Asus RT-AC66U Dual Band 3×3 802.11AC Gigabit Router review

More technical and small business users including those wanting a true VPN server, robust IPv6, and granular control over the wireless signal will find the Asus RT-AC66U a delight.
Photo of Asus RT-AC66U Dual Band 3×3 802.11AC Gigabit Router

Asus introduces its pre-draft 802.11AC router: the RT-AC66U. It’s the only pre-draft 11AC router so far, to utilize external antennas, a plus for range, because the RT-AC66U sustained the best throughput at distance than any other pre-draft 11AC routers tested to date. This powerful router also offers one of the most well-designed user interfaces among the current crop of 11ac routers. The RT-AC66U is not without a few quirks, mainly restricted to the software, but excellent throughput and range, plus advanced features lacking often in consumer-grade routers, is sure to endear this device to more hard-core wireless networking geeks and small business.

Specs
The RT-AC66U is a beauty of a router, despite the three unwieldy-looking external antennas that attach. The casing has a decorative diamond-shaped pattern and Asus’ branding in a classy painted gold on the top.  Also on the top near the edge are nine tiny LEDs displaying connection status for the WAN and LAN ports, power, each wireless band, and USB device connections. When a connection is active and stable, the LEDs shine a solid blue.

The rear panel has four Gigabit LAN ports and a WAN port and two USB 2.0 ports that can support not only USB external drives, but printers and 3G/4G mobile broadband devices that can be used for connection failover.

This dual-band router supports up to 450 Mbps at 2.4 GHz and up to 1300 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. The RT-AC66U uses a Broadcom wireless controller.

Setup
The RT-AC66U employs what I like to call a traditional router setup. Increasingly, consumer routers are tailored to be set up by those with no to little technical experience such as the Cisco Linksys EA6500. Many of these super-easy-to-setup routers can also be set up wirelessly.

Not so with the RT-AC66U. This router is setup using a wired connection from a computer to one of the LAN ports on the router. A CD ships with the device. Contents include a user manual and utilities such as a router setup wizard.

The easiest way to get the router setup though, is to follow the directions on the accompanying Quick Start Guide. The guide shows how to best position the router for optimal signal strength, how to mount it to the stand that also ships with the router (the RT-Ac66U’s documentation states that operating the router in an upright position on its stand yields the best wireless signal), and how to connect cables.

Once a computer is connected to the LAN port and the router is on, users can open a browser and the router’s setup page is automatically opened.  The Quick Internet Setup Wizard walks you through the setup process.

Set up steps are pretty routine. First, set a password to access the router’s interface under the admin account. The router then detects the WAN connection (in my case my DSL connection was correctly identified).  Set up concludes with assigning a password for each wireless band. The interface has a nice feature in which you click a checkbox to copy over settings for the 2.4 GHz band—such as encryption level, SSID, etc.—to the 5 GHz band, saving some typing time.

There isn’t a lot of configuration you need to do if you don’t want because the router automatically sets the SSIDs and the encryption level to WPA2 Personal with AES encryption.

Set up of the RT-AC66U was virtually pain-free. I encountered one quirk performing a firmware update. The router software instantly detected a newer version of firmware available, and I followed the steps to download and apply the new version.

The router was shipped to me at firmware version 3.0.0.4_246. The interface, after detecting a newer version of software, correctly displayed the current version, but identified the new version as “undefined.undefined.undefined_260″ appearing as though it was having issues correctly identifying the new version of firmware (which is 3.0.0.4.260).

Despite the weird display of the new firmware version, I went ahead with the upgrade. A status bar appeared on-screen along with the message to wait about three minutes for the update to complete. I never saw any progress on the status bar. After about three minutes, the page remained the same with no progress in the bar, except at this point, I received a prompt to login back into the router.

When I logged back in, the screen was still in the firmware upgrade area of the interface except now I had a message, “Router’s current firmware is the latest version.” So I had no idea if the firmware upgrade took place or not.

It had. Going into the router’s status page I did see the firmware being reported as the latest version. The automatic firmware upgrade process was messy. On a second RT-AC66U router that Asus sent to use as a bridge to test 11ac, I instead did the upgrade manually which was without incident. Still, it’s convenient to have the router be able to detect and perform the firmware upgrade automatically so hopefully that’s something that will get worked out in a future update.

I also noticed some sluggishness changing through different pages in the interface whether I was accessing via Internet Explorer or Firefox. There was also an issue once or twice where devices connected to the router could not access the Internet. The issue was only resolved with a router reboot. It seems another firmware update may be in order.

Interface, Consumer Features
The beauty of the physical design of the RT-AC66U extends to the interface. It’s one of the more stylish router management interfaces out there. The design is clean, easy to work within, and has a futuristic look that almost looks like some sort of controls for a video game.

The home page of the interface displays just about all the information that the typical router user may want to know such as which devices are accessing the network, WAN status, and wireless network details.  The network map showing the devices connected, displays the device name and IP address. The map also correctly listed an older Android phone I connected to the 2.4 GHz network.

Feature such as Parental Controls, QoS, firewall, and security are all included. The parental control isn’t as extensive as I’ve seen in other routers such as Netgear which uses a cloud-based service to provide fairly granular content control.  In Asus’ router, parental controls means really only being able to set time limits on specific devices in accessing the Internet.

However, the firewall properties do allow setting up content blocking by keyword or URL. I entered “facebook” as a keyword and was unable to click any link containing that word.  Users can also select to block networking services such as Telnet.

There’s some management over connected USB devices that can also be performed in the interface. For accessing data stored on connected USB drives, users can download the AiCloud app (which we will review separately) for iOS or Android devices.  Accessing that data remotely with AiCloud takes some configuration as either port forwarding or setting up a DMZ for the external drive, is required.

Business-Class Features
The RT-AC66U can function as a small business router because it has several advanced capabilities that are not features in all consumer routers. First, you can set up to six guest networks: three on the 2.4 GHz band and three on 5 GHz. Also, the Asus router has a full built-in VPN server, not just VPN passthrough support as many consumer routers only offer. There are also several advanced customizations for tweaking including AP isolation, setting the multicast rate, enabling jumbo frames for the LAN, disabling the HW accelerator, and more options that are typically in access points for the SMB. The RT-AC66U also offers robust IPv6 support.

Performance
Performance of the RT-AC66U was very good to excellent, depending on the mode. At 5GHz in 802.11N mode, the Asus router’s performance was only second to the Cisco Linksys EA6500, making the Asus  router the second fastest we’ve tested in this mode, averaging 174 Mbps at a distance of 10 feet.

In 11ac mode, throughput was on par with the Cisco Linksys—no surprise, since both routers use the Broadcom chipset.  At a distance of about 15 feet in 11ac mode, the Asus router managed a respectable 129 Mbps.  still holds the record for fastest router in pre-draft 11ac mode.

Buffalo and Asus shared top speeds overall for 2.4 GHz Mixed mode throughput with Asus averaging 71 Mbps at 10 feet and performing about the same in 2.4 GHz N-only mode. Mind you, 70 Mbps in my testing environment in 2.4 GHz—an absolutely crowded band—is very good throughput.

Where the Asus outdid other 11ac routers is in range. I test all pre-draft 11ac router at a distance of 50 feet which, in the testing lab, is a very weak or dead spot for most 802.11n routers. Since 11ac is about speed and range on 5GHz I test at this distance on these 11ac routers. The Asus router maintained the best throughput at 50 feet—77 Mbps, better than any router I’ve tested without using a wireless extender.  It would seem the external antennas most vendors have eschewed, helps the Asus router in range.

Here are throughput comparison charts at both 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz (Mixed Mode) between the RT-AC66U and other pre-draft 11ac routers:

 Check out the 5GHz performance numbers for the Asus RT-AC66U

 Check out the 2.4GHz performance numbers for the Asus RT-AC66U

Pre-Draft 11AC for Techies, SMB
The Cisco Linksys EA6500 , Cisco’s 11AC router, recently earned four stars and an Editors’ Choice from us.  The Asus RT-AC66U gets the same: four stars and an Editors’ Choice.  However, the two routers are best suited for two different types of customers. Those who may not be as comfortable setting up network devices any want an almost automated set up and don’t need a lot of extras in features, would be best served with the Linksys device.

Those wanting a true VPN server, robust IPv6, and granular control over the wireless signal will find the Asus RT-AC66U a delight. For this reason, the RT-AC66U gets the Editors’ Choice as a small business (SOHO) router, but keep in mind, more technical home users should consider the Asus router as well.

More Router Reviews:

Specifications
Device Type Router
Networking Options 802.11ac draft, 802.11ac draft
Access Control Lists Based on MAC Addresses Yes
NAT Yes
Quality of Service Yes
Security WEP, WPA, WPA2, WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), WPA2-Enterprise

Verdict
More technical and small business users including those wanting a true VPN server, robust IPv6, and granular control over the wireless signal will find the Asus RT-AC66U a delight.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc