Features - Networking Technologies
An Introduction to 802.11ac
An evolution from 802.11n ("Wireless N"), 802.11ac is affecionately known as the "Gigabit wireless." With media and bandwidth consumption growing explosively, the desire for wireless to match the throughput of wired devices is growing just as quickly. In office environments, cabling costs can be mostly eliminated with wireless connections that rival wired gigabit ethernet. 802.11 steps on the shoulders of 802.11n and builds upon the proven technologies of wireless N to make a bigger, better, and badder wireless system. Similarities to 802.11n are:
- Channel bonding for greater bandwidth
- Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) - parallel data paths to improve throughput
- Beamforming to target and focus signals to access points / users
- Air time fairness protocols
There are many more core similarities, but 802.11ac works to develop a wireless technology for the "real world." Devices using 2.4 GHz are everywhere: traditional Wi-Fi, cordless phones, bluetooth devices, microwaves to name a few. To allow for a greater design space and enable greater bandwidth, 802.11ac uses only the 5GHz band, and won't be backwards-compatible with 2.4 GHz devices. That shouldn't be confused with AC routers not being compatible with 2.4GHz devices, as most of them surely will have 2.4GHz A/B/G/N compatibility.
The 5GHz band will enable more simultaneous 20MHz bandsn to utilize in channel bonding to create higher bandwidth connections, in the future enabling bandwidth of up to 160MHz on a single channel. 802.11ac will also give capability of up to 4 spatial streams and an increase for Quadruple Amplitude Modulation (QAM) from 64 to 256. Once 802.11ac is fully-certified (it's currently on-pace of the end of year 2013), another flagship feature will be MU-MIMO, which is Multi-User MIMO, which builds on standard MIMO to enable parallel connections across several units simultaneously, giving you access points phenomenal functionality for a robust wireless network across many clients.
These features all make big strides to enable throughput levels that will theoretically go well past Gigabit levels (but you aren't likely to see that soon because of the costs / challenges associated and the lack of capability consumer hardware currently has to go any faster). The RT-AC66U has AC bandwidth of up to 1.3Gbps, which is 3 times faster than its sibling, the RT-N66U using 802.11n, and even faster than Gigabit wired speeds if you have hardware capable of handling those speeds. This transitions the wireless bottleneck to your device hardware instead of the access points, so I wouldn't be surprised to see 802.11ac start pushing back on Gigabit here soon to find ways to improve.
These features are obviously loaded with lots of implications on the performance of the variety of devices we carry today, but we won't get into that here so much. Instead, we'll point you to a brief, easy-to-read and comprehend, yet thorough white paper by Motorola which can be found by clicking here.
Features - Software and Utilities
The RT-AC66U comes with some added functionality compared to other routers that add value to its already impressive performance. These include the AiCloud, Media Server, Download Master, QoS, VPN Server, Network Map, and Traffic Monitor utilities, which are accessed via the ASUSWRT Dashboard. The dashboard features the same eye-pleasing UI that ASUS puts into their overclocking utilities, with many shades of grey and blue making up the color palette. A large sidebar makes it very easy to find the settings that you are looking for, and statistics like web traffic data are presented in good detail. This makes the interface appealing to both novice and veteran networkers. I will readily admit that I belong to the former camp, so the ASUSWRT Dashboard is a welcome sight when all I want to do is setup a network printer without hassle and get back to work.
The added features also follow the same trend we've found through a couple months of usage of the RT-AC66U, which is that using them is easy, easy, easy. The dashboard also allows you to prioritize connections with QoS (quality of service) for gaming optimization. VPN servers, network mapping, traffic monitoring, and the addition of several guest SSIDs and varying keys make for robust, flexible, and yet dead simple operation, even for the novice SOHO "IT guy" who also doubles as the comapny's marketer / accountant / etc. All of the advanced operations that admins or networking gurus would want access to are there, and if it's not quite what you're looking for, ASUS uses open-source DD-WRT firmware so you can find a solution that works for you, with Tomatoe being a popular one.
Moving on to a couple more pretty awesome features, we'll start with AiDisk, as it's the most straight forward. Turning AiDisk on allows you to discover USB devices over the network. I have several drives that I've mapped, so they readily show up in my computer as a network drive. This is super-handy and invaluable for anyone managing a single file store with multiple computers. It's great to save straight to the USB disk over the network on a test machine, and removes alot of the tedium of sharing between computers. It's also a great way to share data if you don't necessarily want to share you computer. It's fantastic for collaboration and/or as a data repository, and that's been fantastic for me personally, and small to medium businesses could probably use this to its full potential. It's NAS without the spendy NAS hardware, which is, put simply, awesome. We'll talk more in the AI Cloud Section below how this will be expanded upon in future updates as well.
An iTunes server can be setup to offer you another way to quickly and easily access your media, which can be especially tough to do with iTunes. The Network printer server also works in a similar way, and is great if you don't have a Wi-Fi or ethernet-enabled printer. We also saw very good transfer performance, with large file transfers from the USB network disk averaging around 10 MB/s, and has been more than enough to seamlessly stream video and music directly from the device from my phone and other computers. The fact that you can basically setup a NAS as a default feature is simply awesome, no matter how you slice it. The logical complaint here is that the USB ports aren't USB 3.0, but I'm sure we'll be seeing that soon in future iterations. The USB transfer performance still rocks compared to many routers out there.
ASUS' brand-new AiCloud also is super handy and easy to use, bringing cloud storage and connectivity to your mobile devices integrated into your router which allows remote control of your computers from your phone or tablet, a feature we've also seen and thoroughly enjoyed on ASUS' latest motherboards. In some ways it's similar to AiDisk, but its functionality is far more vast. Using a computer or the ASUS AiCloud application downloaded from iTunes or Google Play for your respective mobile device, you can access any device on your network remotely. Using the AiCloud login service with your own (free) custom domain, for instance, "TechKingsReadersAreAwesome.asuscomm.com" will bring you to your AiCloud login. From there you can access the devices you have setup for AiCloud access, and can stream directly from them, download, edit files directly, and it all runs on your device as though the files are on your own computer. ASUS has even included built-in viewers to view them natively through the AiCloud application. We've shown two viewers in the pictures below for pics and video.
Of course, streaming videos can be limited by either the host or your internet connections. This becomes a great way to store files you'd like to access remotely, and you could even use it to play media while on-the-go, say on a capacity-limited device like a phone or tablet. If you have media attached to the RT-AC66U via USB, you've basically got your own personal cloud at your fingertips.
ASUS also offers web storage as another option (ASUS Webstorage) which ties in seamlessly with AiCloud for a hybrid personal / web cloud. At work and forgot to bring your presentation files you were working on last night from your workstation at home? Normally this would require a trip home, which may not even be feasible, but if you've got AiCloud setup and Wake On LAN enabled for your workstation, you can even wake your computer up to retrieve your files with you phone / tablet or via your web domain you set up. Pretty awesome to say the least. Smart Sync can be used to keep local files synced to the ASUS Webstorage cloud so you have duplicate versions on your personal cloud or your... erm. "cloud cloud"?? Eh, I'll go with it.
AiCloud's application is smooth, refined, and works very well. The interface is intuitive and looks great and blends right in with the tile themes of Windows 8. It works fast, and I was streaming media directly from computers and USB devices literally in minutes.
What these two services do it to roll the idea of a "connected home" or office into one sleek and simple package. Anyone can setup streaming and file sharing with this without any previous experience. It's the easiest implementation I've found, and it's truly fantastic, and really changes how you use and interact with all of your data. No DLNA streamers coupled with this and that and hunting IP addresses and forwarding ports like you have to with many solutions. With this, you can get networked printing, networked storage, streaming, personal cloud, and awesome transfer speeds and performance all in one. It's one of those things that makes you feel like you're life is truly more convenient, and becomes a staple of how you interact with your technology. Even better is that in a forthcoming firmware update, ASUS will enable router-to-router sync with 3 options: PC1 to PC2 one way, PC2 to PC1 one way, or PC2 to PC1 both ways. This will allow you to keep entire directories synced however you'd like it set up. This could be music, pictures, or media directories or documents / data, however you can dream it.
Ontop of the idea of the "connected home," it also goes to making a "connected life." The busy individual, say with an ultrabook or even a tablet, who doesn't have a lot of storage space to spare, but has videos, music, media, large file stores, you name it, can have access wherever they find an internet connection. Additionally, the Android application as well as the web interface has a number of options to share quickly and easily share files and folders, similar to how you would with a Dropbox account.