ASUS RT-AC87U & RT-AC3200 Routers Review
It has been a while since we last looked at wireless network routers but there really hasn’t been all that much movement in this field as of late. Now that 802.11AC has started to become mainstream, manufactures can no longer just market that “Wireless AC” designation as something special and unique. Rather, the standard is now enjoying widespread adoption and without a successor on the medium-term horizon, the networking market has somewhat stagnated.
ASUS hasn’t let stagnation take hold in their lineup and have been delving further into 802.11AC, ultimately pushing the boundaries of what it has to offer. That shouldn’t come as any surprise since their RT-series routers have almost always been at the forefront of technology while also offering good hardware, custom software that is feature rich, and doing both at competitive prices. This is a formula that has consistently worked for ASUS, and the new RT-AC3200 and RT-AC87U routers have not radically deviated from it.
Now you may be wondering why we are grouping the reviews of two different routers together in one article. Unlike previous generations when ASUS offered one flagship product and gradually cascaded select features into more affordable products, the RT-AC3200 and RT-AC87U almost cohabitate atop their lineup. We say “almost” since there are differences in pricing and some baseline features but regardless of the differences, both of these routers are supposed to offer class-leading performance.
One of the predominant reasons behind ASUS’ dual-wielding approach is the presence of two competing standards in the high end 802.11AC market. Both BroadComm's Xstream and the more traditional MU-MIMO standard are very different from one another and neither can offer the specialized features of the other. However, both are completely compatible with all 802.11AC devices, though at slightly different feature levels.
As the name suggests the RT-AC3200 has so much packed into its svelte frame that some naysayers have doubted its capabilities. Usually ASUS gives their routers a simple 7 alpha-numeric name, with the first two digits stating it’s a router ('RT'), then the networking protocol it offers ('AC' for 802.11AC), and the last three digits tell you where in the lineup a given model resides. The new RT-AC3200 is different since it hasn’t been parachuted directly into ASUS’ lineup since it meant to take up a parallel course with the typical AC routers. This might sound a bit contrived but the RT-AC3200 can actually be considered a new breed of cutting edge 802.11AC 'AC3200' router.
This is not the first time we have seen AC3200 devices, and just like the Linksys EA9200 the ASUS RT-AC3200 offers speeds of “up to” 3200Mps combined -thus the overly optimistic 'AC3200' moniker manufactures have settled upon. It is able to accomplish this partially due to reliance upon Broadcom's Tri-Band XStream technology instead of MU-MIMO like most new 802.11AC routers.
In basic terms this allows the RT-AC3200 offer consumers three networks that can all be accessed simultaneously instead of just two. In this case, the networks are broken down into two 5GHZ 802.11AC 1300Mbps access points, and one 802.11N 2.4GHZ 600Mbps point. This offers a level of performance previous generations of ASUS routers could never hope to match.
Offering clear broadcasting for a trio of networks is challenging to say the least since if the antennas cannot receive the packets at high enough fidelity, overall performance will be rather mediocre. This is why, unlike Linksys and their EA9200, ASUS has opted for six external high gain antennas. These give the router an extremely unique look, but should easily provide much better throughput than the typical internal/external configurations most other 'AC3200' routers offer. Of course, with an asking price of $285, the RT-AC3200 will need all the performance it can get in order to tip the price to performance scales back in its favor.
The RT-AC87U on the other hand is 'only' an AC2400 router….yeah only 2400Mbps. However the only reason this model is not ASUS' sole top of the line router is because it does not rely upon the bleeding edge XStream technology. Instead it uses the more traditional MU-MIMO specification. However, since this is considered a second generation MU-MIMO device, what it does offer is rather impressive. Unlike the RT-AC3200 which is a 3x3 router, the ASUS RT-AC87U is new breed of 4x4 router.
This 4x4 specification allows it to send and receive up to four concurrent spatial streams per network rather than the three of previous generations. Hence why the AC87U’s single 5GHz 802.11AC network is rated for a whopping 1734Mbps. Mix in a 600Mbps 802.11N network, include a generous “rounding error”, and you have how ASUS arrived at "AC2400". In other words take the Linksys AC1900 four antenna router, modernize it with better internal hardware, mix in ASUS flavored firmware and the end result is the Wave 2 ASUS RT-AC87U.
While there are basically no 4x4 devices out there for this router to talk to, by having four active antennas the AC87U does have the luxury of using the three (or two) antennas with the best signal strength at any given time. This is why it can boast a signal coverage specification of 465 square meters. In either case it will be very interesting to see how this $235 router stacks up against its more expensive sibling in our real world tests.
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