TP-Link Archer C3150 802.11AC Router Review
It is fairly safe to say that the Wi-Fi 802.11ac marketplace is in the midst of an old fashioned 'Megahertz War' with two main companies pushing the speed boundaries. On one side is Broadcom and their latest MU-MIMO-based take on 802.11ac, while on the other side is Qualcomm, both pushing technologies that they believe are best for consumers. Neither side's solution is 100% cross compatible with the other, and neither are 100% backwards compatible either. Instead, both require a network made-up entirely of their self-branded products in order to get performance figures that are above what the reference 802.11ac 'standard' calls for.
Up until recently, Broadcom's implementation was actually lagging behind that of its competitor as they took the multiple simultaneous 5Ghz 1300Mbit/s streams approach, whereas Qualcomm focused on delivering a single higher-speed 5Ghz stream. As we are going to examine today, Broadcom's new NitroQAM modulation technology changes this disparity and levels the playing field. One of the first products to offer this new networking tech is TP-Link's Archer C3150 wireless router.
As the names suggests, this $200 router offers a combined speed of 3150Mbit/s, but this is actually being conservative as it is capable of 3167Mbit/s! How is this possible? Simple, Broadcom has boosted the QAM encoding from the standard 256-bit to a massive 1024-bits, uses massive 80Mhz channel bandwidths, and uses four spatial streams instead of the usual three. What's also impressive is that Broadcom has boosted 802.11n bandwidth from 300Mbits/sec to 1000Mbits/sec via similar tweaks on the 802.11n specification. This combination allows for a 5Ghz 802.11ac network capable of pushing a whopping 2167Mbit/sec and an 802.11n network with up to 1000Mbit/sec of bandwidth.
Of course, as stated previously, the router is only half the equation when it comes to wireless networking, and in order to get above 802.11n (300Mbit/s) and 802.11ac (~1733Mbit/s over 4 streams) speeds the receiving Wi-Fi devices also have to be capable of such massive encoding and be able to send/receive over four (4x4) spatial streams. Since most laptops and mobile devices are still only 2x2 – or at best 3x3 - this certainly makes the C3150 overkill, but also rather future-proof… assuming Broadcom wins the war for consumers hard-earned money. In the meantime, at worst, this is still a really powerful router that on paper offers excellent range, remarkable performance, a stylish exterior and a two-year warranty.
This does beg the question of whether or not the TP-Link Archer C3150 can be considered a good value now. After all, there are numerous less costly alternatives from other manufacturers that may offer just as much performance for existing 802.11ac and 802.11n networks, such as the ASUS RT-AC3200 and the Linksys EA7500. Given the serious competition, this router will have an uphill battle, but if its performance and ease of use meet out high standards the TP-Link Archer C3150 may just prove to be a great value.
The TP-Link Archer C3150's packaging can be described as being rather distinctive in its blandness. What we mean by this is that the unaggressive box does not appear to be all that special, and will not be particularly attention catching on a store shelves. Having said that, this rather bland box is actually very distinctive looking when placed next to what most high performance routers are packaged in. It could be argued that the blandness juxtaposed against a sea of flashy boxes makes a statement all on its own: that TP-Link fully expects the abilities and performance of its products to do all the talking for it.
Internally, TP-Link has opted for rigid molded plastic to provide protection for the Archer C3150. We personally prefer cardboard as it is better at absorbing impacts, but this form-fitting box is more than adequate.
As expected, the accessories that accompany this router are rather sparse. In grand total, buyers can expect to find a short white RJ45 cable, four small antennas, an external power brick, and an installation pamphlet. The only issue we have with this assortment is the antennas. They are small, and in testing proved to be this model's weak link. If long distance performance is especially important, we would recommend swapping them out for better aftermarket options.
With its sleek lines and low profile design, the Archer C3150 is a rather attractive looking router. So much so that we were instantly impressed by its understated aesthetics. As with the packaging, this design is not what we would call overly done, and compared to the angular and aggressive lines that seems to be all the rage these days, the Archer C3150 is like a breath of fresh air. Sadly, there are a few caveats to this design, but overall TP-Link really hit a home run with this model. We have zero hesitations recommending this router for consumers who need a router that will not stick out like a sore thumb.
We are happy to report that these attractive good looks are not only skin deep, rather TP-LINK really took the time to get the layout of this model as perfect as we have recently seen . Simply put, this model is as easy to use as it is pretty to use. Both ASUS, Netgear, and other manufactures could learn a thing or two about router design from this model. Bloody brilliant.
A perfect example of this thoughtful design is that instead of trying to cram an LED diagnostics panel on the front of the router, TP-Link have built it directly into the top and hidden it behind a clear center strip. When in use this center section lights up with a nice, but not overpoweringly bright, blue glow from these hidden LEDs. Most importantly, there is more than one or two of these LEDs, there are nine: power, 2.4Ghz network, 5Ghz network, Internet, LAN, WPS, USB 1, USB 2, and last but not least a built in diagnostics LED that tells you if the others are working! With very little effort even novices will be able to troubleshoot basic connectivity issues as these LEDs blink when active, and they don't glow when there are no connections. This combination of easy to see - but still not distracting - LEDs is easily one of the best diagnostics panels we have seen in quite some time.
Unlike some of ASUS' latest creations, TP-Link has not tried to cram any important ports on the front of this sleek looking router. Also, unlike Linksys and D-LINK and most others, TP-Link has not tried to cram all the I/O ports on the back panel either. Instead, they have spread all the necessary inputs and outputs along the back and the right side of this model. This allows all the various ports to be nicely spaced out, easy to access, and more important makes it near impossible to accidentally press the wrong button or disconnect a critical cable. As an added bonus, there is no stress placed on any one port when all the ports are populated. This is not something many 802.11ac routers can boast. To be specific, along the right side you will find a Wi-Fi on/off button, reset button, WPS button, as well as a single USB 2.0 port and a single USB 3.0 port.
On the back of the unit and nicely spaced out are the four antennas, the power on/off button, the power port, four LAN port, and the WAN port.
Now on to the issues that are inherent to this design. First off, while this model does have two integrated mounting brackets for vertical mounting, these molded brackets are not particularly reassuring and we personally would not trust them for long-term use. When using this model in horizontal mode, the footprint is significantly larger than say an ASROCK G10 router. On the plus side, when laying flat there is no pressure on the RJ45 cables.
The other issue is equally minor, and it is that is a passively cooled router. Basically, the little feet on the bottom of the router allow air to flow in from underneath thanks to the copious vents. We wish there were more vents on the side, but with so many on the top we believe that the passive airflow is more than adequate. At no time during testing did the unit overheat, so we have only minor concerns about the inherent cooling ability of this device.
By taking off the external case, we can see a very clean and quite cohesive internal design. To be honest. this is the kind of refinement that the exterior hinted at and we were excited to see if it continued inside. TP-Link has taken the tried and true approach of using one massive heatsinks to keep all three processors cool. This does explain why this unit can manage its temperature even though it is only passively cooled.
As this is a new router, it comes as no surprise to see it use the latest Broadcom controller that was only recently released. To be specific, it uses the next generation Broadcom 47094 system-on-a-chip (SoC). This dual-core 1.4GHz controller acts as the router’s brain, and it is an excellent upgrade from the previous generation's 1000Mhz 4709 SoC. As expected TP-Link has given this controller 256MB of RAM and 128GB of NAND.
It's also worth noting that this next-gen controller has been paired with two BCM4366 co-processors, one dedicated to the 2.4Ghz network and one to the 5Ghz network. This combination allows the Archer C3150 to boast advanced features such as the new NitroQAM, which allows for not only true 4x4 configurations but also massive 80Mhz bandwidth channels and 1024-QAM. This combination allows a single 802.11ac 5GHz network to boast 2167Mbit/s transfer speeds. Furthermore, this is not a one trick pony since it allows older 802.11n networks to get a nice boost and support upwards of 1000Mbit/s of bandwidth!
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