You may not always need a modem router. If you have FTTP or fixed wireless NBN, if you have a separate modem for HFC, or if you need a secondary router/access point to expand your network, a broadband router may be all you require.
It’s in this modem-less space that you also tend to find the best tech, with vendors releasing broadband modems before they trickle the tech down to their modem router offerings.
We’ve looked at six broadband routers, and three of them are so-called ‘Wave 2’ routers, delivering the latest wireless technology that you can get.
All of them are also designed to handle the large number of mobile devices modern families use, making them perfect as either expansion or primary routers in busy homes and businesses.
So what was Wave 2 again?
Wave 2 routers are devices that support a handful of second generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi technologies.
Most notable among these is the support for MU-MIMO, a system that lets multiple devices talk to the router at once rather than taking turns and competing for the airwaves.
MU-MIMO requires the devices on both ends support it, and there are few mobile devices yet that do. Wide support might not be as far away as you might think, however.
For example, recent Snapdragon mobile chips from Qualcomm support it — it just hasn’t been enabled in software yet.
Other Wave 2 enhancements — most of which we haven’t actually seen implemented yet and may never in consumer devices — include support for eight-channel bonding (up from four) and better international support.
How we tested
We performed a straight file copy test from a server attached to the router via Gigabit Ethernet.
At both 5m and 15m (with two intervening plaster walls), we copied a 1GB file from the server to a laptop attached to a Linksys WUMC710 wireless bridge. The WUMC710 is capable of 1,300Mbps wireless AC.
As always with wireless tests, there is certainly a case of ‘your mileage may vary’.
The numbers presented are only useful for comparison, and are not necessarily an indication of what you might get in your specific home environment.
The ASUS RT-AC5300 router is a best-of-everything solution. It delivers dual 2,137Mbps wireless AC networks.
Like AC3200 routers, it creates two Wi-Fi networks in the band, each operating in their own channels.
What’s more, it supports MU-MIMO as well as 1024-QAM (‘NitroQAM’, the Broadcom name for it). The latter is why it can achieve 2,137Mbps with 4×4 MIMO while its competitors only hit 1,733Mbps — 1024-QAM carries 10 bits per second per Hz while regular 256-QAM carries eight (an increase of 25%).
But like MU-MIMO, it’s a technology that requires both ends of the connection to support it, so few devices will actually be able to take full advantage of it for now. 1024-QAM is also more sensitive to interference.
While the hardware is as future-proof as you can get right now, the software is also nothing to sniff at. ASUS boasts arguably the best commercial consumer firmware going right now, with support for advanced features like VPNs, 3G/LTE USB modem failover, bandwidth management and quotas, QoS and advanced diagnostics.
It has partnered with Trend Micro for category-based parental controls and has a suite of excellent mobile apps for remote access to shared storage as router diagnostics and management.
Now it’s fair to say that the ASUS comes with a fairly sever sticker shock for a modemless router, but you really are getting the very best here, and if you want that, it’s worth it.
Verdict: The best of everything.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Unlike the AC5300 router, however, it’s not tri-band. It creates only a single AC Wi-Fi network.
It also support MU-MIMO, and all the caveats we wrote about MU-MIMO and 1024-QAM in the ASUS above still apply here.
Despite its advanced wireless support and funky design, it’s a relatively conventional broadband router, with four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, a single USB 3.0 port and so-so firmware.
There are some elements of the firmware we really like, such as the visualisation tool (similar to that found in Linksys routers), and the VPN server support is rudimentary but nice.
The mobile apps, however, are very good, with solid management tools and cloud-based mechanisms.
If you’re planning on using this only as a secondary access point or range extender, there is another cool addition — a hard switch that flips it between router and extender modes and that means you may never even have to log into the router interface.
So if you want the fastest wireless tech but don’t quite want to go so far as managing a tri-band monstrosity, the DIR-885L is certainly a perfectly good choice.
The performance was good, it looks cool and, while certainly not small, is a little more compact than the six- and eight-antenna competitors.
Verdict: A router that offers good performance and an improving firmware.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Looking a lot like its brother above, the DIR-890L is an older model that doesn’t support 1024-QAM or MU-MIMO, but does develop two distinct Wi-Fi networks in the 5GHZ band (as well as one in the 2.4GHz), each using their own channel.
Like some of the other AC3200 routers, it compresses all three networks down to a single SSID, which takes a lot of the confusion out of connecting to it.
When a client connects, D-Link’s SmartConnect technology assigns them to a network based on current load and client capabilities.
It works pretty well in practice, but like all triple-network routers, it only really comes into its own when a lot of devices are connecting at once.
The firmware used in the DIR-890L is the same as in the DIR-885L; it’s a capable solution that’s better than D-Link’s previous efforts, but not as capable as DrayTek or ASUS. Parental controls are time-based and there’s little depth to the QoS controls.
The mydlink mobile applications and web service are very useful. You can configure, manage and check the router, as well as grab files or stream media from storage attached to one of the router’s two USB port.
Although it’s one of the older AC3200 devices on the market, the DIR-890L is still a worthwhile router.
At this juncture, we might be more inclined to go with something like the newer AC3150 router, but this will still get the job done and perhaps work better in an environment where you have lots of devices connecting at once.
Verdict: Capable and well built for networks with lots of devices.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
It plants all the major ports up front, making it easy to add and remove devices but sacrificing on aesthetics.
The UI design offers no hand-holding or easy setup wizardry, though; it expects you to know what you’re doing.
If you do, it’s a solution that offers a tremendous amount of power and flexibility.
It supports SNMP management, as well as sophisticated tools like bandwidth management and quotas, advanced quality of service (QoS) options, virtual LANs and wireless LAN isolation. It also supports VPNs, both client and server, although on this lower-end model only two simultaneous tunnels are supported.
When it comes to mobile application support, DrayTek has a mobile app for configuring routers, but there’s no remote access system or cloud service to go along with it.
There’s also DrayTek’s ACS SI application, which enables the central configuration of multiple DrayTek routers, but that’s not something that most home users will be interested in.
This is not a router that’s at the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi — although, it does at least support 802.11ac. In fact, its support goes to 1,300Mbps, though 802.11n is limited to 300Mbps.
Its performance was a little disappointing in our tests, once again showing that while DrayTek’s router features are excellent, its wireless is not.
Verdict: Powerful management and routing features, but the hardware and sharing elements are lacking.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
In the long run, MU-MIMO is poised to make those eight-antenna devices obsolete, since a lower-rated Wi-Fi will be quite capable of handling multiple devices without the need for brute force bandwidth.
Indeed, on every score —excepting its support for MU-MIMO — the Linksys EA7500 is essentially a standard mid-to-high range consumer router.
It has an easy setup mode for consumers, handy mobile app support and a 3×3 antenna configuration that can support 1,300Mbps wireless AC and 600Mbps wireless N.
Setting up the router is best accomplished with the supplied PC app or a mobile app, since setting it up the old-fashioned way with a web browser is an exercise in frustration. Using the app, however, it’s very easy to get going, with auto-configuration for most elements including wireless security.
The friendly mobile app also allows you to monitor and manage your router, and additional third-party apps are available for remote access to shared storage devices.
The firmware itself is capable. The network overview and simple, well-explained wizards are highlights.
The performance of the router was very good, nearing the top of the pack at both short and medium range.
Hopefully, once more MU-MIMO client devices come online, it will really show its value – an affordable router that can support a large number of devices without choking.
Verdict: A Wave 2 router for the rest of us, it’s a solid performer at a reasonable price.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Netgear Nighthawk X6 R8000
It has two 3×3 antenna arrays that create independent 802.11ac networks, each capable of 1,300Mbps transfers.
When a device connects, the router assigns it to a network based on current load. That way, many devices can transfer data at once with less contention than they would encounter on a single network.
Because it’s an older router, however, it doesn’t support MU-MIMO or 1024-QAM, which may prove to be an issue in the future.
It also boasts some very compelling firmware. It’s not a slick as D-Link, Linksys or ASUS, but its consumer friendliness is unquestionable.
There is a host of mobile and desktop tools available from Netgear, with options for easy Wi-Fi connection using QR codes, cloud-based remote access to shared content, network based printer sharing and automated PC backup to a shared drive.
Netgear’s ReadySHARE is amongst the best file serving and sharing systems available, and it’s absolutely worth installing the Netgear genie app on your mobile.
The parental controls also deserve a special mention. You get more than just time-based restrictions.
Thanks to a partnership with OpenDNS, you can configure category-based filtering for individual users on your network.
This is still absolutely worth checking out if you have a lot of mobile devices that need serving and if you plan to use your router for file serving on top of its other duties.
Verdict: It’s not quite up to spec on all the latest tech, but the firmware and mobile apps are a big selling point.