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 4×4 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.
Both MU-MIMO and beamforming require client support, and the pedestrian Intel 7260 2×2 802.11ac 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.
The RP-AC68U is currently the highest-end network extender that Asus offers. It has a 3×4 (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.
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).
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.
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.
With dozens of possible configuration combinations to choose from, the prospect of documenting everything I tried before running my final tests is matched only in tediousness by the thought of what might happen if I forced someone to try and read them. Suffice it to say that multiple physical locations for both the router and extender were investigated using Wi-Fi Analyzer from [gasp!] the Windows Store before I chose the final placement.
Additionally, I checked all manner of firmware settings on both the router and extender using Network Performance Test, a UWP implementation of iPerf3. Then I picked the ones that offered the best overall performance and finalized my testing parameters. It turns out that I needed to enable beamforming and use Asus’ ExpressWay feature to maintain the fastest, most reliable connection between the router, the extender, and their clients.
ExpressWay dedicates either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radios on the router and extender to inter-device communication. This leaves the other frequency open for clients to connect to without the chance of interfering with the link between the router and extender. It turned out that the typically shorter-range 5GHz connection was significantly faster than the further reaching 2.4GHz one even at ~200′ (61m) apart, since I was able to set up nearly a direct line-of-sight between both ends of the link. That result was exactly what I was hoping for, because it meant that the all-important internet connection would be broadcast further on a frequency better at penetrating walls and other obstacles (and out by the lake, there isn’t much worry about interference). By the way, the typical link speed reported between the RT-AC88U and RP-AC68U in this configuration was about 175 Mbps, or 3-4x the reported 2.4GHz link speed at the same distance.
The other Asus-specific feature that turned out to be quite important was Roaming Assistant. Roaming Assistant is a method for accomplishing what folks used to professional networking solutions may take for granted: handing off clients from access point to access point. Consumer networking gear doesn’t normally concern itself with that scenario, as there is typically only one device serving up the connection. Enabling Roaming Assistant defaults to -70 dBm as the threshold for disconnecting a client and forcing the client to switch to the better signal, and it proved to be the best value to use. Without this feature enabled, my laptop would desperately cling to a poor signal even though a much better one was readily available. The one downside to Roaming Assistant that I found was that it appeared to still disconnect clients even if they didn’t have a better signal to switch to. That wasn’t really a practical problem for the location, though.
Internet speed test results
The conditionally formatted matrixes below are populated with data from running internet speed tests. I used Speakeasy’s speed test from its Chicago server, since it’s my go-to test for general-purpose use. The ISP for the connection is Charter Spectrum, and my service tier is 60Mbps down and 4Mbps up. There are some local benchmarks coming, as well, but keep in mind that the goal of this installation is not to maximize speed, but instead to ensure coverage and reliability for the TR BBQ. All tests were performed multiple times, and the fastest repeatable result was recorded to give the benefit of the doubt to uncontrollable internet and environmental conditions.
Here’s where understanding the layout of the testing area will come in handy and hopefully help you apply what you learn from this review to your own real-world Wi-Fi implementations. The left-to-right dimension on the chart represents west-to-east data, while reading top to bottom corresponds to north-to-south data. Just think of it how any normal map would display on your screen. Keep in mind that the center of the grid is where I am standing in the 360-degree photo.
This first set of results is from the router that Asus’ duo ousted from duty. For the curious, it’s a Netgear WNR1000v3. Right off the bat, you can tell there’s a problem because even highest value recorded can’t quite reach half of the internet connection speed. I should mention that I tested the old router in the location it normally resides in, not the new location that the RT-AC88U was placed in. That only puts them about 20′ (6m) apart, but line of sight through widows and the number of walls the signal is passing through is slightly different.
Now let’s see how the new hotness performs. We’ll start with tests performed with only a connection to the router.
That’s a lot better. Of course, that was obviously going to be the case going against our seven-year-old competition. The old router was just a point of reference, not anything to draw real comparisons to. It’s worth noting how big of an impact the location of the buildings in the yard have on the performance of the router, though. Even though it’s probably safe to assume that the RT-AC88U is bottlenecked by the internet connection at many of the locations measured, it’s obvious that that dropping a building in the path of the signal can have a pretty significant impact on performance.
The group of roughly 40-Mbps tests on the upper right of the download grid show just how much the bunkhouse reduces the signal strength compared to the clear line of sight at same distance in the middle of the grid. Similarly, the garage reduces the download speed to 25 Mbps on the bottom of the grid, but the line of sight opens up again another 45′ (13.7m) to the west, allowing the link to achieve more than twice the speed of the neighboring grid segment.
The most important thing to note is that down the middle of the grid on the left side, where the front cottage stands in the way, there is effectively a connectivity dead zone. It’s an unfortunate spot for a coverage drop. The deck situated there overlooks the big lake, and it’s a popular place for gerbils to congregate. Hopefully the RP-AC68U can help out here. These tests were performed with only a connection to the extender.
Well, at least there’s no dead zone on the west deck anymore. Performance overall is not as good as the RT-AC88U mothership, but we can see that the RP-AC68U is capable of delivering the full speed of my internet connection so long as the client is in close proximity. Even though it doesn’t fill up the bars quite as far, it is interesting to note that there are no completely dead zones in the test area while I was connected to the extender.
As with the router, you can see the impact of the smaller buildings on the property, but from the opposite direction. The 24Mbps download speed in the center of the bottom of the grid shows the garage coming into play again before a better signal appears 45′ (13.7m) further east. The worst measurement on the upload grid is once again on the popular eastern deck. That just won’t do for our needs.
Let’s see what happens when the wonder twins unite.
Interesting. What’s immediately apparent is that the upload grid has no dead zones or anything remotely approaching a slowdown. That’s good news for the two of you reading this that will be watching the BBQ live stream. Upon closer inspection, you can see that some of the grid sections aren’t displaying the fastest measurements we’ve taken for those locations. In most cases that’s likely due to the the Roaming Assistant feature and the -70 dBm threshold we’re running with. It makes sense that if the signal from one device or the other is still strong enough the client will stay connected to it instead of switching to a technically better option. That behavior is dependent on the adapter, though, and investigating that client-to-client difference is beyond the scope of this review.
It’s a little stranger that there are a couple cases where one device or the other running solo outperforms what we see when they are working together. For example, in the top row, second column, the roughly 18-Mbps result is significantly lower than the 34 Mbps the router delivers alone. It also trails the 39-Mbps rate the extender delivers by itself. In another result, the opposite case is true. Take a look at the second column of the second row. When I connected to the extender alone, the transfer rate is measured at 55 Mbps. The same cell on the individual grids measures ~37 Mbps.
I’m afraid I don’t have an explanation for why those results are what they are, but as I mentioned up front, this is real-world testing. I’ve tried to eliminate all the variables that I can, but I’m not shocked that there are a couple inconsistences. Wi-Fi is notoriously tricky to bench in the best of conditions. In any case, I consider a couple performance drops a fair trade for seamlessly eliminating dead zones.
To those of you screaming at your screen that internet speed test benchmarks are weak-sauce and that I should be smacked for underutilizing such nice hardware: relax, I hear you. The next section isn’t super-comprehensive, but it’ll hopefully placate those who want to see big numbers.
We need to introduce some new players before we get started. I believe you all know my friend the Samsung 850 EVO. He’ll be playing the role of network-attached storage with the support of a StarTech USB 3.0 SATA adapter. You may also be familiar with the Asus Zenbook UX305. I used the older Broadwell model and its included USB 3.0 Gigabit Ethernet adapter to play catcher for the packets that my trusty Clevo W110ER pitched to it using iPerf.
The Ethernet adapter in my Clevo notebook is a Realtek Gigabit Ethernet chip. The Wi-Fi adapter in my Clevo is an Intel 7260. Keep in mind that it is only a 2×2 solution, so you won’t see numbers here where the RT-AC88U and RP-AC68U are really stretching their legs. These tests were performed using the same physical locations and configuration settings that were in place for the internet speed tests. The UX305 was set to airplane mode and used Ethernet for every test. Once again, I used the fastest repeatable result to eliminate outliers and give the benefit of the doubt to environmental conditions.
These tests were run less than ten feet from the equipment with no walls separating the router or extender from my laptop.
Take a little time to read and understand the descriptions of the test associated with each bar in the graph above. They spell out how the hardware was connected for each test. It’s worth noting that the Ethernet to Ethernet tests are probably underperforming because of the USB adapter or the Realtek controller in my Clevo. That said, you can see that the test setup is at least capable of anything up to those speeds.
The real standout number is the scary looking 3.18 Mbps result from when I was connected to the extender with Wi-Fi while the UX305 was plugged into one of the extender’s Ethernet ports. I’ve been in touch with Asus about this result and its techs tried to replicate it without success. It’s possible that it’s a problem specific to my test setup, but keep it in mind if that crazy scenario is something you might duplicate someday.
Another number worth pointing out is the 152-Mbps result from the Ethernet-connected router-to-extender test. That result matches up nicely with the link rate that the extender reports itself. Other than that, it seems like when the extender is first in line or Wi-Fi is involved the transfer speeds at range aren’t all that much faster than the internet connection. That feels like evidence that I’ve achieved my goal of maximizing the highest-speed internet connectivity possible across the largest range possible.
Next up we have some results from CrystalDiskMark using the Samsung 850 EVO and the Startech USB adapter. What we’re looking for here is what kind of transfer rates you can expect from using the RT-AC88U and RP-AC68U for NAS duties under various scenarios.
For comparison I’ve included both the native SATA 6Gbps results and the results of the 850 EVO hooked up to my Clevo’s USB 3.0 port. You can see that adapter does a fairly decent job of keeping up with a native SATA port. You can also clearly see that the NAS performance of the router is nowhere near the limit of the drive. That’s not unexpected, though—these sorts of features are not headliners and not many folks would use an SSD as a router’s NAS drive anyway. That’s not to mention that 1Gbps works out to 125 MB/s. A more traditional mechanical drive would be more appropriate here. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.) My standard disclaimer about prioritizing range over speed aside, performance from attached storage seems perfectly respectable, especially if you have an Ethernet connection to the router.
The eagle-eyed gerbils among you may have noticed that some logical tests are missing from the graphs above. You’re not wrong—there should be four additional tests where the USB adapter and 850 EVO are plugged into the RP-AC68U extender instead of the RT-AC88U router. I tried to test that combination but ran into a problem where the network share would only show up as having 3MB of space on it after configuration. That’s not enough to run benchmarks.
The same drive with the same settings shows up with all 500GB when it’s connected to the router instead of the extender. I covered the basics when it came to troubleshooting this issue: restarting the extender, making new volumes on the drive, and confirming that all devices had the latest firmware. I reached out to Asus for help and its techs haven’t been able to replicate this problem, either, so again, it could be specific to my setup.
So, do the test results mean that my mission to bring Wi-Fi good enough for live streaming down to the beach is a success? Unfortunately, no, it’s not. There is literally a huge drop-off just to the west of the furthest points I measured from. That’s where the cliff that leads down to the lake starts, and it’s about a 30 or 40-foot drop. There’s no chance for line-of-sight to either device from the beach, and the Wi-Fi signal has to go through a lot of sand to reach where it needs to be. The sand wins. I can see the network signal, which is more than I’ve ever been able to say previously, but there is too much packet loss for the connection to be useful.
Luckily, I know a guy. I was able to get help from a friend that works for Michwave, a local company that specializes in providing high-speed wireless internet connections to rural areas. He hooked me up with a directional transmitter to plug into the RT-AC88U that finally allowed full-speed uploads, even from out in the water. When you’re spying on the top-secret conversations that happen around the TR BBQ bonfire after dark, you can thank them for helping the Asus equipment go the distance.
Some of the myriad of options on the RT-AC88U, that aren’t strictly related to the primary configuration of the network, deserve at least a shout-out. All the basics are there and then some. Guest networks are easy enough to configure through the interface if you need to enable them. Port forwarding and DDNS are simple to configure under the WAN settings menu. AiCloud 2.0 allows for attached storage devices to be accessed over the internet. The router even supports WTFast, a gamer’s VPN of sorts that purports to route gaming traffic through latency-optimized servers. One feature I plan on using during the BBQ is the router’s QoS functionality. I’ve got to make sure the live stream has upload priority, after all, or there’s not much point to any of this work.
I have one gripe about the RP-AC68U besides the couple of flaky behaviors I discovered while testing it. Whenever I changed any setting on the extender that required it to restart, it always reset its IP address to 192.168.1.1. This happened regardless of whether I configured it with a different static IP or whether it was set up to use DHCP previously. The extender warns you that the address will change, but it doesn’t mention that it will change to an address that will likely conflict with the default IP of the router. It was, of course, simple to change the static IP of the router to avoid the conflict, but a networking novice might not recognize the seemingly random disconnections from the router and extender as a sign of an IP conflict. Hopefully this behavior will be changed in a future firmware update.
Aesthetically, neither the RT-AC88U or RP-AC68U really quite fit in with our 1930s-era family cottages. The photos above and below should give you an idea of the spaces they inhabit. Even without a wide angle shot, it’s easy to see that they stand out more than a little bit. However, it’s not their fault that they’ll be operating in a “vintage” setting, and it’s not really a problem. I installed a shelf near the ceiling of the front cottage for the router to sit on so that it could take advantage of the best line-of-sight to the extender. Once all is said and done, the device is barely noticeable up there if you’re not looking for it.
There was no hiding the extender, though. For the best connection, it had to go on a window sill in the kitchen of the back cottage. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to pull off its futuristic look despite the quaint surroundings. I even left the red LED stripe on, but it’s easily turned off by touching the Asus logo at the bottom.
After running hundreds of speed tests and measuring Wi-Fi coverage over more than 20,000 square feet of yard, I’m confident we’ve put the RT-AC88U and RP-AC68U through their paces. We may have even pushed them to their limits in some areas. While I would love to have data from other router and extender combinations to compare this duo to, that simply wasn’t something we were equipped to do. Without any similar devices to test, we can only judge Asus’ hardware on its own merits.
As wireless routers go, the RT-AC88U is a beast. it was rock-solid during all of my testing, and it would have been able to blanket the entire property with full-speed internet access if it weren’t for a couple pesky buildings getting in the the way. Even with the buildings, it nearly delivered anyway, except for a couple tricky spots where the balsa-wood and straw constructions (that’s mostly a joke) proved too much to pass through after nearly 250′ of travel.
The RP-AC68U proved a capable helper, completely eliminating the dead zones that the RT-AC88U couldn’t quite reach. It even covered most of the same area that the RT-AC88U did, albeit at a lower overall average speed. However, the RP-AC68U isn’t quite as rock-solid as the RT-AC88U. The transfer speed of data from Wi-Fi connected devices to Ethernet-connected ones seems slower than it should be, and I was effectively unable to use the USB attached storage that I tried with it. Its tendency to reset its IP address to one that was likely to conflict with other devices after configuration changes was also slightly annoying.
At $300 for the RT-AC88U, and $160 for the RP-AC68U, we’re talking about consumer networking gear with premium pricing. If you have a lot of ground to cover, though, I can vouch for the fact that they will go a long way. If you think either device might be the solution to your Wi-Fi woes, I’d start with the RT-AC88U alone and only add the RP-AC68U if needed. They’re basically made for each other, but it seems like you need a pretty extreme usage case to truly need both. If you’d like to see these devices in action, be sure to come to the TR BBQ in a couple weeks. Check out the forum thread for all the details.