ProsExcellent user interface; incredible throughput; very good USB3.0 transfer speeds
ConsLarge footprint; can't stand vertically; large power brick; high power use; no bridge mode; 2.4GHz radio fails over time
The Linksys EA6900 802.11ac Router is one of the very few AC1900 routers currently on the market, offering the absolute highest-performing chipset available to consumers today. Its main competition comes from the Netgear Nighthawk and the Asus RT-AC68. Like those routers, the EA6900 is fairly portly, packing in all the latest in high-powered (and high-power use) components. At 10" wide by 7.3" deep by 1.3" tall, it takes up a fair amount of room on a desk, and has no provision for being placed upright to save space. The power brick is similarly-oversized, at 4" by 2" by 1.5". It's so large that plugging it into a power strip leaves it hanging inelegantly off the edge, and a better design would have used an extension cord on both ends, like a laptop power supply.
The good news is that the EA6900 is very sleek, despite its size, and will look good just about anywhere. It even has a firmware option to shut off all the blinking port lights that usually create quite the lightshow. The only light that cannot be shut off is the cool white logo, which serves as a power indicator.
The EA6900 sets itself apart based on two main features: (1) an excellent user interface, including remote monitoring via smartphone, and (2) flat-out speed. We'll get to the latter in the next section, but let's talk about that interface first.
We think the EA6900's firmware interface is one of the very best we've seen from any manufacturer when it comes to making setup easy and making minor changes straight-forward. It all makes sense right from the get-go, providing step-by-step instructions, without the dozens of overlapping menu options that have for too long been considered acceptable in router firmware. Linksys went back to the drawing board and created an interface that simply works. Getting a network up and running shouldn't be a daunting task, but in many cases it has been, due in large part to overly-complicated, poorly-organized interfaces. Perhaps this added to the "fun" of tweaking a network for those who accepted the challenge, but it was about time for this to change, in our opinion. Linksys definitely got it right, as far as we're concerned. That being said, in the process Linksys stripped out some of the power user options, which were often intended to get the most out of relatively slower hardware. You'll see in our benchmarks in the next section, but needless to say, this 802.11ac router simply doesn't require modifications to power output or any other more arcane setting to make it run very, very fast.
Above you can see the main interface window. It's clean, it's crisp, it's modern. It has more in common with a well-designed web page than a '90s-era BIOS interface, and each menu option brings up a similarly-clear window. We like the built-in speed test, the guest access option, and parental controls. It also provides an option for remote control of these functions and several others via smartphone, a feature we did not test. One notable omission is an option for bridge mode, which high-end routers almost always have. That goes along with the issue we mentioned above, namely that the EA6900 doesn't have a particularly sophisticated set of tweaking options, but for the set-it-and-forget-it crowd, this powerful router will do the trick.
At right, you can see the back of the router, along with another view of the EA6900's giant power brick. The good news is that in addition to four Gigabit Ethernet ports, you also get a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 port. Some may quibble with the lack of two 3.0 ports, but the truth is that USB 3.0 speed, which we've found to reach 100MB/s for typical data drives, is actually beyond the capabilities of this router anyway, at least in wireless mode. Plus, the USB 2.0 port is more than fast enough to support a printer, although we didn't try that option - we went straight for the Ethernet option, and our printer was up and running instantly. When we've tried connecting USB printers to wireless routers in the past, it's always been problematic, so we'd recommend using an Ethernet jack if that's an option with your setup. In addition to all the ports, the router also has the standard reset button (which we actually had to use after inadvertently quitting the setup process before it had completed...our fault there), along with a WPS button for easy connections to WPS-equipped devices.
And now, what you've all be waiting for, some proof that 802.11ac can deliver on its promise of much-improved throughput compared to prior versions of the 802.11 standard. Well, bewlow you'll see a few benchmarks versus our very capable Asus RT-N56U N600 router. There you have it - proof-positive that 802.11ac really works. Now, first, we have to point out that you don't buy a router like this to run 802.11n 2.4GHz devices, but whatever special sauce is in this router did improve the network performance of our 2.4GHz testbed, a first-generation Ultrabook, by about 10-20 percent. It's still painfully slow, however, if you're looking to stream HD content or transfer files quickly. But look at performance on the 5GHz band - it's incredible! Keep in mind that the Asus RT-N56U N600 is by necessity using 802.11n 5GHz, while the EA6900 is of course transmitting at 802.11ac 5GHz. Both are fast, but the EA6900 is exactly twice as fast in terms of download speeds, which is of crucial important in streaming content. Our client in both cases was a high-end Western Digital AC1300 bridge; don't expect this kind of performance using a USB 802.11ac adapter or even a laptop's built-in AC networking. Our previous experience with USB-based 802.11n 5GHz adapters found that their maximum throughput was about 100Mbps. The AC versions of these adapters will probably double this at best.
One last note - in our test of USB 3.0 hard drive throughput using the EA6900's single USB 3.0 port, we achieved a very reasonable 16-30 MB/s read speed (averaging 22MB/s), and a 10-18 MB/s write speed (averaging 12 MB/s). That's more than fast enough for regular use. Our sample hard drive is capable of about triple that throughput when directly connected to a computer's USB 3.0 port, but we're willing to trade some speed for the added versatility of a painless network attached storage solution.
We've tested a lot of routers over the years, and there's simply never been a router that's impressed us as thoroughly as the Linksys EA6900. And of course it should, at its asking price. But Linksys didn't stop at providing state-of-the-art electronics in this package - it also provided an incredibly user-friendly router that will make your home network blues disappear. We didn't have one dropped connection, one network slowdown, or any other issue during our week of testing the EA6900, using a mix of 802.11n 2.4GHz, 802.11n 5GHz, and 802.11ac 5GHz devices. Every single device worked well, and achieved better throughput than they had on any previous router. For all of these reasons, the EA6900 becomes the very first product we award five out of five stars!
The Linksys EA6900 802.11ac Router is available from Newegg for $199.99 with free shipping, as of our publication date.
[Update: Unfortunately, six months after we first published this review, the 2.4GHz radio on our sample Linksys EA6900 began to fail, leading to permanent disconnects for all 2.4GHz client devices until the router is restarted. This problem has been reported by a number of users in online reviews, and we're pretty sure it's not a fluke. The good news is that the 5GHz radio continues to provide amazing throughput and uninterrupted service, but we've dropped our rating one star to reflect the lack of long-term reliability of EA6900's 2.4GHz radio.]
Special thanks to Linksys and Newegg for providing this review sample.