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Linksys MAX-STREAM EA7500 Router Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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With high bandwidth 802.11AC enabled wireless mobile devices becoming almost commonplace these days, home users are starting to demand higher performance abilities from their wireless networks. With multiple devices from tablets to phones to notebooks demanding an increasing amount of bandwidth, those networks now need to satisfy some insatiable needs for speed. As a result, router manufactures have moved towards Multi-User Multiple-Input and Multiple-Output (‘MU-MIMO’) configurations which combine multiple transmission streams into mega-sized connections that are aimed with a narrow focus at precise locations via advanced Beamforming.

This situation of rapidly expanding needs has had the side-effect of requiring the average router to have more and more processing power on tap. Sadly most first generation (Wave 1) 802.11AC routers are unable to keep up with these increased demands of transmission, reception, and packet collision avoidance. This is why ‘Wave 2’ 802.11AC controller chipsets were created, and why much more robust SoC’s are required for signal processing. On the positive side the new Wave 2 routers promise better speeds, better long range performance, and better overall return on investment, even when comparing more mainstream Wave 2 models to older Wave 1 enthusiast-grade models.

The all new Linksys EA7500 MAX-STREAM router is one such example of the Wave 2 trickle-down effect in action. We actually covered the various options of Linksys’ MAX STREAM lineup back when CES was in full swing. This $200 router not only boasts a cutting edge controller that is much more capable than earlier Linksys routers, but also promises better overall performance. So much so that instead of comparing this newer EA7500 to Linksys’ mid-tier offerings from the previous generation it is compared against the EA9200, a flagship product.


On the surface this 7-series model should be vastly inferior to that 9-series since the EA9200 due to product numbers alone but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the new EA7500 is actually commands a $10 premium over the previous generation’s halo offering yet offers about the same amount of performance. Meanwhile, the new EA9500 and EA8500 slot above both of those products while that 9500 is now considered the true flagship of Linksys’ lineup.

This may seem a tad confusing, but the easiest way to think of the new EA7500 model is that it is not meant to compete directly against the slightly “older” series but instead it will co-exist alongside some of that lineup for now, satisfying the needs for consumers much like the ASUS RT-87U and RT-AC3200 co-exist.

Basically this is because the 7500 uses a different underlying 802.11AC standard than the 9200 series. To be precise that 9-series router use the competing Broadcom XStream technology instead of the more standard MU-MIMO Wave 2 that the EA7500 uses. So while the EA9200 has two 802.11AC 5GHz networks to the EA7500’s one, the EA7500’s focus on serial instead of parallel performance should allow it to at the very least compete with the EA9200 at lower concurrent user depths and may even outperform it in these cases.

In order to create a mainstream router that is capable of competing at such a high level Linksys has opted for a dual core 1.4GHz Qualcomm Atheros IPQ8064 SoC, and a pair Qualcomm QCA9982/3 network controllers. This is actually a more potent combination than some other ‘Wave 2’ routers, as each network uses its own controller instead of having one sharing cycles across both networks. Of course, compared to some next generation routers Linksys has backed off on the RAM and NAND flash. Instead of 512/256 like the ASRock G10, the EA7500 has carried over the 256MB RAM and 128MB NAND that Linksys uses on their EA9200. This may limit performance somewhat but as it is only an AC1300 + G600 configuration this amount should prove to be more than enough.

Mix in USB 3.0 support, Linksys’ latest ‘Smart WiFi’ User Interface and the EA7500 certainly has a lot going for it. The only potential issue is not if this router offers great performance but if it has enough bandwidth on tap to overcome the slightly high asking price. At this price point the EA7500 will be competing not against the typical AC1900 router but against AC2400 class routers like the Asus AC87U. This is indeed a tall order for any AC1900 product, but with such performance potential on tap this new router may indeed do just that.

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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the EA7500

A Closer Look at the Linksys EA7500


As the EA7500 is part of the mass market ‘EA’ lineup and not the modder-oriented ‘WRT’ series it is not all that surprising to see that its overall appearance is nearly the same as the EA9200. In fact, on just a quick glance you would not be able to tell the EA7500 apart from the EA4500, or even the EA9200. In other words, all use a similar looking black and silver enclosure whose overall styling has not changed all that much through the generations.


With that being said this enclosure has been upgraded improved though it is debatable whether or not some of these improvements are for the better or not. The most noticeable improvement over the EA9200’s chassis is that cooling potential has been vastly improved. While it still is a passively cooled model the EA7500’s chassis is covered in cooling holes – almost as if set upon by angry gophers. This will increase cooling potential and should allow its higher performance internals to avoid overheating – a concern well founded based upon the ASRock G10’s issues.


Another interesting factor is the EA7500 can be mounted horizontal and vertical orientated capable, instead of vertical only mounting like the EA9200. However, this model does not ship with a vertical stand and instead its default configuration is horizontal. To convert it to vertical consumers will have to mount it to a wall and use the two integrated screw holders. This still makes the EA7500 the more flexible of the two models.


Unfortunately, one major feature missing from this model, and endemic of the entire EA series, is a lack of a front I/O LED panel. I tend to prefer LED panels as they allow for instant diagnosis of many issues and generally make troubleshooting much easier.


Linksys has also done away with all the buttons on the router’s sides. Instead it takes a page from the EA4500 and places the WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) button on the back while also deleting any physical ability to turn on/off the wireless network. Linksys expects users to log into the web-based user interface and disable the networks there. On the positive side this makes it much less more difficult to accidentally turn off the wireless networks.

Also on the positive side, this model makes use of three external antenna array instead of internal-only arrays ASRock placed on their G10.



The downside to placing all the various ports, and buttons on the back is it makes for a rather crowded rear I/O panel. 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), a small WPS button and a small recessed reset button, the single Gigabit WAN port followed by the four wired 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports. 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. Then on top of all these are the three external antenna headers. Needless to say this is a cramped and crowded IO panel that only gets worse when all five Ethernet ports are in use. We also still don’t see any high speed USB 3.1 compatibility which is a serious disappointment on any device being launched in 2016.


Much like the exterior design is different from previous Linksys EA models, so too have the internals been upgraded. The design is extremely clean with a neat and tidy layout that allows all the hot running components to reside on the ‘top’ side. This is something that the EA9200 certainly cannot boast. Of course the EA7500 does rely upon different chipsets and has fewer antennas than the EA9200, but this layout is still impressive.

Since the EA9200 and EA7500 use different chipsets from competing 802.11AC ‘second generation’ standards, a fairer comparison is between the EA7500 and ASRock G10. Both models make use of the new Qualcomm ‘Atheros’ IPQ8064 SoC. This multi core, 1.4 GHz controller acts as the brains of the unit and is an extremely potent choice. It is made up of two Krait 300 processors each of which runs at 1.4GHz, and makes use of two (each at 730MHz) network accelerator engines to help boost overall network performance. However, unlike the G10 the with EA7500 Linksys has included a small heatsink to help keep this SoC cool and avoid overheating.


Also unlike the G10 which uses a single chipset to control both the 2.4GHz and 5.0Ghz networks, Linksys has opted for a more conservative dual chipset approach. Specifically, the 2.4GHz network is controlled by a Qualcomm ‘Atheros’ QCA9983 controller and the 5.0GHz network is controller via a Qualcomm ‘Atheros’ QCA9982 controller. Both of these chipsets boast Wave 2 802.11AC capabilities.

Interestingly enough, unlike the 9980 neither the 9982 nor the 9983 are 4x4 capable chipsets, and instead are 3x3. This combination allows the EA7500 to max out at 1300Mbps on the sole 5Ghz 802.11AC network and 600Mbps on the 2.4Ghz 802.11N. However, this limitation is why the EA7500 is considered ‘AC1900’ compatible rather than ‘AC2600’ like the ASRock G10.
 

SKYMTL

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Setup and Installation

Setup and Installation


As the EA7500 is part of Linksys’ Smart Wi-fi group of routers, it came as no surprise to see the it follow nearly the exact same process as that of the EA9200. Its installation is a straightforward and painless endeavor which makes sense since this series is very much targeted towards home users who want a plug and play setup. Just plug in the router, attach the various cables, and simply type "linksyssmartwifi.com" 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 EA7500 comes with a basic network preconfigured for the sole purpose of initial installation.


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.


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 $200 wireless device.


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.


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 it as the whole thing will fail. This means that even if you plan to use the EA7500 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
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Joined
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Messages
13,421
Location
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EA7500 Router Interface

EA7500 Router Interface



Much like the setup and installation is a refined and fairly painless affair, so too is navigating the new Smart Wi-fi user interface. When you first open up your web browser and navigate to the EA7500's landing page you will be greeted with an interface that is best described as a 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.

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 that’s needed is to navigate to the given subsection and click on “Add App to Main Menu”.


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. Very odd indeed.

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.


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 than 50 guests per guest network which is certainly overkill but it could really be helpful in a small communal office environment.


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


The Media Prioritization page is Linksys' 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 in any way you wish.


External Storage is fairly self-explanatory since it allows for the configuration of any storage devices connected to the router. In a nutshell 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 EA9200 the options are fairly basic but you can get decent control over any USB device attached to the router.


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 EA7500 has to offer.


The Troubleshooting area 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.


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 manufacturer's UI has their own design quirks - and this just happens to be one of Linksys'.


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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Test System & 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.


Signal Strength Tests

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.


Zonal Testing

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 A 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 B” 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 C” 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 D” 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, unless otherwise noted, is 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
1734Mbit/s = 216,750 KBytes/s
2334Mbit/s = 291,750 KBytes/s
2400Mbit/s = 300,000 KBytes/s
2600Mbit/s = 325,000 KBytes/s
3200Mbit/s = 400,000 KBytes/s


Processor: Core i7 5930K
Motherboard: Asus Sabretooth TUF X99
Memory: 32GB Crucial Ballistix Elite DDR4
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780
Hard Drive: Intel 1.2TB NVMe 750
Power Supply: XFX 850
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
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Signal Strength; Synthetic & Real World Performance

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.
Unlike most tests, a lower number the better the performance.






As you can see at short ranges this new router posts some incredibly good numbers, and it is only at longer ranges that is starts to stumble a bit. This is the power of Wave 2 MU-MIMO and it really shows.


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 with the signal results, this new router does post some rather impressive short and mid-range performance boosts. This is especially true of the 2.4GHz network and just shows how potent this newer Qualcomm chipset really is.


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.





Once again this middle of the road router is able to hold its own against routers that should technically be outperforming it. This certainly is a good thing as this AC1900 router is bloody expensive for its class and it has to compete against AC2400 and AC2600 models in order to be considered a good value!
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
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USB 3.0 Testing & Multi-User Performance

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 over USB capabilities. 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 how much 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 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.



Thanks to its extremely powerful controller the rather good USB storage performance comes as no surprise. Obviously ASRock and their firmware team could learn a thing or two from Linksys – who make it abundantly clear that they do know how to get the most from this new chipset and controller combination.


Performance Testing: Multi-User


Very few home networks will consist of only a single device connected at any time. Instead most networks will have multiple devices connected. As such we have devised two new scenarios to show multiple concurrent wireless performance. The first will be using between 1 and 6 devices simultaneously in our standard Zone A, then the testing is repeated with the devices in Zone D. This should show best case as well as worst case scenario performance.



These two charts perfectly sum up why we have added this new scenario to our reviews. Put simply this is a very good networking product for its class, but at the end of the day it still is an AC1300 router and as such has built-in limitations that become rather obvious once the demands get higher than two or three concurrently connected devices. However, if a user does not envision using their router with more than two devices at a time the differences are minor enough to make the Linksys EA7500 a much better deal than some high priced alternatives.

Also on the positive side, for its class, the EA7500 is much more capable of ‘maxing out’ its performance potential faster than most AC1900 routers. Of course, since it also costs a lot more than the typical AC1900 this accomplishment is not as impressive as it otherwise would be.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,421
Location
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Conclusion

Conclusion


Even though the Linksys Max-Stream EA7500 was rarely at the top of any of our charts, we were consistently impressed with what it has to offer. At short ranges its combination of a good external antenna design with one of the best 802.11 chipsets available gave even so-called ‘AC2400’ models are real run for their money on the 5GHz 802.11AC network. Meanwhile on the older 2.4GHz band this new router actually posted some of the highest performance numbers we have ever seen. Of course as this is a more mid-tier model, so as the distance and number of concurrent users increased the performance did quickly fell backwards enough that other high end routers to catch up.

On the interface side of the equation the EA7500 is classic ‘new’ Linksys and consumers will either really like the direction being taken with the web interface design, or they will be ambivalent. We doubt many average users will be truly displeased with what it has to offer. However we did find the advanced abilities a touch lacking so enthusiasts may not be so enthused with the EA7500 as they are with the highly modifiable WRT line of routers. This is perfectly fine and reasonable as this model is not meant for enthusiasts but is rather targeting everyday users who want a networking device to be up and running with a minimum of fuss. For those who want more, look towards the aforementioned WRT series.

As for the physical layout and design, there once again is not much that the average consumer will be displeased with. The overall aesthetics will allow this router to blend into a wide variety of environments while the smaller footprint than previous designs will make finding room for it equally easy. Multiple mounting options is also a godsend considering some of the oddball configurations we have tested lately.

Unfortunately, in one key area the Linksys Max-Stream EA7500 does stumble a bit: the asking price. With an online average cost of about $200 it is not only one of the more expensive examples of its class, but is within five dollars (a mere 2.5%) of the higher performance AC2400 class units, and only thirty dollars short of some flagship AC3200 devices. Meanwhile, some AC2600 class routers like the ASRock G10 cost significantly less than the EA7500 but as we saw with that competitor, that lower price does come with some major maturity drawbacks.

Even compared to the perennial favorite Linksys WRT1900AC this smaller, less robust, less tweakable router is downright expensive. This rather high asking price will make it hard to justify, and will keep many potential buyers from purchasing it. This would be a shame as this is a damn good product that uses one of the best next generation 802.11AC controller chipsets available. More importantly it offers very good overall performance that is – nearly – worth $200.

One thing that Linksys’ pricing does point out is how the market has evolved above the $200 price point. The fact that a $200 device is now considered “mid tier” in the pricing spectrum is a bit worrying considering the EA8500 commands $250 and the EA9500 we’re drooling over goes for a staggering $400. With that taken into account we can’t complain all that much, can we?

The decision of whether or not to purchase Linksys’ newest “mid-tier” device all depends on what your needs are; if utilizing a few devices at ultra fast speeds is a necessity then the EA7500 will deliver performance in spades now and well into the future. In addition, this is a rather new model and prices have still not fully stabilized. If in the near future this model starts retailing for the same as what the ASRock G10 commands (around $165) it will go from being a good but overpriced AC1900 router, to one the better values available.


 

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