Following the release of the TP-LINK Google OnHub in the late summer (see our review), the Google OnHub by ASUS is the second networking device to hit the market. For the uninitiated, the monolithic tech company out of Mountain View has a plan to revolutionise home networking with a combination of advanced hardware, supporting smart home protocols alongside traditional Wi-Fi connections, plus incredibly usable software.
While traditional networking manufacturers have continued to bring new devices to market with ever-increasing network speeds, Google’s take is that they remain complex, unengaging, and fraught with difficulties that make life less enjoyable. The tech equivalent to your relationship with your bank.
It’s a brave vision and on that has only been partly realised in the debut device, which is beautiful to look at, simple to use and offers fabulous network range. However, many of the OnHub’s advanced features – which truly separate the router from its competitors – have yet to be enabled. Several features you’d expect to find on a modern router – parental controls and guest network support are just two – aren’t available at all. Offering slower network speeds than other devices in its class, the Google OnHub by TP-LINK has a lot of potential, but users will need to be patient before the device truly delivers.
While TP-LINK is the world’s largest manufacturer of networking equipment, ASUS is certainly no slouch. Furthermore, the company has a large user base of networking enthusiasts (yes, they do exist) that passionately support the brand and its devices. Will their interpretation of the Google OnHub win minds as well as hearts? Let’s take a look.
What’s in the Box?
Priced at $219.99, the Google OnHub from ASUS (codenamed “Arkham”, Bat-fans) is $20 more expensive than its TP-LINK compatriate, although dig about online and you may find it discounted to match.
The packaging is a little less fancy than TP-LINK’s offering but retains the Google branding that we saw on that first device. It’s certainly a change from the usual ASUS design.
Inside you’ll find the conical-shaped router itself, plus a single flat Ethernet cable, power adapter and a short getting started guide.
ASUS’ interpretation of the Google OnHub is equally as innovative as the TP-LINK version, but is less impressive aesthetically. The blue, vase-shaped styling of the original device is switched to an inverted, conical design in charcoal. The glowing, multi-LED ring that illuminates the top of the TP-LINK device is downgraded to a single-LED, tri-color status indicator on the bottom of the ASUS OnHub.
Overall, it has less impact visually, but as we’ve all seen the TP-LINK device, much of the surprise has gone. As you can see from the shots below, the ASUS OnHub retains the gentle, flowing lines of the original OnHub, but looks a little more dowdy.
From a features and specification perspective, the two devices are broadly parallel – based on a Google reference design – but dig a little deeper and you’ll find some key differences under the hood.
Like the TP-LINK OnHub, the ASUS OnHub is classed as a 3×3, dual-band AC1900 router. It’s powered by the same dual-core, Qualcomm IPQ8064 1.4GHz processor with 4 GB RAM flash RAM and an additional 1 GB memory.
Alongside the dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi on offer, the OnHub is equipped with support for a range of smart home network protocols and services, like Bluetooth Smart, Thread, Weave and 802.15.14. As we saw with the TP-LINK OnHub, they’re currently disabled, pending an update from Google which will land…. well, we don’t know when it will land.
Under the hood, you’ll find the same Qualcomm Atheros QCA9880 & QCA9882 Wireless chips, Silicon Labs EM3581 Zigbee chip and Atheros AR3012 Bluetooth chips that power the TP-LINK OnHub.
There’s also the same, rather limited port complement – a single WAN port and a Gigabit Ethernet LAN port. It’s joined by a USB port, which is only used for restoring the device should it experience a catastrophic problem.
As I mentioned in my review of the original OnHub, the lack of ports challenges the user to really tidy up their network devices and cabling. According to Google, the strong aesthetic appeal of the OnHub is intended to encourage users to place the device out in the open (rather than hidden on a shelf, basement, or hidden behind the sofa) ensuring its range is maximised. But while it’s going to look beautiful in carefully crafted press shots, real world users juggling an ever-increasing array of wired network devices will have to pair the OnHub with a network switch, adding clutter to the desktop or shelf.
Under the hood, you’ll find some important design and engineering differences between the ASUS and TP-LINK OnHubs. The TP-LINK OnHub is equipped with a front-facing antenna that can extend the router’s range in a single direction. You can see it here in this excellent shot from the iFixit OnHub teardown – it’s the double-diamond metallic strip fixed to the inside of the OnHub’s inner shell.
ASUS has not included this antenna on their design. Note too the circular antenna array on the image above. According to an engineer on the OnHub team, Both ASUS and TP-LINK include a switching element that helps with MIMO diversity (improving data reliability) at the edge of the band. But the ASUS antennas are made of stamped metal whereas the TP-Link antennas (most of them at least) are PCB antennas.
The image below is taken from ASUS’ FCC submission for the OnHub – the difference between the antennas is clear.
It’ll be interesting to see whether these differences impacts range performance – the same Google engineer notes that stamped metal antennas generally work marginally better than PCB antennas, but as ever, mileage may vary by location.