REVIEW: Early Wave 2 Wi-Fi access points show promise

By Eric Geier (Our Owner & Lead Wi-Fi Consultant)

Originally published on NetworkWorld

There’s a lot to like about Wave 2 802.11ac products, including theoretically faster speeds than Wave 1 products and cool new features, such as multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO.) In this review, we look at five Wave 2 wireless access points, comparing prices and features, looking at usability and doing some performance testing.

The products in this review are: Amped Wireless AC1300, ASUS EA-AC87, Cisco Aironet 1852i, Extreme Networks AP3935 and the Linksys LAPAC2600. Here’s a quick take on what we found:

  • Amped Wireless doesn’t provide advanced business-class features, such as VLAN tagging and band steering, and the low-cost (starts at $130) reflects that. But it could still be useful in simple networks, particularly for its bridging capabilities or to add simple network-attached storage functionality via its USB storage port. Though it came in third in our speed tests overall out of the five units, it was the fastest in the MU-MIMO tests.

  • The ASUS unit is also a small office offering, which did very well in our speed tests. Since it lacks 2.4GHz, it wouldn’t be ideal for a full access point, but you might find it useful for adding 5GHz to a network that lacks it or for its bridging capability.

  • The Cisco Aironet unit is a solid SMB option, although it didn’t do great in our throughput tests. It is, however, the only access point here that provides an internal RADIUS server for user authentication and supports the most 5GHz channels.

  • The Extreme Networks unit is more of enterprise-level access point and requires an on-premise controller for full functionality; their cloud controller solution offers just a basic feature-set. This unit scored the lowest overall in our throughput tests, but was mostly due to the unusually slow speeds with the Macbook. If you don’t count those tests, it was actually faster than the Cisco unit.

  • Linksys led the pack in the throughput tests, offers a good feature-set and would be a solid option for SMB environments. There’s not much to complain about, besides offering the least amount of 5GHz channels of the business-class offerings.

Amped Wireless AC1300

The Amped Wireless AC1300 is an access point suitable for small office environments, and it can also act as a wireless bridge. It’s a standalone access point and doesn’t support any centralized management for configuring multiple units. The vendor says the access point can provide theoretical data rates of up to 399Mbps in the 2.4-GHz band and up to 866Mbps in 5GHz, giving you up to 1,265Mbps of simultaneous throughput. In our tests, we saw a max of 504.9Mbps simultaneous throughput. Factoring in all the speed tests, this unit placed third out of five.

This is an all-black unit with a plastic housing. It measures about 9 inches high, 1 inch wide, and 5.5 inches deep when sitting up in the included desktop mount, not counting the two external antennas. On the front of the unit are LED status lights for the power, network connection, wireless bands, and the USB port.

On the back you’ll find one network port and four Ethernet connections for wireless bridging. There’s also a USB port for sharing a USB drive on the network, a button to toggle the LED status lights on/off, and buttons for WPS, factory reset, and power.

In the box, you’ll find a power adapter, Ethernet cable, a simple desktop mount/bracket, and a setup guide along with the unit.

After plugging it in and accessing the web GUI, you’re prompted with a wizard that helps you set the SSID, PSK password, and admin password. We evaluated the unit with the most current firmware at the time: Version 1.01.07. When accessing the web GUI after the initial setup, you’re greeted with the dashboard, showing the main wireless and guest settings, along with displaying the IP address and firmware details.

You can click the More Settings button on the left to access a menu for all the settings. Both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands have a sub-menu of pages that contain similar settings. We found that the unit supports enterprise Wi-Fi security with an external RADIUS server along with the personal (PSK) mode. You can also utilize the four additional guest network SSIDs of each band along with the main SSIDs of each band to create up to 10 total SSIDs. VLAN tagging is not supported, however that’s usually the case at this unit’s price. Lucky, you can at least define if you want the guest networks to be bridged or excluded from accessing the main SSIDs.

On the Network Settings page, we found this access point can also function as a simple DHCP server. On the USB Storage page, you can define the share name, workgroup name, and password protection if utilizing the USB 3.0 port to share a drive to the network. Under the Managements settings, we found it supports automatic reboots, which can be a convenient feature to help refresh the unit on a weekly or daily schedule.

The Helpful Tips shortcut in the upper-right of the web GUI is visible on all the pages. Clicking it gives you a brief description of all or most of the settings on that particular page. They do provide a full downloadable user guide, but the tips are convenient for quick help.

ASUS EA-AC87

Other than being a single-band 5GHz-only unit, the ASUS EA-AC87 is similar to the Amped Wireless AP, both can act as an access point and wireless bridge, suitable for small office environments. This ASUS unit is also a standalone access point; there’s no support for any centralized management of multiple units. The vendor claims it offers theoretical simultaneous data rates of up to 1,734 Mbps. Our speed testing showed up to 722.5Mbps concurrent throughput, placing this unit in second place out of all the speed tests.

This unit has a black plastic square shaped case. It measures about 6.25 inches wide and deep, and sits about 1.5 inches high when upright, not including the four external antennas. The bottom of the case has two simple mounting holes, allowing for easy wall mounting and possible ceiling mounting.

On the front of the unit you find the status lights for the power, Ethernet connection, and a fairly unique signal quality indicator to show you the strength of the source Wi-Fi connection when using the media bridge mode. On the back of the unit, you’ll find five Ethernet connections, one of which can be used for a LAN connection when in access point mode and the others for connecting wired devices if using it as an access point or as a wireless bridge, which they call the media bridge mode. There’s also a power button and a power input on the back.

On the left side of the unit, you find a convenient switch to toggle between the access point and media bridge modes and buttons for toggling the LED status lights on/off, activating WPS, and performing a factory reset.

In the box, you also receive the power adapter, Ethernet cable, printed quick start guide, and a CD with the digital edition of the guide and two simple utilities to help with discovering and recovering the unit.

When deploying the unit in the AP mode, you can simply plug an Ethernet cable into one of the five Ethernet ports and it can get an IP via DHCP. When in the media bridge mode, you can simply press the WPS button on your ASUS unit if the main Wi-Fi network supports WPS as well. If the network doesn’t support WPS, you can also manually connect the ASUS unit to Wi-Fi via the web-based GUI using the default IP assigned to the unit.

We evaluated this ASUS unit with the latest firmware at the time: Version 3.0.0.4.374_2849. The first time you access the web GUI, you see the wizard to help you configure the admin password, internet connection, and the Wi-Fi settings. From there on, you see the network map and system status after logging into the web GUI, where you can quickly change the wireless name and security if using the AP mode and the Wi-Fi connection if using the media bridge mode.

The menu for the web GUI is on the left. The second shortcut on the menu is for the guest network functionality. Though you can define the SSIDs, security modes, access schedules, and MAC filtering of each of the three SSIDs, there’s no way to bridge them to the main SSID (as with the Amped Wireless unit), so all guest networks have to be excluded from accessing the main SSID.

After reviewing the wireless settings, we found the typical advanced settings, with the exception of enterprise Wi-Fi security. Only the personal (PSK) mode is supported. For most settings in the web GUI, you can click the setting name to see a brief description of that setting. There’s also links on the bottom of each page that take you to the ASUS support page where you can download the full documentation.

Cisco Aironet 1852i

The Aironet 1852i from Cisco is a ceiling/wall mount access point designed for the small and midsized businesses (SMB). It comes with the Cisco Mobility Express Solution installed, allowing you to centrally manage up to 25 access points with a web-based GUI or the Cisco Wireless Android or iOS apps. You can alternatively manage this unit via an on-premise Cisco wireless controller.

Cisco says this unit can provide theoretical data rates of up to 217Mbps in the 2.4GHz band and up to 1,733Mbps in 5GHz, giving you up to 1,950Mbps of simultaneous throughput. However, in our throughput tests we only saw a max concurrent throughput of 470.3Mbps. Overall it placed fourth out of five in all of the tests.

This unit is white with a square case; the bottom portion is metal and the top cover plastic. It measures about 8.25 inches wide on each side and is about 2 inches tall. The model we tested has integrated antennas, however, Cisco does offer a model with external antenna support.

On the back/bottom of the unit you’ll find three Ethernet ports: the main PoE network port, an aux port for Link Aggregation, and a console port for access to the Mobility Express controller CLI. There’s also a USB port that’s currently not supported, a mode pinhole for restoring factory defaults, and a power input.

Our unit also came with a mounting bracket and T-RAIL clips, but you need to select them during ordering. No power adapter is included by default, so if not using PoE, you must utilize a power adapter like Cisco AIR-PWR-C.

We tested this Cisco unit with the firmware version of 8.2.100.0. When initially plugging in this unit, it emits a default setup SSID of CiscoAirProvision with a PSK of password. Once connected to the access point, you’re given an IP from the access point’s temporary subnet and DHCP server. You can then access the web-based setup GUI or utilize the mobile app to configure the unit. The setup wizard helps you create an admin user and password, configure the Mobility Express controller function and LAN details, create a wireless network and optional guest network, and also set the RF Parameter Optimization.

After the initial configuration, you first see the Network Summary page when you access the web GUI. It gives you stats of your networks, access points, clients, rogue access points, and interferers. You can click access points and clients to view stats on many aspects, such as data rates, signal strengths and noise levels. For clients, you can view a breakdown of the top applications utilized and even run ping tests and packet captures.

The Wireless Dashboard pages give you further stats and graphs on various aspects of the access points, clients, and interference. Also interesting is the Best Practices page that lists many infrastructure, security and RF management best practices and indicates if you’re currently following them.

In the Wireless Settings section, you find them broken up into settings for the WLANs, access points, WLAN users, and Guest WLANs. When configuring enterprise Wi-Fi security, you can choose to use an external RADIUS server or utilize the integrated one and define user accounts in the local database on the WLAN Users page. When configuring guest access, you can have the integrated captive portal require usernames and passwords defined in the local database, display terms and conditions, or require an email address.

Other than some tooltips describing the charts in the Wireless Dashboard, there’s no help integrated in the web GUI nor any settings described. But like other Cisco products, this unit has plenty of documentation online.

Extreme Networks AP3935

The Extreme Networks AP3935i is ceiling/wall mount enterprise-class access point. The unit must be deployed via ExtremeCloud or an on-premise controller. They claim this unit can provide theoretical data rates of up to 800Mbps in the 2.4-GHz band and up to 1,733Mbps in 5GHz, giving you up to 2,533Mbps of simultaneous throughput. However, with this unit we only saw up to 384.7Mbps of simultaneous throughput. After averaging all the speed tests, it performed the slowest.

This unit has a white and gray color scheme: a gray metal bottom with a white plastic top cover. It’s a curved square shaped unit, measuring about 8.5 inches wide on each side and about 2.5 inches high. The model we tested has integrated antennas, however, they do offer a model with external antenna support.

On the top of the access point you see the status LED lights for the power, both LAN connections, and both Wi-Fi radios. On the bottom you find the three Ethernet ports: the main PoE LAN port, an secondary LAN port for Link Aggregation, and a console port. There’s also a pinhole for restoring factory defaults and a power input. Plus there’s two screw holes for simple mounting.

Along with the unit comes quick reference guides for mounting and powering on the access point and for connecting it to the ExtremeCloud controller. Mounting brackets for flat wall or ceiling and drop ceiling t-bar mounting are separately offered.

Keep in mind that although the firmware for the AP3935 is the same whether you are managing them via ExtremeCloud or via their on-premise controller, the features that are available are different depending upon the management solution you choose. Some advanced features available when using the on-premise controller are not yet available on ExtremeCloud, though they are planned to be added in coming releases. These features include, but aren’t limited to, additional wireless modes (mesh, WDS, bridging, etc), 802.1X supplicant, and rogue access point detection (WIDS and WIPS). Since it was suggested by the vendor to use ExtremeCloud during our evaluation, that’s the GUI and settings we discuss. However, we do list features in the access point comparison table that are only available when using the on-premise controller.

When logging into ExtremeCloud for the first time, you’re prompted to set your location, time, initial SSID, and wireless password. The access point should automatically detect ExtremeCloud and register, otherwise you can register to your account online or with their Android or iOS app by scanning the unit’s QR code. We evaluated this unit using the access point firmware Version 10.11.01.0210 and ExtremeCloud version 3.11.02-25.

ExtremeCloud’s web GUI has a menu on the left. The first tab is the Dashboard, showing charts of various stats, like for number of clients, throughput, top access points, top clients, and application categories for client traffic.

The next tab from the menu is Device Groups, which lets you assign SSIDs, access points, and switches to different groups to support configuration via groups.

The Networks tab shows a list of the SSIDs configured and clicking on an SSID lets you view and change the settings, as well as see charts on throughput and usage. Though you can enable a captive portal, it must be an external captive portal.

Under the Devices tab, you can choose Access Points or Switches to see a list of the devices and to view or change their settings.

On the Clients tab, you can view a list of all the clients on the networks. Clicking a client from that list gives you quite a bit of information, including charts on its usage.

Under the Policy tab, you can configure roles, service classes, VLANs, and data rate restrictions.

Under the Admin tab, you can define additional admin accounts, view and search the logs, and some other general settings.

On every page of the ExtremeCloud’s web GUI you’ll see your email address in the upper-right corner. You can click that and hit Online Help to bring up the documentation in another browser tab, which takes you to the description of the settings for the page you’re on.

Linksys LAPAC2600

This Linksys LAPAC2600 is a ceiling/wall mount access point, targeted towards SMBs, which also supports WDS and workgroup bridge modes. It has an internal wireless controller feature, which they refer to as clustering, supporting up to 16 access points. The company claims the access point provides theoretical data rates of up to 800Mbps in the 2.4-GHz band and up to 1,733Mbps in 5GHz, giving you up to 2,533Mbps of simultaneous throughput. In our testing, we saw a simultaneous throughput max of 753.1Mbps in 5GHz, the highest we saw in all the testing, placing this unit in first place.

This Linksys unit has a white hexagon-shaped case, measuring about 9.5 inches around and about 2 inches tall. On the front/top is a LED status light. On the back/bottom of the unit you’ll find two Ethernet ports: one for the main network port with PoE support and another for link aggregation. Plus there’s the reset button and power input.

Along with the unit comes a mounting bracket, quick start guide, CD with full documentation, and a power adapter.

We evaluated this Linksys unit with firmware Version 1.0.01.000. When you plug it into the LAN, it will first try to get an IP via DHCP. If that doesn’t work, it will then assign itself a default IP. When you access the web GUI, you’re met by the System Summary page. You can then access the remaining pages of the System Status tab on the menu to the left: LAN Status, Wireless Status, Wireless Clients, Statistics, and Log View.

The next tab, Quick Start, gives you a setup wizard that helps you set the admin credentials, host name and time, IP configuration, and basic wireless and VLAN settings.

The next tab, Configuration, is where you find the majority of the settings. The Administration menu is where you’d configure the settings for the admin access and accounts, time, logging, and the access point’s LED lights. In the LAN menu you find all the basic LAN settings, plus their 802.1X supplicant feature. The Wireless menu contains all the usual settings, including rogue access point detection, WDS, and workgroup bridge features.

The Captive Portal menu is where you can configure the optional web-based authentication for the Wi-Fi users. They can be authenticated via usernames and passwords defined in the local database or via RADIUS, or no password to simply display terms and conditions. The ACL menu allows you to define access control lists to better regulate traffic, which can be defined on a per SSID basis. The Cluster menu allows you to configure the internal wireless controller functionality, which supports central management of up to 16 access points.

The Maintenance tab is where you find the firmware upgrade and configuration backup, restore, and reset options. Additionally, there’s simple ping testing, packet capturing, and logging tools.

The last tab, Support, simply gives you to link the main support webpage for Linksys. However, on every main page of the web GUI there’s a Help link in the upper-right corner. Clicking it pops up a window with a description of the settings for the page you’re currently on.

How we tested the performance of 802.11ac Wave 2 access points

We used IxChariot to run throughput tests on the access points with three wireless test clients: Macbook Air (MD760LL/A), Samsung Galaxy S5 phone, and three Linksys AC600 (WUSB6100M) USB adapters.

The Macbook and Galaxy S5 (both 802.11ac Wave 1) were tested with each access point individually, while the three Linksys AC600 (802.11ac Wave 2) USB adapters were used to simultaneously test with three different PCs to test MU-MIMO performance.

On the access points, I enabled WPA2/AES security and auto channel-width (or set to 80MHz if auto wasn’t available), and set the 5Ghz channel to 153. The wired connections between the access points and testing endpoints were made via Gigabit Ethernet with CAT-5 cables.

During the testing, the distance between the access points and wireless test clients was about 20 feet with one wall and hollow wood door blocking the line of sight. The ceiling mount access points (Cisco, Extreme, and Linksys) were placed near the ceiling pointing down and the other access points (Amped and ASUS) were positioned in the same spot with their antennas pointing up.

I ran the tests with the IxChariot High_Performance_Throughput.scr script for one minute with each client in the 5GHz band. I simultaneously tested both the TCP uplink (client to AP) and downlink (AP to client), which I add to account for the total simultaneous throughput. For the MU-MIMO test with the three Linksys AC600 USB adapters, I added each of the three client’s simultaneous throughput. I ran each access point/client test three times and report the average of those three tests here for both the average throughput and maximum throughput during the one minute runs.

I should note that the results from the MU-MIMO tests didn’t meet our expectations for any of the access points tested, which could be an issue with the Linksys AC600 USB adapters used on the test clients. They were the only Wave 2 802.11ac USB adapters on the market at the time, thus the only ones we could use for our testing. One reason the results might be lower is that we simultaneously tested the downlink and uplink. Remember, MU-MIMO only helps on the downlink side (access point to the client). However, even the additional downlink-only tests I performed (not documented here) showed MU-MIMO going actually slower for most of the access points than regular SU-MIMO connections.

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