup procedure which has been automated as much possible and requires very little input.

With half the battle already taken care of, all that is left is to reconfigure the various static IP addresses your existing network components use and the other various tweaks. If you do not use or know what all of the additional features are, then in all likelihood a basic setup will be good enough.

If you do use more advanced features, configuring them should only take a few moments thanks to the RT-AC66U’s easy to navigate and clearly labeled interface. It had only a few minor quirks and annoyances which seem to come with every stock firmware router regardless of manufacturer.


On first glance the web browser based configuration utility may not seem all that simple and intuitive, especially if you are used to another manufacture’s way of doing things. However, this is more a case of having to unlearn old habits rather than a fault of the RT-AC66U’s interface.


ASUS has obviously put a lot of time and effort into making this interface as easy to navigate as possible with only a few of its more advanced features buried under extra menus. All items relating to the actual wireless portion of your network are on the “Wireless” tab, with 2.4 and 5GHz getting their own customizable settings. Security is on the “Security” tab and even setting up a guest network –either 2.4GHz or 5Ghz - is easily done via a dedicated easy to navigate and highly intuitive tab.

Of special note is the RT-AC66U’s customizable transmission power, albeit this feature is buried fairly deep. You need to navigate to the Wireless tab, click on the “Professional’ tab and enable Transmission Settings which allows for the independent adjustment of 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.


Overall, setting up and configuring the PCE-AC66 and RT-AC66U is very easy and ASUS deserves to be commended for taking most of the hassle out what has been classically considered the hardest part of wireless networking: the configuration.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing wireless devices is not as easy as some would think. Yes you can simply connect to it and push a bunch of file across the network while timing it but this only tells half the story and doesn't explain why speeds can vary. To obtain a clearer picture of how good – or bad – a networking device is, more information is needed in the form of a multi-step testing approach.

The first step consists of accurately measuring signal strength. A good strong signal is a prerequisite of high performance. If a device can barely send or receive a signal, the speeds will be very low as both devices will opt for a slower connection speed to compensate.

To test signal strength we use inSSIDer, a program which can graph signal strength of all wireless signals being received by the computer’s wireless NIC.

The second step consists of synthetic bandwidth testing to show the potential performance of a given wireless configuration. For this test we have chosen Lan Speed Test. This free program can test both transmission and reception performance and do so in an easy to use and highly repeatable way. For clarity sake we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.

The last step is real world testing. This test consists of 10GB worth of small and large files which will be pushed from one wireless connected computer to a second computer connected via wired Ethernet. Testing will be done via MS RichCopy. For clarity sake we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.

If the device supports wired transmission, wired Ethernet to wired Ethernet real world performance will also be included using the same 10GB of data used for the wireless test.

If a given wireless device is labelled as “entertainment” or marketed as being entertainment centric, a secondary real world test will be included in the form of using the device for wireless HD media streaming. This test will be a pass/fail affair.

To test all sections, we have further created four unique and distinct scenarios in which all testing will be done. The first test is labelled “Zone 1” and it consists of a twelve foot ‘line of sight’ distance between the router and the wireless NIC with no walls or obstructions between the two. This replicates having the router in one end of a small room and the wireless device at the other. It is unlikely to be encountered all that often but it will test a best case scenario for the device being tested.

The second test consists of an eighteen foot separation with a single interior non-load bearing wall separating a wireless device and the router. We have labelled this “Zone 2” as it is much more common and is still a very optimal setup for a wireless home networking. This test replicates you having your wireless device in an adjoining room to the router.

The third test is labelled “Zone 3”, having the router in the corner of the basement with the wireless device in a second story room at the extreme diagonal end from the router's location. This is still a fairly common occurrence in home networks with numerous walls, floors, pipes, wires, etc and even other electronic devices in the intervening distance. This will test the abilities of both the router and wireless NIC to connect and communicate with each other.

The fourth test is labelled “Zone 4” and is an extreme test. While the router is still in the basement we have paced off 400 feet from it outside the testing facility. This replicates those times when a person is outdoors and wishes to use the home network to connect to the Internet or other devices connected to it. With fewer walls but much greater distances this test is extremely demanding and many will not be able to successfully complete it. Thus it will separate the truly good from the merely adequate devices.

For all tests, four runs will be completed and only the averages of all four will be shown.

When possible, both 5Ghz as well as 2.4GHz Bands will be used for all tests with each getting their own separate results.

All tests will carried out via a “clear” network in order to maximize repeatability and minimize factors outside of our control.

For information purposes here is the theoretical maximum each network connection is capable of:

10Mbits/s = 1,250 KBytes/s
100Mbit/s = 12,500 KBytes/s
150Mbit/s = 18,750 KBytes/s
300Mbit/s = 37,500 KBytes/s
450Mbit/s = 56,250 KBytes/s
1000Mbit/s = 125,000 KBytes/s
1300Mbit/s = 162,500 KBytes/s
 
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AkG

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RT-AC66U Testing Results

Signal Strength tests


A good strong signal is a prerequisite of high performance wireless networking. If a device can barely send or receive a signal, the speeds will be very low as both devices will opt for a slower connection speed to compensate. To test signal strength we use inSSIDer, a program which can graph signal strength of all wireless signals being received by the computer’s wireless NIC.



Without even increasing the antenna array’s voltage output, we not only saw an across the board increase in signal strength but an across the board increase in wireless coverage inside and outside. Areas which were previously dead zones within our testing environment suddenly had good to very good wireless coverage.

This increase in signal strength – on both ends - not only enhanced the network's wireless coverage but allowed both the PCE-AC66 adapter and our other various wireless NIC’s to connect at faster transmission speeds from much further away. How much of an improvement this garnered will be shown in the next section, but it was a noticeable and tangible across the board difference which can easily justify upgrading from an older router to this new ASUS 802.12AC model.


Synthetic tests


For synthetic performance testing to show the potential performance of a given wireless configuration. For this test we have chosen Lan Speed Test. This free program can test both transmission and reception performance and do so in an easy to use and highly repeatable way. For clarity sake we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.



As expected there was a significant increase in all test zones' performance compared to what a decent 802.11N 3x3 router was capable of accomplishing. However, what was not expected was the size of the improvements we saw.

This significant increase in wireless performance is no doubt the result of the high performance internal components as well as dual band 3x3 capabilities both the RT-AC66U and PCE-AC66 offer. ASUS did not skimp out on the critical aspects here and the payoff is tangible. Simply put, both models are fast, powerful, and really require the eachother to perform their best.


Real World Tests


For real world testing we have taken 10GB worth of small file and large file mixture and pushed from one wireless connected computer to a second computer connected via wired Ethernet. Testing will be done via MS RichCopy. For clarity sake we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.

If the device supports wired transmission, wired Ethernet to wired Ethernet real world performance will also be included using the same 10GB of data used for the wireless test.





As with the synthetic results, the real world data transfer performance is impressive. While attaining anywhere close to 450Mb/s – let alone 1300Mb/s - via one wireless connection is impossible, the throughput is nothing short of incredible.

Even when dealing with long range connections – ranges unheard of not all that long ago – this router and PCI-E Adapter provided real world performance that is simply stunning. Just important as the results themselves, the two devices are as close to “future proof” as we have seen in a long while.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


With the 802.11AC wireless standard gradually making its way into many devices, actually getting access to its potential throughput hasn’t been easy. The few routers which support it don’t have a stellar reputation and usually cost more than we’re willing to spend. However, with the RT-AC66U and PCE-AC66, ASUS has created an all-in-one platform that offers blistering speeds, ease of use and a robust back-end without breaking the bank.

Some may roll their eyes at the RT-AC66U since it is a router that costs nearly $200 but the benefits it brings to the table are quite tangible. When using 802.11AC, throughput was nothing short of stellar and signal clarity was among the best we’ve seen. Even if someone doesn’t intend to use the crazy fast Wireless-AC bandwidth it can offer, the RT-AC66U still boasts excellent wireless network range which is something even Wireless-N users will appreciate. Meanwhile, the true dual band 3x3 antennal configuration and ability to easily modify the wireless power output puts head and shoulders above many competitors. Dead spots may not be completely eliminated, but they certainly will be a lot rarer in most home environments.

Unfortunately, most users won’t be able to harness the RT-AC66U’s true capabilities due to the dearth of 802.11AC capable devices on the market today. That’s where the PCE-AC66 comes into the equation. After all, a router is only as good as the wireless networking adapters which attach to it and the PCE-AC66 is indeed an excellent device in its own right. With triple di-pole antennas on its magnetic base, this is one of the few wireless adapters capable of taking advantage of what the RT-AC66U router has to offer. It did get rather warm during our strenuous testing but ASUS’ easy setup routine and the use of a simple PCI-E x1 interface easily makes up for any shortcoming.

While the RT-AC66U and PCE-AC66 are perfect bedfellows, it’s hard to overlook their combined cost of nearly $300. However, however their performance, flexibility, and future proofing qualitis more than make up for their initial cost. Much like any electronic device, quality and refinement cost more than budget options. While you will pay a premium, their asking prices are worth it for the privilege of experiencing the future of wireless home networking. Just be prepared to buy both as the whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts.

RT-AC66U & PCE-AC66
 
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