June 19, 2021

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The ASUS RT-AX86U Is a Wi-Fi 6 Router That Doesn’t Sacrifice Looks for Power

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Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo

Wi-Fi 6 has accelerated its creep into mainstream wireless networking, urged along by the similarly accelerating spread of gigabit internet. Until the last few months or so, purchasing a Wi-Fi 6 device has largely been a decision more about future-proofing and less about immediate gain. That’s quickly changing, however, with all manner of wireless device manufacturers releasing products boasting about blazing this and blistering that, and it’s finally time to take a serious look at 802.11ax routers.

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The Asus RT-AX88U was an early entrant in the field, and the company now has several follow-ups, including our best gaming router runner-up: the RT-AX86U. There, I gave it credit for being extremely fast and for its restrained physical design. However, I took issue with Asus’s UI decisions. In the end, I concluded that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good gaming experience. Now I’m taking an even deeper dive to find out: Is this router worth it for just any old person and not just gamers presumably reading this in a hoodie with some kind of RGB lighting and heat vents? I think so, and you should, too.

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As far as the design of the Asus RT-AX86U goes, there isn’t much to say, and frankly, that’s a good thing. It’s neither a slab nor a monolith, neither an ancient alien artifact nor an air freshener chic pod (though it can be a Gundam, apparently). It’s black, it stands upright, and it has three stabby, removable, adjustable antennas jutting from the top. It has four outgoing gigabit ethernet ports—one of which is an auto-prioritizing gaming port—in the back, a gigabit WAN, and a 2.5-gigabit LAN/WAN port for those lucky enough to be able to make use of it. Two USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports give you a fast NAS if you’ve got a hard drive lying around.

Getting it set up is a quick process, refreshingly letting me choose up front whether to separate the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. Knowing that I would need to reconfigure some real dumb smart devices, I opted for separation, and my network was up and running in about five minutes.

But it should be noted there are two ways to handle setup and management. One is via a lovely mobile app, and the other is via the browser, and I hate the browser-based UI of Asus routers. It’s just a weird, unfocused, confusing mess. If you’re the type of person who wants deep, granular control of your home network, but don’t want to shell out for expensive enterprise-grade hardware, you could do a lot worse than Asus, but prepare to hunt for the settings you need to adjust. Trudging through the settings reveals menus and submenus that stretch out seemingly to infinity, with an intimidating depth that would have most people regarding it with narrowed eyes and a feigned understanding, muttering, “Yes, I see,” as they slowly mouse up to click the X button on that tab.

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The intro screen has a basic network topology map which gives you a diagram of what all is connected, and a section where you can split out your 2.4 and 5 GHz bands or update your network SSID and password. After that, you get the shiny feature-y stuff, the majority of which, like the specific data-type prioritizing Adaptive QoS, Traffic Analysis, and various media modes and security, is powered by Trend Micro.

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Together they offer a host of security features in the AiProtection section, promising to block malicious sites, protect you from Distributed Denial of Service attacks, and network vulnerability attacks like Heartbleed, while also monitoring outgoing traffic for suspicious packets from virus-infected devices. Each tab under this section gives you reports of suspicious network behavior, with downloadable logs for your review. In testing at wicar.org, the router blocked all but two of 10 sites, with Safari catching the last two. It seemed to work well, though the experience is barebones, and unlike the rest of the settings for the router, there are no opportunities for customization, just toggles for each of the three categories of protection. But using this, or a few other key features powered by Trend Micro, will bring you eventually to this EULA notice:

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Screenshot: Trend Micro & Asus

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It seems that in order to have access to Trend Micro’s features, you must agree to give them access to all kinds of data, which may include your e-mails or your web browsing history. It’s spooky stuff, as usual, but thankfully all fairly easy to opt in or out of, as well—so long as you can bear the ensuing message about the valuable capabilities you’ll lose out on. So, it’s not quite the deal with Ursula the Sea Witch I initially worried it was, and, in the end, the details in the EULA are perhaps not unexpected for security software like this. I reached out to both Asus and Trend Micro for their input on what sort of data they collect and how exactly it’s used, and we’ll update here when we get a response.

Deeper in the menus, you will find a surprisingly pleasant Open NAT section with pre-configured port reservations for specific games and consoles, and NAS options that include support for Apple’s Time Machine backup software. Most people will go wall-eyed looking at options past these, but it’s worth noting that if you want to use features like OFDMA and MU-MIMO, beamforming, and, I don’t know, the actual Wi-Fi 6 standard, you’ll want to push on into the advanced settings—just don’t expect to understand much of what you are presented with here, unless you have studied networking down to a very specific level. That said, if you have time and sufficient grit, you can sift through it and find some truly powerful options.

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Now, for all the shade I throw at the browser interface, Asus actually does a pretty decent job with their mobile app. Appearance-wise, it’s far from the tidy design of most of Asus’s competitors; the app looks the way we might have imagined the UI of the future would in the early aughts or late ‘90s—all sci-fi space controls floating against a star field, complete with animations that are just there to look neat. While very silly, it’s a breath of fresh air after using the web interface, with more of the stuff you would want quick access to right there on the home screen, like Adaptive QoS mode switching, letting you quickly switch priority to games, video conferencing software, media streaming, and more.

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While not quite as robust as the browser UI, the mobile app is far more user-friendly, even if it isn’t perfect. I greatly appreciated seeing signal noise shown for individual devices—also an option in the browser—which helps a lot when placing them for the best signal, which is especially important for things like smart speakers, which can be made or broken by your choices regarding network topology.

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This thing comes with a great array of ports.
Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo

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Looking at the feature list, it’s not unusual to wonder why in the hell you would want to command your router with Alexa. But, in the interest of being thorough, I grabbed my long-banished Echo Dot to test, and I did find some genuinely useful bits here—temporarily activating your guest network, for example, or pausing wifi. Perhaps the most useful of the bunch is the ability to change Adaptive QoS modes without going into the app.

The main shortcoming of Alexa Skills remains: Every command must be prefaced with “Alexa, ask my router…”, followed by a prescribed set of phrases you must memorize (or look up every time, defeating the purpose). The pricier RT-AX88U gives you a small selection of more natural-sounding phrases like, “Alexa, pause my wifi.” I tried anyway; not only did it not work, but Alexa pretended not to know who I was.

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The rest of my smart home experience on this router, initial difficulties aside, was a good one—lightbulbs flicked on and off, routines ran, and my chosen smart assistant didn’t hesitate to respond to my requests.

The RT-AX86U is powered by a 1.8 GHz quad-core CPU with 1 GB of RAM and 256 MB Flash memory. Theoretically, it can transmit up to 4804 Mbps on the 5 GHz band, or up to 861 Mbps on the 2.4, but you’ll never see those speeds, nor should you expect them. It has four antennas—one of which is an internal, printed circuit board antenna, and works all the way up to the 160 MHz band, which is a key component of Wi-Fi 6, and necessary to reach the fastest speeds the router is capable of. It has a long list of other terms that describe how powerful it is.

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As I’ve noted previously, the RT-AX86U is great for gaming. I wanted to take it further, so I decided to stress test the router, streaming music at the highest quality available on multiple devices, watching a 4K nature documentary on Apple TV, which is known for its high-bitrate streaming, conducting a video call with a friend, and playing CS:GO on official servers. This is a realistic scenario in my home, and the RT-AX86U aced it—I saw no sign of buffering or stuttering anywhere, my friend reported clear audio and smooth video, and in-game ping seemed unaffected. In raw numbers, I had to move into my back yard to get anything slower than the max I’m getting from my ISP, finding that I had good, usable internet even at the farthest reaches of my yard, which is about a fifth of an acre.

I tested file transfers with a 734 MB copy of Ernest Saves Christmas—a typical use case for network storage—and found the transfers to be very fast, with the limiting factor seemingly the actual read/write capability of the router. Transfer speeds reached as high as 465.79 Mbps, but averaged between 310 and 350 Mbps, and hardly budged at any distance. Write speeds were about half that.

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Photo: Wes Davis/Gizmodo

After determining that the RT-AX86U was gross overkill for my needs, I thought I would look at Asus’s AiMesh, which lets you use multiple Asus routers to create a mesh network. Self-healing and pretty straightforward to set up, an AiMesh network can definitely get you that kind of blanketed internet plants crave.

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I tested the mesh capabilities with the addition of an RT-AX82U, and for some reason, setting this up ended up actually being the only way I could finally get my “smart” bathroom light switch to join my new network. I came to this experience with the breezy setup of Eero already in mind and found it similarly easy with Asus. Network performance was as expected, with devices generally connecting to the node closest to them or, at least, with the lowest amount of signal noise, and no real noticeable changeover time. Basically, mesh networking is a revelation to anyone who hasn’t used it, and that much is true here, as well.

In the end, the Asus RT-AX86U is a great router, with speedy performance and easy setup, despite an annoying menu system. Actually getting down and dirty in the settings is a pain, thanks to confusing, incompletely explained technicals and messy organization, but basic and intermediate settings can be easily changed in the mobile app. Security and device prioritization for the router is decent, though I recommend you review the EULA before proceeding to make sure you’re comfortable with the exchange you must make to take advantage. The mesh setup was fairly painless. The RT-AX86U met and, in some cases exceeded, my expectations, at least where it counts. Of course, you’re going to pay for it, at MSRP $250—though you can find decent discounts at the usual online retailers.

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Whether you just want lag-free gaming or you need something that can handle a heavy overall load, this router does it with aplomb. We are rapidly approaching the day when recommendations like this one isn’t just about future-proofing, but you will find in the RT-AX86U a router more than capable of meeting the unexpected demands put upon all of us this year. If you’ve got a smaller home that needs a lot of power and would prefer to check out mesh networking at a later date, this is absolutely the router for you.

README

  • At $250, it’s not cheap, but it’s incredibly powerful.
  • The AiMesh function means you can build your own mesh network over time.
  • The UI is way too complex and disorganized, but the sheer number of adjustable settings is welcome.
  • A partnership with Trend Micro to improve security has a worrisome boilerplate disclaimer, but you can opt out of the services.

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