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Asus' RT-AC88U router & RP-AC68U repeater reviewed

Does it take two to make a stream go right?
— 2:01 PM on July 7, 2016

I was extremely grateful when Asus offered to help the TR BBQ by providing some of its high-end Wi-Fi gear to replace the aging hardware that has traditionally served up the internet connection for the event. In particular, I've wanted hardware that could broadcast a signal strong enough to allow for live streaming from the beach at the site, a distance of over 350' from the cottage there (106m). Of course, one does not simply acquire $460 of networking equipment, turn it on, and call it a day. The RT-AC88U router and RP-AC68U network extender that Asus sent out were just begging for a proper review.

When it comes to testing networking hardware, though, TR doesn't have an at-the-ready playbook or standard set of benchmarks to run. Furthermore, this hardware was destined for a specific and permanent application, not just a quick pass though the lab. Ultimately, it only made sense to see how things worked out in the real-world job that these two devices will spend their lives performing. This review will explain the usage scenario and measure just how successful Asus' kit is at reaching my goals.

Meet the hardware
The RT-AC88U is one of Asus' top of the line routers. Its radios are in a 4x4 arrangement, which means it has four transmitters and four receivers each for its 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. It also boasts MU-MIMO support, so all those radios can be shared efficiently by clients that support the standard. The RT-AC88U can also perform beamforming, a method of extending the effective range of a wireless signal by essentially focusing the direction that the signal is sent instead of broadcasting it omnidirectionally.

Is that thing on a turntable?

Both MU-MIMO and beamforming require client support, and the pedestrian Intel 7260 2x2 802.11ac adapter in the laptop that I used for testing doesn't support either one of those tricks. Fortunately, for the purpose of this review, that's just fine—we aren't looking to test maximum theoretical performance. What I really want to evaluate is how well the RT-AC88U works together with the RP-AC68U to serve up a reliable internet connection over as much area as possible.

It certainly looks like a turntable.

The RP-AC68U is currently the highest-end network extender that Asus offers.  It has a 3x4 (three transmitters and four receivers) radio arrangement, and many of its specs line up nicely with the RT-AC88U that it will be relying on in this review. Thanks to the RP-AC68U, we'll be able to see if beamforming is all that it's cracked up to be. We can also test out some Asus-specific networking mojo: ExpressWay and Roaming Assistant.

It must be a turntable.

Before we move on, there are a few more hardware features worth mentioning. If you check out the back of the RT-AC88U, you'll find eight gigabit Ethernet ports instead of the four typical of consumer wireless gear. There's also a USB 2.0 port on the back and a USB 3.0 port under a cover on the front. These ports can be used for connecting external devices like hard drives, printers, and auxiliary internet connections from cellular hotspots. Personally, I'd prefer to see the location of the USB ports swapped. One could argue that making the USB 3.0 port more easily accessible is a smart decision, though, since there's only one on the device. Also featured on the front of the router is a large button for disabling the wireless radios (which I accidentally hit more than a few times during testing).

If it's a turntable you'd think there would be, oh wait, yes, animated gifs.

The back of the RP-AC68U reveals more than you might expect from your average network extender. There are five gigabit Ethernet ports back there so wired devices can hop on the extended-network easily. There's also a USB 3.0 port for use with hard drives or printers. The indicator bars on the back show you how strong both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals from the router are, a function that should aid in selecting the ideal placement of the device.

The lay of the land
Now that you've met the players, let's have a look at the field. I spent a couple lovely afternoons by the shore of Lake Michigan working out exactly how the testing would be performed. I've attempted to capture the scope and scale of the physical space involved by using a 360-degree photo taken in the exact center of the testing area, as well as with a video from a quadcopter flying around the perimeter. Hopefully, together with my written description, these perspectives will successfully convey all the information you need to understand the nature of the location, and ultimately, its impact on the benchmark results to follow.

Look for the orange and green arrows. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

When you first click on the image above, you're seeing the view to the west. If you pan the image approximately 90 degrees to the right, where I can be seen wearing my favorite shirt, that is north. If you zoom in, you'll see a green arrow on the building to the east, and an orange arrow on the building to the west. Those arrows mark the location of the router and extender: green for the router and orange for the extender. Both devices are separated from the open space of the yard by just a single wall or window.

You can also see a few pink marking flags in the ground. The flags are part of a three-by-nine grid of locations in the yard that I measured out for running speed tests from. In the photo, I am standing at the origin point of the grid, equidistant from the router and extender as well as the north and south boundaries of the testing area. The flags are spaced 45' (13.7m) apart from east to west and 30' (9.14m) apart from north to south.

For reference going forward, the building to the west will be referred to as the "front cottage" and the one to the east as the "back cottage." The small building to the north is the "bunkhouse," and the one to the south is simply the "garage." Hopefully, when we get to the results, this micro-cartography lesson will come in handy.

How many flags do you count in this fly-through?

If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing, so with that in mind I present you with one more aid toward understanding the task at hand. This video starts with the quadcopter taking off while facing east before quickly turning to travel north until it nears the edge of the grid and rotates to head west toward Lake Michigan. It runs around the perimeter of the grid from there until it returns to where it started. You can see many of the pink flags where I ran speed tests from along the route.