While 802.11ac routers were thin on the ground when the 802.11ac spec was announced, the good news is that there is now a growing number of options available. I got to spend some quality time one - TP-Link's Archer D7 802.11ac capable router/ ADSL2+ modem.
Wondering why you should get excited about 802.11ac? Here's why. It's the 5th generation of Wi-Fi and if industry hype is to be believed, it is faster and more scalable. When networking pundits say faster, they're really not kidding either.
802.11ac is designed to offer theoretical wireless speeds of up to a whopping 1.3 gigabits per second, (which is over twice the theoretical maximum of the current defacto Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n). In addition to muscular throughput speeds, it should also theoretically handle more simultaneous connections - up to eight MIMO data streams at once (802.11n typically maxes out at four).
Then there's beamforming, a nifty feature that can beam a concentrated wireless signal to a specific location. Not all 802.11ac routers will support it, but it looks like just the thing for fixing interference and coverage deadspots.
Having finally got my hands on both an 802.11ac capable router and notebook (a Macbook Air) I was itching to see how well it worked in practice.
Look and Feel
The Archer D7 is an aerodynamic looking router that thankfully avoids LED laden router cliches. The various status indicator LEDs are still there, but they're now subtle white LEDs that have been moved away from the routers front edge and are a discrete stripe along the D7's curved top. This also makes the D7 less of a Christmas tree decoration wannabe and far less distracting.
Getting everything connected up was pretty straightforward with the power connector, ADSL, Ethernet and two USB ports all situated along its rear. While the D7 packs an ADSL2+ modem, TP-Link have also added a small measure of future-proofing by making one of its Ethernet sockets useable as an output port or as a WAN port - making it suitable for connecting fibre. Now the long wait for fibre to my home begins (2 years, and counting!).
Getting set up
There are two set up options. One option involves installing a utility off of a provided mini CD (I've had grief with these in the past when using a slot loading CD drive) which configures the D7 while the other involves connecting to the router wirelessly or via an Ethernet cable. Once connected everything is set up via the D7's web-based admin console.
Unfortunately the Macbook Air doesn't have an optical drive so it was a case of option 2 or bust. The manual had me scratching my head for several minutes until I worked out the default WPA wireless access password was listed on the underside of the router in a microscopic 1.5 point font. After finding an electron microscope to read it I was finally able to connect and get set up.
Once finally configured, the Archer D7 was bomb proof. Our place is literally awash with the Wi-Fi networks of numerous neighbours, and the default 2.4GHz channels of 6 or 11 are each swamped by at least a dozen different routers. While not a problem when working close to my router, connections on 2.4GHz become increasingly ropey at the other end of the house (which is also annoyingly out of range for 5GHz wireless on my old router).
Using the Macbook Air's wireless diagnostic utility, I was quickly able to determine that channel 3 was unoccupied in the 2.4GHz band and that there was practically no interference in the 5GHz band. Switching channels saw most 2.4GHz interference issues eliminated.
The Archer D7 can theoretically zap data about up to 2.5 times faster than 802.11n. Firing up the Macbook's system information utility showed while this mightn't be the case in practice, the Archer D7 was still miles faster than my older router. I got a fairly respectable 145Mb/s on the 2.4Ghz band at the opposite end of the house and near full strength 5GHz and a very impressive 234Mb/s on 5Ghz in the same location. Considering that I'm lucky to ever see a 5GHz signal in this location, I was impressed.
Performance-wise the Archer D7 is a great router that not only offers solid bang per buck performance at a very reasonable sticker price but is also a definite step up from 802.11n. This said, unless your hardware is fairly recent, you'll need add an 802.11ac adapter to your budget in order to realise any performance gains from the Archer D7.
Interface:1 x 10/100/1000Mbps RJ45 WAN/LAN Port
3 x 10/100/1000Mbps RJ45 LAN Ports
1 x ADSL2+ (RJ11) Port
2 x USB 2.0 Ports
Dimensions: 229 x 160 x 37mm
Antennas: 3 x detachable dual band external antennas
Antenna Gain: 3 - 2dBi for 2.4GHz and 3- 3dBi for 5GHz Wireless Features
Supported Wireless Standards
IEEE 802.11ac/n/a 5GHz
IEEE 802.11n/g/b 2.4GHz
5GHz: Up to 1300Mbps
2.4GHz: Up to 450Mbps
Wireless Security 64/128-bit WEP, WPA/WPA2, WPA-PSK/WPA2-PSK encryption, Wireless MAC filtering