Computers / Hands-on Review

Hands-On Review: ASUS Tri-Band Router

Less than a year ago, we reviewed what, arguably, was the best router we’ve seen in a while—the ASUS RT-AC87U. Guess what? We still stand by the review, and for our money, the AC87U is still a great buy. But ASUS, never one to rest on its past tech triumphs, is now one-upping itself with a new entry, the ASUS RT-AC3200 Tri Band Router. Spoiler alert: the units are quite similar.

First of all, let’s wade through some hyperbole here. Almost every router maker likes to boast that they have super-speedy routers. Monikers like AC2300 and AC2400 are a little misleading. What they’re asking you to believe is that the speed from both bands combined lead to this sugary fantasy unicorn magic speed—but that’s not the case. 802.11 ac Wi-Fi tops out at 1300Mbps on the 5 GHz band. If you add the top speed on the 2.4 GHz band, which is currently about 450 Mbps but can be boosted to 600 Mbps, you get a combined speed of either 1750 Mbps or 1900 Mbps. Thus, you see some routers with 1750 or 1900 in the product name. When you add the extra wireless signal on the 5 GHz band (the “tri” in “tri-band”) of 1300 Mbps, you get 1300 + 1300 + 600, or 3200. But you’ll never see that speed, because not all bands come rushing in at the same time to deliver their transfers, and those speeds are performed under laboratory testing in controlled situations by professional engineers, and I’m pretty sure your apartment or home is not part of the testing environment.

So, what have we learned? Higher numbers don’t really mean anything. If you connect a device to a router and use the 2.4 GHz band, and connect another device using the 5.0 GHz band, chances are you’ll see the same speed on an advertised 1750 Mbps router as you would on a 1900 Mbps router. Putting an extra band into the mix only gives you greater flexibility with multiple devices that have 802.11 ac support (and their numbers are steadily increasing, although there are far more 802.11n devices out there now).

And also, your Internet bandwidth is fixed by your provider, so if you think all the extra bands will help speed things up, they won’t. Your Internet speed is only as fast as your slowest connection, so getting a Gigabit Ethernet input doesn’t mean you’re going to get 1GB of data transfer speed; very, very far from it. You’d be lucky to see 25 Mbps on your best day. And if you live even farther from reliable networks, buying a tri-band router is about as effective as buying high-performance tires for a jet ski.

So Why Tri?

Tri-band routers will be most effective if your house is full of products that use 802.11 ac, since it effectively takes a load off of 802.11 ac devices, and the marketplace will be filled with them in the years to come but, for now, it’s not a crowded playing field.

Now, the Good News

I got to take one of these home and, in practical applications, it ran a little faster than my Netgear dual-band N900 router—and with good reason. The ASUS RT-AC3200 is powered by a Broadcom BCM4709 dual-core 1 GHz processor, 256MB of DDR 3 RAM and 128MB of flash storage. Six detachable antennas (three receive and three transmit) allows for faster device connections. I currently have about fourteen devices that use my Wi-Fi, including a printer, four smartphones, three tablets, three laptops, three gaming consoles, and four TVs with streaming devices. That’s a lot of Wi-Fi hogging. I especially appreciated the front USB 3.0 port, because I attached a 2TB external drive with all of my digital movies and music and can now access them from my home network.

Also nifty: this router uses something called Tri-Band Smart Connect, which allows the device to automatically connect to the router according to the device’s speed, signal strength, and bandwidth traffic. I normally have to set each of these myself, but the router takes care of it for me. It also uses the proprietary ASUS AiRadar beam-forming technology, which strengthens connectivity to 802.11 ac devices. Again, this router is very 802.11ac friendly. Besides that however, this router matches up almost identically to the AC87U, which wasn’t that far a leap from the ASUS RT68U, still one of the better routers available these days. If you don’t need the extra features, or you don’t have an enormous number of 802.11ac-specific devices, this tri-band router may not impress you.

So how did it do?  The answer is: okay. While the connection to device was super speedy (my kids’ Xbox One connected in about four seconds after password input), I remember the Netgear taking a long time to seek out the signal on my old router. With six antennas, the range was considerably farther reaching than the old router, as well—my backyard is about 75 feet from the base of the router, and I would see weak signaling and intermittent drops with the old router. With the ASUS RT-AC3200, I got a clear signal from every corner of my property.

But, in my opinion, the ASUS RT87U (and even the ASUS RT86U) performed just as well, and the multiple device connection did not seem to slow them down at all. If you look at the specs between the RT87U and the RT-AC3200, you’ll see that they match up in almost every specification, with the exception of the extra 5.0 GHz band. This AC3200 router comes with a premium price, and showcases some premium features, but you may be better off holding on to your money and investing elsewhere in your network ecosystem (like saving for a nice NAS server).