Cisco Linksys Smart Wi-Fi AC 1750HD Video Pro EA6500 review

The cloud as management console with Cisco Connect Cloud raises the bar for router management and that capability coupled with fine performance makes the EA6500 a four star Editors' Choice for wireless routers.
Photo of Cisco Linksys Smart Wi-Fi AC 1750HD Video Pro EA6500

Cisco’s entry router into the pre-draft 802.11ac space is the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router AC 1750HD Video Pro EA6500. The EA6500 is the fastest performing router I’ve tested to date at the 5GHz band, besting even Buffalo’s speedy pre-draft 802.11ac router, the AirStation AC1300/N900 Gigabit Dual Band Wireless Router WZR-D1800H. The EA65000, however, does not sustain range as well as Buffalo’s router nor does the EA6500 match the Buffalo’s 2.4 GHz throughput. Still, the EA6500 features an improved Cisco Connect Cloud interface and wonderful management tools that makes it an Editors’ Choice award winner.

Specs
The EA6500 has a similar look to Cisco’s other top-tier consumer router, the EA4500, except it’s wider at 10 x 1.1 x 7.5 (WHD) inches versus the EA4500 v2′s (7 x 1.1 x7.4) (WHD) inches. The EA6500 features the same attractive black case with metallic decorative overlay as the EA4500 v2. The EA6500′s Cisco logo has a soft white glow and also serves as an LED for the router’s status (for example, the logo blinks when a WPS connection is initiated).

This is a dual-band router that supports to a theoretical 450 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 1300 Mbps at 5 GHz. Inside are six antennas with 3×3 transmit/receive rates for both bands. To get the maximum performance from the EA6500 a client machine with a 3×3 wireless adapter is required.

The rear panel accommodates four Gigabit LAN ports, a WAN port, a WPS button, a recessed reset button, and two USB 2.0 ports.

Setup
The router ships with a CD containing setup software and other resources including the user guide. Setup is simple; just insert the CD which will auto-run and click on the link to “Setup your Linksys Router.” Those with networking know-how can also setup the router manually by connecting it to a broadband connection and PC and then going straight into the local interface.

A graphical tutorial demonstrates how to correctly connect cables. The setup wizard also automatically creates the SSID, router password, and wireless password (all of which you can change). By default, the automatic setup gives you WPA2 security and a strong password.

One small issue I had with setup—by default, the router uses the same SSID for both the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. I like to manually control which devices connect to which band, so I added a “5″ to the 5 GHz network name to distinguish it from the 2.4 GHz network.

The entire setup process lasted exactly two minutes from connecting the router to my DSL modem to having a laptop wireless connected to the SSID. Few consumer routers this powerful make setup so easy.

Local Versus Cloud Management
Cisco has taken pains to clean up the mess that was the Cisco Connect Cloud software which previously forced users to upgrade to the Smart Wi-Fi cloud firmware, and in some cases, rendered some users’ routers unmanageable. Many users had to rollback the firmware update.

The EA6500 gives users the best of both worlds: the ability to manage the router locally by pointing a browser to the IP address of the router, or by using the Cisco Connect Cloud interface. Both interfaces look identical which is important for maintain management consistency.

There is one small, albeit important, difference, though. If you point a browser to the router’s IP address, you get to the local interface. The local management screen features a light blue bar at the top of the home page of the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi dashboard. When you access the router’s cloud management page, the same bar is colored dark blue. These color differences are important in letting a user know if the router is being managed locally or remotely.

How do you get to the cloud management? After setup, a shortcut is placed on the desktop of the machine used to setup the router. This shortcut goes to ciscoconnectcloud.com where you create an account and register the router.

 The interfaces are visually identical, except you have access to a few Smart Wi-Fi apps Cisco offers to extent the router’s capabilities.  Some apps include Gemini IP Camera Viewer for remotely monitoring IP cameras and Device Monitr which allows seeing who is online on your home network and for how long.

The Smart Wi-Fi cloud platform also allows managing multiple Linksys Smart Wi-Fi routers. So if I have an EA6500 at home and I setup my Dad with an EA4500, I can connect to his router and perform any updating and troubleshooting.

Admittedly, if I hadn’t read in my review notes supplied by Cisco that the way to tell if you are accessing the local interface from the cloud is by the color of the top bar on the dashboard page, I may not have noticed. Cisco should make the difference clearer even just by adding something like “Cloud Interface” to the dashboard screen when you are managing the router via the Internet. Still, I like the consistency of both interfaces’ design and did not notice any latency applying any settings’ changes whether I was managing locally or through the cloud.

EA6500 Features
No matter managing locally or through Cisco cloud platform, the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Dashboard is divided into two main areas in the interface. One is “Smart Wi-Fi Tools.” This area is where you control and access settings such as Device List, Guest Access, Parental Controls, Media Prioritization, Speed Test and USB storage. The second area is dedicated to Router Settings such as Connectivity, Troubleshooting and Wireless Security.

The settings I tested—including changing the wireless features (such as channel width), parental controls, and guest access—all worked well and have not changed significantly since I reviewed them in the Cisco Linksys EA3500 App-Enabledrouter . If anything, navigating settings is peppier and more responsive than in the previous EA routers. I also liked the fact as soon as the router was installed and connected to the Internet, a new firmware update was detected and applied very smoothly.

 The EA6500 introduces a new feature to the Linksys family of Smart router called Smart Tap. This is a new way to add NFC mobile devices to the router. The EA6500 ships with small, plastic card that is NFC-enabled. I tested connecting an NFC-capable Galaxy Nexus (running Jellybean) to the router.

To use Smart Tap, the Cisco Connect Cloud mobile app has to be installed on the mobile device. I downloaded the app for Android from Google Play. Then, you tap the card on the mobile device to connect to the router.

When I tapped the card, I heard a beep from the Nexus which sounded like an NFC connection was made. However, the Cisco app reported the message  “Cannot connect.” So, it didn’t work for me with the Nexus.

Frankly, I don’t see the advantage of using Smart Tap with a smartphone. Once the Cisco Connect Cloud app is installed on a device such as an Android phone, you can just sign in with your Cisco Connect Cloud account and remotely manage the router. Of course, when you are on your home network, you can just connect the phone to the router through the Android’s wireless settings.

In my opinion, Cisco is rolling Smart Tap out now, to hone it for future use with typically non-interactive like home appliances, to a Smart Wi-Fi router. I think this capability will prove of more value in the future as we see more technological functions emerge such as connecting a refrigerator or home heating system to the router for remote management and monitoring. For now, to use Smart Tap for connecting a smartphone to the EA6500 has too much of a Rube Goldberg machine feel. Plus, the feature simply did not work in my testing.

Performance
Testing was performed with one machine connected via Ethernet to Cisco’s companion 11ac media bridge, the Linksys AC Media Connector and using a laptop with a 3×3 802.11n wireless adapter.

Of course, 11ac is about faster speeds and better range at 5 GHz, and that’s the band I place more significance on when testing 11ac routers.

The EA6500 managed to achieve the fastest throughput of any router we’ve tested in the lab. At 5 GHz, the EA6500 cranked out 192 Mbps at a distance of five feet from the router in a very RF-heavy environment.  Previously, the Buffalo WZR-D1800H held “faster router ever” distinction by managing 187 Mbps at 5 GHz.

The EA6500 did not sustain these top speeds at longer ranges. By the time I got to 30 feet, throughput dropped to 153 Mbps (still a very good speed in our lab environment), whereas Buffalo’s router kept an even keel at 180 Mbps at 30 feet.

Cisco’s pre-draft 11ac router is the only pre-draft router I’ve tested in which the 5 GHz band can be placed in 11ac-only mode. Other 11ac routers offer a combination of 11ac and 802.11n at 5GHz. The problem with 11ac-only mode is that an 802.11n wireless adapter can’t connect at that mode. I had on hand D-Link’s 802.11ac wireless adapter—currently the only 11ac-capable wireless adapter on the market. With D-Link’s adapter, the EA6500 managed 133 Mbps throughput at a distance of 15 feet. Not the blazing fast speeds promised of 802.11ac, but fast enough for video streaming and other high-throughput tasks. I am eager to re-test throughput at 11ac when Cisco releases its own adapter.

I expected better performance at the 2.4 GHz. In Mixed mode, the EA6500 reached 50 Mbps at 15 feet and in 2.4 GHz N-only mode, performance averaged 51 Mbps—there was little difference in throughput in either Mixed or N-Only mode at 2.4 GHz.

As mentioned, the testing environment is saturated with access points on the 2.4 GHz band, affecting my results. However, testing in the same place with the same throughput test yielded slightly better results at 2.4 GHz, averaging 69 Mbps at 15 feet in Mixed mode. Here are performance comparisons with other 11ac routers:

Click here for 5 GHz performance comparisons

Click here for 2.4 GHz performance comparisons

While I expected more at 2.4 GHz, the performance numbers indicate that the EA6500 will be capable of handling just about any networking task a home user can throw at it. By wary though, that performance may suffer a bit at further distances.

Top Pre-Draft 11ac Router
11ac is all about the wider channel and faster speeds at the 5 GHz band. With beefy hardware, the EA6500 managed top speed at the 5 GHz band, although did not sustain that range as well as Buffalo’s competing 11ac router.

No question that consumers will not have much to complain about when it comes to the EA6500′s throughput even at the 2.4 GHz bandwidth, which was a little lower than expected during testing. What sets the EA6500 apart is the incredible setup and flexible management capabilities. The cloud as management console raises the bar for router management and that capability, coupled with fine performance, makes the EA6500 a four star Editors’ Choice for dual-band wireless routers, losing a few points for less-than-expected performance at the 2.4 GHz band.

More Router Reviews:

Specifications
Quality of Service Yes
Networking Options 802.11ac draft, 802.11ac draft
Access Control Lists Based on MAC Addresses Yes
NAT Yes
IPv6 compatible Yes
Parental Controls Yes
Stateful Packet Inspection Yes
Security WEP, WPA, WPA2, WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup)

Verdict
The cloud as management console with Cisco Connect Cloud raises the bar for router management and that capability coupled with fine performance makes the EA6500 a four star Editors' Choice for wireless routers.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc