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Wireless Reviews

Smart Connect

For Smart Connect testing, the R8500 was located in the wireless testbed upper test chamber with the door open. The bridge mode R7000 was in the lower chamber with the door closed. This allowed using the testbed programmable attenuators to control the signal and therefore the link rate of the R7000. I set 20 dB of attenuation so that the R7000 throughput wouldn't dominate the other AC devices. All other devices were located within 6 feet of the R8500 outside the test chamber and all received a nice, strong signal.

Like most AC3200 routers, the R8500 treats Smart Connect like a black box. The only thing you can do is disable and enable it. NETGEAR still makes it relatively easy to track what's connected to each radio, but they've made it a little harder than before. Here's how the R8000 reported client connections...

NETGEAR R8000 device connection table

NETGEAR R8000 device connection table

...and here's how the R8500 does it.

NETGEAR R8500 device connection table

NETGEAR R8500 device connection table

I ran three Smart Connect trials, checking device connections for each, which are compiled into Table 3. The only device that moved between trials was the Apple iPod Touch 5th generation. Although devices didn't change radios, they did change IP addresses. This made testing take longer because I had to adjust the IxChariot test configuration each time the IP addresses changed.

Device Type Network Map ID 1 2 3
Moto X smartphone 1x1 AC android-d4c097 2.4G 2.4G 2.4G
NETGEAR R7000 in client bridge mode 3x3 AC WLANTEST-STA 5G-1 5G-1 5G-1
Laptop with NETGEAR A6200 USB adapter 2x2 AC x220i 2.4G 2.4G 2.4G
iPad 2nd gen 1x1 N SNB - iPad 2 5G-2 5G-2 5G-2
iPod Touch 5th gen 1x1 N Tim-Touch-G5 2.4G 5G-2 5G-2
Table 3: Smart Connect Test devices

In AC3200 reviews, I've been reporting total throughput % gain with Smart Connect enabled compared to all devices connected to one 5 GHz radio. This sets too low a baseline reference, since it's possible to manually assign devices and get higher throughput. So for AC5300 class products and future AC3200 reviews, I'm just going to report total Smart Connect throughput. Let the devices connect where they may!

I set both 2.4 and 5 GHz radios to the same SSID and enabled Smart Connect. This lets the router, device or both figure out what connects to what. Because the NETGEAR R7000 bridge has to be assigned to a band, I set it to 5 GHz, as I have in the past.

Three trials were run, with the R8500 power-cycled between each. Before each test was run, device connections were checked and IP addresses changed as needed in the IxChariot test file. Devices were not moved to other locations between tests.

Total downlink throughput results for the R8500 and a selction of AC3200 class routers are compiled in Table 4...

  NETGEAR R8500 D-Link DIR-890L/R ASUS RT-AC3200 TP-LINK Archer C3200
Trial 1 451 171 205 282
Trial 2 519 322 184 268
Trial 3 523 146 - -
Table 4: Smart Connect total downlink throughput (Mbps)

...and uplink in Table 5. This is a fair comparison, because none of the test devices can take advantage of AC5300 link rates. The ASUS and TP-LINK had only two test trials, hence the missing third trial results.

  NETGEAR R8500 D-Link DIR-890L/R ASUS RT-AC3200 TP-LINK Archer C3200
Trial 1 265 287 353 235
Trial 2 328 277 93 232
Trial 3 329 268 - -
Table 5: Smart Connect total uplink throughput

The R8500 produced the highest total throughput of 523 Mbps for downlink, but the ASUS RT-AC3200 produced the highest uplink total of 353 Mbps. The R8500 was more consistent than the ASUS, given the large difference between the ASUS' results in its two trials.

All the R8500 Smart Connect test IxChariot plots are in the gallery below, so that you can see how individual devices behaved.

Closing Thoughts

I don't know whether it's a permanent reduction, or just due to the holiday shopping season. But if you jumped on the R8500 when it first hit the shelves, you paid $100 more than you can get it for as I write this. Whether it's priced at $300, $400 or somewhere in between, for that price, a router better knock it out of the park! Unfortunately, the Nighthawk X8 doesn't. Why?

  • Even with its amplified antennas, the R8500's wireless performance isn't better than its competition where buyers want it: range. And to make matters worse, NETGEAR's Smart Connect algorithms will steer highest performance devices to its high-band radio, which uses the internal non-amplified antennas.
  • You won't get the advertised maximum link rates, even when connected to an R8500 in bridge mode, sitting in the same room.
  • USB 3.0 connected write storage performance is half the best available from less expensive routers and only about the same for read.
  • The R8500 runs with the pack for wired routing performance. But if you're looking for outstanding OpenVPN throughput, the R8500 doesn't have it.
  • Although advertised as a 4x4 MU-MIMO router, the feature is still in development. It remains to be seen if NETGEAR will make its promised "before the end of 2015" MU-MIMO release date. Even if it does, MU-MIMO readily-available MU-MIMO devices (at least in the U.S.) are still about a year away. MU-MIMO routers deliver no benefit to devices that don't support MU-MIMO.

Like AC3200 (and AC1900 before it), AC5300 is a Broadcom concoction, meant to confuse Wi-Fi rubes and put Qualcomm on the defensive. But by introducing non-standard techniques and modulation standards, Broadcom has also introduced compatibility problems, which have plagued AC3200 router buyers. While Smart Connect is a neat concept, its implementation has caused many buyers to shut it off and manually manage their "tri-band" device connections.

The bottom line is there is more to lose than gain by rushing to buy any AC5300 class router right now. The big number on the box doesn't mean squat. As long as most devices are built with single or dual-stream radios, they'll never even approach the link speeds that even AC1750 class routers can support. And bigger numbers do not mean bigger range! If you want a three-radio router, an AC3200 class router is the smarter buy.

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