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TP-Link Archer C3150 802.11AC Router Review

Author: AkG
Date: November 24, 2016
Product Name: Archer C3150
Part Number: Archer C3150
Warranty: 2 Years

It is fairly safe to say that the Wi-Fi 802.11ac marketplace is in the midst of an old fashioned 'Megahertz War' with two main companies pushing the speed boundaries. On one side is Broadcom and their latest MU-MIMO-based take on 802.11ac, while on the other side is Qualcomm, both pushing technologies that they believe are best for consumers. Neither side's solution is 100% cross compatible with the other, and neither are 100% backwards compatible either. Instead, both require a network made-up entirely of their self-branded products in order to get performance figures that are above what the reference 802.11ac 'standard' calls for.

Up until recently, Broadcom's implementation was actually lagging behind that of its competitor as they took the multiple simultaneous 5Ghz 1300Mbit/s streams approach, whereas Qualcomm focused on delivering a single higher-speed 5Ghz stream. As we are going to examine today, Broadcom's new NitroQAM modulation technology changes this disparity and levels the playing field. One of the first products to offer this new networking tech is TP-Link's Archer C3150 wireless router.

As the names suggests, this $200 router offers a combined speed of 3150Mbit/s, but this is actually being conservative as it is capable of 3167Mbit/s! How is this possible? Simple, Broadcom has boosted the QAM encoding from the standard 256-bit to a massive 1024-bits, uses massive 80Mhz channel bandwidths, and uses four spatial streams instead of the usual three. What's also impressive is that Broadcom has boosted 802.11n bandwidth from 300Mbits/sec to 1000Mbits/sec via similar tweaks on the 802.11n specification. This combination allows for a 5Ghz 802.11ac network capable of pushing a whopping 2167Mbit/sec and an 802.11n network with up to 1000Mbit/sec of bandwidth.

Of course, as stated previously, the router is only half the equation when it comes to wireless networking, and in order to get above 802.11n (300Mbit/s) and 802.11ac (~1733Mbit/s over 4 streams) speeds the receiving Wi-Fi devices also have to be capable of such massive encoding and be able to send/receive over four (4x4) spatial streams. Since most laptops and mobile devices are still only 2x2 – or at best 3x3 - this certainly makes the C3150 overkill, but also rather future-proof… assuming Broadcom wins the war for consumers hard-earned money. In the meantime, at worst, this is still a really powerful router that on paper offers excellent range, remarkable performance, a stylish exterior and a two-year warranty.

This does beg the question of whether or not the TP-Link Archer C3150 can be considered a good value now. After all, there are numerous less costly alternatives from other manufacturers that may offer just as much performance for existing 802.11ac and 802.11n networks, such as the ASUS RT-AC3200 and the Linksys EA7500. Given the serious competition, this router will have an uphill battle, but if its performance and ease of use meet out high standards the TP-Link Archer C3150 may just prove to be a great value.

The TP-Link Archer C3150's packaging can be described as being rather distinctive in its blandness. What we mean by this is that the unaggressive box does not appear to be all that special, and will not be particularly attention catching on a store shelves. Having said that, this rather bland box is actually very distinctive looking when placed next to what most high performance routers are packaged in. It could be argued that the blandness juxtaposed against a sea of flashy boxes makes a statement all on its own: that TP-Link fully expects the abilities and performance of its products to do all the talking for it.

Internally, TP-Link has opted for rigid molded plastic to provide protection for the Archer C3150. We personally prefer cardboard as it is better at absorbing impacts, but this form-fitting box is more than adequate.

As expected, the accessories that accompany this router are rather sparse. In grand total, buyers can expect to find a short white RJ45 cable, four small antennas, an external power brick, and an installation pamphlet. The only issue we have with this assortment is the antennas. They are small, and in testing proved to be this model's weak link. If long distance performance is especially important, we would recommend swapping them out for better aftermarket options.

With its sleek lines and low profile design, the Archer C3150 is a rather attractive looking router. So much so that we were instantly impressed by its understated aesthetics. As with the packaging, this design is not what we would call overly done, and compared to the angular and aggressive lines that seems to be all the rage these days, the Archer C3150 is like a breath of fresh air. Sadly, there are a few caveats to this design, but overall TP-Link really hit a home run with this model. We have zero hesitations recommending this router for consumers who need a router that will not stick out like a sore thumb.

We are happy to report that these attractive good looks are not only skin deep, rather TP-LINK really took the time to get the layout of this model as perfect as we have recently seen . Simply put, this model is as easy to use as it is pretty to use. Both ASUS, Netgear, and other manufactures could learn a thing or two about router design from this model. Bloody brilliant.

A perfect example of this thoughtful design is that instead of trying to cram an LED diagnostics panel on the front of the router, TP-Link have built it directly into the top and hidden it behind a clear center strip. When in use this center section lights up with a nice, but not overpoweringly bright, blue glow from these hidden LEDs. Most importantly, there is more than one or two of these LEDs, there are nine: power, 2.4Ghz network, 5Ghz network, Internet, LAN, WPS, USB 1, USB 2, and last but not least a built in diagnostics LED that tells you if the others are working! With very little effort even novices will be able to troubleshoot basic connectivity issues as these LEDs blink when active, and they don't glow when there are no connections. This combination of easy to see - but still not distracting - LEDs is easily one of the best diagnostics panels we have seen in quite some time.

Unlike some of ASUS' latest creations, TP-Link has not tried to cram any important ports on the front of this sleek looking router. Also, unlike Linksys and D-LINK and most others, TP-Link has not tried to cram all the I/O ports on the back panel either. Instead, they have spread all the necessary inputs and outputs along the back and the right side of this model. This allows all the various ports to be nicely spaced out, easy to access, and more important makes it near impossible to accidentally press the wrong button or disconnect a critical cable. As an added bonus, there is no stress placed on any one port when all the ports are populated. This is not something many 802.11ac routers can boast. To be specific, along the right side you will find a Wi-Fi on/off button, reset button, WPS button, as well as a single USB 2.0 port and a single USB 3.0 port.

On the back of the unit and nicely spaced out are the four antennas, the power on/off button, the power port, four LAN port, and the WAN port.

Now on to the issues that are inherent to this design. First off, while this model does have two integrated mounting brackets for vertical mounting, these molded brackets are not particularly reassuring and we personally would not trust them for long-term use. When using this model in horizontal mode, the footprint is significantly larger than say an ASROCK G10 router. On the plus side, when laying flat there is no pressure on the RJ45 cables.

The other issue is equally minor, and it is that is a passively cooled router. Basically, the little feet on the bottom of the router allow air to flow in from underneath thanks to the copious vents. We wish there were more vents on the side, but with so many on the top we believe that the passive airflow is more than adequate. At no time during testing did the unit overheat, so we have only minor concerns about the inherent cooling ability of this device.

By taking off the external case, we can see a very clean and quite cohesive internal design. To be honest. this is the kind of refinement that the exterior hinted at and we were excited to see if it continued inside. TP-Link has taken the tried and true approach of using one massive heatsinks to keep all three processors cool. This does explain why this unit can manage its temperature even though it is only passively cooled.

As this is a new router, it comes as no surprise to see it use the latest Broadcom controller that was only recently released. To be specific, it uses the next generation Broadcom 47094 system-on-a-chip (SoC). This dual-core 1.4GHz controller acts as the router’s brain, and it is an excellent upgrade from the previous generation's 1000Mhz 4709 SoC. As expected TP-Link has given this controller 256MB of RAM and 128GB of NAND.

It's also worth noting that this next-gen controller has been paired with two BCM4366 co-processors, one dedicated to the 2.4Ghz network and one to the 5Ghz network. This combination allows the Archer C3150 to boast advanced features such as the new NitroQAM, which allows for not only true 4x4 configurations but also massive 80Mhz bandwidth channels and 1024-QAM. This combination allows a single 802.11ac 5GHz network to boast 2167Mbit/s transfer speeds. Furthermore, this is not a one trick pony since it allows older 802.11n networks to get a nice boost and support upwards of 1000Mbit/s of bandwidth!

Setup & Installation

 

The process for setting up the Archer C3150 is extremely straightforward, but as we'll explain in the paragraphs below that is part of the problem. To start the setup process, simply plug the router in and either wirelessly connect to one of the two networks that it will automatically start broadcasting or plug a RJ45 cable into the back. Either way will work, but we recommend the wired option as otherwise you will have to first flip the router over and write down the default password for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks.

Once the connection is made, simply type in 192.168.0.1 or tplinkwifi.net into your favorite web browser. There is one caveat with using the latter and not the former, and that is if the WAN port is not connected to the internet it will not work. As such, typing in 192.168.0.1 is the easier option.

At this point things do take a turn for the worse if you're a power user. As expected, once you connect to the router its built-in setup routine will be initiated. This process will literally take seconds to accomplish as it is extremely simplistic and really only covers the absolute basics. To actually setup any of the more advanced features, users will need to either click on the basic or advanced tabs and do things manually. In either case, the Archer will technically be setup and ready for use, but maybe not your exact preferences.

Router Interface

Much like the setup and installation process, the Archer C3150's web-based user interface is both intuitive and easy to use. However, just as with the setup process this UI may leave some more advanced users craving for more. This is because even though there is a basic and advanced section, both are somewhat limited and lack the in-depth customization settings and advanced abilities that more established brands like Linksys, D-LINK, and ASUS have developed. We are getting ahead of ourselves though.

As with all routers, to enter the UI the user simply types in the appropriate IP address into their web browser of choice and logs in. In this instance, that means 192.168.0.1 and using the default "admin" for both the username and password. After this the user will be greeted with a clean, elegant and extremely easy to navigate page that is broken into three main sections. The first is the Quick Setup section that we have already gone over. We must admit that we do like being able to easily redo the setup and configuration at any time without having to dig around to find it.


The other two sections are the interesting ones as they represent the actual user interface for the Archer. For most users, a router's UI will be rarely used and only to do very specific tasks. This is why we are actually impressed with TP-Link splitting the UI into two separate and distinct parts. The basic section is as the name suggests 'basic' in its abilities, but for most people what it gives up in complexity it more than made up for in ease of use. Basically, instead of having to dig through sub-menus, this basic section covers all the essentials in a few thoughtful sections. To be specific, there are six section: Network Map, Internet, Wireless, USB Settings, Parental Controls, Guest Network.


The Network Map section is where you can quickly gain a good overview of the router and what is connected to it at any time. It also provides details on each of the main groups in a simple to understand manner. If you are troubleshooting a common issue like being unable to connect to the internet, the Internet section will list the connection type, the WAN IP address, and even tell you if the router is connected to the Internet – all without having to do more than scroll down the page. This is how boiling down complex issues into easy to manage chunks is done. Brilliant stuff, and easily on par with ASUS and their network map.

The next tab is the Wireless section, and as the name suggests it is where users can find basic control over their wireless networks. Once again, this is a basic section meant for basic tasks that most will want to do without wading through a bunch of lesser used settings. For example, changing the password of either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz networks is a breeze, and so too is turning off the SSID broadcast option. For more in-depth settings, power users will first have to navigate to the Advanced tab.

The USB Settings allows for basic configuration and overview of any USB device attached, be it a hard drive, a printer, or both at the same time thanks to the two USB ports. Of course, the 'NAS' abilities in the basic section are extremely limited. Basically, if you want to scan, configure, and then share a USB drive this section will get the job done. However, don't go looking for advanced configuration abilities like setting up an iTunes media server.

The Parental Controls section allows an administrator to modify the built-in whitelist and blacklist content restrictions, as well as add or remove the devices that will be affected by these parental controls. For more advanced settings, users will have to go to the Advanced tab but this is more than fine for basic control.

The last section in the basic tab is the Guest Network configuration, though it only offers rudimentary configuration like enabling or disabling the guest networks. Overall, the basic section has everything we would want to see in a simple and easy to use interface.

As you will see below, we have a few misgivings with the so-called Advanced tab. Though this advanced section is decent enough, and there are indeed more advanced settings than in the basic area, that is not saying much. We expect a truly advanced section to be… advanced, and filled with complex settings and features. Unfortunately, some of the sub-menus are best described as intermediate and simplistic.

In this section, TP-Link has broken the Network Map into two distinct settings. The first is Status, which gives a bit more detail than the basic's version, but we would have liked to have see much greater fine grain details beyond a brief overview. Thankfully, the Network section does make up for this mediocrity and most users will be more than happy with the advanced features that are included. Specifically, features such as DHCP server configuration, static route, and even IP TV configuration are nicely covered.

The Wireless section is rather decent with truly advanced features such as allowing 20MHz, 40MHz, and even 80MHz bandwidth settings. Unfortunately, the transmit power configuration leaves a lot to be desire as it is rather bare compared to some other advanced routers we have seen recently.

Also fairly lackluster is the Guest section. Recently, we have seen numerous routers not only offer guest networks, but also multiple guess networks and highly configurable time limits. This can come in handy when hosting a LAN event, as you can easily trace exactly who downloaded what later on. The Archer C3150 only offers one guest network per 2.4GHz and 5GHz network, and it also missing a time or bandwidth limits. If this is important to you, you will find this router rather lacking in this respect.

The NAT forwarding section is nicely done with plenty of advanced features, including setting up virtual servers and even Application Layer Gateway configuration. We just wish all the other sections were as nicely thought out with multiple advanced settings.

The USB Settings section is much better than the basic version, but once again is missing advanced features such as iTunes Media Server and the like. However, for most home users the included abilities will be more than satisfactory as most of the intermediate features are included.

The Parental Controls section is another section that best described as intermediate instead of advanced, and it is fairly easy to circumvent this hardware-based net nanny. If you are seriously interested in keeping your children away from the yellow and red-light districts of the internet – or even just limiting their access to MMORPGs - the Archer will not be an optimal choice.

The Bandwidth Control section does a decent job of limiting speeds, but - as with Parental Controls - the interface and abilities of the Archer C3150 are rather mediocre if you truly want to go beyond the basics and do some heavy tweaking.

The Security section is best described as the firewall configuration section, and it is actually pretty decent. In fact, up until three years ago, including features such as Stateful Packet Inspection would have made this truly a advanced firewall. However, since then the bar has been set much higher, and this firewall lacks things such learning abilities and therefore is rather rudimentary compared to the competition.

The IPv6 and VPN Server sections are self-evident, and are decently populated with necessary settings.

The System Tools section is easily the best and most comprehensive area in the Advanced tab, and even compares well to competitors offerings. By including everything from a decent logging system to a robust diagnostics section, TP-Link has covered all the bases nicely. Though the feature that every owner will want to use first is the Firmware Upgrade. We say this because the latest firmware does improve the functionality of this router significantly, and is well worth doing immediately upon first setup and configuration.

Testing Methodology

Testing wireless devices is not as easy as you might think. Yes, you can simply connect to it and push a bunch of files across the network while timing the transfer, but this only tells half the story and does not explain why speeds can vary. To obtain a clearer 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 wireless networking. If a device can barely send or receive a signal, the transfer rates 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 the 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 the LAN Speed Test utility. This free program can measure both transmission and reception performance, and do so in an easy to use and highly repeatable way. For clarity's sake, we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.

The last step is real-world testing. In this test, we have taken 10GB worth of small and large files and transferred them from one wireless connected computer to a second computer connected via wired Ethernet. This test was done via the MS RichCopy utility. For clarity's 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 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
2167Mbit/s = 270,875 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: Corsair RMi 1000

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 transfer rates 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 the signal strength of all wireless signals being received by the computer’s wireless NIC. Unlike in most tests, the lower number, the better the performance.


As you can see, our concerns about the bundled antennas proved to be correct as they are the weak link on this router. Thankfully, it is only at longer ranges that this handicap makes itself apparent. At shorter and arguably more common distances, the power of this truly next-generation router easily helps its blow past the competition.

Synthetic tests

We use synthetic performance testing to show the potential performance of a given wireless configuration. For this test, we have chosen the LAN Speed Test utility. This free program can measure both transmission and reception performance, and do so in an easy to use and highly repeatable way. For clarity's 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 and large files and transferred them from one wireless connected computer to a second computer connected via wired Ethernet. This test was done via the MS RichCopy utility. For clarity's 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, the short-range abilities of this mid-priced router are rather extraordinary. It is just a shame that TP-Link handicapped this model with such mediocre antennas.

Performance Testing: USB 3.0

While USB ports have indeed been a mainstay on Wi-Fi routers for as long as we can remember, these last few years have brought forth high performance routers that also support high speed USB 3.0 ports, and not just the slower USB 2.0 variety. As most consumers know, USB 3.0 brings numerous enhancements to the table including higher bandwidth potential and increase power delivery capabilities. Having said that, as we have seen many times in the past, there are numerous devices that claim ‘USB 3.0’ support but that actually perform at the same levels as their previous USB 2.0 counterparts.

To see exactly how well the USB 3.0 port performs, we devised a very simple test that you can easily recreate. We connected an empty Seagate GoFlex Slim 320GB external hard drive to the router's USB 3.0 port and then configured it as a network drive. The next step was simply to MS RichCopy utility to transfer data and measure the performance via wired, 2.4GHz wireless and 5GHz wireless connections.

The combination of an incredibly powerful dual-core controller with potent networking co-processors is certainly a winning one. Now if only we could say the same thing about those pesky antennas, which clearly do leave a lot of this potential performance unexploited.

Performance Testing: Multi-User

Very few home networks consist of only a single device connected at any one time. Instead, most contemporary networks have multiple devices connected at all times. As such, we have devised two new scenarios to show the performance with multiple concurrent wireless connections. The first test 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 the best case and as worst case scenarios when it comes to performance.


Thanks to a timely firmware update that allows MU-MIMO to actually work properly, this router is a beast at short ranges. Though once again, TP-Link's choice of antennas has caused this Broadcom combination to not be fully utilized at longer ranges.

Conclusion

The TP-Link Archer C3150 may not be a perfect router, but it is impressive nonetheless. Essentially, this router's performance allows it to overcome its less than perfect user interface and it won us over in spite of this rather large handicap. Furthermore, this model has also shown that TP-Link are taking product support and long-term customer satisfaction seriously. When we originally tested this model with an older firmware that most other reviews had used, we were less than impressed with what it had to offer. However, while we were finishing up the review, TP-Link released a new firmware that offered such vast improvements that it was like an entirely different product and we had to start over and retest from scratch.

Thanks to this timely firmware update, TP-Link have actually been able to harness more power out of the hardware that they have used. The older firmware could not do this, it didn't even include support for MU-MIMO. We can think of only a few networking companies that not only listen to customer feedback, but then rush to fix what is broken. Linksys has been known to do this, ASUS and D-LINK sometimes do it, but most others do not. Most simply release a new model and end-of-life (EOL) the previous version forcing the owners to either load third-party firmware or be stuck with a less than perfect router. This fact alone places the Archer C3150 in rare company.

Now with all that being said, this model is not perfect. Its user interface is not bad enough that would classify it as 'broken', but it is not as refined as most other first-tier manufacturers. The same holds true for the installation process, it gets the job done but it will take more time and effort than others to actually get things completely up and running.

Lastly, like all next-gen routers, home users will find it difficult – to say the least – to max out its performance potential. What Broadcom calls NitroQAM - 1024-QAM with 80MHz channels - is not a 802.11ac standard configuration, and as such the number of devices which support it are rare… for the time being. The same holds true when it comes to obtaining 1000Mbit/sec over a 2.4GHz network. In other words, most consumers will only be able to fully utilize the potential performance if they buy new Broadcom-based devices and if they plan on using a lot of devices simultaneously.

Unlike the rough UI, the aforementioned issue is not TP-Link's fault per say. Rather it is something that buyers of any cutting edge routers need to be aware of. However, if you can harness all this potential, the Archer C3150 can provide even better performance than the ASUS RT-AC3200. Considering this model costs thirty dollars less than the ASUS that is pretty impressive. Overall, we would recommend taking a long hard look at this relatively unknown router as it might just prove to be a diamond in the rough for a wide variety of consumers willing to take a small leap of faith. Just make sure to immediately update the firmware to get the best possible experience.

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