Review: Portal Smart Gigabit WiFi Router

Recently funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign, the $149 Portal Smart Gigabit WiFi Router promises to overcome congestion challenges by taking advantage of a technology called dynamic frequency selection (DFS).

The technology provides access to 300% more of the radio airwaves than any other router, according to the manufacturers, Ignition Design Labs. That makes it ideal for crowded environments such as city apartment blocks, which typically suffer heavy congestion due to a mass of routers competing for range.

DFS enables wireless LANs operating on the 5 GHz band to share spectrum typically used by radar devices. Interference with devices is avoided by the router automatically monitoring for radar signals and switching channels when necessary. Ignition Design Labs call these DFS-enabled networks “FastLanes”, but you should note that they’re only available to network clients with 5 GHz and DFS support. That excludes popular devices like the Sony PlayStation 4, Amazon Fire devices and others that are restricted to Portal’s 2.4 GHz SSID.

Otherwise, Portal ticks many of the boxes you’ll find in en vogue whole home Wi-Fi systems. Indeed, while the device was initially billed as a standalone router, the manufacturers have now developed a mesh networking option (wireless or wired backhaul) that allows you to connect two or more Portal devices to spread connectivity throughout the home – coverage up to 6,000 sq. ft. is promised.

A two-device bundle is currently priced at $280 at Amazon, although we were only sent a single device for review. Therefore we can’t compare Portal with competing systems such as NETGEAR Orbi (review), Linksys Velop (review) and Google Wifi (review).

What’s in the Box?

The reasonably attractive, (large) pebble-shaped device is classed as an AC2400 4×4 router boasting nine internal antennas that ensure a clean and sleek look on the desktop. Portal supports beamforming and band-steering, ensuring that clients are automatically placed on the 2.4 or 5 GHz band for optimum performance.

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The device arrives in a white and lime branded carton and is bundled with a power adapter and Ethernet cable. While the packaging is decent enough, the accompanying four page user guide feels like it’s from your office laser printer – it cheapens the experience a little.

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While the Portal hardware looks good and feels reasonably robust (which isn’t always the case with Kickstarter-funded kit), it’s lower ventilation plate is a little bendy which takes the edge off an otherwise strong design. The only visible status indicator is very subtle – the “O” in the manufacturer’s logo will change colour for firmware updates and in the case of an issue. It’s pretty neat.

Around the back, you’ll find a standard array of connectors, including power, Gigabit WAN, four Gigabit LAN ports, a reset button and two USB 2.0 ports – I’d prefer a single USB 3.0 port for storage sharing but that’s what you get.

Getting Up and Running

Like most routers released in the last year or so, you’ll set up Portal using a mobile app, with Android and iOS devices supported. A quick check of reviews on the Google Play store showed mixed options on the quality of the app, with some early teething issues and connectivity problems.

Yoir mobile device will connect to the router over Bluetooth, so you’ll need to be in close proximity during the installation. Also note that there doesn’t appear to be an offline configuration option – the router must be connected to a live WAN to complete setup. I found the power cable to be a little short so, depending on your configuration, a power extension may be useful.

Setup was problematic, meaning that Portal didn’t get off to a great start. Thankfully, there’s no need to create an online account, which is mandated on some routers I’ve recently reviewed. Once the WAN connection was detected, I was asked to configure an SSID and password. However, this part of the setup was stuck in a loop, so despite receiving a success message, I was then immediately asked again for an SSID and password. It’s the kind of bug that would immediately turn me off a router.

Repeated attempts to set up the router finally worked after I switched off my existing router. The issue here is that once the SSID was sent to the router, my smartphone connected to my existing network rather than the new Portal network. This may be an edge case, but it’s the kind of issue that should have been identified and resolved in beta testing.

Using Portal

Once you’re up and running, you can manage Portal’s settings via the mobile app or a traditional, web-based GUI. The latter is disabled by default, but can be enabled from the app. Portal works out of the box with a single SSID, covering both 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz networks, however, it’s good to see that users have the option to break out separate SSIDs should they prefer.

A couple of usability issues immediately popped up. Accessing the web GUI from a browser took an age – well over 30 seconds from the initial request, which is about 29.5 seconds too long. Strangely, once logged in, the router’s console was far more responsive.

The second issue was that the Portal mobile app became completely unresponsive when the router was offline (i.e. there was no live Internet connection). I could access support pages in the app, but could not access any router settings, which is really not acceptable. Portal was quickly turning into my least favourite router of 2017.

Aside from these painful connectivity issues, the mobile app itself is short on features. In a world where router controllers apps are generally short on features, this was not a surprise, but the Portal app is really short on features. Aside from connected device reports, basic wireless LAN configuration options and guest networking setup, there’s little else to do in the app, which was disappointing.

Fortunately, the Web GUI is better stocked, supporting a typical array of features you’d find on a modern router. They include classic network settings such as DHCP reservations, firewall/port forwarding options, VPN and Dynamic DNS support. There’s also light parental control support which allows access filtering by device name or IP address, but there’s no content filtering available such as URL black/whitelisting as we’ve seen on other routers recently reviewed.

Overall, it’s a reasonable selection of features, but there’s little that really stands out against the competition. Connectivity issues and a limited selection of app controls makes Portal appear to be somewhat of a work in progress.

Performance

We last tested an AC2400-class routersaround  18 months ago (as most manufacturers now tend to go with AC1900 or AC2600 in their line-ups). However, there are a couple of models we can use to evaluate Portal’s performance. They’re the NETGEAR R7500 and ASUS RT-AC87U.

We’ll also include a two more recent AC2600 models for comparison – namely the $199 TRENDnet TEW-827DRU (review) and $280 Synology RT2600AC (review). While (in theory) Portal may not match the wireless speeds achievable by these models, it’s significantly less expensive.

Ethernet Performance

First up, it’s our Ethernet benchmark and Portal got off to a great start. Average wired speeds of 941 Mbps are top-notch – well ahead of the two AC2400 routers previously tested and competitive with the two AC2600-class devices in the mix. Despite the connectivity troubles we experienced, there’s no question that Portal’s wired performance is up there with the best.

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2.4 GHz Performance

For the 2.4 GHz test, I paired Portal with a 3×3 D-Link DWA-192 wireless adapter, which is a great option for anyone seeking a USB wireless adapter. Portal delivered a reasonably muted average speed of . I consider speeds of around 140 Mbps to be competitive with this device, so Portal’s sub-100 Mbps result is a disappointment.

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5 GHz Performance

However, in the faster, shorter range 5 GHz band, Portal delivered the goods. Here, an average speed of 567 Mbps wasn’t quite enough to lead the field, but it beat the Synology RT2600AC and its AC2400 peers with ease.

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In our 5 GHz multi-device test, we connect five wireless clients to the router to see how it performs under load. Unfortunately, this is a reasonably new test that we adopted after our AC2400 reviews were published. So, our comparison is restricted to more recent AC2600 devices.

Despite that, Portal performed really well against these slightly more powerful devices with an average speed of 458 Mbps.

USB Performance

As you may anticipate from a device armed with USB 2.0 ports for storage sharing, data transfer speeds are poor and I wouldn’t recommend you using Portal for anything but basic file sharing tasks.

Read/write speeds of 5.7/7.5 MB/sec are quite slow – even for a router, but given that many whole home Wi-Fi systems don’t even offer USB sharing, its inclusion here is a bonus. If a small one.

Summary

While Portal suffers from some rough edges in terms of connectivity, its price to performance ratio is very good indeed. It doesn’t boast the widest feature set and the mobile app, in particular, needs work. But for a basic AC2400 router, with the option of mesh connectivity (which I was unable to test), Portal is worth some consideration. Certainly, whole home Wi-Fi competition from Google, NETGEAR and Linksys is strong and I wouldn’t recommend this device over any of those systems, but in terms of raw performance there’s a lot to like.

If you’re happy to make some slight compromises on usability, you’ll be delighted with the network speeds available from Portal – particulaly over Ethernet and at 5 GHz. 2.4 GHz wireless performance doesn’t quite hit the heights of competitors, but overall, Portal offers a reasonable bang for the buck.

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