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In a category known for long replacement cycles, network device manufacturers are regularly dreaming up new reasons to upgrade your home router. Most recently, the spotlight has landed on gamers, with devices like the beefy ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AC5300 and angular NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming Switch boasting dedicated features to optimise network play.
The $329.99 Linksys WRT32X Gaming Router is another attempt to persuade bandwidth-hungry gamers to enhance their networks. While you may believe that a “gaming router” is simply a regular home router dressed up in a fancy, asymmetric chassis, Linksys tell us that this new model does more than offer “gamer-bait” visual accents.
They’re calling the WRT32X“a true gaming-focused router that delivers the best networking experience for online gaming with low latency and the fastest speeds”. It’s the first router to feature Rivet Network’s Killer Prioritization Engine (KPE), which allows the router to identify PCs equipped with Killer Networking hardware, found on gaming PCs from MSI, Dell/Alienware, Razer, GIGABYTE, Acer, Lenovo, and others.
When the router discovers a compatible PC, it’s able to prioritise online gaming traffic over other network activity in the home. That means your latest Overwatch winning streak won’t be disrupted by the family’s Netflix streams or heavy download sessions elsewhere in the house.
Fully configurable via Killer Control Center on the PC, you can alter network priorities as you need. If you’re about to stream the game online, switch priority to streaming video and that traffic will be protected, ensuring no stuttering or other network disruptions.
Pro-grade features with support for enhanced storage sharing
Aside from gaming enhancements, the Linksys WRT32X has all the features you’d expect to find in a modern AC3200 router. A new entrant in the company’s famed WRT range, the dual-band 32X is driven by a powerful dual-core 1.8 GHz processor, with four Gigabit Ethernet ports and a single Gigabit WAN port connected to a “pro-grade” internal controller, Linksys says. A USB 3.0 port supports simple storage and peripheral sharing while a dual USB 2.0/eSATA port allows users to connect and share a larger enclosure with multiple drives.
Wireless speeds are optimised courtesy of MU-MIMO, DFS and Tri-Stream 160 support (three spatial streams on a 160 MHz-wide channel), but to take real advantage of these features you’ll need compatible wireless clients, which are thin on the ground.
So, the Linksys WRT32X ticks a lot of boxes in terms of specs, but commanding a $100 price premium over Linksys’ regular WRT AC3200 model, it’s the Killer Prioritization Engine (KPE) that will need to deliver real value over its competitors.
Sleek, stealth-retro styling
If you’re a fan of the WRT’s iconic design, you’ll be pleased with Linksys’ latest “stealth retro” iteration. Thankfully, the company’s designers have held back from gaudy metallic reds and RGB LEDs in favour of an all-black chassis with blue status indicators. Even they can be extinguished for an (almost) full black-out effect.
Four external, detachable antennas screw-in easily around the rear and sides of the router. Once connected, the WRT32X may not have the minimalism of modern whole-home Wi-Fi systems, but the bold-yet-sleek styling works well.
Quick and easy to get up and running
While the WRT32X doesn’t benefit from the super-simple, app-based setup you’ll find on today’s whole home Wi-Fi systems, configuration is quite straightforward. Connect the device to your Internet modem/modem router, power on and connect a computer or mobile device to the temporary wireless network used for setup (all the details are included in a handy Quick Start Guide and printed on the underside of the router). Open a web browser and you’re ready to begin setup.
Networking novices benefit from step by step guidance through configuration, but you’re still able to tailor your configuration. For example, those seeking the simplest setup can choose a single network name for both wireless bands while users that prefer individual 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks can split them during the setup wizard. Meanwhile, advanced admins can skip the wizard altogether and jumop straight to the dashboard.
Stylish and simple administration
With the WRT32X, Linksys has taken the opportunity to redesign its administration dashboard, abandoning the previous app-enabled design which was a bright concept but failed to deliver a meaningful array of third-party features.
The good news is that the new user interface looks stylish, offers some useful features and is decidedly simple to use.
The Dashboard’s home screen includes handy Network Traffic indicators so you can monitor activity, while an integrated speed test helps you ensure you’re receiving all of that precious bandwidth you’re paying for. Elsewhere, advanced settings are carefully tucked away for the users that need them, while everyone else can get their guest network quickly configured and work on device prioritisation. More on that shortly.
While the WRT32X may lack some of the advanced settings and tweaking options you’ll find on say, an ASUS router, Linksys has done a good job of balancing mainstream needs with a few treats. You’ll find support for a range of Dynamic DNS providers, an integrated Open VPN Client, IPv6 and a selection of DNS servers (including your default ISP, Google, Open DNS and Custom settings). Automated firmware checks and downloads each night ensure the router’s features are kept up to date.
Of course, as a member of the WRT family, advanced users seeking more configurations options can choose to install open-source DD-WRT firmware, but that’s likely to result in the loss of Killer Network Optimization support, the principle differentiator here. If you want to run open-source firmware, the standard Linksys WRT3200ACM will be a more cost-effective choice.
Network prioritization for novices and experts
The new model supports network prioritization for any network device, but is optimized to work with PCs equipped with Killer Networking hardware and Killer Control Center (KCC) software installed. Traffic to other devices can be prioritized easily using a simple drag-and-drop interface that places connected devices one of three categories. It gives novice administrators a degree of network control, without the risk of confusion but obviously lacks the precision more advanced users crave.
This type of basic network prioritization feature can be found on most devices in this class, with some offering greater precision based on the type of traffic being transferred over the network. However, Linksys is targeting the WRT32X squarely at gamers owning (or intending to purchase) PCs with Killer networking hardware.
Accompanying our review model was a suitably-equipped MSI GS63VR 6RF Stealth Pro gaming laptop, allowing us to test out the integrated Killer Gaming Engine.
Compatible devices include the Killer Control Center, a networking control and monitoring app that tightly integrates with the Linksys WRT32X router firmware. The app allows you to run speed tests, prioritise local application bandwidth, analyze local Wi-Fi signals as well as manage router settings.
Access the router’s administration dashboard and you should see that Killer-enabled PCs are automatically recognised and prioritized over other devices. During tests, I found that Killer Command Center linked up successfully to control the router, but the WRT32X initially had difficulty recognising the presence of the Killer-enabled PC, categorizing it together with other network devices. Power cycling the router restored order.
Of course, if you have a fast broadband connection – from 100 Mbps up to Gigabit – then do probably don’t need to worry about network latency, unless you have a host of devices in the home hammering web downloads and streaming multiple 4K Netflix videos simultaneously. But for homes that are more bandwidth constrained, the Linksys WRT32X can do a great job of protecting your gaming bandwidth.
I fired up Overwatch and, with little other activity on the network, saw a ping rate of around 37 ms – certainly good enough for a smooth session. Launching a huge download on a different PC, plus a 4K YouTube stream on a third device, you would ordinarily expect that ping rate to climb and the action to stutter. Not so – the WRT32X’s Killer Engine limited the download speed and streaming quality on the other network devices, ensuring the Overwatch action remained silky smooth. Sadly, it did little to improve my skills and whilst again being gently toasted on chat, this time, I couldn’t blame the network.
Stable, super-quick performance
We benchmarked the WRT32X’s wired and wireless networking performance against other routers in the AC3200 class, including Linksys’ own WRT3200ACM. The wireless client select was the AC1900 D-Link DWA-192, while two Intel NUC Core i5 models were selected for the Ethernet networking test.
Given the model’s premium pricing, we had high expectations of the WRT32X and, thankfully, the router didn’t disappoint. Average Ethernet data transfer speeds of 924 Mbps are about as fast as you’ll see on most modern routers, while average wireless speeds on the faster, shorter-range 5 GHz were an extremely nimble 620 Mbps, well ahead of other AC3200 devices tested with the adapter.
The only drawback we encountered was 2.4 GHz speeds which were well behind competitors at an average of 97 Mbps. USB storage sharing performance was strong. Data transfer speeds are some way off those you’ll receive from a dedicated NAS, but average read/write speeds of 78.3/68.7 MBps are more than sufficient for media streaming, and well ahead of all but the very best competitors. Overall, you should have no concerns regarding speed when it comes to the WRT32X.
The router’s administration dashboard was similarly responsive, with fluid page switching and no delays when enabling new settings. The powerful 1.8 GHz CPU with 512 MB RAM (plus 256 MB Flash RAM) in support offers ample horsepower for the device, even under load.
While I did initially experience an issue with the router recognizing the Killer-enabled PC, once corrected I found connectivity between the enhanced MSI laptop and router to work well. Using the Killer Control Center to manage the subset of available options is a convenient option if you’re focused on a gaming session, and the router responded quickly to commands issued from the PC.
Summary: Premium, high-performance router with niche gaming features that actually work
With the WRT32X, Linksys set out to create a router that was more than a design accessory for an expensive, flashy gaming rig and they’ve delivered in spades. This latest addition to the classic WRT -line looks great, is easy to get on with and supports value-added network optimization features that really work. Busy, bandwidth-constrained connected homes with one or more frustrated gamers are going to truly cherish this device. With some conditions.
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First, they’ll need to be prepared to spend up to $100 more on the WRT32X than competing routers in this class. Then, to extract optimum value out of that investment, they’ll need to be playing on Killer-enabled PCs. To be fair, there’s a growing list of devices supporting Rivet Networks’ kit, but at this point, its hardly ubiquitous.
There’s no doubt that Linksys has created another great performing router in the Linksys WRT32X – one that has real potential to solve family bandwidth wars in homes stocked with compatible hardware. For everyone else, the Linksys WRT3200ACM and its less niched peers offer better value for money.