If you’re looking for a new router, most choices will give you enough coverage for a typical suburban home. We’re not saying they’re all the same. Far from it. If you’ve read a few of our reviews, you’ll already be well aware that there are plenty of different features. But one thing that most routers have in common is that they can’t cover a very large house. If your house is larger than about 3,000 square feet, you either need a WiFi range extender or mesh router.
Today, we’ll be reviewing the Asus ZenWiFi AC (CT8) mesh router system. It’s designed to cover very large homes, and can even be expanded with additional compatible routers. But just because it has a long range doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. We took a closer look, to determine what it really has to offer. Here’s what we learned.
Out of the box, the ZenWiFi consists of a pair of routers that are designed to work in tandem. Each unit is constructed from durable PCB plastic. Right off the bat, this impressed us. PCB plastic is tougher than the ABS plastic that’s used for most electronics. It costs a little bit more, but it’s well worth the investment if you want hardware that lasts. The finish is also excellent, with a brushed look that’s indistinguishable from anodized aluminum.
Each unit measures 6.36 inches high, 6.3 inches deep, and just under 3 inches in width. They don’t have any external antennas, so they’re compact, similar to a modem. At 1 pound, 9.75 ounces, they’re fairly beefy. But this is entirely excusable; there’s a lot going on inside. To begin with, each unit has a quad-core CPU inside, which allows for efficient packet switching. They also have built-in antennas that are angled at 45 degrees. This ensures full-house coverage, without any clunky external antennas cluttering up your desk.
The wide design also serves two additional purposes. First off, it allows for plenty of airflow, with a wide inner channel between the antennas and the circuit board. The circuit board itself contains not one but two heatsinks, which keeps the system cool even when it’s under stress. Large vents on the front and rear of the units further increases the efficiency of the airflow. Secondly, the wide design keeps the antennas as far as possible from the circuit board. This reduces signal interference, further improving range and signal quality.
On the back of each ZenWiFi unit, you’ll find a gigabit Ethernet WAN port for connecting to your modem. You’ll also find four gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, which can be used to connect your wired devices. There’s also a WPS button for quick, easy WiFi pairing, as well as a reset and power button. Finally, there’s a USB port, which can be used to connect an external drive for shared network storage.
If you need a fast, powerful connection, but you’re less concerned about range, a mesh router isn’t necessary. For small to mid-sized homes, a WiFi 6 router will get the job done at lower cost. In that case, consider the Netgear RAX15 AX1800. It offers blazing-fast speeds, with a coverage area of approximately 3,000 square feet.
The ZenWiFi AC routers are rated to cover a home of up to 5,400 square feet. Obviously, this is an approximation. For example, you’ll get better coverage in a compact, three-story home than you will in a sprawling ranch. Regardless, you’re going to get significantly better coverage than you would with a standard router. That’s because the ZenWiFi is a mesh router. Here’s a quick primer on what that means.
A mesh router uses multiple nodes, which work together as part of the same system. This is different than a WiFi range extender or wireless access point. Those devices still rely on your central router for packet handling. This can significantly decrease performance, particularly if you have multiple devices routed through the access point or range extender. It also isn’t as stable as a connection that goes directly through your router.
Another option is to add more traditional routers. However, this involves cutting holes in your walls and running wires. So you’ll either have to hire an electrician or spend a weekend doing the job yourself. And at the end of the day, you’ll end up with multiple networks, which is inconvenient for mobile devices. With a mesh system, you get a single, continuous wireless network throughout your home.
Older mesh routers had a significant disadvantage. Either the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz channel needed to be used to connect the router nodes together. This left you with only a single band for connecting your devices, reducing your speed. The ZenWiFi AC has a tri-band design, which eliminates this problem. A secondary 5.0 GHz band forms the backbone of the router connection. This leaves the standard 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz channels available for connecting your devices.
Alternatively, if you’ve got multiple Ethernet ports, you can plug both nodes directly into the wall. This way, you can use Ethernet as your network backbone. In this configuration, both 5.0 GHz bands will be available for connecting your devices. As a result, you’ll get faster connection speeds with more devices than anything else on the market. In this configuration, you can achieve a total wireless speed of up to 3,000 Mbps. That’s more than three times the gigabit standard, which is exceptionally fast. It’s ideal for smart home devices, since you’ll be able to connect dozens at once with no bottleneck.
The ZenWiFi AC also supports expanding your network with additional routers. If you want the fastest possible speed, using more ZenWiFi units is going to be ideal. But that isn’t necessary. Any mesh-compatible ASUS router will get the job done just fine.
We’ve already talked about wireless access points and their weaknesses. But sometimes, you just want to extend coverage to a back porch or detached garage. If that’s all you’re looking for, an access point can be a cheaper, easier option. In that case, the EnGenius EnTurbo EAP1250 is an excellent choice. It’s compact, it’s affordable, and it takes just a few minutes to install.
Configuring your ZenWiFi AC network is easy. The ASUS Router App is available for free on iOS and Android, and requires only 3 steps for setup. Within the app, you also get access to ASUS’ Internet Activity Dashboard. This feature allows you to see what each network user is doing. You can see what content they’re accessing, and what times of day they’re browsing. This is a great feature if you’re trying to ensure that your kids stay safe online.
From the app, you can also create specific permissions for individual users. Want to block your kids from accessing adult websites or gambling sites? You can do it with a few clicks of your finger. You can also limit devices to different times of day. In this way, you can keep your kids from staying up all night watching YouTube videos or chatting with friends. You can also sort devices into groups and set your permissions for each group. So you can create a “kids” group, a “parents” group, a “devices” group, and so on.
Filtering even works within mobile apps on devices. This is done with a deep packet inspection (DPI) engine that goes beyond simple URL and app permissions. It actually inspects individual packets, which can block dangerous ads and other unsecure elements within apps. You also get free lifetime protection from Tend Micro. This software ensures that your connections are totally private, across all devices. It works in two ways. First, an intrusion prevention system (IPS) blocks all known methods of external attack. An additional AI protection layer watches for internal threats. So if your work laptop picked up a virus, it won’t be able to spread throughout your home network.
Of course, a wired connection is always going to be your best choice for security. If you need to add wired access but don’t want to run wires, a powerline adapter is your best bet. We recently reviewed the best powerline adapters on the market. Any of those choices will do an excellent job.
The Asus ZenWiFi AC (CT8) has a lot to offer. It provides excellent connectivity, with a blazing-fast connection. This is especially true if you’re using an Ethernet connection as the backbone. That said, even if you’re using a wireless backbone, you’ll still get dual-channel connectivity, much better than most mesh routers. The physical construction is also very good, with a tough PCB case that really impressed us. If that’s not enough, the security suite is also top of the line.
That said, keep in mind that mesh routers are designed for large homes or businesses. If you have a small to mid-sized home, you can do just as well without spending as much money. But if you need a large coverage area, the ZenWiFi AC is an excellent choice.
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Where is the WPS button?