Not long after purchasing Linksys from Cisco, Belkin celebrated by releasing a new wireless router designed to capitalize on the success of the best-selling Linksys WRT54G line, famed for its low price and hackability. At $279, the WRT1900AC isn't cheap, but it more than makes up for the price by being powerful, easy to work with, and able to serve both as a router and a miniature media server if you attach your own storage.
On unboxing the WRT1900AC, it's impossible not to be struck by its design, which is deliberately reminiscent of the WRT54G. The WRT1900AC is markedly larger, though, and sports four removable antennae instead of the original's two. Most important is what's inside: four Gigabit Ethernet ports, 2.5GHz and 5GHz wireless radios (compatible with 802.11ac and a/b/g/n), a 1.2GHz dual-core ARM processor, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and eSATA ports.
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Getting the router up and running wasn't difficult. Once it was attached to the network and powered up, all I had to do was connect to the router -- either by attaching a PC directly or logging on to its predefined wireless network -- and follow a setup wizard. The wizard runs even on a phone browser (that's how I ran it) and doesn't take more than a few minutes. In a nice touch, it even configured the router to automatically pull any firmware updates and install them at night. Installing firmware updates on any router should be this painless, although it's not clear if there's any notification mechanism for when a new firmware has been applied (for example, an email sent to the email address registered with my Linksys account).
The Web-based configuration system for the router is available via a direct connection to the router from within the network or via a cloud-based service one can log into from anywhere. The cloud option is a great idea, since it spares the user from having to mess around with opening a port from the router to the outside world or having to risk an open port's security hazards. Another nice touch: If you're connected to the router admin page and the router goes offline or reboots, the configuration page detects this and will prevent you from trying to submit changes until a connection is re-established.
One downside is that you can't manage the router through the Web interface from a mobile device. Instead, Linksys has a mobile app that exposes all the same functionality. Although the mobile app is nicely done, I wish there were a proper mobile-friendly version of the Web control panel. It shouldn't be all that difficult to accomplish.
Using the router is mostly set-it-and-forget-it -- I didn't need to do any additional tweaking to get streamed media or other network-intensive applications working well. It does offer the ability to prioritize networkconnections based on port range, protocol, or originating system, should you want to give a certain system a bigger slice of bandwidth than others. Speed tests with the router (using the Iperf network tool) showed it delivering an excellent average speed of 933 megabits per second between two clients when using an aggregate of eight network streams.
The beam-forming technology Linksys uses for wireless networks provided a major boost in signal strength compared to my previous router (a Buffalo WHR-HP-G300N). With the Buffalo, my Samsung Galaxy Note II couldn't get a reliable signal when it was more than a room or so away. With the WRT1900AC, I got above -65dB of signal strength in every corner of a 2,300-square-foot single-level home. Using 5GHz networking helped even more.
Linksys put some thought into how the router handles wireless networks. For one thing, 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless networks are offered as discrete connections, each with its own SSID and password. I particularly liked this approach because it allowed me to determine which network would offer the best performance for which device. The WRT1900AC also comes configured out of the box with a separately defined guest wireless network, which allows Internet access but no connectivity to other devices in the network. That network, too, offers discrete 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections, and you can toggle off the guest network if you don't plan to use it.
In the same vein is a simple parental-control system, which allows you to block specific devices from network access during user-defined time spans or on certain days of the week. It isn't a substitute for a full-blown parental-control suite, but it's a decent stopgap.
One truly great feature is the router's ability to connect directly to external SATA or USB 3.0 drives. The connected drives can be shared either via FTP or the UPnP/DLNA media-sharing protocol. I tried DLNA-sharing some files on a flash drive and was pleasantly surprised at how uncomplicated it was. It works so well, you might not have to buy a separate network storage system.
Various third-party apps are available for managing the router through Linksys's cloud service. Right now the list is pretty small, mostly consisting of media-sharing (HipPlay, Qnext) and parental-control apps (Block the Bad Stuff, Netproofer).
The ultimate geek test of any router today is, "Can I run my own firmware?" With the Linksys WRT1900AC, the answer ostensibly is yes. Linksys has provided the hardware to the developers of the OpenWRT firmware, and, although the firmware in question isn't yet available, pending some work on the part of both Linksys and Marvell (for the Wi-Fi driver), it should be on the way. That said, this router is so full-featured, you might not need to tinker with it at all to get what you need.
This article, "Linksys WRT1900AC: The best open router yet ," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in networking at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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