Real-World 802.11ac Wi-Fi Testing: 7×6 Routers-x-Adapters Matrix. Part I. Routers.

 
Author:
Job Title:Hare-Based Soldering Machine
Hobbies:Soldering, More Soldering, Even More Soldering
 
 
 
This is Part I of the mini-series. Jump to Conclusions

With all the long-lasting buzz about the Wi-Fi able to communicate at over-gigabit/second speeds, there are only a very very few measurements in the real-world environments (probably because such experiments debunk the “gigabit Wi-Fi myth”). Still, there was one very good experiment performed by the almighty tomshardware and described in [Winkle2013]. In particular, they demonstrated that

Whatever throughput numbers are promised by router manufacturers, in real world should be divided by the factor of 2.5-5x – even under pretty much ideal real-world conditions1

On the other hand, methodology of tomshardware, while commendable in other aspects,2 used only one client for their testing (and it was – drumroll – another router). Apparently (as we’ll show below), these results are not exactly applicable the reality of the usual home network, where 99% of the time main bottleneck is the laptop.3

In addition – after some experience with the routers, we got an impression that it is not as easy as “router X is always better than router Y”, and that

More often than not, results depend very heavily both on the router and on the client device

This 3-part article is an attempt to summarize our findings in this regard, as applicable to most-common-as-of-2017 802.11ac/802.11n 2×2 laptop adapters.

Our testing was conducted for 7 different routers, aiming to cover all the price spectrum; specifically, we tested ASUS RT-AC5300 (~$350 on Amazon), Netgear Nighthawk X8 (~$250), ASUS RT-AC3200 (~$200), Apple Airport Time Capsule (~$200, but includes 2T HDD for backups), ASUS RT-AC58U (~EUR100), ZBT-WE1326 (~$65 on AliExpress), and TP-Link Archer C2 ($40 on Amazon).

In addition, we tested 6 different WiFi cards and adapters: Intel AC8260 (laptop built-in), Intel AC3165 (laptop built-in), NET-DYN 1200AC (USB, $45 on Amazon), Alfa AWUS036AC (USB, $40), Supremery AC600 Dual Band (USB, $15), and Kootek WiFi Dongle (USB, $15).

Each router was tested with each of the cards/adapters, which gives us 42 tests on 2.4GHz band and 42 tests on 5GHz band.

1 that is, if we exclude UDP throughput results, which, as mentioned in [Winkle2013] itself, are not relevant to the real-world.
2 especially compared to the testing in anechoic chambers, which results are not really applicable to the real world
3 or congested Wi-Fi channel, but this is a subject of very separate testing

 

Overall Test Setup

For the purposes of this test, we measured throughput of TCP connection, over a trivialized WiFi network consisting of one router and one client WiFi adapter. We used Lanbench v1.1.0 (which is nothing fancy, but just enough for our purposes). Lanbench was set up with the following parameters: test duration=10s, packet size= 2048. connections = 1.  To exclude random errors, we run each of the tests at least twice at different times and averaged the results.

Lanbench client was running on a Thinkpad P50 laptop, which was using either its built-in adapter, or USB adapter (in the latter case, built-in adapter was disabled).4 To run Lanbench server, we used another PC, connected via 1GbE wired Ethernet port to the router.

For each of the pairs of (router, card/adapter), we measured performance separately in both directions: from router to client (Down), and from client to router (Up).

The room, where testing was conducted, is shown below:

Fig1
Fig2

Position of routers and clients were the same during all tests. Distance between the router and the client – around 4.3m. Router was located ~1.35m above the client.

To make sure that we’re working without unnecessary interference from other Wi-Fi networks, we forced routers to use completely-free channels (as detected using inSSIder); moreover – for all the tests we were able to find such completely-free channels (I know it is difficult to believe, but in our environment it is possible).


4 to test Intel AC3165 built-in adapter, we had to use a different laptop, ultra-portable Lenovo Yoga 700

 

Routers

ASUS RT-AC5300

ASUS RT-AS5300

Current price: ~$350 (Amazon)

Specs:

  • CPU: Broadcom BCM47094 @1.4GHz SoC (dual-core ARM Cortex A9)
  • Flash memory: 128 MB
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Radio: 2x 802.11ac BCM4366 4×4 + 1x BCM4366 @800MHz, 4×4 MU-MIMO, 40/80MHz, QAM-1024
  • 2.4GHz Radio: Broadcom BCM4366 + 4 x Skyworks SE2623L 2.4GHz amplifier and 4x Skyworks SE2623L 2.4GHz amplifier
  • 5GHz radio: 2x Broadcom BCM4366 4×4 + 8x QUORVO RFPA5542 5GHz amplifier
  • Band 1: 1000Mbps @2.4GHz
  • Band 2: 2165Mbps @5GHz, NitroQAM
  • Band 3: 2165Mbps @5GHz, NitroQAM
  • 8 external Antennas
  • Ethernet ports: 5x GbE (1x WAN + 4x LAN)

Within RT-AC5300, we can see one glass-reinforced epoxy laminate (FR4) board, populated with elements on both sides.

ASUS RT-AS5300 PCB

As we can see, significant part of the board is covered by two big heatsinks.

ASUS RT-AS5300 PCB without heatsinks

After removing heatsinks, we can see that almost all electronic parts are covered by four RF-shields; on the surface of RF shields 1, 2 we can see small (20x60mm) flexible thermal pads, which cover less than 50% of RF shield surface. RF-shield 2 doesn’t contact heatsink. Eight SMA connectors placed around the board. On bottom of picture we can see WAN Ethernet connector with a corresponding transformer block HN18101DG , LAN Ethernet connector block with 4x RJ 45 connectors with corresponding two transformers blocks HN8014VG, and USB 3.0 connector. On the surface of board are scattered 8(!) switching power supplies, with 4 of them based on RF9618, 1 based on IT76630M, and 3 based on MT3123.

When looking at the bottom of the PCB, we can see that it is also covered by heatsinks:

ASUS RT-AS5300 PCB bottom

After removing heatsinks, it looks as follows:

ASUS RT-AS5300 PCB bottom without heatsinks

Again, most significant parts are covered by RF shields. Still, at the bottom of the picture we can see 128 MB NAND Flash memory – Spansion S34ML01G200TFI00. Eight U.FL connectors are placed on both sides of board. Around the board there are scattered 6 switching PSU, 1 based on IT6630M, 1 with RF9618 controller, 2 with SC189, 2 with 108 controllers and 1 with MT3123 controller.

Netgear Nighthawk X8

Current price: ~$250 (Amazon)

Netgear Nighthawk X8

Specs:

  • CPU: Broadcom BCM47094 @1.4GHz (dual-core ARM Cortex A9)
  • Flash: 128 MB (NAND)
  • RAM: 512 MB (DDR3)
  • Radio: 2x AC BCM4366 4×4+ 1x BCM4366 4×4
  • Antennas: 4 external active + 4 internal
  • Band 1: 1000 Mbps @2.4GHz, QAM-1024
  • Band 2: 2166 Mbps @5GHz, QAM-1024
  • Band 3: 2166 Mbps @5GHz, QAM-1024
  • Ethernet ports: 7x GbE (1x WAN + 6x LAN)

After opening bottom cover of Nighthawk X8, we can see one FR4 board (see below).

Netgear Nighthawk X8 PCB

All significant parts are covered by RF shields. On the left side of the picture, we can see 8 RF U.FL connectors, which are connected to active antennas labeled as “AA”; 4 more U.FL connectors can be seen on the right side of the picture, and are connected to 4 internal antennas.

ASUS RT-AC3200

ASUS RT-AC3200

Price: ~$200 (Amazon)

Specs:

  • CPU Broadcom BCM4709A0 (1 GHz, dual-core ARM Cortex A9)
  • Flash: 128 Mbit
  • RAM: 256 Mbit
  • Radio: dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi 600Mbps @ 2.4GHz (2xBroadcom BCM43602) + 2x 1300Mbps @ 5GHz (2x Broadcom BCM43602)
  • Antennas: 6x external dipole
  • Ethernet switch: Broadcom BCM4709A0
  • Ethernet ports: 5xGbE (1xWAN + 4x LAN)

When we open bottom cover of the RT-AC3200, we can see one FR4 board:

ASUS RT-AC3200 open

All it is common for expensive ASUS models, all significant parts are covered by two heatsinks. Without heatsinks, it looks as follows:

ASUS RT-AC3200 open, no heatsink

As we can see, all RF parts and CPU are covered by RF shields. Board contains 4 antenna connectors marked “A”, two additional connectors are free-hanging. In additional there are two RJ45 blocks (one 4x and another 1x), with respective Ethernet transformers.

The bottom side of the RT-AC3200 PCB (unlike RT-AC5300 PCB) is less populated:

ASUS RT-AC3200 PCB bottom

and without heatsink it looks as follows:

ASUS RT-AC3200 PCB bottom, no heatsink

In particular, we can see that all the huge heatsink was intended to cover… Spancion flash memory chip S34ML01G100TFI00.

As an added bonus <wink />, we took a look at the antennas of RT-AC3200; apparently, all those huge 180x16x12 mm “horns” of RT-AC3200 are there to host 50×5 mm antennas:

ASUS RT-AC3200 antenna

Airport Time Capsule

Airport Time Capsule

Price: ~$200

Specs:

  • CPU: Broadcom BCM53019 (dual-core ARM Cortex A9)
  • Flash: 32MB
  • Memory: DDR3 256 MB
  • Radio: 2x Broadcom BCM4360KLMG + Skyworks 5003L1 (5GHz amplifier) ​​and 2623L (2.4GHz amplifier).
  • Antennas: six-element beamforming antenna array
  • Ethernet ports: 4xGbE (1xWAN + 3 x LAN)
  • Extras: 2T HDD for backups

Sorry, no internal pictures of Airport at this time <sad-face />.

ASUS RT-AC58U

ASUS RT-AC58U

Price: ~EUR100 (Amazon.de)

Specs:

  • CPU:  Qualcomm IPQ40180 (quad-core ARM Cortex A7)
  • RAM: 128MB
  • Radio: dual-band 802.11ac @5GHz, 802.11n @2.4GHz
  • Antennas: 4x external 5dBi
  • Ethernet Ports: 5xGbE (1x WAN + 4x LAN)

After opening top cover, once again, we can see one FR4 board:

ASUS RT-AC58U PCB

As usual, CPU and RF parts are covered by heatsinks. Still, we can see: WINBOND W25N01GV serial SLC NAND flash memory, Cypress Semiconductor 16 kBit FM25L16B F-RAM memory chip; QCA8075 ethernet switch, Ethernet Connectors  with corresponding transformers, and 4 U.FL connectors for antennas. At the bottom of picture we can see 4 switching PSUs and USB port.

ASUS RT-AC58U PCB w/o heatsink

Under heat sink we can see CPU IPQ4018, two 5 GHz 802.11ac front-end module SKY85728 and two unspecified 2.4 GHz front-end modules, Nanya NT5CC64M16GP-DI 1Gbit DDR3 memory, and Winbond W25N01GVZEIG 1Gbit Flash.

ASUS RT-AC58U PCB bottom

On the bottom side of the RT-AC58U we have only 3 flexible thermal pads, and cluster of MLCC capacitors.

ZBT WE 1326

ZBT WE-1326

Price: $65 (Ali Express)

  • CPU:MT7621A (dual-core MIPS @880MHz)
  • Flash: 16MB
  • RAM: DDR3 512MB
  • Radio: dual-band 802.11ac @5GHz, 802.11n @2.4GHz
  • Antennas: 4x external 5dBi
  • Ethernet ports: 5xGbE (1x WAN + 4x LAN)

That’s how WE-1326 looks without bottom cover:

ZBT WE-1326 PCB bottom

We can see big 66x28mm heatsink glued to board surface by flexible thermal pad about 2.4mm thick. Only one chip is located there – serial flash memory 128M-bit – W25Q128FV.

When we remove the PCB, we can see top cover with two antennas glued to it:

ZBT WE-1326 top cover with antennas

On the top of the PCB, we can see a lot of stuff:

ZBT WE-1326 PCB

The board features: Ethernet connectors and transformers  (YCL G2401DG and  2x YCL G4801DG); one mini PCIe connector, micro SD card connector, SD card connector (SD Card Connector), flesh memory Hynx H5TC4G63CFR, 8 LEDs and four switching PSU (two of them are AMS1117).

ZBT WE-1326 PCB w/o heatsinks

If we remove heatsinks, we reveal three Mediatek chips: MT7621 router-on-a-chip and two radios – 2.4GHz MT7603 and 5GHz MT7612.

TP-Link Archer C2

TP-Link Archer C2

Current Price: $40 (Amazon)

Specs:

  • CPU: MediaTek MT7620A (single-core MIPS @580 MHz)
  • Flash: 8 MB
  • RAM: 64 MB DDR2
  • Radio 2.4GHz: on-SoC MT7620 802.11bgn
  • Radio 5GHz: MediaTek MT7610 802.11an+ac +SKY85703-11 front-end module
  • Ethernet switch: RTL8367RD 5-port GbE
  • Ethernet ports: 5x GbE (1xWAN + 4xLAN)

Archer C2 PCB board looks as follows:

TP-Link Archer C2 PCB

Almost all parts are placed on the top side of the PCB. These include: Ethernet connectors, Ethernet transformers (HST24002SAR and 2x HST48002SAR). At right upper corner of the picture we can see DDR2 memory chip SMT14D5121632A, and SoC MediaTek MT7620. In the middle of the board there is 5-port GbE switch with an integrated 5-port PHY  RTL8367RB from Realtek. Going further down the picture, we can see: Macronics International flash memory MX25L6433F, 5GHz radio block (MediaTek MT7610EN and SkyWorks front-end SKY85703-11), and three switching PSUs based on AP3502EM switching regulators. Additional two switching PSU are placed in the central area of board, and are based on LD6QE.

TP-Link Archer C2 PCB bottom

On back side of the board we can see only two small chips and scattered SMT resistors and capacitors.

[[To Be Continued…

Tired hare:By now, we have described only half of our testing setup, specifically – routers-which-we-were-using. The next instalment will describe our clients (and then, the most exciting part will come – RESULTS of our testing <wink />).

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Acknowledgement

Cartoons by Sergey GordeevIRL from Gordeev Animation Graphics, Prague.

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Comments

    • "No Bugs" Hare says

      :-). Part III with graphs and conclusions should be pretty obvious (but for now, we have to set a correct context to provide those graphs). Stay tuned!

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