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Router Charts

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Mesh Charts

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Introduction

The question of how much total throughput a consumer Wi-Fi router can provide doesn't have a simple answer. Device type (11a/b/g/n/ac/ax), number of streams, distance from AP, applications running on each device are just a start. You also have to take into account the number of other networks that are in range and how active they are.

I decided to use 16 of the 20 real (not virtual) Intel AX200 devices in my newest octoScope STACK-MAX testbed to take a crack at how an assortment of consumer routers perform when loaded with a bunch of dual-band roamable devices.

This article started out as a revisit of my 2014 "Smart Connect" testing. I didn't have anything like an octoScope stack back then, so instead used an assortment of five devices, manually associated them a few times, tracked which band they connected to and ran a total throughput test after all had connected. (For details, check the NETGEAR R8000 Nighthawk X6 First Look and Linksys EA9200 AC3200 Tri-Band Smart Wi-Fi Router reviews.) Executing this manual process got old real fast, especially when it showed the initial crop of tri-radio routers were anything but "smart" when it came to connecting devices to maximize throughput.

A Bit O' Wi-Fi History: When Broadcom's "Smart Connect" first appeared back in 2014, it was intended as a counter-move against Qualcomm's push on MU-MIMO. Both were intended to increase total Wi-Fi throughput. MU-MIMO used beamforming to simultaneously transmit to up to four STAs in the same timeslot. "Smart Connect" split the 5 GHz band in two, added a second 5 GHz radio and allegedly intelligently assigned STAs to each radio to maximize throughput. (See MU-MIMO vs. XStream: The Coming Battle For Wi-Fi Airtime for details.)

Over time, the "Smart Connect" moniker was also applied to dual-band routers. So it evolved into a marketing term that means the use of a single SSID (and security method) applied to all radios in a router/AP.

Along with the rise of "Smart Connect" came the angst of having to decide whether to use it or opt for the traditional different-SSID-per-band method. The decision was typically driven by dissatisfaction with the way "Smart Connect" worked. Some users were lucky and found devices connecting as promised; "slow" devices steered to 2.4 GHz and "fast" devices to 5 GHz. Others were frustrated by the seemingly illogical way devices connected and fell back to using unique SSIDs and managing connections themselves.

The Products

I chose an interesting mix of Wi-Fi 6 routers from what I had on hand, including a few tri-radio and a few with 2.5 GbE ports. I also included my ol' go-to reference, the NETGEAR R7800. as the sole Wi-Fi 5 entrant. The table summarizes key characteristics of the group. Note that all products are powered by quad-core ARM-based processors, clocked at > 1.5 GHz.

  Price Radios 2.5 GbE CPU Radio
ASUS RT-AX86U $290 Dual X BCM4908
BCM43684
ASUS RT-AX88U
$360 Dual   BCM49408 BCM43684
ASUS RT-AX92U $341 Tri   BCM4906
- BCM4352 (fronthaul)
- BCM43684 (backhaul)
ASUS GT-AX11000
$422 Tri X BCM4908
BCM43684
NETGEAR RAX15 $142 Dual   BCM6755
BCM6755
NETGEAR RAX120
$362 Dual X QCA IPQ8074
QCN5054
NETGEAR R7800
$240 Dual   QCA IPQ8065
QCA9984
Table 1: Component summary

The Test

This time, I have a considerably more powerful toolset to work with, using only a small subset of the STACK-MAX test system octoScope has generously provided. The components outlined in red on the system block diagram below include the 38" wide smartBox chamber that holds the router under test, a pair of MPE2-38 multi-path emulators with integrated attenuators and palBox subsystem.

octoScope STACK-MAX block diagram

octoScope STACK-MAX block diagram

The palBox is the key to the test. It contains sixteen individually-hosted octoScope STApal devices. All sixteen have an Intel AX200 Wi-Fi 6 radio running on an Intel Pentium platform. Twelve of the STApals run Ubuntu Linux and four run Windows 10.

octoScope palBox block diagram

octoScope palBox block diagram

A group of four STApals—3 Linux, 1 Win10—are connected to a pair of octoScope high-gain dual-band antennas. Each antenna pair is positioned in a corner of the 38" smartBox (Box A). The photo below shows the four pair, positioned below the other antennas that connect Box A to the other three boxes in STACK-MAX.

ASUS GT-AXE11000 in Test Chamber

ASUS GT-AXE11000 in Test Chamber

The diagram doesn't show the attenuators between the box antennas and STApals. Eight, four-channel 63 dB range attenuators are provided by the pair of MPE-2. The attenuators are configured so that the "0" TX/RX channel of each group of four STApals is connected to one MPE-2 attenuator channel and the "1" TX/RX channel is connected to the same channel of the other MPE-2. This enables setting a different path loss for each group of four STApals, i.e. putting each group at a different "distance" from the router under test. Note the MPE-2 emulator circuit is bypassed in this test; only the attenuator is used.

All STApals are set to be dual-band roamable, i.e. scan for a connection channel. The Linux STApals support 802.11k/v/r, so all these options are enabled. 11k/v/r aren't supported on the Windows STApals. Roam threshold (the RSSI value where the STA starts scanning for a new AP to connect to) and roam target threshold (the minimum RSSI value the STA will roam to) are supported in the Linux STApals and set to -72 dBm and -66 dBm, respectively. Neither is supported on the Windows STApals.

To better emulate real-life, STApals aren't all set as AX / Wi-Fi 6 devices. Two groups are dual-stream Wi-Fi 5 (11ac), one is dual-stream Wi-Fi 6 (11ax) and one is single-stream Wi-Fi 4 (11n). Because of a temporary limitation, the Windows STApals operate only as 11ax devices. So the final mix of devices is as follows:

  • Group 1: 2 stream, 0 dB attenuation (11ax: 4)
  • Group 2: 2 stream, 36 dB attenuation (11ac: 3, 11ax: 1)
  • Group 3: 1 stream, 39 dB attenuation (11n: 3, 11ax: 1)
  • Group 4: 2 stream, 45 dB attenuation (11ac: 3, 11ax: 1)

So the final mix is seven Wi-Fi 6, six Wi-Fi 5 and three Wi-Fi 4 STAs.

Each device under test is configured as follows:

  • 2.4 GHz: Channel 6, 20 MHz bandwidth
  • 5 GHz: Channel 36, 20/40/80 MHz bandwidth
  • 5 GHz #2 (for tri-radio routers): Channel 149, 20/40/80 MHz bandwidth

WPA3 wireless security is used if supported; WPA2 if not. Router defaults were left in place, including standard and "universal" beamforming, airtime fairness (if present) and roaming assist. The only changes I made were to set channels and bandwidth and enable any flavors of OFDMA and MU-MIMO supported.

A Python script that accesses the octoScope API controls the instruments and testing. After the instruments are configured, the sequence below is executed:

  1. Associate the first device from Group 1. Start an single connection of iperf3 unlimited throughput TCP/IP traffic. Traffic continues to run for the duration of the test.
  2. Wait 10 seconds, then record the connection BSS and channel.
  3. Wait 10 seconds, then associate the first device from Group 2. Start a single connection of iperf3 unlimited TCP/IP traffic.
  4. Wait 10 seconds, then record the connection BSS and channel of all associated STAs.
  5. Wait 10 seconds, then associate the first device from Group 3. Start a single connection of iperf3 unlimited TCP/IP traffic.
  6. Wait 10 seconds, then record the connection BSS and channel of all associated STAs.
  7. Wait 10 seconds, then associate the first device from Group 4. Start a single connection of iperf3 unlimited TCP/IP traffic.
  8. Wait 10 seconds, then record the connection BSS and channel of all associated STAs.
  9. Repeat Steps 1 through 8, associating the second device from each group.
  10. Repeat Steps 1 through 8, associating the third device from each group.
  11. Repeat Steps 1 through 8, associating the fourth device from each group.
  12. Stop traffic, generate and save the test file containing throughput and other traffic pair statistics

Note the test allows time (10 seconds) between association and polling for where the STA is associated. This is intended to allow the AP time to move the device to a "better" radio after association. 10 seconds is also allowed between STA associations in case the router needs time to assess its bandwidth load before having to add to it.

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