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ASUS RT-AC68U & PCE-AC68 802.11AC Review

AkG

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With the wireless spectrum starved for bandwidth, the steady move towards the next generation 802.11AC standard couldn’t be coming at a better time. ASUS has been at the forefront of this movement from day one and their new AC68-series (consisting of the RT-AC68U and PCE-AC68) builds upon their previous generation RT-AC66U and PCE-AC66 models but really takes things to the next level.

The easiest way to think of these new AC68 models is that both are ASUS’ ‘tock’ model to their first generation AC66’s ‘tick’. Like Intel’s ‘tock’ models, consumers can technically purchase only one or the other and see improvements in their wireless home networks performance but, in a perfect world, they’re meant to be paired up together for optimal performance.

So what does this perfect scenario consist of? The primary component is ASUS’ $239 flagship RT-AC68U router which takes over from the well-regarded RT-AC66U. The PCE-AC68 meanwhile is a PCI-E based add-in board which retails for $99 and is supposed to bring ultra quick AC wireless compatibility to your desktop system with a minimum of headaches. These two devices are should bring home networking to the next level through their powerful interfaces, versatile installation procedures and user friendly software stacks.


With the progression from the AC66 to AC68 taking less than a year, some may be worried that these new units are nothing more than slight refreshes of their predecessors. That isn’t the case. Because the 802.11AC standard is still only in the Draft stages neither the RT nor PCE promise major improvements in their theoretical performance throughput but there are plenty of updates going on behind the scenes.

Like the previous AC66 models both are rated for 1300Mbits/s but real world component performance has been augmented and some pretty major improvements to the older 802.11N network standard have been incorporated. Instead of combined performance potential of 1750Mbits (or 1300Mbits/s over 802.11AC 5GHz network and 450Mbits/sec over 2.4GHz 802.11N) these two devices are rated for 1300+600. This is how the new ‘AC1900’ rating has come into being and is one of the largest distinctions between the AC66 series and the new AC68.

On its own this rather significant change warrants an entire new model name, but this is only the tip of the iceberg for these new devices. The PCE-AC68 may use the same half height PCI-E x1 form-factor, heatsink and technically the same controller as the previous AC66 but Broadcom has tweaked this version. So, unlike the PCE-AC66, the PCE-AC68 is fully compatible with Haswell based systems.

The RT-AC68U also is full of surprises and everything from its newly redesigned chassis, to an upgraded processor, to the firmware it relies upon have been redesigned to greatly enhance its abilities. Suffice to say that ASUS is counting on the sum of these improvements to both the RT-AC68U and PCE-AC68 to justify their rather steep combined asking price of $339.

 
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AkG

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The RT-AC68U Router

A Closer Look at the RT-AC68U Router



In what has quickly become iconic packaging for ASUS’ wireless networking components, the RT-AC68U comes housed inside a mostly black box. While this package could easily be mistaken for the previous RT-AC66’s the rather tasteful and blatantly different picture of the RT-AC68 will quickly put such mistaken identity issues to rest.


The accessories which accompany the RT-AC68U are also very similar to that of the previous AC66 router. They consist of a well done installation booklet, an external power adapter, installation CD and three large external antennas. ASUS have not included the previous generation’s vertical mounting plastic bracket as this has been integrated directly into the RT-AC68’s chassis.

As you can see, the new RT-AC68U uses an entirely redesigned chassis. With just a cursory glance no one will mistake the AC68 for the older AC66U or ‘Dark Knight’ N66U but it does pay homage to these classic designs and both obviously contributed heavily to its overall. Like the previous AC66, the AC68 has a wedge shaped appearance, has a relatively compact footprint of 220 x 83.3 x 160mm and is fairly lightweight at 640grams. It also uses adjustable and detachable RP-SMA antennas and aftermarket high gain antennas are compatible with it as well.

Also like the AC68U also uses a faux carbon fiber front, has the status LEDs located in the bottom left corner of the front and even has the ASUS logo and model number on the top right of the front panel just like the RT-AC66U. This is where the similarities between these two designs end. Unlike the AC66U which was router capable of either horizontal or vertical mounting the AC68U is a vertical-only router. This decision does have both negative and positive impact on the AC68U but in our opinion, it is for the better. Personal experience with the AC66U did make it readily apparent that horizontal orientations could lead to overheating.

By integrating the stand directly into the base of the AC68U the end result is not only a more stable design when in vertical orientation but also one that is less likely to slide around as ASUS has also included rubber strips running along the bottom of the AC68’s base.


ASUS have moved the various I/O ports to the bottom while leaving the three dual band external antenna ports at the top. By separating the wired from the wireless connections, the RT-AC68U should have improved wireless reception abilities especially for consumers using lower grade RJ45 cabling where some interference could occur. It also makes for a much tidier appearance when all the RJ45 ports are in use as they are nicely hidden behind the router.


The I/O panel configuration and layout has also been modified when compared to the AC66U. First and foremost the WiFi on/off and WPS buttons have been relocated to the side of the AC68U. The right side is dedicated to the four RJ45 Gigabit ports and the left has the blue WAN port as well as the power button, power port and the dual USB ports. One of the two USB ports has been upgraded from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0.


Above this cluster of ports on the right side is a small recessed reset button which allows consumers to do a soft-reset of the router. Holding it down for more than five seconds will act the same as a hard reset. In between the left and right port cluster is a lone button which controls the LEDs of the unit. Unfortunately, by pushing this single button you not only turn of the rather bright and annoying rear LED (which illuminates the ASUS logo) but also the front status LEDs as well.


By removing the plastic external chassis, a quick glance shows a somewhat similar internal architecture to that of the RT-AC66U, but with some noticeable improvements as well. Both rely on 256MB of RAM, have 128MB of NAND storage, and include a Broadcom BCM4360 controller to take care of 5GHz 802.11AC networking duties. Both also use large heatsinks to keep the various parts cool and both are missing the internal microSD slot of the RT-N66U.

Like the exterior, there are some major differences between the AC66U and AC68U here as well. First and foremost the single heatsink design has been replaced with a dual chamber design, with one large heatsink on the front of the PCB and a smaller one on the back. Instead of two 128MB DD2 RAM ICs, there is a single DDR3 256MB IC for increased memory bandwidth and performance.

One of the other noteworthy improvements is the replacement of the older Broadcom BCM4331 controller with a second BCM4360. Amongst its list of improvements over the BCM4331, the BCM4360 adds 256-QAM modulation and encoding abilities to 802.11N networks.

When you combine three spatial steams with 256-QAM encoding on 80Mhz channels you get 1300Mbit/sec abilities, but since 40Mhz is the most 802.11N is rated for this results in 600MBits/s connectivity. The only caveat is that both ends of the wireless network have to support 256-QAM which drastically limits the usability of this feature at this time. However, the PCE-AC68 does support 256QAM on 802.11N connections and similar 600Mbit/s adapters are slowly trickling on to the market.


ASUS even boosted the main processor abilities of their latest router and instead of the older 600Mhz dual core Broadcom BCM4706 System On a Chip found inside the RT-AC66U, the newer Broadcom BCM4708 SoC is being used. This dual core A9 Cortex processor runs at 800MHz and should have the computational ability to handle more demanding environments than the 4706.

It is puzzling why ASUS went with the 4708 instead of the higher performance -1GHz- 4709 as that would have even further increased theoretical performance. This does put the RT-AC68U at a distinct disadvantage when compared newer routers like the NETGEAR ‘NighHawk’ R7000 AC1900. However, hardware is only part of this equation.
 
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AkG

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The PCE-AC68 PCI-E Network Adapter

The PCE-AC68 PCI-E Network Adapter



For those wondering about the PCE-AC68 and its involvement within a wireless AC environment, ASUS intends it to be a simple add-in component to desktop systems which lack a high-speed wireless connection. This could be particularly beneficial if a system can’t be equipped with a wired connection or if someone just doesn’t want yet another cord running from the back of their PC. In order to achieve a relatively seamless handoff between the host router and the receiving system, the PCE-AC68 includes two primary components: the main PCI-E 1x add-in card and a remote base station.


That base station is generally used in situations where the PCE-AC68’s onboard antennas receive interference from their proximity to the various EMI-generating components within a typical computer. It allows the send / receive functions to be effectively housed away from problem areas so reception is improved, though it does require some additional, unpleasant looking wiring.

In order to enhance its appeal, ASUS has designed their external base with magnets so it can be mounted on a desk leg or somewhere else that keeps it away from prying eyes provided its meter-long cable is sufficient. Each of the three corners also incorporates a standard RP-SMA adapter, onto which you install the included antennas or a high-gain third party antenna. The long cable at the back of the device then attaches to the standard ports on the PCE-AC68 itself.


Even after close inspection consumers can easily be forgiven for not finding any differences between the older PCE-AC66 and the PCE-AC68. Both use a red PCB and a half height, low profile PCI-E 2.0 1x form-factor. The rather robust red heatsink makes a comeback as well, helping to keep the hot running 802.11AC controller from thermal overload. The only obvious differences is one will have ‘PCE-AC66’ and ‘REV 1.40’ and the other will have ‘PCE-AC68’ and ‘REV 1.40’silkscreened onto the PCB. When something works so well, why fix it, right?


ASUS has once again opted for the Broadcom BCM4360 SoC controller which is capable of 80Mhz per channel, 256-QAM 3x3 connectivity on 802.11AC 5Ghz networks. This newer version incorporates newer firmware and drivers which allow it to not only offer 256-QAM, 40Mhz channel abilities on 802.11N (ie 600Mbit/s connectivity) but also boasts full compatibility with Haswell-based systems.


Unfortunately, while Broadcom has tweaked the controller to be fully compliant with Haswell systems it does run rather hot and we would be hesitant over using it inside a HTPC or other similar case configuration with poor internal airflow.
 
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AkG

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Setup and Installation

Setup and Installation (PCE-A68)



Much like the PCE-AC66 before it, installation and configuration of the PCE-AC68 is as easy as turning off your system, locating a free PCI-E slot, attaching it to the PCI-E 1x slot, attaching the three antennas, restarting your system and installing the drivers and software. 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-AC68 WLAN Control Center. This software stack is very similar to the AC66’s but it has been further refined with a few of the rough edges smoothed away. In either case it isn’t precisely needed since Windows 7’s (or Windows 8’s) built-in wireless controller works perfectly fine with this device and manages the network connections quite well.


Using the program does grant the ability to see signal strength in actual –dB’s and activate the three advanced software features: Beamforming, Turbo QAM, and Interference Mitigation. The Beamforming option is fairly self explanatory as the PCE-AC68 will tune its transmission from an omnidirectional output to a pseudo directional transmission. This allows more power to be focused towards the actual router and reduces the need for increased transmission power. TurboQAM is Broadcom’s name for 256-QAM modulation and encoding which allows for 600Mbit/sec performance over 802.11N networks while allowing for backwards compatibility with older routers which don’t support this feature. The third option is a bit more nebulous and covers a rather broad spectrum of possibilities. In its simplest form Interference Mitigation allows for better, higher performance connectivity in noisy / busy environments.

Unfortunately, ASUS have removed the option to manually set the Tx transmission power, but since is now being done for you – via the Interference Mitigation option – it is a lot less hit and miss than it was with the previous AC66. Basically, setting the transmission power too high can actually have a negative effect on performance and by making it automatic the ‘sweet spot’ will be found for you. However, since it is now automatic the software cannot go above the FCC regulations and at higher distances there could be times where the lack of even more power will impact performance when compared to the older AC66. The improved advanced features should mitigate this issue though.

Setup and Installation (RT-AC68U)




If anything the RT-AC68U’s installation is even easier than the PCE-AC68. 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-AC68U 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. While we were not able to hit the 30 second mark ASUS talk about, this whole procedure took less than a minute to set up and configure a basic 5GHz 802.11AC network, a wired Ethernet network and a 2.4GHz 802.11N network. Needless to say this process is very fast and downright intuitive. Simply follow the step by step process and you will have a working network in no time.


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 implement any other 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-AC68U’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.

Overall though, 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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ASUS RT-AC68U Router Interface

ASUS RT-AC68U Router Interface



At 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-AC68U’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 sub-submenus.

The easiest way to think of this utility is as a vertically enabled orientation website. When you open the configuration utility you will be greeted to a well laid out landing page which will be used to access all the router’s various features. This page has been broken down into two main columns with the right side taking up the lion’s share of space. This right side column is what will change and transform depending on which option you select in the left column’s navigation bar.


A lot of the selectable features do not require you to actually know what they are called as the default landing page is uses the Network Map. Most consumers will never have to go beyond this point in the utility as it not only gives a basic overview of the network configuration but with a simple mouse click you can modify everything from how the USB devices are configured to the wireless network setup. It allows you to see and adjust four main areas: WAN, Wireless, Clients and USB.

With everything being context sensitive here, clocking on one area will automatically bring up all associated options. For example, USB device configurations can be adjusted by pressing the USB rectangle and modifying the settings in the associated areas. Just understand that this is a simple overview and configuration page and does not contain all the options and abilities of this router or even all of the four sections’ advanced features.

There’s also a great search option at the bottom right corner which will connect to the ASUS website and help with questions. While the answers will not always be helpful – especially for more esoteric searches such as ‘IPTV’ - they are usually enough to point consumers in the right direction.


Below the default Network Map landing page is the Guest Network configuration section. As the name suggests this is where someone can enable special ‘guest’ or limited access networks. Such options come in handy when using the RT-AC68 in an environment where you don’t necessarily want everyone to have access to your LAN but want them to be able to connect to the Internet. Unlike the previous generation RT-AC66U, you can now configure up to 6 of these guest networks while choosing between 2.4GHz and 5GHz networking abilities.

To set up a guest network, press the enable button and the router will take care of the rest. If the default settings aren’t enough, simply going to the details section will bring up a new window where adjustments can be made to various options including encryption, SSID, Intranet access, MAC filtering and access time length.


Traffic Manager is what Asus calls their routers Quality of Service abilities. The RT-AC68U comes with two QoS modes: Automatic and User Defined. Automatic uses the default predefined rules and sets online gaming and web surfing as the highest priority. For most consumers who wish to use QoS this will be more than good enough. For more advanced users the User Defined mode allows for highly detailed rules which can fine tune exactly what is important to you and what is not so important.


As the name suggests the Parental Control allows users to customize who and when their children can access the Internet. Unlike OS based control it is a touch harder to circumvent router level controls but as with anything technology related, a good secure password and limiting physical access to the router itself is paramount to making such controls work.


The UBS Application section deals with everything USB related. Unlike the more basic Network Map section this includes the ability to set up a USB device as a Samba, iTunes, FTP based Network Attached Storage device and also allows for connections USB storage devices via the Internet.

For non USB storage related tasks this page also includes the ability to configure a printer as a network printer via the Network Printer Server. Just be aware that not all printers are supported so paying careful attention to the list of supported printers is a key to success.


The AiCloud allows you to connect to your network via an iOS or Android device no matter where you are located in the world. You can even stream video from your LAN – via Samba – to your phone as well as use custom ports for both web and streaming. Just be aware that you will be using upload bandwidth via your ISP and download bandwidth via your phone’s data plan.
 
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AkG

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RT-AC68U Router Interface Cont'd

RT-AC68U Router Interface Cont'd




Much like the USB application section, the Wireless section of the advanced settings group is much, much more advanced than what the Network Map section would lead you to believe. In addition to configuration of the 2.4 and 5 GHz networks you can also configure WPS, set the RT-AC68U to bridge mode, configure wireless MAC address filtering as well as configuring more Enterprise orientated solutions such as RADIUS configuration.

The professional sub menu is also where you can further tweak and customize the wireless networks and control advanced features such as enabling 256-QAM (aka ‘TurboQAM’) and even set up a basic schedule for when the radio will be enabled and disabled.



The LAN section has the usual Local Arena Network configuration options including the IP range, DHCP server settings, route and whether or not to support Jumbo frames. The DHCP server abilities have been significantly beefed up over the AC66 and it is now very, very easy to hard set an IP to the MAC address of a given NIC. Of special note is the IPTV section which allows you to connect your Internet enabled TV or set-top box directly to the router and have it access the internet. With IPTVs being more and more common this is a great feature to have.



The WAN section allows for setting up a DMZ, port forwarding, NAT passthrough and most interestingly of all: Dual WAN. As the name suggests you can use one of the four ‘LAN’ ports as a second WAN port. While not all that important for most this will be a good add-on feature for those who do need it.



The IPv6 section deals with enabling IPv6 abilities of the AC68U router but thankfully it has been set to off by default. While IPv6 may be the future its widespread acceptance has been limited. However, when it finally does gain traction the AC68U will be there and waiting.

This router’s VPN server section deals with setup and configuration of a Virtual Private Server and allows for some very decent configuration abilities such as encryption level and hard setting client IP addresses. Unfortunately it only supports a maximum of 10 clients at one time, but for most home users this should be more than enough.



ASUS’ Firewall tab is also fairly robust and allows for filtering by keyword, URL or even by network services. You can either use a blacklist for the filters or a whitelist. The latter of which is much more secure but also more time consuming to properly configure.



An Administration area has all the usual administrative related tasks such as changing the login password, setting the router to repeater, Access Point and Media Bridge mode. It is also where you can update the firmware and even save or restore your custom settings to and from the router.

The new and improved system log is very, very complete. Instead of the usual one or two generic logs that most routers use, the new RT-AC68U keeps seven (yes, SEVEN) separate logs for easy troubleshooting. In grand total these logs are: General, Wireless, DHCP, IPv6, Routing Table, Port Forwarding, and Connections. Each and every one is very self-evident and we doubt anyone will have problems figuring out which log to search for answers.


The last section – aptly labeled Network Tools – contains some very basic network troubleshooting tools such as ping, traceroute, and NSlookup. It also contains netstat (aka networking statistics) which displays all the network connections (incoming and outgoing) as well as NAT connections. The last option deals with wake on LAN which allows the router to send a wakeup command to a given system. Few will ever use these tools but each one is nicely executed and if you do need them their ease of use will be greatly appreciated.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing wireless devices is not as easy as you 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 of the story and does not explain why speeds can vary. To obtain a more clear picture of how good – or bad – a networking device is, more 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 file and large file mixture 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 labeled 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 labeled “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 performance of 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 labeled 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 labeled “Zone 3” and consists of having the router in the corner of the basement with the wireless device trying to connect in the second story room at the extreme diagonal end from the routers 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 is not an optimal configuration but a very common one none the less. This will test the abilities of both the router and wireless NIC to connect and communicate with each other.

The fourth test is labeled “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 replaces those times a person is outdoors and wishes to use his home network to connect to the Internet or other devices connected to the home network. 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

Processor: Core i5 4670K
Motherboard: MSI Z87 MPower Max
Memory: 32GB G.Skill TridentX 2133
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 in SLI
Hard Drive: Seagate 600 Pro 400GB SSD, Intel 910 800GB PCI-E SSD
Power Supply: Corsair AX860i
Case: Cooler Master Storm Trooper


<i>Special thanks to NCIX for their support and supplying the i5 4670 CPU.
Special thanks to G.Skill for their support and supplying the TridentX Ram.
Special thanks to NVIDIA for their support and supplying the GTX 780s.
Special thanks to Corsair for their support and supplying the AX860i PSU.
Special thanks to Cooler Master for their support and supplying the CM Storm Trooper </i>
 
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AkG

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Feature & Performance Testing USB

Feature Testing: USB




USB 2.0 and 3.0 integration and what it brings to the table is a rather a large selling feature of the ASUS RT-AC68U. The main goal of these ports is to act as a one stop hub for media streaming, file sharing, printer server and anything else most home consumers could care to think of that requires USB. In the case of the RT-AC68, the execution and integration of these varied tasks is certainly impressive, albeit not perfect.


While varied in their goals, the USB function on any wireless router can be broken into two main categories: Storage and Printer. On the printer side of the equation the RT-AC68 is a mixed bag of frustration and missed potential. In theory all a consumer has to do is plug their printer into a USB port on the RT-AC68U, run the EZ Printer installation program and then install a printer driver like you normally would on your computer.

In reality we were unable to get our Samsung CLP-310 working via the router. While disappointing, this is not all that unexpected as there aren’t any Samsung printers listed as supported by ASUS routers. If wireless printing is a main selling feature of the RT-AC68U for you, you will have to make sure you have a supported printer as otherwise the results will be hit or –as they were in our case – miss.


Thankfully the USB storage abilities of this router more than make up for the lack of printer support. If you are interested in setting up a media server or iTunes server it will take you mere seconds to implement. More important than the speed at which you can configure one, both actuall work. Within seconds we were streaming a high definition video to our VLC player while at the same time streaming an audio book via iTunes to another system.


For anyone more interested in Network attached storage this router plus a cheap USB hard drive or flash drive can easily fulfill basic NAS needs. Just as with a NAS you can map a network drive via windows and transfer files to and from the storage device. The only unfortunate thing is you cannot use both USB ports to create a RAID based setup since both will show up as separate devices. There is however the option to run diagnostics on any drive attached to the AC68U router so unexpected failures should not be all that common. On the whole these storage related features are very well thought-out and more than satisfactory for the home user environment.


Performance Testing USB 3.0


While USB has indeed been a mainstay of ASUS routers for as long as we can remember, the AC68U is the first high performance router that also provides USB 3.0 and not just USB 2.0 ports. As most consumers know, USB 3.0 brings numerous enhancements to the table including higher bandwidth potential and increase power output over USB capabilities. As we have seen many times in the past, reality can sometimes wildly differ from theory and there are numerous ‘USB 3.0’ devices which actually perform at the same levels as their previous USB 2.0 counterparts.

To see the capabilities USB 3.0 adds to the ASUS RT-AC68U router we devised a very simple test. Using an empty Seagate GoFlex Slim 320GB device we connected it to the USB 3.0 a port of the router. We then configured it as a network drive and using MS RichCopy measured the performance via wired, 2.4HGz wireless and 5GHz wireless. Once testing was complete we repeat this process but using the USB 2.0 port.



As you can see, the improvements USB 3.0 bring to the table vary from minor to mediocre. Over a wired connection the potential throughput of our 7200RPM drive was less than half of what it would be if directly attached to a modern computer system. Over wireless the performance was even worse and we consider a 5 - 6MB/s improvement to be hardly worth the upgrade cost from a RT-AC66U. This is disappointing to say the least since ASUS still have a lot of work to do on properly implementing USB 3.0 into their routers.
 
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AkG

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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.




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.




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.




On the PCE-AC68 side of the equation, the improvements it brings its predecessor are slim to say the least. In all likelihood these improvements are via refinements in the software and if it was not for the Haswell BSOD fix, the PCE-AC68 would not be worthy of a new model name, let alone worth the upgrade expense. However, for anyone upgrading a substantially older networking setup, this is the way to go.

On the router side things are much, much better and while the differences between the 66 and 68 are not as large as between an e4200v2 and the 66, these improvements are nevertheless good for one generation to the next.

However, it is only when you combine both the PCE-AC68 with the RT-AC68U that the results truly become impressive. Improved long range performance on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands with noticeably improved 2.4Ghz performance does make for one potent package. The slight increase in 802.11AC 5Ghz performance is simply icing on the cake.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

RT-AC68U Conclusion


ASUS’ RT-AC68U router represents just about everything we could ask for in a modern consumer-grade router. Much like the RT-AC66U before it, the RT-AC68U not only lives up to expectations but further improves this lineup’s already excellent reputation. Some may roll their eyes at the rather high asking price of $230, but the RT-AC68U easily justified this premium with tantalizing enhancements that are sure to satisfy even the most demanding of consumers.

To achieve their excellent results, ASUS have taken their FAST motto and refined it to a razors edge. Fast, EAsy and Stable is not just the motto of the RT-AC68U but its core philosophy which they have applied to every facet of the design. It is user friendly, providing a hassle-free platform for entry level users while also incorporating a suite of wide-ranging abilities for tweakers who want to get the most out of their network. Within moments of starting the setup process you will have a fully functional and working 802.11AC and 802.11n wireless home network.

On the hardware side of this equation, short, medium –and best of all - long range performance have all been improved and are now backstopped by a greatly improved exterior design with added functionality. Some of these enhanced abilities come from the use of a dual core, 800MHz Cortex A9 processor but ASUS’ firmware is what really pushes things over the top. With it, AC68 resides in the upper echelons of the consumer router marketplace.

Unfortunately, in order to actually achieve optimal performance the RT-AC68U needs to be paired up with the PCE-AC68 PCIE adapter. Will that be a deal killer? We don’t think so since the increased performance, flexibility and future proofing more than makes up for their combined initial cost of nearly $340.



PCE-AC68 Conclusion


On the surface of things using the exact same antenna configuration, same form factor and same heatsink as the PCE-AC66, make the PCE-AC68 a rather hard sell. Even the software is very similar with only minor differences to distinguish it from its predecessor. However, once you get past all this recycling, a few key areas of improvement do come to the forefront.

The main selling point here is the PCE-AC86’s new revision controller and drivers are fully compatible with Haswell systems. As anyone who owns a Haswell based system and a PCE-AC66 adapter already know, booting to the desktop can be problematic to say the least. This is because the previous version of the 4360 Broadcom controller used inside the PCE-AC66 was never listed as being fully compatible with Haswell motherboards and will cause the system to randomly hang during the boot process. Having to manually press F8 and select the ‘disable driver signing’ option is a tedious workaround to say the least.

While this incompatibility was an unexpected turn of events, ASUS’ excellent handling of PCE-AC66 owners just underscores why they have gained a massive amount of respect in the networking marketplace. Simply put, AC66 owners need not rush out and purchase this new device since they can receive either a refund or RMA their unit and get the upgraded AC68 model free of charge. This to us turns a moderately better unit into a slam dunk success.

Let’s be honest here: across the board improvements are still improvements. Being able to actually connect at 600Mb/s on 802.11N networks or 1300Mb/s on 802.11AC networks is simply phenomenal. When the excellent customer service is taken into consideration even the high asking price of $100 is not insurmountable for consumers looking for the absolute best wireless network performance money can buy. Just be prepared to purchase a compatible ‘AC1900’ router as this will be the only way to unlock the PCE-AC68’s full potential.

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