Extreme in every way.
Editor’s note: IGN is ramping tech and hardware reviews back up, one product category at a time. We’re kicking off with deep dives into some of the best-of-the best headsets, routers, GPUs, Mice, Monitors, and keyboards from the last few years.
Even though Asus is primarily known for its motherboards and graphics cards, the company is also kind of a big deal in the networking world too. Its routers have long been preferred by PC gamers in the know because they’re fast and offer a ton of features, and it looks to continue this trend with its high-end ($250+) RT-ACC88U gaming router (See it on Amazon). Not only does it look like a “gaming” device with its clichéd red/black color scheme, but it has a handful of gaming-specific features that help it stand out in a crowded field of look alike routers. It’s expensive, especially since it’s a dual-band router and not tri-band, so let’s put it through its paces to see if it’s worth it.
Design and Features
Even though the whole red/black = gaming thing is a bit overdone by now, I actually like the design of this router as it just looks different from the norm, and I fancy its angular shape too. Plus, most routers are solid black typically, so the flashes of red help it stand out a bit. The heatsinks inside are red too, and you can catch only a glimpse of them through the router’s grill, which is kind of cool. It’s a bit wider than most routers at almost 12 inches across and eight inches deep, but it’s not very tall so it’s not as big as the D-Link DIR-890L/R. If you like the specs of this router but hate the red, it also sells a version without any red whatsoever for $20 less, though it has four less LAN ports, and it’s called the RT-AC3100.
As a dual band router it has both 2.4GHz and 5GHz connectivity, but the more savvy amongst you might have noticed this is labeled as an AC3100 router, whereas most AC routers with four antennae are merely AC1900, so what’s the deal? The deal is the RT-AC88U uses a Broadcom chipset that offers a feature called NitroQAM, which allows for higher bandwidth than just regular AC as long as you’re pairing it with a compatible adapter such as this one from Asus. It boots the total bandwidth available from 1732Mb/s to 2,167Mb/s, which is a 25 percent boost.
As with all things networking related, this does not mean it’s automatically faster than other AC routers, and you do need a compatible adapter and so forth, but it’s a unique feature. This same technology can theoretically boost bandwidth on the 2.4GHz channel to 1,000Mb/s, so the two together equal roughly 3,167Mb/s but Asus has shockingly rounded down instead of up, naming it an AC3100 router.
It’s also a Wave 2 AC device, so it supports MU-MIMO, which allows it to serve up to four clients simultaneously. This is different, and better, than a non MU-MIMO router, which has to send data to each client one at a time. You need MU-MIMO clients to make this work however, and they are still somewhat scarce in laptops, phones, and tablets, but that will likely change in the future.
As far as ports go the RT-AC88U has a whopping eight LAN ports, one USB 2.0 port on the back, and one USB 3.0 port inconveniently located in the front under a weird panel that has to be flipped open. This router also supports link aggregation via two of the LAN ports if you have a NAS that supports that feature (most don’t).
For gamers the RT-AC88U has a few tricks up its sleeve that are not offered by other routers, and more than anything it’s these features that make the RT-AC88U stand out. First up is it offers a free membership to a GPN, which stands for Gamers Private Network, care of the service named WTFast. This service claims to route gaming traffic away from busy networks since it’s on its own, essentially making it a private network and thereby reducing packet loss and promising better ping times.
The only catch is the offer that is bundled with the router has traffic caps, and supports only one device, but you can pay to upgrade to a limitless account that supports more than one device. We’re going to have a full review of WTFast soon, but be aware that it’s mostly designed for people who live far away from the server they want to play on.
Its Quality of Service feature is more robust than most routers, offering a two-pronged attack that lets you both prioritize devices and activities. I’m not sure how many devices can be made “highest” priority but I was able to do it with all four of my devices, and was also able to put “gaming” at the top of the priority list, where it should be.
Asus also offers a mobile app that looks exactly like what you’d expect from Asus, as it looks “cutting edge” with a real-time traffic monitor, and basically a lot of bars and graphs that appear to show activity. Think of the blinking lights on your router, but translate that into an app that is trying to show you “stuff is happening” essentially. It is a useful app though, and it’s actually fun to use, unlike most mobile apps. I don’t think anyone would ever need to actually use it, like most mobile router apps, but it’s well-designed and looks pretty slick.
To test how the RT-AC88U performs, I set up a server/client scenario with Netperf and two Windows 10 PCs, then measured the speed of the TCP connection between them. I measured at both 15 feet with line of sight, and at 30 feet with two walls between the computers. I ran the TCP test at least three times to make sure my results were consistent, and if they weren’t I re-tested until they were, trying at different times of the day until I was satisfied. Though everyone’s environment is different, and you wouldn’t be able to exactly replicate my results, they are a good way to get a ballpark estimate of how the router performs. I also performed a “real world” 2GB file transfer test at 30 feet as well.
At 5GHz the RT-AC88U performed admirably, landing right in the middle of the benchmark numbers with respectable scores at both 15 and 30 feet. At 15 feet staring right at the router it was able to hit 829Mb/s, and at 30 feet (with two walls in the way) it dropped down a smidge to 772Mb/s. Neither of these scores were as fast as the Netgear R7800, but they are still respectable for sure. It was about 70Mb/s slower than the Netgear router at 15 feet and about 100Mb/s slower at 30 feet.
At 2.4GHz however the Asus totally rocked the competition, and its speed didn’t change at all as I moved further away from the router It was able to hit 161Mb/s in both tests, which was much higher than the other routers could achieve.
Despite its strong showing in purely wireless tests, it was slower than the top two routers in my “real world” file transfer test, taking about 30 seconds longer to transfer my 2GB test file at 30 feet. This makes it a somewhat lackluster option as a “poor man’s NAS” where you connect USB storage to it and use it as a file server.
The Asus RT-AC88U AC3100 Dual-Band Router has an MSRP of $300 and actually held steady at that price for some time. But in recent months, like a lot of electronics, we’re beginning to see some modest discounts online. It currently sells for around $270 on Amazon, which is about the cheapest price on this particular model for the time being.