Next-gen router as fast as it gets

The Asus RT-AX88U is a dual-band Wi-Fi router that looks rather ordinary, at least compared with high-end routers that are bristling with antennas.

But it is one of the fastest routers you can buy today. Its 2.4GHz wireless band is said to support speeds of up to 1,148Mbps while its 5GHz band goes up to 4,804Mbps.

The catch is that you will have to wait till next year to enjoy its full potential.

This is because the AX88U is the first router in the market to support the upcoming 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard, which promises faster and more efficient wireless performance. It is especially handy in areas densely populated with many Wi-Fi devices, which aptly describes many homes these days.

Unfortunately, these benefits apply mostly to 802.11ax-compatible client devices that have yet to debut.

The good news is, the AX88U is backward compatible with existing 802.11ac client devices.

More importantly, users can make use of its other features now. For instance, it has eight Ethernet ports, putting it in the high-end router segment.

  • SPECS

  • PRICE: $599

    ETHERNET INTERFACE: 1 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit WAN, 8 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit LAN

    STANDARDS: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax

    SECURITY: WPA2

    ADVANCED FIREWALL FEATURES: NAT, DoS and SPI

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

It also comes with AiProtection Pro, a security suite powered by Trend Micro. Valid for the lifetime of the router, this anti-malware software monitors the network for security threats.

Of interest to gamers is its adaptive QoS (quality of service) technology that claims to prioritise gaming network traffic for smoother online play.

It also comes with a limited licence for the WTFast service, valid for a single device connected to the AX88U router to access its gaming network. WTFast offers lower latency and a better connection for online gaming by routing gaming traffic through its private Internet servers to the game servers of popular game titles.

In addition, the AX88U uses a 1.8GHz quad-core processor, which is more powerful than most existing routers. I find its user interface to be responsive.

However, Asus has yet to update its browser-based interface used to access the router settings. It is the same, busy user interface that it has used for years. While it offers plenty of settings, including advanced ones that are useful to experts, it can be intimidating to novices.

The Asus Router mobile app (for iOS and Android) looks better and is more user-friendly. But it still appears stodgy compared with the ones offered by other router manufacturers.

Because there are no compatible client devices, Asus passed me two AX88U routers. The first unit acts as the router while the second unit is configured to function as a media bridge - so as to communicate wirelessly using the new Wi-Fi standard - with the first AX88U router.

The bridge transmits data to my test laptop via Ethernet cable, essentially acting as an 802.11ax wireless adapter.

A second test laptop is connected to the AX88U router via Ethernet cable. The JPerf program is then used to measure network speed between the two test laptops.

The AX88U achieved an average speed of 783Mbps compared with the 500Mbps to 600Mbps that I have seen on the best 802.11ac routers. It even hit a top speed of more than 1Gbps (1,094Mbps) for a few seconds.

Since users are likely to still be using 802.11ac client devices in the near future, I also tested its performance with existing devices, such as a laptop with a maximum theoretical wireless speed of 867Mbps. The AX88U managed an average speed of 568Mbps, which is competitive with current models.

It also had rather good coverage. In my furthest bedroom, with the door closed, the router managed an average speed of 324Mbps, which is good enough that you probably do not need a Wi-Fi mesh router.

Of course, if you do have a recent Asus router that supports Asus' AiMesh technology, it could form a Wi-Fi mesh network with the AX88U. This feature may be handy for large homes with Wi-Fi blind spots.

At $599, the AX88U may seem pricey when a basic 802.11ac router costs less than $200. But given its bundled software features and eight LAN ports, a better comparison would be Asus' GT-AC5300 router, which cost $559 at launch.

These features soften the fact that there are currently no compatible 802.11ax client devices. But buyers are no doubt paying a premium to future-proof their home Wi-Fi now.

• Verdict: While there are no 802.11ax clients yet to take full advantage of the AX88U's new technology, it comes with enough high-end features to justify its premium price.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2018, with the headline 'Next-gen router as fast as it gets'. Print Edition | Subscribe