ASUS RT-AC87U: A Bridge Over Troubled Routers

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ASUS RT-AC87U

When you set up your home or small office network, the first thing you want to do is make sure you have a router that can handle the transmission of traffic sufficiently through your network. While we don’t want to get into the details on how a router handles that (you can read an overview of home networking here), we will say that any decision based on buying a router should center around speed and performance. Not all routers are made alike, and if you only have a DSL line coming into your home, don’t expect dual bandwidth 2400 Mbps speed—regardless of the router you purchase. It’s only as fast as the source coming into your home or office.

"...this is one of the fastest routers available on the market right now."

A brief explanation: routers run on several protocols—802.11 a/b/g/n and, now, ac. Each protocol became successively faster at transmitting data, with 802.11a starting out at 54 Mbps and 802.11 ac topping off at 900 Mbps and higher. To achieve those speeds, the 802.11ac transmission works exclusively on the 5.0 GHz band, and utilizes 256-QAM (a quadruple jump from the previous 64-QAM modulation used by 802.11n). Without bogging you down technically, QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) basically modifies a pair of signals so that a carrier can get more information passed through more efficiently. You can also read about the complex history of Wi-Fi here.

What does that have to with the ASUS RT-AC87U Dual Band Wireless Gigabit Router? Well, it definitely adds a level of technology that speeds up your network. Speeds it up so much, as a matter of fact, that we can say this is one of the fastest routers available on the market right now.

The RT-AC87U tries to gain some market share by proclaiming that it is an AC2400 router—wait, what? 2400Mbps transfer speeds? Yes, you read that right. ASUS adds up the four maximum physical link rate numbers of 1734 Mbps on the 5GHz frequency band (in 802.11ac mode) and then the three spatial streams on the 2.4GHz frequency band for an extra 600 Mbps, and then—in true marketing fashion—rounds it off to 2400. Will you see those 2400 Mbps speed? Probably not—I didn’t. But you will see a definite upgrade in performance over whatever router you’re using now.

ASUS also uses a separate high-gain antenna for each stream, giving you a true 4 x 4 MU-MIMO (multi user multiple in multiple out) experience. MU-MIMO lets the router transmit to more than one client simultaneously. Almost every other router uses SU-MIMO (single user MIMO), which allows you to transmit to multiple clients, but the data packets are parsed out like playing cards; one user gets a card, another user gets a card, and so on, and then repeats. MU-MIMO says let them eat data cake and tries to give out all data packets at once, which is great and sounds yummy, but in reality is useless unless the client supports it, and trust me, those adapters in your laptop and desktop do not. Not now.

The router also contains a 2.4GHz 3 x 3 256QAM Wi-Fi chipset, a 5GHz 4 x 4 chipset, and a main 1GHz dual-core processor. It also has a separate dual-core processor dedicated solely to the 5GHz tasks. Yep. Two dual-core processors. That means that even on heavily trafficked throughput, you’ll see gains in speed and performance. It also includes 128MB of storage space and 256MB of RAM.

On opening the box, I was struck by the very 1990s look of the boxy RT-AC87U. Although it does offer a wall mount option, the router takes up a chunk of real estate on my desk. Once you attach the four antennae, the bulk is even more apparent. Since placement of your router is important to its effectiveness, this is kind of a downer.  The matte black look of the router will make it easy to adapt into any décor, and just so happens to match my printer and computer.

If you’ve never set up a router before, make sure to read the directions. If you have, this is plug-and-play at its best. Attach your modem, hardwire your PC (I usually don’t trust my desktop to a Wi-Fi connection— too many electronics spout from my ports like overgrown weeds—so I usually hardwire when I can), and set up your admin rights, and you’re good to go. Setup takes about five minutes, tops. Make sure to update your firmware first; ASUS has already released three versions of firmware upgrades to address stability issues with pre-release versions of the router.

The RT-AC87U includes two USB ports, spaced widely enough apart on the rear of the unit so that you don’t have to fight for space with other USB-connected devices. I always reserve a port for my WD Duo, because I stream music and movies all over the house, from several devices. With a four-stream, four-antenna setup, ASUS claims about 5,000 square feet of coverage. I won’t argue with that because I have about 3,000 square feet to play with, and I never saw a lost or degraded signal once (except for an occasional brown-out from my cable company), but again, to make the most of this router, your device needs to have a compatible receiver. Whether I was upstairs or outside, the signal was constant.

Although the router also features a dedicated Gigabit WAN port and five Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports (one of which can be used as a second WAN port), I wanted to know if my Xbox 360 was going to experience any lag (I’m an avid Gamer). NAT software bottlenecks have plagued the Xbox 360 since the beginning, and I wasn’t hopeful, until I experienced a seamless and skip-free session of Call of Duty: Ghosts and, thanks to the RT-AC87U’s hardware, accelerated NAT settings.

For testing, I used several file configurations: a 20GB folder of Word docs and photos, a 5GB .mkv Blu-ray rip, and several hundred .mp3s that totaled about 250GB. I transferred these files from two sources, a Windows 8.1 laptop with a 1.4 GHz Intel® Core™ i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, and a Windows 7 desktop with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive.

"...download speeds around 820 Mbps and upload speeds closer to 700 Mbps; all in all, about a 30-40% improvement over my old router."

The test showed differences across both systems that could be chalked up to processor speed and RAM, but in the most optimistic numbers, I saw download transfer speed to the desktop computer at about 850―900 Mbps. That’s a huge improvement over my old Netgear dual band router, which topped about 600―700 Mbps. My upload speeds were a little closer, at about 100 Mbps, compared to my old speed of about 80―90 Mbps. Be aware that the type of files made a difference. The 5GB single files showed the greatest speed (953.5 Mbps) and the 20GB folder with multiple files showed the slowest (851 Mbps).

I also ran hardwire tests, connecting the desktop to the router directly via Ethernet cables (the laptop did not have a dedicated Ethernet jack, and I didn’t want to dongle it). The LAN tests were as fairly impressive as the wireless tests, with download speeds around 820 Mbps and upload speeds closer to 700 Mbps; all in all, about a 30-40% improvement over my old router.

I also slugged around in the included software bundle to see how the GUI would work for me, and it worked perfectly. It let me configure cloud services, map networks, create guest networks and more, all with a few easy button clicks. It even includes a cool and much appreciated bandwidth monitor that lets you see upload and download speeds of your WAN/LAN connections. While I didn’t go deeply into their security features, I did notice that it included a router security scan option, which is great in my crowded neighborhood, where I’m sure that crazy cat lady down the street is draining my Wi-Fi. The Trend Micro-based security options also included malicious site blocking and infected device detection and blocking.

All in all, this is one review unit I may keep for a while. I’ve been so spoiled with the super fast connections and extensive range that I am regretting having to go back to my old dual band after this. The RT-AC87U may seem pricey to some, but its well worth the extra money—and it’s slightly future-proofed with its 256-QAM, four-stream technology, and excellent security protocols.