As router manufacturers start to stretch the upper limits of wireless speeds, it’s clear that consumers will only realise the benefits of investing in high-end routers if they have similarly advanced wireless client adapters. The speed difference you’ll see between a 1×1 802.11ac connection (or, heavens, an 802.11n connection) from your smartphone up to a 4×4 desktop PCIe adapter (such as the upcoming ASUS PCE-AC88) is stark.
As a result, I’m taking the opportunity to bolster our router testing methodology. Rather than benchmarking wireless speeds on a single adapter (we’ve been using an AC1200 USB model most recently), where possible, we’ll be running a more comprehensive suite of tests across a range of devices. The idea is to help you get a clearer view of real world speeds – we obviously can’t test every device with every router but we can test a number of device classes to bring a little more light and shade into the picture.
I don’t wish to make our reviews overly complex (read: dull) so as I make our first attempts on this, your feedback is really welcome in the comments below!
The TP-LINK Archer C5400 is the second AC5400 device we’ve tested (it’ll be followed by the ASUS RT-AC5300 soon, which we’ve just received) following Jim Kerr’s review of the Linksys EA9500 a couple of weeks ago (check out the review). As you’ll see, we’re testing the Archer C5400 with a greater range of devices but I’ll pull out comparisons where relevant. We’re hoping to update our Linksys EA9500 review with additional benchmarks in the next few weeks.
First up is the Ethernet test, which sees us connect two Intel Core i5 PCs to the router, one acting as a “server”, the other as a “client”. Using the industry-standard iPerf 3 application, we calculate average upstream and downstream speeds between the PCs over three five-minute tests (so six runs in total).
Speeds of 933 Mbps over Gigabit Ethernet are around what we’d expect for this class of router and you should expect fast file transfers and smooth streaming from the Archer C5400. In comparison, the Linksys EA9500 managed a speed of 897 Mbps, behind the TP-LINK model, but still at the upper reaches of Gigabit Ethernet speeds.
2.4 GHz Benchmark
For our wireless benchmarks, we ran tests at 2.4 GHz and both 5 GHz bands on a variety of wireless devices – smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktop adapters – to understand the average speeds available across a range of hardware. The idea here is to show the typical variation in speeds when using slower hardware – for example a smartphone with a 802.11n (1 x 1) connection, all the way up to more powerful 3 x 3 adapters found in newer Apple (desktop/notebook) hardware as well as PCIe and USB adapters.
As you can see from the chart above, the fastest 2.4 GHz connection we could muster from the TP-LINK Archer C5400 was with an Early 2014 iMac, which has a similar 3 x 3 802.11ac adapter to that which you’ll find in the current MacBook Pro. A speed of 145.3 Mbps was just ahead of the D-LINK DWA-192 3 x 3 USB adapter, with 2 x 2 and 1 x 1 adapters transferring data more slowly. It’s an obvious point to make, but I’ll make it again – router speeds will always vary by the device connected. For comparison purposes, we were able to transfer data with the Linksys EA9500 at a slightly higher speed of 165.3 Mbps, but the two devices are certainly in the same ballpark.
5 GHz Benchmark
However, it’s at the 5 GHz band that we’d expect an AC5400 router to show its class and the Archer C5400 certainly impressed.
A top speed of 781.3 Mbps, again with the Apple iMac, is the fastest speed we’ve encountered on a router for a single device test. Again, it’s nowhere near the 2167 Mbps theoretical maximum advertised on the box, but let’s be clear – with a top-end wireless client, the Archer C5400 is one of the fastest routers around.
But the performance range here is really interesting. With a mid-range smartphone, you’re looking at speeds between 100 and 300 Mbps. Tablets, up to 400 Mbps. These figures are similar to what you’d achieve with a much cheaper router. It’s really at the top end that an AC5400 router sprints away – if you have 3 x 3 (or 4 x 4) wireless adapters that can take advantage of these higher speed connections, the Archer C5400 may well be worth the considerable investment. If not…
Multi-device Benchmark (Smart Connect)
So far, all of our tests have been run with a single device connecting to the router at a time. However, our multi-device test connects five clients (one 1 x 1 device, three 2 x 2 devices and one 3 x 3 device) to the router and measures data transfer speeds in parallel. This provides a good real world test of the Archer C5400’s Smart Connect feature, which automatically groups device connections to specific wireless bands. The idea, of course, is to optimise total throughput.
This type of feature is becoming common on tri-band routers, but to date we’ve seen inconsistent results. On one router we tested recently, enabling the feature had no effect whatsoever.
That wasn’t the case with the TP-LINK Archer C5400. In fact, we were blown away by the performance uplift when Smart Connect was enabled. With the feature disabled and all devices connected to the second 5 GHz band, combined test speeds averaged 480.4 Mbps. With Smart Connect enabled and the router guiding connections, that speed increased 72% to 828.3 Mbps. Not quite Gigabit Wireless, but not far off. Truly impressive.
We wrap up the router benchmarks with a quick test of the Archer C5400’s USB file sharing capabilities. It’s rare, if not impossible, to find a router that can match the file transfer speeds of a dedicated NAS but you will find a lot of variation in quality between devices out there. Cheaper routers with slower CPUs will really struggle here, but the C5400 gave a very decent showing, with read/write speeds of 58.6/42.1 MB/s respectively. It’s around half of what you’d get with a dedicated NAS, but is more than sufficient for basic media streaming and file storage duties. The C5400 also compares favourably to the Linksys EA9500 here (particularly on read speeds) which hit 27.9/49.0 MB/s in a recent test.
If money were no object, I’d have no hesitation in recommending the TP-LINK Archer C5400 to all. The hardware is reasonably attractive (for a device in this class) and TP-LINK has done an excellent job with the management console design, which offers one of the clearest and simplest user experiences I’ve encountered on a router. Under the hood, the C5400 has a strong specification leading to fantastic network performance. In short, it’s the fastest router we’ve ever tested.
Of course, for all but the most fortunate, money most definitely is an object and $300 is a lot of money to invest in a router. That said, the Archer C5400 is priced $50 lower than the competing Linksys EA9500 at the time of writing, which makes it a more compelling proposition for those that demand the highest available speeds.
But, to reach the dizzy heights of 800 Mbps+ (that’s a real world speed, no theoretical maximum), you’ll need to be equally as demanding when it comes to the devices you’ll connect to this class of router. If your home or small office is packed with PCs and Macs rocking advanced 3 x 3/4 x 4 wireless adapters, you’ll love life in the fast lane. For everyone else, AC1900 and AC2600 routers will undoubtedly offer better value for money in the short-term.
That should take nothing away from the technical accomplishment of the TP-LINK Archer C5400 though. It’s a fantastic router that’s been well designed inside and out, delivering a great user experience and superb performance. If you have the money to spare, it’ll keep you on the bleeding edge for some time to come.