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Saturday, November 28, 2020

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The Asus RT-AX86U, available now for $250.Ry Crist

A year ago, the Asus RT-AC86U clobbered fancier, more expensive competitors in the gaming router category. The speeds were fast and consistent, the lag was nice and low, the features were deep — and the price tag wasn’t too painful. I liked it so much that it didn’t just find a spot atop our list of the best gaming routers — it sits high on our list of the best routers, period.

Now, there’s a new model: the Asus RT-AX86U. As the addition of an “X” in the model number might suggest, it supports 802.11ax, better known as Wi-Fi 6. That means that in addition to the existing, gaming-centric features like device prioritization and open NAT port forwarding, it supports new Wi-Fi 6 features like 1024-QAM and OFDMA that make your home network faster and more efficient. (Just keep in mind that it doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6E, which adds access to the newly opened 6GHz band as a sort of exclusive, extra-wide carpool lane for Wi-Fi 6 network traffic. Routers like that won’t start hitting stores until the end of this year.)

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At any rate, the RT-AX86U’s price tag rings in at $250. That’s a definite step up from entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers like the $70 TP-Link Archer AX10 and the $150 Linksys MR7350, but neither of those felt like much of an upgrade when I tested them out at my home. The RT-AX86U easily outperformed each of them and felt every bit the part of a top-of-the line access point as I put it through its paces. It also maintains low latency better than any router I’ve ever tested, which is exactly what you’re looking for if you’re a gamer. $250 for a router like that doesn’t seem unreasonable to me in the slightest.

I’m holding off on a full, scored review of this router until we’re able to test its true top speeds, as well as its capabilities as the centerpiece of a mesh setup. That said, I’ve got lots of good data to share from the tests I’ve been running here at the home office — enough so for me to say that this is a router I’m pretty excited about.

Specs and features

The RT-AX86U is a dual-band AX5700 router, which means that it supports Wi-Fi 6, and that the top theoretical speeds from its 2.4 and 5GHz bands add up to 5,700 Mbps, or 5.7 Gbps. Don’t let that figure mislead you — those numbers are based on optimized, lab-based tests that don’t take real-world factors like distance, interference and physical obstructions into account, and you can only connect to one band at a time. Translation: Your actual speeds will be a lot lower.

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That’s not to say that they’ll be slow, though. The router promises top speeds of up to 4,804 Mbps on the 5GHz band and 861 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, so it’s well equipped to handle gigabit ISP speeds. To that end, the router also features a 2.5 Gbps WAN port that allows for multi-gig incoming wired speeds from your modem, as well as support for 4×4 MU-MIMO connections on the 5GHz band. That makes it much easier for it to handle multiple devices at once, or to aggregate traffic to devices that use multiple antennas.

Asus gaming routers also boast a very well-featured app, with lots of settings and tricks to help you tweak your network connection as you see fit. Along with the adaptive quality of service engine for prioritizing traffic to specific devices on your network, you can also just tap a button on the home screen to launch Mobile Game Mode, which instantly prioritizes traffic to your phone. There’s also an Open NAT database of game- and platform-specific port forwarding rules that can help boost performance when you’re playing online with friends.

Beyond the gaming-centric features, the RT-AX86U also includes the usual options for things like parental controls and guest network management. It also supports Asus’ AIMesh feature, which lets you add additional Asus devices to the network to create a mesh.

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At-home speed tests

Features are nice, but maybe you care more about performance. In that case, the RT-AX86U looks to have you covered, too.

At my home, a smallish, shotgun-style house where I have an AT&T fiber internet connection of 300 Mbps, the RT-AX86U was easily able to hit max speeds at close range on the 5GHz band, which isn’t surprising at all. What was surprising as I ran speed test after speed test was that the router was able on occasion to hit download speeds above 400 Mbps. Those were isolated spikes, mind you — the ISP limit always pulls that average back to down to what you’re paying for, and in this case, the final close-range average rang in at 339 Mbps.

Still, I don’t think I’ve seen any other router notch a result above 400 Mbps in this test before. If your router is a bunch of balloons, and your ISP speed is the kid holding a string that keeps them from flying too high, then the RT-AX86U was strong enough to lift the kid off the ground an inch or two.

From there, I ran dozens of speed tests over the course of about a week from multiple spots throughout my home. The 5GHz band stayed speedy throughout most of the space, though my average download speeds did fall to about 70 Mbps in my back bathroom, which most routers I test struggle to cover. 70 Mbps is better than most single-point routers I test are capable of in that dead zone, but most of the mesh routers I’ve tested are able to keep speeds back there up above 150 Mbps. If you’re more concerned with covering a big space than you are with high-speed gaming, then a mesh router like that might be a better choice.

After testing both the 5GHz and 2.4 GHz bands throughout my home, I turned on the SmartConnect feature, which combines both bands into a single, unified network that automatically “steers” you between the two bands depending on which one it thinks is better for your connection. Speeds fell noticeably after turning it on, and I saw inconsistent performance depending on how close I was to the router when I’d first connect to the network. If I connected at a distance, where the 2.4GHz signal strength was stronger, and then moved close to the router, where the much faster 5GHz band is ideal, the router wouldn’t realize it and steer me to the 5GHz band without me disconnecting and reconnecting. That’s not what you want at all.

In fairness to Asus, the feature might be designed with a mesh setup in mind, so once I get a chance to test it out in a setup like that with other Asus devices on the network extending the system’s range, I’ll update this space. But for most users, especially those using the RT-AX86U on its own, I’d recommend leaving the feature off and just sticking to the 5GHz band for most of your traffic.

The leader in latency

One last point on performance (and I really can’t stress this enough) — the RT-AX86U is just flat-out fantastic at handling latency, and easily the best router I’ve ever tested when it comes to lag.

Lag, or ping, is a measurement of how long, in milliseconds, it takes your router to send a signal to a specific server and receive an answer. In my speed tests here at home, I always ping the same server in Lexington, Kentucky, about 80 miles away, and I record the ping time for each and every test. Each router I review goes through a minimum of 90 speeds tests, so that adds up a lot of data on lag.

Now check out those radar graphs. Each one shows the lag results of those 90 speed tests for a single router. The colored circle graphs each one’s ping time across all tests, and the closer it stays to the center, the better. Just about every router will see occasional spikes at some point in my tests — but not the RT-AX86U. It never, ever registered a lag time any higher than 20 ms throughout any of my tests, which is why the purple line representing its lag results looks like such a tight ring around the bullseye.

Outlook

As I said earlier, I’ve got some additional tests I’d like to run before I give this router a full, scored review — but my initial data looks extremely promising. The RT-AX86U is a highly capable router that takes good advantage of Wi-Fi 6, and it offers lots of extra appeal for gamers. You’ll enjoy better range of coverage with a mesh router, and it suffers from bad band-steering — but thankfully, you can turn that feature off.

At $250, I think the price is right, too. It’s more expensive than an entry-level Wi-Fi 6 router like the TP-Link Archer AX10 or the Linksys MR7350, but it justifies the cost with superior performance, decent features and steady, reliable networking, and it can even compete with fancier-looking gaming routers that cost even more. Even if you aren’t a gamer at all, this router deserves a spot at the top of your watch list.

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