​AC5300 Router reviews: Linksys EA9500 vs. Netgear Nighthawk X8 vs. D-Link DIR-895L

Which is the best AC5300 wireless router according to our group test?
Which AC5300 router should you buy? Picture: Manolo Gómez (Flickr)

Which AC5300 router should you buy? Picture: Manolo Gómez (Flickr)

This is a group test of three of the latest AC5300 (and AC5400) 802.11ac, MU-MIMO wireless routers. It’s part of a series of articles that has seen us investigate the following:-

Does MU-MIMO currently make a difference?
Linksys Max-Stream AC1900+ WiFi Range Extender RE7000 review
Linksys AC600 MU-MIMO WiFi USB adapter review

If you think that these are probably the dullest-sounding products in existence remember that virtually every piece of technology that anyone owns relies upon them these days, so pay attention!

Testing WiFi routers is something of a unique challenge. There’s very much a YMMV (your mileage may vary) element about them as performance depends on so many factors including location, surrounding building(s), interference from nearby devices and even time of day.

On top of this, the marketing materials and claims by router manufacturers become more hyperbolic with each product evolution. Now that we’re at $600, AC5300 routers with MU-MIMO technology and multiple antennae, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see, “ability to fly” in the specs sheets. And looking at some of them, you wouldn’t be surprised if they did. And let’s not get started on names.

It’s not too surprising though, these are expensive machines which mostly do the same things using similar components – so marketing will always take over. All of them claim to have special features for added stability, reliability and load balancing and all have different names for them. These are impossible to test for directly but overall performance, in our challenging, real-world test environment gave us a good idea of what to expect from each of them. We tested for performance, features and value before delivering our verdict.

What’s special about AC5300 and AC5400?

The 5300 refers to 5,300Mb/s theoretical throughput. This comes from having a three network bands in each router – one 2.4GHz network (1000Mb/s) and two 5GHz networks (2166Mb/s each). Linksys cheekily rounds this up to 5,400 and calls the same thing AC5400. Which is a bit Spinal Tap.

For comparison, the last generation of super routers was called AC3200 and supported a 3,200Mb/s throughput. We included one of these in the test as a comparison.

The contenders

We’re testing three of the latest products from Netgear, D-Link and Linksys. Despite the different marketing, most are based upon the same components and have similar specs and features. We list the main ones separately but all of these have the stalwart router features of: WPS button, VPN compatibility, USB printer sharing, USB storage sharing, Quality of Service (QoS) traffic prioritisation for voice and gaming plus DLNA media support. These models also support the newer guest network offerings plus varying degrees of parental controls as well as a ‘smart beam’ technology which supposedly follows you around your home/office to keep you connected at optimal speeds. They all have smartphone apps for ease of configuration and all make it simple to connect to your home network from elsewhere. The models are:-

Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8

Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8
Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8


Price: $699 RRP (From $550 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 4 external, 4 internal
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 6 Gigabit (two can be aggregated)
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (5GHz has Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: Yes
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: WiFi off button, open source support, backup software, port aggregator.
Warranty: 2 years

D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router

D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router
D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router


Price: $700 RRP (From $590 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 8 external
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 4 Gigabit
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (All bands have Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: In Beta
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: N/A
Warranty: 2 years

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router
Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router


Price: $549 RRP (From $500 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 8 external
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 8 Gigabit
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (combined via Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: Yes
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: N/A
Warranty: 3 years


Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

How we tested

Testing was performed in a three-storey, Sydney townhouse. On the ground floor was our wireless router which was connected via Ethernet cable to our Alienware Alpha test PC. The first thing we did was update the firmware on each router. We then performed three sets of speed tests: next to the router, in a bedroom one floor up and finally two floors up in a second bedroom. In addition to the three main routers we also used our existing router, an older $350 D-Link AC3200 DIR-890L (which has just one 5GHz channel and no MU-MIMO) for comparison.

Both D-Link routers offer a Smart Connect feature whereby only one network is displayed and the router chooses the fastest way to connect to it (the user doesn’t see if it’s 2.4GHz or 5GHz). As this is the default setting we left it as is for this test. The Netgear and Linksys routers have similar features but they only work on the 5GHz bands. Netgear’s is off by default while Linksys’ is always on. Again, we used the default settings.

Note too the DIR-895L's MU-MIMO function is still in Beta. As we've seen elsewhere, though, we don't expect this to make much of a difference.

We ensured that each test was stable and ran it again if it was not (unless otherwise stated).

In order to test the MU-MIMO technology, we added other equipment to each network: we had an old iPad 2 playing V for Vendetta on Netflix (by the router) and Tinkerbell and The Lost Treasure playing on Netflix on an Xbox One upstairs in the second bedroom. We also performed tests on an empty network from the one-floor-up bedroom for comparison.

We then transferred a 2GB movie file across the networks using both 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands (we let the D-Links decide for themselves). We did this using both the native WiFi adapter in a Surface Pro 3 – a Marvell AVSTAR Wireless-AC Network Controller – and then we disabled that and ran the tests using the Surface Pro 3 with a Linksys MU-MIMO Max-Stream AC600 Wi-Fi Micro USB Adapter. All computers were running Windows 10.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

Results

All results are posted in MegaBYTES per second (multiply by eight if you want the figure in MegaBITS per second). Results from the Surface Pro 3 are in orange while the results which used the MU-MIMO dongle are in Blue.

Up close

Up close, it looks as though the older D-Link AC3200 router destroyed the field on 2.4GHz (scoring 68MB/s). This is likely due to the proprietary Smart Connect feature which means it likely was actually working on a 5GHz band but due to the automated nature of the network handling on D-Link’s devices we can’t know for sure.

Using the SP3, the D-Link scored 11MB/s while the Netgear and Linksys scored 9.3 and 9.2MB/s respectively. With the MU-MIMO adapter the results all dropped and reversed with the Linksys achieving 6MB/s, the Netgear 5MB/s and the D-Link 3.9MB/s.

While testing the 5GHz channels on the SP3 we were disappointed to see the D-Link AC5300 looks as though it chose the slower 2.4GHz connection. Meanwhile, the Netgear scored a mighty 57MB/s and a 39MB/s on its two networks (which operate on different channels). The Linksys almost matched the Netgear’s slower speed, with 37MB/s.

Using the MU-MIMO dongle and all results dropped again but to a similar level. The Netgear scored 26 and 27MB/s, the Linksys edged ahead with 28MB/s while the older D-Link AC3200 gave an indication of true D-Link performance with a score of 27MB/s.

So what looks like a wide range of results actually paint an interesting picture. The 5GHz speeds are indeed much faster up close but using a MU-MIMO adapter makes things slower – probably because the WiFi antennae integration in the SP3 is stronger than a small, separate dongle. As the Netgear and older D-Link demonstrate, choosing different 5GHz channels can make a significant difference to speed. Also, as the D-Link AC5300 unit demonstrated, Smart Connect is not always smart.

One floor up

At 2.4GHz In the first bedroom, There wasn’t much change among most of the Surface Pro 3 scores (the older D-Link model looks to have dropped back to a decent 2.4GHz speed here). The routers all seem comfortable beaming to this distance. Interestingly, while all the MU-MIMO dongle scores were lower than the SP3 (again) both the Netgear and D-Link scores stayed the same and the Linksys got faster. This suggests that the MU-MIMO adapter is a bit happier when slightly-further away from the router.

With the SP3, the D-Link scored 9.7MB/s, the Netgear 9MB/s and Linksys 8MB/s which are all broadly similar. Using the MU-MIMO dongle things changed a bit with D-Link dropping to 4MB/s, Netgear dropping to 4.9MB/s and Linksys to 7.8MB/s.

At 5GHz using the SP3 the Netgear scored 6.7 and 4.1MB/s with its two bands while the Linksys sat between the two with 5.5MB/s. Both D-Links appears to have defaulted to the 2.4GHz channel.

With the MU-MIMO dongle we finally saw some acceleration. Netgear roared ahead with 17.6 and 12.5MB/s connection speeds. Linksys increased to 10MB/s. The AC5300 D-Link's current lack of MU-MIMO may account for its lower score and the older AC3200’s score of 7.5MB/s is ambiguous in terms of which channel it was using.

As can be seen, we later ran these tests on an empty network (it had become evident that one-floor-up was the MU-MIMO dongle’s sweet spot) in order to see how much difference having ‘slow’ devices on the network actually made. On the SP3’s WiFi, at 2.4GHz, across the board, speeds slowed down less than 3MB/s when there was other traffic present. All speeds were still faster than with the MU-MIMO dongle although slowdowns only ranged between 0.3 and 1.1MB/s. That slightly-narrower range may represent a win for MU-MIMO. A very small win. We investigate this further, here.

Two floors up

At two floors up, at 2.4GHz, using the Surface Pro 3 the AC5300 D-Link finally came good, scoring 8MB/s. The Linksys followed with 7.8MB/s while the Netgear scored 6MB/s. With MU-MIMO dongles, the D-Link couldn’t connect at all, while the Netgear dropped to 2MB/s and the Linksys dropped to 4.6MB/s.

At 5GHz results became messy. The Netgear couldn’t connect at all (Our XBox couldn’t connect to it either). The Linksys managed 1.5MB/s using the SP3 but a better 4.2MB/s using the MU-MIMO dongle. Meanwhile the D-Link scored 8MB/s with the SP3 but we suspect this was using the 2.4GHz band. It couldn’t connect to at all using the MU-MIMO dongle.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

Review

Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8


Price: $699 RRP (From $550 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 4 external, 4 internal
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 6 Gigabit (two can be aggregated)
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (5GHz has Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: Yes
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: WiFi off button, www.myopenrouter.com support
Warranty: 2 years

The Netgear (like the D-Link) is expensive at $700. It’s the most sober looking in this test with only four antennae visible at the back. We were a bit concerned about built quality, though, as one of the rear antennae housings fell off after a very minor knock. The rest of the casing is strong though. The LED lighting prevents it from looking too boxy and these lights can be turned off with a switch at the front. Next to that button is a WPS connect button and a WiFi power button. At the side is a cover which reveals the USB ports.

Setting up is simple enough, once the network is joined and a browser opened, the Netgear Genie software appears. This takes you through basic settings and invites you to install both its Genie app and also an online backup service called ReadySHARE Vault for continuously backing up your PC (onto locally-attached storage).

The settings pages won’t surprise anyone whose seen router settings in the past, but we’re not convinced the Basic Settings layout is basic enough for beginners. What do people really need here beyond network name and password? Nonetheless there are settings here to set up a guest network and access to the USB ports. Advanced settings provide access to all the usual settings though the language isn’t that friendly. Parental controls are the most comprehensive on show but also quite complex to set up and not foolproof. Another unique feature is compatibility with www.myopenrouter.com which allows hacking types to more-easily modify their router's firmware.

One of the most interesting features is the extra two Gigabit Ethernet ports which can be "Aggregated" together for extra speed. This may improve performance for people who constantly use Network Attached Storage but bottlenecks elsewhere will make it unlikely for regular users to notice much difference. Having two extra wired ports is a boon, though.

In terms of performance it was consistently similar to the Linksys up close. It got faster on the 5GHz tests mainly because it used two different channels. The big let down was its inability to connect at 5GHz when two floors up – even to our Xbox.

Ultimately, at $150 more than the Linksys, it doesn’t offer many compelling reasons to choose it instead, but some of the niche features may appeal to power users.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

Review

D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router


Price: $700 RRP (From $590 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 8 external
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 4 Gigabit
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (All bands have Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: In Beta
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: N/A
Warranty: 2 years

The D-Link DIR-895L is basically the upgrade to the D-Link DIR-890L that we’ve been living with for some time. It’s arguably the best looking of the competitors – reminiscent of a space ship from the video game, Elite – but that might put other people off.

It's a shame that the MU-MIMO firmware isn't yet widely available but this didn't appear to make much difference at this point.

All buttons and connectors are at the back: four Gigabit Ethernet ports, USB2 and USB3, a WPS connect button plus a switch which turns it from a premium wireless router into a colossally-overpriced WiFi extender.

The quick start manual isn’t the most helpful but D-Link helpfully provides a sticker with the default network name and password. Yay!

The settings layout is more modern than what we saw with Netgear but not by much. The standard settings are all in the standard places, but at least you feel more like you’re browsing a modern website rather than router firmware.

Beginners will love the simple Smart Connect feature – you just slide a switch, choose a network name and password and then don’t have to worry about 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands and channels – it just appears as one network and everything else is automatic. We’ve been big fans of this over the past year as explaining which network to connect to for visitors and family members is simple. Also, connecting games consoles and the like is made much easier as you don’t feel obliged to test each channel before connecting.

However, as we saw with our performance tests, it’s not always so Smart. It frequently chose slower channels for connections when even its older sibling didn’t. Perhaps experience and a lack of a confusing secondary 5GHz channel counts for something?

Nonetheless, it effectively matched the field up close in the 2.4GHz tests. However, it should really have been using the 5GHz band instead and missed out on some considerable performance boosts.

It got the hang of things when one floor up – consistently scoring well when connected to our Surface Pro 3. However, it didn’t like connecting to our MU-MIMO dongle as much - probably because the antennae is smaller than the SP3's and the MU-MIMO isn't enabled yet. Indeed, while other 5GHz MU-MIMO scores soared, the 895L’s went backwards which was the only time MU-MIMO may have provided a significant advantage.

It did redeem itself at long range though with the best connection speed that we saw.

In terms of other features, there’s only the standard fare. There are no parental controls per se but you can create up to 24 access restriction rules, if that helps?

The main problem for the AC5300 is that while its AC3200 sibling is basically the same thing with one less network band and no MU-MIMO ability, it costs literally half the price. However, if, like us, you just want to see one WiFi network in your settings without wondering which will be fastest (and you want MU-MIMO compatibility down the line) the D-Link makes a good AC5300 choice. It might get things wrong a lot, but you’ll only notice this on very large file transfers.

However, for now, with the Linksys costing $150 less, we still can’t recommend it.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

Review

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router
Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router


Price: $549 RRP (From $500 real world)
Stated Max throughput: 5.3Gb/s
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core
Antennae: 8 external
Ethernet ports: WAN plus 8 Gigabit
Bands: 1 x 2.4GHz, 2 x 5GHz (combined via Smart Connect)
MU-MIMO: Yes
USB: 1 x USB2, 1 x USB 3
Other features: N/A
Warranty: 3 years

Linksys’ latest looks a bit like a massive upturned spider which can be a bit disconcerting in low light and shadow-rich environments. It’s no looker, although the LED lights on the front have a certain Knight Rider quality to them. At the side are two buttons, one for WPS connection and the other turns off WiFi. They are not clearly labelled(!)

But it’s at the back where the magic happens. In addition to the USB2 and USB3 ports, there are eight (count’em) Gigabit Ethernet ports. If that seems like overkill, you’d be utterly and completely wrong. These days they can fill up quickly. It’s not uncommon to have a cable TV box, Apple TV, other media streaming device, TV, game console and powerline extender all connected – four ports can be constrictive and piling them all onto WiFi can be an unnecessary stress for even powerful routers like these.

Setting up requires making a Linksys online account which is a bit weird. Settings are displayed a bit more n00b-friendly than with Netgear but arguably not quite so well as the D-Link. Nonetheless, the near-interactive menu structure and status display is well laid out.

Parental controls let you simply choose devices and block them either permanently or at different times. It’s not as complex as Netgear’s offering but on or off are what many parents will want.

Linksys also makes use of Smart Connect but only for the 5GHz channels – you can’t actually separate the two 5GHz networks but few people will need to.

All other settings including USB storage handling and sharing are standard fare.

In terms of performance the Linksys was the most consistent. It wasn’t always the fastest but it was often up there. At close range it held its own at 2.4GHz and at 5GHz (mainly using the MU-MIMO dongle). One floor up it saw consistently-strong performance even though it didn’t come first in any tests. At two floors up it arguably pulled away from the field as the Netgear couldn’t connect at 5GHz and the D-Link appears to have resorted to choosing the 2.4GHz band.

At $150 less than the competition, it’s a clear winner – the consistent performance at all ranges, the ease of use, those eight network ports all would have had it winning if it cost $700 like its rivals.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion

Page Break

Conclusion

We learned a lot from this test and not just that corrupt parliaments should be blown up (V for Vendetta) or that our fairy friends shouldn't be scolded when they're only trying to help (Tinkerbell).

It’s hard to imagine anyone buying one of these routers and regretting it. They’re all good and they generally do the same thing.

The Netgear offers a few more configuration options than the competitors, including more complex parental controls, open source software compatibility, port aggregation and a backup app but these aren’t earth shattering. In performance terms it struggled two floors up more than any other. Considering it costs $700, we’re confident in saying that there’s better value to be had elsewhere.

Despite the haphazard performance of the D-Link router (or it's current lack of MU-MIMO firmware), it can’t be underestimated how much, ‘not having to think about which network band to join’ makes. All environments have fluctuating WiFi conditions and if you see the D-Link network it will usually work very well. But there aren’t too many other features. It does look the best unless you hate the sight of it. We’ll probably end up using it most ourselves but really, at $150 more than the Linksys, it loses this test on value.

The clear winner is the Linksys. It would arguably win if it cost $700 like its rivals but it’s actually $150 less. The eight Gigabit Ethernet ports, the simple settings pages and consistently-strong performance at all ranges means that while it might not have won many of the tests outright, overall it’s the champion.

However, there needs to be an honourable mention for the older, D-Link AC3200 DIR-890L router. This is essentially the same as the (tested) D-Link AC5300 DIR-895L router but for one less 5GHz network and no MU-MIMO potential. It offers the same features, proved itself capable at all ranges and costs just $350!

Finally, for more information on the MU-MIMO WiFi adapter that we used, check out this review, here. We also reviewed Linksys' WiFi range extender, here. Finally, we investigated MU-MIMO itself and saw whether the benefits were worth paying extra for (at the moment), here.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: How we tested
Page 3: Results
Page 4: Netgear Nighthawk AC5300 X8 review
Page 5: D-Link DIR-895L AC5300 MU-MIMO Ultra Wi-Fi Router review
Page 6: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit router review
Page 7: Conclusion