It’s been four years since the first 802.11ac networking devices hit the market and while single-link speeds of (up to) 1300 Mbps offered a huge leap over the 802.11n standard, progress since then has been slow. Or rather, static.
That’s not to say that networking manufacturers have been resting on their laurels. New ‘Wave 2″ devices, clad with an ever-increasing number of antennas, have been streaming onto the market with advanced features designed to reduce network congestion and release bandwidth.
3 x 3/4 x 4 streams, tri-band, MU-MIMO, 160 MHz channels, 1024QAM – all worthy features in their own right – but many users simply can’t take full advantage of their benefits, as wireless client support has taken an age to catch up. Even then, advanced AC2600/AC3200 routers haven’t been able to beat the humble AC1900 router’s single link-speed. That 1300 Mbps barrier has been around for far too long.
At last, with the launch of new AC5400 class routers, there’s hope. But even then, you’re going to need the latest network advances equipped on your wireless clients – PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones – to really accelerate your Wi-Fi speeds.
A couple of advanced AC5400 routers have reached the market around the same time, each packing the latest Broadcom chipset. Today’s review model, the $299.99 TP-LINK Archer C5400 is joined by the $349.99 Linksys EA9500, also debuting this month. Both were beaten to market by the $359.99 NETGEAR R8500 Nighthawk X8 and $360 ASUS RT-AC5300, which use the same 4 x 4 chipset.
Regular readers will recall that a bigger headline number on the box (the AC5400/5300 vs AC3200, AC2600 and AC1900) doesn’t necessarily (or indeed, usually) translate into faster, single-link speeds. The headline number is a theoretical, combined throughput delivered across two or three wireless bands (one 2.4 GHz and one or two 5 GHz). Previously, single-link speeds have topped out at 1300 Mbps, with real-world speeds far lower and mostly dependent on the quality of your wireless client adapters.
AC5400 routers promise single-link speeds up to 1000 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and a leap to 2167 Mbps on the shorter-range 5 GHz band. Yes, those numbers are once again theoretical, but they certainly appear to be a leap forward. But, before we get too excited, let’s talk about the real world.
These latest routers are classed as 4 x 4 devices, offering a four transmit/four receive antenna design. But 4 x 4 wireless adapters are thin on the ground – the ASUS PCE-AC88 Dual-Band AC3100 Wireless PCIe Adapter (a desktop PCIe card) is the first to be announced, but we’re still waiting to see it on shelves (virtual or otherwise). 3 x 3 adapters are more common and are being fitted to top-end mobile devices, such as the 2015 MacBook Pro. Desktop cards such as the TP-LINK Archer T9E or ASUS PCE-AC68 are also available as an inexpensive desktop upgrade. That expensive smartphone you love? It packs a 2×2 wireless antenna at best, meaning the real world speeds you’ll achieve are going be much lower than those headline numbers.
But are they going to be any faster than the speeds experienced with a humble AC1900 model? We’ll be testing the TP-LINK Archer C5400 with a range of clients to find out. Before we do that, let’s dig a little into the features and specs that drive the C5400 forward.
Features and Specifications
As mentioned, this crop of AC5400/AC5300 routers (the difference in class names is negligible) are based around the same Broadcom chipset. A 1.4 GHz dual-core CPU (Broadcom BCM4709C) powers the device, paired with 512 MB RAM – a reasonably powerful engine room for a consumer networking device.
The Archer C7000 features eight external antennas, mounted around all four sides of the device, while connectivity is supported by the usual four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, a single Gigabit WAN port, plus single USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. Note that the competing Linksys EA9500 and Netgear Nighthawk X8 offer more LAN ports (eight and six respectively) which partly explains the price differential with the TP-LINK router and may be more appealing to users seeking greater wired connectivity.
Under the hood, the Archer C5400 is equipped with a number of features designed to boost wireless speeds. Broadcom’s NitroQAM (1024-QAM) and 4-Stream technology is designed to boost speeds up to 25% – note that NitroQAM is a proprietary technology and may well only benefit wireless clients with supporting Broadcom chipsets. Given the likely additional power consumption involved in 1024-QAM, I doubt we’ll see support on mobile devices for some time (if at all) and, at the time of writing, I couldn’t see any desktop adapters offering support either.
Elsewhere, three wireless bands are on offer (one 2.4 GHz and two 5 GHz) ensuring there’s plenty of bandwidth available. A Smart Connect feature automatically assigns each device to the best available band to achieve optimal performance. TP-LINK tells me their internal tests have yielded performance improvements greater than 180% with Smart Connect enabled.
Also available to the TP-LINK Archer C5400, but not yet enabled, is MU-MIMO networking support, allowing the device to communicate with multiple devices (that also require MU-MIMO support) simultaneously. Right now, only Linksys has delivered fully-functioning MU-MIMO support on their devices, but TP-LINK are able to switch on the feature via a future firmware update.
So, the numbers and features look impressive on paper but, as we’ve seen with AC2600 and AC3200-class routers, whether you’ll be able to extract all of the benefits of the technology you’re paying for – on day 1, at least – depends heavily on the rest of your networking kit.
From a software perspective, it’s standard fare – guest networking, parental controls, a VPN Server, advanced security features and more are on offer. But before we delve into the Archer C5400’s management console, let’s take a look at the device itself.