Linksys EA4500 dual-band wireless router review
Linksys EA4500 review: a poor installation procedure is offset by exceptional 5GHz network performance
The Linksys EA4500 is a wireless router that supports simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi at speeds up to 450 megabits per second (Mbps) per band. It's a home router that's a little different to most of the other routers we've seen this year; primarily, it has a Web interface that lives happily in the cloud. This means that you can access this router at any time, from any device that's connected to the Web (be it a laptop or mobile device), in order to view and change its settings. It's a radical change from the Linksys interfaces that we're used to seeing, and while it's very simple to use once it's set up, it can be frustratingly slow to load. Setting it up also proved to be frustrating.
- Very good speed and range in 5GHz
- Can be managed from a phone app
- CD setup did not work properly
- Sluggish 2.4GHz performance
The Linksys EA4500 offers good speed in the 5GHz band and is a good choice if you are in the market for a router that can supply up to 450Mbps in this band. Its CD installation process did not go smoothly for us though and we had to revert to good old manual methods. If it did work though, we reckon it would be the simplest router to set up in the Aussie market.
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The Linksys router ships with a CD for its setup procedure (which is a shame since many new laptops these days shun optical drives in favour of reduced weight and size), but it can also be set up wirelessly without it — just not as easily as some other routers on the market — and this is what we'll focus on. Unlike recent Netgear and Belkin routers, for example, the Linksys doesn't ship with printed SSID and encryption key information. Instead, it relies on Wi-Fi Protected Setup and makes you look for the 8-digit PIN that is printed on the router's serial number label. It can be a pain to read if you've already connected all the wires and powered it on. Use this PIN as the password for the open "Cisco00000" SSID (where 00000 are specific numbers assigned to your router's wireless network), which will be one of the networks that your laptop's wireless card will pick up when the Linksys router is switched on. After entering this PIN, you can then change the SSID and password through Windows and enter a name and password of your choosing.
Note: We tried to use the CD to set up our router, but we were not successful. We went through all the required steps to enter our ISP details and custom SSID (had we not liked the default: 'FancyPenguin') and password settings, but towards the end, the router tried to perform an update on its own. This is where things went pear-shaped. Restarting after the update, the router failed to give any of the computers on our network an IP address. Restarting the router and disabling and enabling adapters on the computers did not work. Nor did power cycling the router (by removing its cable because it does not have a power button). We had to set up the router manually after restoring it to its factory state. If things had gone smoothly using the CD, we would say that the EA4500 is the easiest router on the Australian market to install. As it stands, it is one of the most frustrating. We're hoping it's just a quirk with our test model.
Logging in to the router manually to set up the Internet connection requires you to sniff out its default IP address, and ours was a doozy: 10.5.210.197. You'll end up at the Cisco Connect Cloud interface, which immediately states the obvious: you don't have a functioning Internet connection yet! You'll need to log in to the router to get connected, using the default password, which is 'admin'. It's a slick-looking interface, but it doesn't have a helpful built-in wizard to guide you through the steps that are required to enter your ISP details. You're required to click the Connectivity link, then the Internet Settings tab, then Edit. This will make the username and password fields active so that you can enter your ISP credentials. Our router connected to the Internet in a few seconds and we didn't notice any problems regarding online connectivity during our test period — uptime was constant.
When you first see the router's interface, you might notice how barebones it is. It has only Internet and LAN settings for you to play with. You can access more features once you connect to the Internet and allow the router to access the full Cisco Connect Cloud interface, which will then allow you to "access your home network from anywhere", as its description states. You'll have to create an account first and then validate it before you can login. There is one more step after this that we didn't find clear. Cisco Connect Cloud told us to enter a password for the router in order to associate it to the service, and that this password was saved to a file on the Desktop. However, we were never prompted to create a password, nor was a file created with a password in it. The password was simply admin though, which is what we used to log in to the router by default anyway. We had to venture into the Connectivity settings once again to change this to something less guessable.
Note: It's also worth noting that underneath the fancy Cisco Connect Cloud interface, the router's real Web interface is the same as it's been for years. We only noticed this when the Cisco Connect software off the CD failed to set up the router and the only way we could fix it was by logging in to the router manually.
At this point it's worth noting that we found the overall speed of the interface to be sluggish -- watching the icons of the Cisco Connect Cloud interface loading one by one was, at times, sigh-inducing. Upgrading from the default firmware that shipped with the router (version 22.214.171.124864) to the latest version at the time of testing (version 126.96.36.199143) did not make things run more swiftly. That said, once the interface has fully loaded and you make changes to settings, the router implements them in a few seconds; making changes to wireless settings, for example, be it a channel or password change, doesn't require a restart.
We found the overall wireless speed of the EA4500 to be exceptional when using the 5GHz band, but just plain ordinary when using the 2.4GHz band. We tested in an area full of other 2.4GHz networks and had to play with different channels to try to get the best out of it. The numbers we obtained are the best ones from our test samples. We tested the router by copying common files (movies, music and photos) from a computer with a 7200rpm hard drive that was connected to the EA4500 using Gigabit Ethernet. Our test laptop contained an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6300 wireless adapter, which is capable of running at the maximum 450Mbps speed that the router supports.
In our 5GHz tests, we obtained average file transfer speeds of 19.47 megabytes per second (MBps) from a distance of 2m, which is a little on the slow side compared to the Netgear N900, for example, which is another 450Mbps router. However, the Linksys proved to be a much better performer when we increased the distance. Testing from 10m away, the 5GHz network averaged 18.44MBps, with an initial burst of 38MBps. This is an outstanding result that's over 4MBps faster than the Netgear N900 in the same test.
In our 2.4GHz tests, the EA4500 managed to record an average of 9.09MBps from 2m away, and 6.45MBps from 10m away. Again, the Linksys was shown to be slower than the Netgear from close range (the N900 got 1MBps more from 2m away), but faster from the mid-range (the Netgear N900 was almost 1Mbps slower). The difference in the EA4500's speed between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks was noticeable in our test environment during everyday usage and, as the tests show, it's well worth using it in 5GHz mode if you have a laptop that can support its speed. If you don't have a laptop with an integrated wireless card that can reach 450Mbps (and let's face it, there aren't that many), then you'll need to pick up a USB adapter — which is a clumsy solution at best. For a desktop PC that needs wireless access, sticking a 450Mbps USB adapter into it will be well worth it.
The router worked strongly in our standard test network, in which two wireless laptops accessed files from a wired server over the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks simultaneously, while a USB drive plugged in to the router served media to a WD TV Live streamer. We didn't have any problems watching movies while other transfers went on in the background and the router's DLNA media server feature worked very well — we were able to browse folders and files on the attached USB drive without experiencing any lag. The same USB port can be used to share a printer.
There is a media prioritisation feature that can be used to give specific computers on your network more bandwidth than others, and also to make sure specific applications that are running on those computers never get affected by other Internet activities. This didn't always work perfectly during our tests: in one scenario, giving prioritisation to one computer caused the other devices on the network to basically lose all connectivity.
There are parental settings available in this router, but they are not comprehensive. You can easily block Internet access for any computers on your network, either for specific times or all the time, or you can choose to block specific URLs. Keyword blocking is not available. Users who encounter a block will be met with a page from the router's interface stating that the Web site is blocked.
You can access the EA4500 remotely through the Cisco Connect Cloud service that we mentioned earlier (the link to the page for logging in to your router is contained in the confirmation email once you register), and you don't have to do anything to the configuration to make this happen -- the router does it all for you. However, it's not a service through which you can access data on your network. You will only be able to see and change router settings, be it enabling guest access or parental filters. There is a mobile app available so you can do all this from your phone, too, which is convenient (there are a couple of other apps available to try, too, such as a Twonky server). If you want to access data remotely, you'll have to enable the FTP service and log in through an FTP client — the FTP IP address is shown on the status page for USB Storage. There is support for dynamic DNS, too.
There is an inbuilt firewall, port forwarding, DMZ, UPnP and also VPN pass-through features.
The Linksys EA4500 represents a bit of a shift in the router market as far as managing settings is concerned, making its primary interface accessible through the Internet. It's meant to be a very easy router to set up, but we had major problems getting it up and running using the supplied CD — we had much better luck when we went in manually. As for its speed and reach, it's very good — especially if you make use of its 5GHz network. Let's face it, your primary reason for considering this router is to use its 5GHz network for devices that are capable of running at 450Mbps. If you don't have devices that can go that fast, or don't plan on getting any, then you don't need this router.
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