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Linksys EA9200 Tri-Band Router Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Since we first started reviewing wireless AC routers, the marketplace has seen slow but steady evolution towards less expensive solutions and continual evolution on the technology front. Linksys’ new EA9200 tri-band router certainly hasn’t been designed to give entry-level consumers access to affordable AC networks. Rather, it can be considered a bleeding-edge device that offers three distinct and individual channels for today’s wide array of devices.

Linksys EA9200 is not your typical wireless router and in fact it is not even remotely close to anything else they’ve released to date. Up until now Linksys has been trying to recapture lost market share and convince consumers that the 'old' Linksys was back and ready to shake-up the marketplace, channeling the memories of their legendary WRT54G. We saw glimpses of this strategy last year with the WRT1900AC but this new model takes things to a whole new level in an attempt to change the status quo in a big way.
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So what does the EA9200 do so differently? For starters, instead of offering a simple dual-band N/AC, dual channel layout, it ups the ante by including three separate access points for multiple devices alongside load balancing to insure access priority for high-bandwidth devices. It also tosses aside the usual MIMO technology used to boost signal performance across AC1300 networks.

Rather than utilizing MU-MIMO, this is one of the first of a new breed of 802.11AC routers that make use of Broadcom's XStream technology. While the differences between the two applications are subtle, for the most part XStream enabled routers can handle multiple, <i>simultaneous</i> 5GHZ 802.11AC spatial streams compared to one 802.11AC stream. This is exactly what the Linksys EA9200 brings to the table: one 3:3 802.11N 2.4GHZ spatial stream for backwards compatibility, and a pair of 802.11AC 5GHz 3:3 spatial streams. To do this the EA9200 requires six, all of which can be used at the same time - though only 3 per band and via separate radio controllers. It’s a complicated affair but one that’s supposed to optimize performance for enthusiasts.

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Netlink has put this robust backbone in place so the EA9200 can handle the realities of today’s increasingly connected home environments. Its first band is in place to handle the Wireless-N and Wireless-G needs of older devices alongside tablets and smartphones while the secondary band is dedicated towards higher bandwidth 5GHz AC applications. Finally, the last segment is specially made for dual-bad 5GHz AC streaming devices like NVIDIA’s SHIELD ecosystem and other products that require an extremely fast wireless pipeline to reduce lag.

Since this new router is a 3x3 design, it also makes use of all the features of MIMO including beamforming. This allows for transmission of up to 1300Mbps and reception of an additional 1300Mbps simultaneously via its second 5GHz stream. Technically that would make this an 'AC2600' device, but since it can also do 600Mbps on a 2.4Ghz 802.11N band, it is considered an 'AC3200' unit in a market that is filled with mostly AC1900 competitors.

To handle three separate bands along with the extreme amount of bandwidth on tap the EA9200 uses the latest Broadcom controller suite. This suite of chips consists of a dual core Broadcom BCM4709A0 controller and three off-chip Broadcom BCM43602 processors that have a combined speed of 960Mhz.

With all that said the Linksys EA9200 is one of the few AC3200 routers available right now, but the real world benefits of the new 802.11AC XStream 'standard' is still up for debate. To further help the Linksys EA9200 be as enticing as possible given its relatively untested technology, Linksys has also given their latest router a new improved user interface that promises to be more intuitive than its predecessors. This unique combination of ease of use and bleeding edge performance is what Linksys is counting on to convince consumers of the EA9200's merits. The only thing potential buyers may have to overcome is sticker price shock since $300 for a wireless router will sound extreme to almost everyone.

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<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Networking/EA9200/mfg.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Closer Look at the EA9200

Closer Look at the EA9200



Like every router that we have reviewed in the past, the EA9200's accessory list is rather short, but is still more than adequate. In grand total you get an installation booklet, an external power adapter, three external antennas and an installation CD, so all the basic bases have been covered.

Since this new model is not part of Linksys' WRT line and is rather part of their EA lineup it is not all that surprising to see that its overall appearance differs. In fact, just on a quick glance you would not be able to tell the EA9200 apart from the EA4200, or even the EA4500. That is to say the EA9200 makes use of a black and silver enclosure that is rather thin and stylish in appearance, instead of the big and robust blue and white chassis the WRT series makes use of.

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It is also worth noting that the EA9200 is not capable of orientation changes due to its attached base. In addition, unlike other vertical routers, it cannot be mounted to a wall as the base is attached via hidden screws that are covered via a large sticker.

The EA9200 also continues the long tradition of Linksys EA-series routers before it and lacks a front information cluster. In fact the front of this unit is nearly denude of any LEDs and only the center-mounted logo glows.

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Linksys has included two very large and easy to manipulate buttons along the side. The topmost is the typical WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) button which allows for automatic configurations on WPS enabled networks. Simply push it and attaching a new device to your home network becomes a snap, or at least in theory it does. As with all WPS devices, the actual connection process is a bit hit or miss, but using this WPS feature is a lot easier than it is on most competing solutions.

Below the WPS button is an on/off button for the wireless features. This comes in handy for those times when you don’t necessarily want any wireless networks running and simply want to use the EA9200 as an expensive Ethernet-bound access point.

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As with all Linksys EA routers we have ever seen the top, back, and sides of this unit are covered in ventilation slits. The reason for this is because, unlike the WRT1900AC router, the EA9200 is passively cooled. There are more hot running components housed within it than even the WRT1900AC so temperature may become a concern in some environments but for the most part there’s nothing to be concerned about.

While the EA9200 supposedly has dual 5Ghz networking abilities, it only has enough external antennas for one of these networks. In a nutshell one network will use the 3 adjustable external antennas and the other will have to make use of the internal antenna array. Needless to say this is sub-optimal and we fully expect there to be a marked difference in performance between the two networks.

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As with nearly all modern routers, the EA9200's I/O panel is located on the back of the device, at the bottom. It is well laid out and attaching devices to any of the ports should prove to be a painless experience.

From right to left is the lone USB 3.0 port, then the single USB 2.0 port (each of which has its own status LED), the four wired 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports, and the single gigabit WAN port. As with previous Linksys routers the four 'LAN' ports are color coded blue and the lone WAN port is yellow. Next to these ports is the AC adapter input, followed by the dedicated power switch and a small recessed reset button.

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Much like the exterior is different than the WRT1900AC router, the internals radically differ as well. By removing the plastic chassis and looking inside we can see that the EA9200 is lacking in the heatsink department. This is not a low power device and uses multiple hot running processors yet the heatsinks are some of the most anemic we have seen to date. Thankfully the copious amount of ventilation slits in the plastic chassis should promote more than enough airflow to keep the components within their thermal thresholds.

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As for the specifics, the EA9200 is fairly typical and yet cutting edge at the same time. It is just like most in that it uses a 128GB NAND IC, and a single 256MB RAM IC. It is also - unlike the WRT1900AC - an entirely Broadcom controller based design.

The specific Broadcom components are much more impressive than the typical router. The main controller is a dual core ARM v9 based BCM4709A which runs at an impressive 1GHz. Also unlike the majority of the competition this unit makes use of three BCM43602 controllers or one per radio. Each of these processors may only run at 320Mhz but they do provide more than enough processing power for the low level duties. All higher level duties are simply passed off to the main '4709 SoC processor as all three controllers are attached to the SoC via a three lane PLX PEX8603 PCIe switch.

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This unit also uses six external power amplifiers instead of three or four found in most of the competition. Unfortunately, three of the antennas are fixed internally and only three are external. On the positive side the external units are dual-band antennas and it is only the secondary 5GHz radio that makes use of the internal antennas.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
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Setup and Installation

Setup and Installation


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After Linksys revised their setup and installation procedure for the WRT1900AC it came as no surprise to see the EA9200 follow nearly the same process. Its installation is a straightforward and painless endeavor. Just plug in the router, attach the various cables, and simply type "linksyssmartwifi.com" or "myrouter.local" or just "192.168.1.1" into your web browser. The router will then walk you through a setup process which is almost completely automated and requires very little user input. As an added bonus, this can be accomplished without plugging in an Ethernet cable as the EA9200 comes with a basic network preconfigured for the sole use of setup and installation.

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When the wizard is finished you will be left with two fully functioning networks and all that will be left to do is either start using your basic 802.11N and 802.11AC functionality or customize the more advanced features.

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Those advanced features should only take a few moments of configuration time as Linksys has opted for their classic easy to use, easy to navigate and highly intuitive interface. We will get into the various features this router has to offer but the list is rather long and detailed as would be expected from a $300 wireless device.

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All told, the automated procedure will take a few minutes if the default passwords and SSID for 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks are used. Naturally, setting things up manually will take a bit longer if any customizations are made but even then the installation wizard will walk you through it with very few hassles.

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If you so choose you can also opt for a totally manual setup but unlike the automated process, this one does have a few quirks. In order to progress through the options you must have the router connected to your ISP and you cannot continue the manual installation without as the whole thing will fail. This means that even if you plan to use the EA9200 as a secondary router / wireless repeater you will have to plug it in first. Thankfully, the checks for WAN connection are very early in the procedure and afterwards you can disconnect it.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Diving into the EA9200's Interface

Diving into the EA9200's Interface


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Historically the largest weakness of Linksys routers was their outdated User Interface. The WRT1900AC helped improve things, and the new EA9200 take has taken the WRT1900AC's UI, polished and refined it until it actually works better than a more classic interface would. Put simply this new and improved UI is easily the most intuitive and user-friendly to ever grace a Linksys router.

When you first open up your web browser and navigate to the EA9200's landing page you will be greeted with an interface that is best described as combination website / desktop. Much like a website there is a quick navigation vertical bar along the left side and the rest of the page is taken up with large “apps”. This double list of options gives you two ways to properly navigate the User Interface.

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The application icons are not only moveable but are entirely configurable as well. The basic layout of options covers most of the more popular options and selecting any one of them acts much like navigating to one of the sub-menus in the navigation bar, and running one of the “wizards”. If a given option is not needed, you can remove it, and if you mistakenly remove one you can easily restore it via the subsection. To do the latter all you need navigate to the given subsection and click on “Add App to Main Menu”.

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With that said not every option can be pinned to the start screen and there were two very curious options that were obvious by their absence. For example you cannot add in the connectivity / administration section as there is no App' for it to pin. The Troubleshooting subsection can’t be added either.

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If this new application navigation is not to your liking the menu list to the left can be used. For all intents and purposes this is a classical navigation option with the topmost menu being the Network Map section. When selected, the right portion of the screen changes to this subsection and a new network map section opens.

In the Network Map section you can quickly and easily add a new device to the network. More importantly there are four main wizard icons that will quickly step users through configuring a given type of device. For example if someone wants to activate WPS they would click the WPS icon, conversely if configuring a network based printer is necessary, this section would also be used via the Select USB Printer option. These four main wizards should cover off most devices and scenarios but by lumping a whole host of devices in under 'other' the ability of this UI to reduce configuration time is severely curtailed. Also, there is really no full-on 'manual' option that would have been a better fit for more advanced users.

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The next section is aptly named Guest Access and as the name suggests this is where to configure short term, and / or limited networks separate from the main 2.4 and 5.0GHz networks. As an added bonus there can be more 50 guests per guest network.

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The parental control tab is a fairly basic implementation of basic firewall designs. It allows users to block access to a few sites, or completely block Internet access during specific periods.

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The Media Prioritization page is Linksys's way of implementing Quality of Service (QoS). If there’s an absolute need to prioritize access for a certain application or game on a congested network this section is critical. While better than previous iterations Media Prioritization still feels a touch clunky and the interface will take time to work with. To use it, simply create a rule and then drag it to the list. When done you can reorder these rules any way you wish.

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External storage section is fairly self-explanatory since it allows for the configuration of any storage devices connected to the router. In a nut shell if you want to turn your expensive router into a basic NAS, FTP, or media server, this is where you will be spending some time. As with the WRT1900AC the options are fairly basic but you can get decent control over any USB device attached to the router.

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The oddly named Connectivity section is where you will find the basic router options, administration options, LAN, and even Internet connection settings. Once again Linksys has all the basics more than adequately covered and most consumers will be more than satisfied with what the EA9200 has to offer.

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The troubleshooting section is one of the better and more fully featured sections we have seen in a long while. Not only can you view the logs but you can even export them to another browser window. This in combination with a good set of troubleshooting tools really does make tracking down the occasional gremlin a lot easier. We honestly wish that all the other sections were as well thought-out and implemented as the Troubleshooting section.

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The Wireless section deals exclusively with configuration and viewing of any wireless network you have created. While not spectacular in its abilities, the included MAC address filtering and WPS options are more than adequate for all but the true networking enthusiast. Though to be honest, having WPS in this section and not the Network map is certainly odd, but every manufacture's UI has their own design quirks - and this just happens to be one of Linksys'.

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The last area is the Security section and as the name suggests it allows you to modify any of the various security related features this router has available. While some of these features do overlap with other sections, being able to quickly view and then modify them all in one location is certainly a time saver.
 

SKYMTL

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Joined
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Messages
12,841
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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 <i>why</i> 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
600Mbit/s = 76,800 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: EVGA SuperNova 1000P2
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 EVGA for their support and supplying the SuperNova PSU.
Special thanks to Cooler Master for their support and supplying the CM Storm Trooper case </i>
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Signal Strength Testing / USB 3.0 Performance

Signal Strength Testing


<i>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. </i>

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<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Networking/EA9200/sig_50.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>

As became blatantly obvious, this new AC3200 router will not offer improved signal strength over the AC1900 competition. In fact, only the EA9200's external antenna array can even compare to what cheaper AC1900 routers can offer. When dealing with it's internal antenna array the performance is rather mediocre to say the least. Linksys would have been much better served by an entirely external antenna array.


USB 3.0 Performance


<i>While USB has indeed be a mainstay of routers for as long as we can remember, the USB 3.0 is a more recent addition. As most consumers know USB 3.0 brings numerous enhancements to the table including higher bandwidth potential and increase power over USB capabilities. However, as we have seen many times in the past reality sometimes can wildly differ than theory and there are numerous ‘USB 3.0’ devices which actually perform at the same levels as their previous USB 2 counterparts.

To see exactly what capabilities USB 3.0 adds to the Linksys EA9200 router we devised a very simple test. Using an empty Seagate GoFlex Slim 320GB device we connected it to the USB 3 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. </i>

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While not spectacular the USB results are adequate for a consumer grade router. However, we must admit to being disappointed by the USB 3.0 speeds, but we assume this is due to immature firmware rather than any serious underlying issues per say. If USB performance is a major concern then this expensive router is not the most optimal choice. For everyone else this level of performance is more than good enough.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Synthetic & Real World Testing

Synthetic Testing


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.

syn_24.jpg

syn_50.jpg


Real World Testing


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.


real_50.jpg

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As we suspected the performance of this new breed of router varies from very good to mediocre. This was fully expected as XStream does not boost performance of any single stream over that of an AC1900 router. Rather its advantages come from having multiple streams concurrently running. This in conjunction with the fact that only three of the EA9200's antennas are external means that performance can, does, and will vary from being as good as the best AC1900 routers to only equaling less expensive AC1900 routers.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


With 802.11AC standard’s launch, the home networking market has been in a state of flux, with a seemingly endless stream of better and better performing models being released. The best example of this quickened pace and its impact is Linksys' router lineup. Not that long ago Linksys was on the verge of becoming a non-entity in the very market they helped create but that has changed in a big way. The WRT1900AC and now the EA9200 have once again shown what innovation and an eye towards market leadership can accomplish.

The EA9200 may not descend from a long line of highly regarded predecessors but it does manage to blaze its own trail. Instead of being a replacement for the WRT1900AC this model is meant as a true flagship within Linksys’s lineup, with a substantially higher price point to boot. However, despite an extreme cost of $299 and a preeminent place among other Smart WiFi routers the EA9200 won’t offer any more performance than its sibling. It simply can’t due to the constraints of current wireless standards. This device is all about expanding capabilities rather than raw throughput.

While the WRT1900AC is meant for folks who like to tweak their wireless setups, the EA9200 is targeted towards home users who what an easy-to-use, plug and play solution. In that respect, it is an achievement to behold. Linksys has applied an extremely intuitive UI that can be easily navigated by pretty much anyone. Even those who want additional options won’t be disappointed since there’s enough on hand to customize the EA9200 to fit a wide variety of tasks.

Beyond any shadow of doubt, the true selling point of this router is its tri-band design that’s been facilitated by XStream technology. On the surface this allows for dual 5GHz and single 2.4GHz spatial streams to be used in parallel. In practice the traffic shaping technology works extremely well and allows multiple devices to fully utilize their upstream and downstream wireless signals simultaneously. Does it provide additional performance on single bands? Absolutely not but one can argue that reserving certain bands for devices with higher bandwidth needs will enhance the overall experience for every user on a network. XSteam’s integration into this equation brings with it a whole new level of

At this point users who don’t have busy home networks will never utilize the EA9200 to its fullest potential. Simply put, you’ll need to be in a multi-device environment to make use of the multiple spatial streams being offered here. But that doesn’t discount this router in most situations.

While not everyone will find the dual 802.11AC bands worth the expense right now, the Internet of Things is quickly going to change that. When even the average TV and game console comes with wireless streaming capabilities the EA9200’s backbone will quickly start to show its merits as time marches on. Simply put, it is more future proof than even the amazing WRT1900AC. Having one band dedicated to your actual computers and another for these recently enabled devices will ensure every item on a network will avoid potential bottlenecks.

For these reason the EA9200 may be a device that is ahead of its time but if you can afford it, its performance potential will allow for a level of future growth that will take the typical home user many years to saturate. As such, the EA9200 can actually be considered the better long term choice than even the fabulous WRT1900AC, or at least can be as long as you can afford the asking price.

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