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First Look: Belkin revives, updates Linksys WRT router

It's fast, it has a super-strong signal and it's blue and black like Linksys devices from the old days. Unfortunately the software hasn't advanced as quickly as the hardware.
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By Larry Seltzer on
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1 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Return of the blue and black

The new Linksys WRT1900AC from Belkin is a hot rod prosumer router with power and speed and even a bit of panache. The software is good, the feature set is very good and the hardware is impressive.

Linksys was once the big name brand in small network hardware. In the late 90's and early 00's they had a wide variety of products and broad market share. (Around that time I was co-author of two editions of "Linksys Networks: The Official Guide" Osborne-McGraw Hill.)

Linksys may have peaked with the WRT54g in 2002, an extremely popular router that was based on Linux firmware, was the target of a great deal of enthusiast customization, both of software and hardware. But Linksys was bought by Cisco which seemed to do nothing with the brand except let it decompose.

It was then bought by Belkin. which is attempting to revive the hacker/performance-oriented Linksys image of days gone by. The WRT1900AC, pictured here, certainly looks like a classic Linksys device, although it's physically larger. As the name implies, it supports 802.11ac, with speeds up to 1300Mbps (depending on lots of variables, mostly environmental).

Belkin wants to bring back more than just the physical products. They also intend to nurture the hacker culture inspired by the old WRT line, publish source and provide online facilities for users who want to develop or use customizations. We will examine this move in greater detail in a later article.

The MSRP for the Linksys WRT1900AC is $279 ($249.99 for a limited time). Not cheap! Then again, neither is a duded-up Corvette.

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2 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Real-world load

We didn't do actual performance testing since it's realistically is quite a challenge. Instead we brought it to a local coffee shop, Village Coffee in Maplewood, NJ. Village Coffee has had free Wi-Fi for years, but their router was an old and unreliable Belkin model. Many times a day it would drop the connection and they would pull and reinsert the power cord in response to complaints.

The WRT1900AC was easy to set up and physically install. Pretty soon there were a dozen or more devices on it (many of them, no doubt, people in neighboring apartments and shops — the cafe wasn't all that crowded). Subjective performance testing showed excellent results and it didn't drop connection like the old one (admittedly not much of an accomplishment).

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3 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Everything at a glance

The front and back panels are nicely designed and give opportunity to discuss some features.

The router supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, the 5GHz being necessary for 802.11ac. There are indicator lights for a USB 3.0 port and — this is a new one to us — a combination eSata-USB port. All of these are for storage devices which you can attach directly to the router and share on the network.

Controlling all that hardware and high-speed communications is not a task for those faint of processing power, so the WRT1900AC has a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU, quite a lot of power for this type of device. There are also several features Linksys claims will improve network performance and signal strength: Beamforming is a signal processing technique to make transmissions more directional to clients which support it; Antenna Diversity uses three of the device's four antennas with the best connection to a client to transmit signals; and Optimized Packet Aggregation adjusts the amount of data on the wire based on the strength of the signal to the target.

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4 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Configuration forecast: partly cloudy

Linksys has a Smart Wi-Fi network for users to control devices through the cloud. In order to do this you must sign up for a Linksys Smart Wi-Fi account and register devices with it.

It's a good thing, but falls well short of the standard for these things, Skydog. Configuration in Skydog is completely cloud-based to the point that you can factory reset the router, boot it up again connected to the net, and it will find the cloud, download and install the configuration.

The early stages of Linksys configuration are more old-fashioned. You must either wire a computer to the router or connect to Wi-Fi using a pre-set name and password which are conveniently stickered on the bottom of the router.

Some of the rest of the configuration process requires being connected to the broadband, which again only seems like a problem after you've set up a Skydog. But it's probably a small problem, the process is very straightforward and we were up and running in minutes.

Note the Router Password setting. This is the password used for remote administration of the router. You can make it the same as the network password, but that's not usually a good idea. Also, the network name and password are the same as with the old router so that users wouldn't be disrupted. They weren't.

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5 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

There's an app

Linksys has several apps for various mobile devices and Facebook to manage parental control, music playing and so forth. The one pictured here is an administration app for the router which supports nearly all the functions of the full web admin console.

For some people an administration app is useless, but for some, such as consultants (or parents who are away and want to shut off the Wi-Fi at home), it can be priceless.

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6 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Good, not outstanding administration features

This is the main administration console. Note that it is cloud-based (http://www.linksyssmartwifi.com/ui/...).

The unit defaults to having the Guest network turned on. Because our router is designed to be open, we disabled (the cafe posts the SSID and password on a sign) the guest network which did nothing for us so we disabled it.

Parental controls in this router are relatively primitive, especially in comparison with Skydog which allows the administrator to designate users and associate them with devices and set policies for content and time of use for all of these. With the WRT1900AC we could, for each device, block it from the network, set a weekly schedule for times of day when it could access the network, and provide a list of sites to block. This is better than the norm years ago, but today it's barely adequate.

Media prioritization allows you to give specific devices network priority access to specific applications and games. Gamers might be interested in this setting, as would their parents.

Finally, on this screen you can administer attached storage.

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7 of 7 Larry Seltzer/ZDNet

Happy ending

The WRT1900AC is handling a heavy load for Village Coffee and handling it reliably. The people who work here don't know jack about administering a router so if they need help they can call me and I can administer it remotely using Linksys Smart Wi-Fi.

If they want to, the cafe can take advantage of extra features in the router. They may have music they want to play; they can put it on a flash drive connected to the router and play it on a Wi-Fi speaker over DLNA. They could use media prioritization to ensure the music doesn't get crowded out of bandwidth by other users.

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