If someone had said a few years ago that data would flow as fast over wireless connections as it does over wired ones, I'd have told them to do a reality check. There was no way you'd get gigabit-per-second speeds without resorting to cables.
That was then, and I'm now connecting with a Mac to a Wi-Fi router at a nominal 1300 megabits a second (Mbit/s), which is faster than my wired gigabit Ethernet network. Actual throughput, or the real-world data rates, are close to what the wired network manages too.
Because of the convenience of wireless, Wi-Fi router vendors have added a huge number of features to to keep up with users wanting greater speeds to shift larger amounts of data - and also connecting more devices to wireless networks.
Having much faster connections is great, but the drawback is the routers are getting bigger with more aerials to make it possible. I've been using a Linksys EA8500 AC2600 router for a few weeks and it's a monster with 1.4GHz dual-core processor, four chunky aerials that can be aimed in different directions, a four-port wired ethernet switch and USB 3.0 and eSATA ports for storage devices.
The EA8500 is a big hunk of eye-catching black plastic - you'd have to be into Star Wars styling to like it.
It looks like a complex device, but the EA8500 is simple to get running through a web browser. Perhaps a little too simple, as the advanced features are hidden away in an unlisted web page on the EA8500.
Vendors like to lump together the total aggregate bandwidth of Wi-Fi routers to get a bigger number to use in their marketing, and Linksys is no exception - the EA8500 is said to be AC2600 with 2.53 gigabits a second (Gbit/s) aggregate bandwidth.
What that means is that Linksys has taken the maximum theoretical data rate on the physical wireless interfaces - 800Mbit/s on 2.4GHz and 1733Mbit/s on 5GHz - and added them up. Unlike older Wi-Fi routers, the EA8500 can use the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies at the same time, but still, the inflated performance numbers aren't helpful for users.
In practice, with the EA8500 and another Wi-Fi router at the other end of the house, I now have at least 500Mbit/s connection speeds, using 5GHz. This means you don't have to think about the network connection as it's never a bottleneck.
I have not been able to try out the "killer feature" in the EA8500 yet. It goes by the clumsy acronym MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input, multiple output) and is part of the 802.11ac specification, and Linksys has put in a chipset from Qualcomm to do it.
It means the EA8500 can send and receive data from multiple user devices at the same time.
This multitasking is a great feature compared to single-user (SU-MIMO) that takes a round-robin approach and speaks to one user device at the time, which lowers data speeds and adds delay.
The idea here is that thanks to MU-MIMO, clever aerials, signal beam forming and lots of computing power in the router, lots of people can play games, watch Netflix and waste their lives on Facebook simultaneously with the EA8500. This is a very important requirement in 2015 as you can imagine.
But, just like when you want to achieve dizzying 802.11ac speeds of over 1Gbit/s, the device you connect to the router with has to be a MU-MIMO-capable and they are rare.
Linksys commissioned testing firm Tolly Group (tinyurl.com/nzh-tolly), which compared the EE8500 in a scenario with multiple clients accessing the router, with devices from competing makers.
Tolly found that the Linksys EA8500 performs between two to four times better than competing makes - but even though the test setup and methodology used by Tolly seem sensible, I'd like to verify the results before declaring MU-MIMO a winner in the speed stakes. With any luck I'll have some MU-MIMO cards soon to exercise the EA8500 with.
The EA8500 isn't the most expensive router - shop around, and you'll find it for $380-$400 - and it does perform quite well in the 5GHz band using 80 MHz bandwidth, and is reasonably speedy in the congested 2.4GHz range too.
Its main drawcard, MU-MIMO, just isn't supported well enough, though, and probably won't be until next year when new devices reach the shops. By then there will be other MU-MIMO routers available too, so I would hold off with any planned wireless network upgrades for now.
Still, more than over 1Gbit/s with no wires. Whodathunkit?
Update: To clarify, MU-MIMO allows the router to transmit to client devices (which must support MU-MIMO as well) at the same time.
When the devices wish to speak to the MU-MIMO router to upload data, this can only be done one client at the time in a round-robin fashion, while the others wait their turn.
Therefore, the performance improvements MU-MIMO bring will be seen only for downloads, and not for uploads.