Asus RT-AC56U 1200 Dual Band Wireless Router Review

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Few areas of consumer technology are more overflowing with confusing jargon than wireless networking. If you’re in the market for a new router, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by terms like 802.11ac, 2.4 and 5GHz, multiple streams, beam forming, etc.

If you’re not clear on what all the terms mean, it’s easy to buy more router than you really need—especially when most broadband Internet speeds are much slower than the bandwidth available from modern high-end routers.

In general, a more powerful router in many cases won’t make your Internet any faster, especially if your current router was purchased in the last few years. High-end routers are best suited to serious gamers, those who have several people accessing the Internet at the same time, or those who frequently stream locally stored HD video files between devices on the same network.

Asus’ Dual-Band Wireless Router RT-AC56U represents a solid middle-of-the-road device that’s a good fit for those who want more than the basics (like the new 802.11ac spec for faster performance with new devices and a USB 3.0 port for sharing fast drives or printers on a network), but don’t want to pay for a bunch of features they aren’t likely to use.

At $159.99, the RT-AC56U isn’t the most affordable router, but in my testing, it performed solidly on both the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, while offering up some really useful extras. Just make sure you update to the latest firmware once you’ve connected it up (a good idea with any router). Many users have complained in forums about the router’s stability issues in the past. But running the latest software, I noticed none of these problems during my two weeks of testing.

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A Solid Feature Set

The RT-AC56U operates both on the traditional 2.4GHz band, as well as the 5GHz band. If you live in an urban area or your home is loaded with electronics (or both), the 2.4GHz band can be crowded with interference from other devices, which can degrade performance.

The 5GHz band is generally much less cluttered with competing signals, so you’ll get less interference. 5GHz is also the band that the new 802.11ac standard (which supplants the previous-generation 802.11n) operates on. So you’ll generally see faster transfers on 5GHz, but that is dependent on your Internet speeds, unless you’re transferring locally stored files on your network.

The newer 5GHz band, though, generally has somewhat shorter range. So it’s not ideal in every situation. Plus, you’ll need a relatively recent device that supports 802.11ac in order to access the 5GHz band.

The RT-AC56U helpfully delivers the best of both wireless worlds. During setup, it’s simple to create both a 2.4GHz connection for your older devices, or those that are further from your router, as well as a 5GHz connection for newer devices that are close enough to maintain a steady signal.

If you do have a large home, though, you may want to consider a higher-end router with external, positional antennas to maximize coverage. Removable antennas also allow you to buy bigger antennas or signal boosters to increase your WiFi range. In my small apartment I had no problem maintaining a connection on either band. But three rooms away from the router, the 5GHz signal was reduced to about 50 percent of full strength. Your signal will vary, depending on the thickness and material of your walls, as well as how much interference there is from other devices in your area.

The RT-AC56U has a solid selection of ports. You get five Ethernet jacks, one input for your Internet connection, and four connections for computers, network-attached drives, streaming set-top boxes, etc.

There are also a pair of USB ports on the back of the router for connecting hard drives so that they that can be accessed by any device on your network. One port is an older 2.0 USB port, while the other is a faster USB 3.0 port. If you have something fast, like an external RAID array with multiple drives, or a portable solid-state drive that you want plugged directly into the network, you’ll want to plug that into the faster 3.0 port. The 2.0 port will suffice just fine for a regular USB hard drive or a printer.

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Power and reset buttons live on the back of the router, while two buttons sit on the right edge, near the bottom. One is a WPS button, which lets you connect WPS-enabled devices without punching in your security key—just press the WPS button on your device and the button on the router, and the device should connect automatically.

Also on the right edge is a WiFi on/off button, which lets you switch off your wireless networks while still maintaining the connection to your wired devices.

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Setup and Testing

No router setup is simple if you don’t have at least a basic grasp of wired and wireless networking. But I had no issues setting up the RT-AC56U. Following the instructions in the paper manual, I plugged in the router’s power cable, plugged the included Ethernet cable into the blue Ethernet port on the router, connected the other end of the cable into my cable modem, and then plugged the cable modem in to a power outlet. I then connected my wired Internet devices (two desktops, a Roku player, and an Internet-connected TV) to the Ethernet jacks on the router.

Then, on my desktop, I fired up the router’s “web GUI” by launching a browser and typing 192.168.1.1 into the address bar. Note: You can access the router’s settings on a tablet or smartphone, but it’s best to use a desktop or laptop that’s connected via an Ethernet cable for the initial setup.

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The tabbed, browser-based router interface is fairly intuitive (by wireless network device standards), and I was able to set up a 2.4GHz wireless network from the main page, choose my security settings and a password. From there, it’s simple to click the 5GHz tab and press a button to carry over those same settings to the second 5GHz network. The software even adds a “5GHz” addendum to the name of the second network, so you can tell the two apart. You can, though, name the networks something completely different, if you like.

From there, all you should have to do is save your settings, then go about connecting all your wireless devices to one of the new networks, either by entering in your security credentials or by using the WPS button on the side of the router.

Once everything was up and running, I did some quick speed tests. One room away from the router, in a room with a large TV, two computers, and several tablets, smartphones, and laptops, Internet speeds on the 2.4GHz band were roughly 19Mbps down and 6.5Mbps up (using my Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone). On the newer 5GHz band, my speed jumped to 29Mbps down and nearly 7Mbps up.

On my desktop, which is connected via Ethernet, my Internet speeds were nearly identical to what I got from the 5GHz band over WiFi (the 5GHz WiFi was actually slightly faster), indicating that the RT-AC56U was able to deliver the full speed of my cable broadband internet from a room away.

Moving two large rooms away from the router, speeds on the 5GHz band remained nearly the same, but slightly slower (about 1Mbps less). Speeds dipped a bit (16Mbps down) on the 2.4GHz band, even though the signal still showed up as strong. Moving to a floor below the router, through thick apartment building walls, the speed of the Internet on the 5GHz band became more sporadic, sometimes dipping below the speed of the 2.5GHz band. But both bands were still able to deliver download speeds at or above 10Gbps—not bad considering how much plaster, wood, and concrete were between my phone and the router.

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Conclusion

Users who want a router with more than the basic features, with dual-band operation for the best performance from both older and brand-new devices, should seriously consider the Asus RT-AC56U. It doesn’t have the removable antennas of higher-end models, which can increase range. So if you live in a large house or have had issues with WiFi coverage in the past, you may want to opt for pricier model.

Alternatively, if you have an older router that still works, you could set it up as a WiFi repeater a few rooms away from the RT-AC56U, so that it can receive and rebroadcast the signal from your main router to other areas of your house.

To be sure, there are certainly better routers available if you’re willing to pay more. These high-end models, such as Linksys’ Smart WiFi Router AC 1900, Netgear’s R8000 Nighthawk X6, or Asus’ AC2400 RT-AC87U, will generally deliver more speed and a wider coverage area. But these high-end routers are loaded up with features the average home user won’t likely use. They often cost well over $200, and their increased speed will be wasted unless you have very, very fast home Internet, eight or more people using your network at a time, or you often stream HD video from a network-attached drive, or you frequently move large files from one device to another.

Included in the Box:
Router
Power cable
Ethernet cable
Support CD
Manual

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Asus RT-AC56U 1200 Dual Band Wireless Router Review
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Matt Safford

Matt Safford spends his days testing gadgets and writing about technology. He has written for Popular Science, Smithsonian, Consumer Reports, and Wired.

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