Draft 2.0 of the new 802.11ac wireless standard was released on 18 February 2012, and silicon based on this specification was announced shortly afterwards. In January, Broadcom announced a family of 802.11ac chips, including the BCM4360 system-on-a-chip (SoC) that powers the new Buffalo AirStation 1750. Final approval of the standard is not expected until late 2013, but as we reported recently, we can expect to see a spate of early products in the consumer market — as happened with Draft-N devices a few years back.
Buffalo's £199 (inc. VAT; £165.83 ex. VAT) AirStation 1750 is the first 11ac product to go on sale in the UK, and so wisely Buffalo has chosen to simultaneously launch the matching AirStation 1300, an 802.11ac dual-band, single-radio bridge with four wired Gigabit Ethernet ports. It can automatically switch between bands depending on client capabilities, or can be fixed on either band. We used this (in the default fixed 5GHz mode) for our 802.11ac-mode performance tests. The AirStation 1300 costs the same as the router, and is operated simply by pairing it to the AirStation 1750 using the AOSS quick-connect buttons on each device.
The AirStation 7150 can stand vertically or horizontally, or be mounted on a wall
The AirStation 1750 is a dual-radio, dual-band model, with full 802.11a/b/g/n compatibility. The 5GHz band is used for 802.11ac/a/n, with a separate three-stream, 450Mbps radio (courtesy of a Broadcom BCM4331 chip) for connecting 2.4GHz 11b/g/n devices.
Buffalo has introduced a new industrial design for its 11ac products, and the result is quite stylish with black soft-touch side panels and a wraparound grey band. The unit can be placed horizontally or vertically, thanks to a pair of detachable (but rather flimsy) plastic feet; two screws for wall mounting are also supplied.
A quartet of Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports (yellow) and a GbE WAN port (blue) dominate the back of the AirStation 7150
Rear ports are limited to four Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) LAN ports, a dedicated GbE WAN port, and one USB 2.0 port (with a dedicated Eject button). There's also a power button and a router/bridge mode-switch button. Status lights are kept to a minimum by the use of a white illuminated logo that flashes red for various error conditions, plus blue LEDs for wireless, WAN and a router/bridge mode indicator.
Initial setup is via a browser wizard that appears after connecting the router. This attempts to detect the connection type and sets parameters accordingly. Manual setup via the web settings page is also an option, or the AirStation Configuration Tool utility can be used to detect the router and access the settings page. The menu looks a little confused at first glance, with tabbed sections along the top and old-fashioned-looking buttons to access sub-menus. There's full help text in a column at the right, though, and the menu is easy enough to use. Changing settings often requires a restart, but there's no way to make multiple changes before rebooting, which is a little annoying.
The AirStation Configuration Tool offer extensive help text in the right-hand column
Extra features include a PPTP VPN server, a DLNA media server and a Bittorrent client. Up to four USB disks (or partitions) can be connected, and shared folders with user permissions created. Printers and multifunction devices can be connected and shared using a Network-USB Navigator tray utility, but there's no support for 3G dongles.
You can connect and share USB printers and MFDs using the Network-USB Navigator utility
To test the 802.11ac performance, we used the AirStation 1300 connected to a desktop PC via a 30m Ethernet cable, with a second PC on the LAN running the Advanced Network Test (in server mode) from Passmark's Performance Test. For the 11n comparisons, we used our standard Intel Ultimate Wi-Fi Link 5300AGN three-stream adapter in an Acer Aspire One netbook. We also used a two-stream Fritz WLAN USB adapter and a single-stream Tenda W311U adapter. These were connected via the AirStation 1750, with the AirStation 1300 turned off. Each test was run three times and the results averaged. Note that our standard test area is a domestic one — distances up to 10m are ground-floor indoor locations, while 15-30m distances are outdoors.
We left the router's wireless settings at their default values, with the exception of the 'neighbour-friendly' 20MHz channel setting on the 2.4GHz radio, which we changed to 40MHz. The 5GHz radio uses 802.11ac's current maximum 80MHz channels by default (160MHz channels will not appear in the first wave of products).
Real-world 5GHz 3-stream, 80MHz-channel 802.11ac performance (top dotted line) versus 5GHz 3-stream, 40MHz-channel 802.11n (lower dotted line); various other 802.11n configurations are also shown
As can be seen from the graph above, three-stream 802.11ac delivers considerably more throughput than three-stream 11n — although this is, predictably, nowhere near 11ac's headline speed (which is just a physical link rate) of 1,300Mbps. Even so, actual throughput of around 100Mbps up to 10m range is impressive.
At greater distances 802.11ac technology really comes into its own, delivering 44Mbps at 25m and almost 20Mbps at 30m. More importantly, as the sample throughput graphs (below) show, at 30m distance the 11ac signal was impressively constant, although we did see very occasional dropouts. Using the supplied utility for the AirStation 1300 bridge, at 30m it showed a 29Mbps link speed and 18 percent signal strength.
Throughput over time for 802.11ac at 1m (top) and 30m (bottom) distances
Although it's fairly well specified, the AirStation 1750 does lack some useful features commonly found on high-end consumer routers, such as a guest wireless network, multiple SSIDs and 3G support. The lack of USB 3.0 is also disappointing, and the single USB 2.0 port is just plain stingy. However, it has a solid set of advanced configuration options, such as Quality of Service (QoS) settings and scheduled power management for WLAN and LAN ports.
The AirStation 1750 works well with 11n devices, even if it's not the fastest we've ever seen, but combined with the AirStation 1300 it's an unbeatable (if expensive) performer. The only question mark is whether the final 802.11ac standard will throw up some changes that can't be fixed by a firmware upgrade. However, it's a tempting product for anyone considering some early informal evaluation of what next-generation Wi-Fi might have to offer.