HTG Reviews the D-Link AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Router: A Speedy Spaceship for Your Wi-Fi Needs
The premium router market is increasingly saturated with high-priced and powerful routers. Even in such a market the D-Link AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Router stands out both in size and styling as well as performance. Read on as we take a closer look at this flame red and feature packed model.
What Is The D-Link AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Router?
The D-Link AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Router (or DIR-890L) ($299) is D-Link’s current flagship router and a beast both in physical size and power. The router is absolutely massive by any measure and is, to date, the largest router we’ve owned or reviewed with a footprint approximately 16x10x5 and an insect-like protrusion of six stocky non-detachable antennas. The styling of the unit is very distinct with a bright red gloss paint job and a pronounced peaked case. Although we couldn’t quite agree on the metaphor around the office, everyone had an opinion about it with some people calling it the spaceship router, while others referred to it as a drone, alien, or spider.
Inside that flashy case you’ll find a Broadcom-dual-core 1GHz processor and a tri-band arrangement that splits your Wi-Fi networking load across three radios: one 2.4GHz band for all your 802.11n/g/b clients and two 5GHz bands for all your 802.11ac/n/a clients.
The router has a total potential bandwidth of 3,200Mpbs (thus the AC3200 designation) but it’s important to understand what that means. No single client or even entire band will ever have access to that amount of transfer speed. The number is derived from the cumulative bandwidth potential if the router is maxed with multiple clients across all three bands. The top theoretical speed is still limited to the total potential output over one of the 5GHz bands, 1,300Mpbs.
Just because you can’t tap into the total power of the router with a single client, however, doesn’t mean that the naming scheme is a marketing gimmick or a waste of your money. The whole point of increasingly sophisticated routers with multiple bands is to provide adequate available bandwidth for modern homes packed with Wi-Fi hungry devices such that everyone’s laptops, tablets, game systems, streaming sticks, and more all have enough.
To that end we’ll spoil the review by giving you a strong sense of our conclusion right at the beginning: The D-Link DIR-890L is a very expensive router with a focus on creating a large and powerful umbrella of Wi-Fi coverage for homes with lots of devices and heavy users. This is not, nor would even the most motivated D-Link sales rep suggest such, a router for Grandma and her one iPad.
Setting It Up
Although setup is just a very tiny portion of the total lifetime interaction you’ll have with your router, it’s both an important step and a strong indicator of how your future experience with the router will go. Two of the things we noted in our previous review of the D-Link DIR-880L was that D-Link thoughtfully included mounting hardware and that the setup wizard and GUI was very user friendly.
First, we’re going to make note of it again: D-Link is the only router company we’ve ever reviewed a unit for that includes mounting hardware. We know, we know, drywall mounting hardware costs like a buck or two and that it doesn’t really matter when purchasing a very expensive router. Regardless, we appreciate that tiny attention to detail.
Second, the setup wizard and the general user interface remains the easiest to use and most user friendly we’ve tested. There has been a general push across the entire market for more user friendly router interfaces and collectively we’ve seen the user interface experience improve across all the routers we’ve tested. These days ASUS, Netgear, and friends all have radically improved their GUI design game. None the less the D-Link router interface is, hands down, the most intuitive and user friendly. While the simplistic interface might be a turn off to power users that are used to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach you get with aftermarket firmware like DD-WRT it’s nice to have a user interface you don’t need years of networking experience to understand.
You plug it in, connect and run through the wizard, and other than diving deeper into the settings (like configuring a guest network) and you’re done. The screenshot of the main panel above shows you, in very clear terms, that you’re connected to the Internet, that there are clients connected to your router, and whether or not you have a USB storage device attached. Intuitively, clicking on any of the elements in the icon-based GUI either gives you additional information about that item or, in the case of error messages, helps you troubleshoot the problem.
Another user-friendly element of the D-Link GUI is that nearly every menu is divided into a simple and advanced section. Thus when you first go to do something in a given category the GUI gives you the most common task related to that entry and a clean interface (like changing your Wi-Fi password) and then, if you need more advanced adjustments, you can click the advanced link and the menu will expand to reveal additional settings. Again, power users might not be a huge fan of this but for the vast majority of people it’s a perfect setup. It gives you what you most likely need right up front and then gives you more if you need it.
Test Driving the Specialty Features
The biggest selling point for the DIR-890L is, by far, just the sheer extra power you get with upgrading to a flagship mode. In addition to that power there are also a handful of auxiliary functions and features worth noting.
We’re pretty big fans of the Smart Connect unction (exclusive to the DIR-880L and DIR-890L). The premise is simple: you assign a single SSID and password to all three bands (the one 2.4Ghz and two 5GHz bands) and the router will actively manage your connections and shuttle devices between the bands to maximize performance.
Let us tell you, that’s the kind of claim we’ve heard made in a million different ways over the years (and we even experimented years ago with using DD-WRT to attempt the same feat). It’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to claim you’ve got a system that works like that, but in practice we’ve always been disappointed with the whole promise of all-in-one SSIDs where the company claims their router will actively manage which device uses what. Historically we always have at least a few devices on our network that freak out and the system falls apart when they can’t maintain a connection to the router.
With the DIR-890L we had a wonderfully smooth experience with the “Smart Connect” feature. The entire network is using one SSID, all the devices are happily connected, and as bandwidth demand goes up devices are seamlessly moved between the radios. The best thing we can say about it is that we don’t even notice it working in the background.
The guest network, or “Guest Zone” system on the router is easy to toggle on. It’s off by default but you’ll find it under Settings -> Wireless -> Guest Zone.
The guest network settings are simple and mirror the general setup of your greater network. If you’ve opted to use the Smart Connect feature for your router then you only have one guest network available (as all the available guest networks are folded into the single smart connection).
If you want multiple guest networks (such as one for your kids and one for your actual guests) then you’ll need to disable the Smart Connect feature. Honestly we’re not big fans of this configuration. You shouldn’t have to disable a really great feature in order to gain access to multiple guest networks. None the less the guest network feature does work as advertised and it easy to set up.
Quality of Service
The Quality of Service (QoS) functionality on the DIR-890L was a real mixed bag for us. On the plus side, it’s incredibly simple to use with an excellent drag and drop interface.
It’s very intuitive to simply grab the item on your network and drag it into a prioritized zone. On the downside, however, there are some hiccups with the system. The most obvious of which is that you can’t prioritize a device unless it is currently on your network. Want to give your iPad priority? It has to be with your and connected.
The second, and more problematic, thing is that the priority system is based exclusively on the device with no ability to prioritize specific traffic types. Let’s say you want to prioritize Skype traffic or streaming video. You can’t prioritize it by the type of traffic only by the device which means you would need to prioritize every device that you run Skype on.
Unfortunately you can’t do that because the way the drag and drop system is set up you get one “Highest” priority, two “High” and eight “Medium” priority slots. In practice the drag and drop system should be great but in application it will leave power users very frustrated.
Attached Storage/File Sharing
The file sharing system works well enough. That’s not a ding on D-Link at all or this particular product, mind you, it’s just a simple expectation of what a router-based file sharing tool entails. We had no problem plugging in a USB 3.0 hard drive and accessing it like a plain old network drive (as well as accessing it with D-Link’s MyDLink software).
It wasn’t as screaming fast as a dedicated network storage computer optimized for the task but it’s unreasonable to expect your router to compete with a commercial NAS. We were able to consistently pull down around 60-65Mbps from the attached storage and that’s more than enough for daily use and even streaming media off the drive.
The Quick VPN function allows for secure remote access to your home network when you’re away. It’s very simple to setup and requires very little more than turning it on and inputting a password. Most mobile devices like iOS and Android driven phones and tablets support the L2TP/Ipsec protocol the router uses, as do desktop operating systems like Windows and OSX.
It’s important to note that this function is focused on getting youinto your home network security and not linking your network outwards to a remote secure network. That’s a bit of an advanced feature and if it’s something you need you’ll have to shop carefully for a router and/or run DD-WRT to get it. You can read more about the process here.
We were very pleased with the performance of the DIR-880L. While power users might be ruffled over the lack of granular features in the router control panel there’s little to complain about when it comes to raw power. Despite placement on the ground floor of our test home the router provided consistent and strong coverage throughout the basement, upstairs, attic rooms, and even out into the yard and into the street in front of the house.
On the 2.4Ghz band the DIR-890L performed very similarly to its predecessor the DIR-880L. The average transfer rate on the 2.4GHz band was 108 Mbps which is so close to the previous router’s specs as to be nearly identical. This isn’t surprising given that we tested it in the same location and that there is an upper threshold to how fast you can go on the 2.4GHz band.
The throughput on the 5GHz band was screaming fast in 802.11ac mode and we consistently got around 500-550 Mbps within a distance of a room or two from the router and even in the attic or out in the backyard it was still around 300 Mbps. Downgrading, if you can even use that word given how fast it still was, to 802.11n still offered more-than-fast enough speeds of approximately 200 Mbps throughout the first floor of the test home.
The reality is that once you get into flagship routers, barring any sort of serious design or hardware flaw, the speeds are so fast they become meaningless. The DIR-890L is so fast that neither your local file transfers nor broadband connection can even come close to saturating it. Even on a home network with gigabit Internet and a houseful of guests gaming, streaming, and downloading files you’re just not going to even come close to winding this machine or other machines in its class.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
We don’t just benchmark machines here at HTG we go through the hassle of switching them over for us as primary routers for at least a period of several weeks (and often a month or longer). Now that we’ve lived with the DIR-890L for that period of time, what do we have to say about it?
- It looks really stylish. Looking good isn’t a requirement for being a good router but this thing looks really awesome.
- LEDs are sufficiently bright and provide sufficient information without lighting your whole house or overwhelming you with extra information.
- The GUI and user experience is fantastic and user friendly.
- D-Link openly endorses DD-WRT as a robust third party firmware.
- It’s screaming fast. You’d be incredibly hard pressed to actually push up against the limitations of the router.
- It’s very stable; other than upgrading the firmware we didn’t reboot the device once during the entire test period.
- No eSATA port. We know, we know. This is a niche feature but this is a super premium router.
- Non-detachable antenna. While we didn’t find a need to upgrade the antennas in our testing, we always like the possibility of doing so.
- While the ultra-simplistic GUI is very user friendly it can be far too limiting for a power user.
- The QoS is a mess. With broadband and this powerful of a router you might not need it in the first place, but it could use a strong update.
You can’t escape the fact that the DIR-890L is expensive nor can you escape the fact that it simply isn’t a router for everyone. It’s not a router for people on a tight budget. It’s not a router for Grandma’s one-device household. You can even argue that without that upgrade to DD-WRT it isn’t a router for hardcore power users. What we can say about the router is this.
It was easy to set up. It’s incredibly powerful and at no point during our testing process were we even able to begin to lag our network despite extended and large file transfers, multiple streaming clients, and other stress tests. It has a wide range and easily covered every story of the test home, the yard, and even into the street and the neighbor’s yard. And, given the string of frustrations we’ve had with routers lately, we can say this above all else: it’s very stable. Other than rebooting it once in the beginning to update the firmware the device ran continuously (and is still running as we write this) off the initial boot. Not a blip, not a hiccup, not a software or hardware reboot needed. That shouldn’t be extraordinary given how important routers are, but we’ve been let down by more than our fair share of routers and firmwares over the last few years.
So the end word on the matter is this: The DIR-890L is an exceptional router for modern device-packed households that, while a bit light on configuration options, is packed with power and as stable as can be. If it’s in your budget and you’re looking for a beastly router with more than enough reach and bandwidth to spare for your bustling household it’s a sure purchase.