Linksys MAX-STREAM EA9500 Router Review
As we recently stated in the TP-Link Archer C3150 review, the home networking marketplace is in the midst of what is best described as a 'Megahertz War'. The reason for this ongoing battle is that two different mega-corporations have their own ideas regarding what the future of home wireless networking should look like... and neither vision includes the other's implementation. A lot of this tribal warfare is because the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA) - the organization responsible for releasing updates to the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard - moves at a downright glacial pace. So much so that the major manufacturers felt they had to go 'above and beyond' the standard in order to satisfy consumers voracious need for speed. We even saw glimpses of this in the Linksys EA7500 review.
As a result of this competition we are seeing a veritable performance explosion on the wireless front, with every major manufacturer of 802.11ac routers releasing models with undreamed of performance. Sadly, in order to get all this performance you have to choose a side, or potentially give up a lot of potential gains and settle for what the 802.11ac standard allows for. That is the downside, but what if consumers could give up some speed for better compatibility with their existing networks and yet still gain an incredible wireless network.
This is where the Linksys EA9500 AC5400-class router enters the equation. Unlike the recently reviewed TP-Link Archer C3150, this model is meant for the enthusiast and combines the latest Broadcom controller's capabilities with the best of their earlier generation. When we talk about this model's impressive capabilities what we mean is a 5GHz 802.11ac network capable of 2167Mbits/sec, and a 2.4GHz 802.11n network capable of 1000Mbits/sec. However, unlike the Archer C3150, the EA9500 also takes a page from older Broadcom models and offers a third network. While it can broadcast two 5Ghz 2167Mbit/s networks, few will care as it can also create one double-sized 5GHz 802.11ac network via what Broadcom calls XStream Technology. In basic terms, this combines two 2167Mbit/s networks into one massive 4334Mbit/s 5Ghz network. That is what we call a properly wide bus, and when you mix in eight external antennas, the EA9500 starts to resemble the older ASUS RT-AC3200... but on steroids!
So how is all this possible? It is all due to Broadcom's BCM47094 controller, which 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. Now double the number of onboard controllers and that is precisely how it has two 5GHz networks capable of being combined into one ultra-high speed network. Of course, in order to make use of all this performance, consumers will need a network populated by wireless NICs capable of 80Mhz bandwidth channels and decoding/encoding 1024-bit QAM. Those are rather limited to say the least, but in the meantime it should be easy to obtain more realistic numbers as the dual network and 4x4 configuration does boost performance, just as the ASUS RT-AC3200 did. Overall, this $300+ Linksys EA9500 router looks like a big deal, and on paper it is everything the EA7500 was not.
The packaging that houses the new Linksys EA9500 is best described as massive. We have literally seen motherboards ship in boxes. Beside from the increased box size, this is classic Linksys in that it is covered in all the EA9500 details anyone could ask for. It is also nice to see that the front has a large picture of the EA9500 so that prospective buyers will not be surprised by its unusual size. Before moving on, the front of the box also highlight's this router's three-year warranty, which is impressive and rather unusual in a marketplace filled with one and two year warranties.
Opening up the box, you can see that Linksys has taken the time to attach all eight of the antennas to the router. All owners need do is remove it from its foam cocoon, plug in the power cable, twist the antennas into their upright position, and start the installation process. Brilliant stuff!
Of course, once we actually removed the EA9500 from its shipping container and took a closer look, the reason the antennas come pre-attached is that they are hard-wired to the router and thus are not upgradeable. In testing, these 'small' antennas did not hinder the overall performance, but we would have liked to have seen the ability to use even larger and more powerful aftermarket antennas.
On the positive side, this router is drop dead gorgeous and the combination of a larger footprint and moderate-sized antennas actually makes this router rather easy on the eyes. To be perfectly candid, it is the most aesthetically pleasing 4x4 router we have seen to date and it will blend into a wide range of environments. This is rather refreshing as the industry seems to be in the midst of a bold and obtrusive phase filled with routers that are meant to be showpieces and standout from all the other electronics near them. The only down side is that this is a rather large router, and it will take up a lot more room that most. This router is also a horizontal only model, and it cannot easily be mounted to a wall. Instead, it is meant to be laid flat on a shelf, counter, or somewhere else with a lot of free space. Also somewhat unusual is that this router is also rather tall, it is nearly twice as tall as the EA7500 that we recently reviewed.
As you can see on the top and bottom of the unit, another benefit to this large footprint is that the E9500 is downright breezy with all the ventilation built into it. All these little holes combined with the equally impressive internal heatsinks – more on this in a moment - easily kept the EA9500's four main processing units cool and comfortable.
When we spun the EA9500 around and took a look at the back, we were equally impressed by the fact that this additional room has been put to very good use. Not only are the various ports and switches nicely spaced out, but the sheer number of options is amazing. Usually, home routers come with 4+1 RJ45 10/100/1000 ports, but this model bucks this minimalist trend and includes a grand total of nine ports in all!
Yes, eight LAN ports and one WAN port will make power users very happy with the freedom that these additional ports provide. Rounding out the included I/O options are a nicely-sized power switch, a USB 3.0 port, and a USB 2.0 port.
Two 'missing' features from this rear I/O panel are a WPS button and a wireless LAN on/off switch. This is because Linksys has made the decision to move these two critical options to the side of the EA9500. This not only declutters the rear I/O, but makes reaching for these two features a lot easier. The only minor critique is that we do wish that both buttons were not the same shape, as it is easy to hit the wrong one, but since they are on the side you need not blindly grab for them like you would rear-mounted buttons.
Before cracking open this rather impressive router, there is another feature worth noting. At first glance it does appear as if this router does not have a diagnostics LED panel. However, nothing could be further from the truth. On the top of the EA9500 is a dark plastic cover that protects three clusters of LEDs from harm. The center large white LEDs blink if there is an internet connection error (ie: a problem with the WAN or your ISP) and are off if the Wi-Fi is inactive. Above and below these white LEDs are a bank of blue LEDs. If a pair of these LEDs are on that means a MU-MIMO capable wireless device is connected to the router, but if only one is one that means a device is connected, but it is not MU-MIMO capable. This status array is not as good as a full blow diagnostics panel, but it still is very decent and well worth the tradeoff for eight LAN gigabit Ethernet ports.
The internals of the EA9500 are as impressive as the outside. Not only are the internals well laid out, but Linksys have actually taken the time to include an internal sub-chassis to increase the robustness of this router and to further increase the protective abilities of the EA9500's chassis. Basically, this internal frame further reduces the chances of something harming the internal PCB.
Having said that, this is only the tip of the iceberg. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and we can easily think of that many adjectives to describe the massive heatsinks that Linksys has used. In fact, this top-most heatsink is only one layer and the heatsink over the SoC actually hides the silver aluminum heatsink underneath it. Yes, they put a heatsink on a heatsink so that the heatsink can sink some heat while sinking some heat. Pimp My Ride mechanics have nothing on Linksys engineers! Bloody brilliant. Needless to say, while we would have loved to have seen an active cooling solution, this is easily the best, most robust, most impressive passive design we have seen on a networking device.
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