Closer Look: ASUS RT-AC66U Wireless Router
Routers come in all shapes and sizes. ASUS takes advantage of that freedom to come up with a very attractive design package that sets it apart from the competition. Part of that package is a unique texture that covers most of the top surface. It’s a cross-hatch pattern that looks like a blacked-out Burberry pattern to me. The diamond design on the face of the RT-AC66U is unique to ASUS, and it has a matte finish that hides fingerprints. A lot of effort has gone into making the RT-AC66U one of the best looking and aesthetically pleasing routers out there. There’s a glossy black strip at the rear, with logo and model information and a row of nine blue LED indicators right in front, with small legends right below them. The side vents are there for a reason, there is a 600MHz Broadcom CPU working away inside the unit, as well as two other large chips from Broadcom that act as the software-defined radios on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. I’m convinced that I can write a great and accurate physical description, but just in case I left anything out, here’s a picture that does it justice.
The RT-AC66U will lay flat or you can stand it up to a near vertical position – it will lean back slightly for stability. It can also be wall mounted, with the two keyhole slots on the bottom, although that’s an unlikely choice for most of us. There is an additional stand required in order to keep the router from falling over, when it’s standing up. The v-shaped stand clips into to the keyhole slots on the bottom, which then keeps the router and the stand securely connected. Honestly, the stand could have been built a little cheaper and I wouldn’t have cared, but this is a premier product for ASUS and from what I’ve seen for the last five years, they always enjoy making it look the part. The antennas are a little more dominant in appearance when the router is standing up, but I like to think that it’s just giving them “room to breathe”. The -45/0/+45 orientation you see below is the recommended setup for the three stalks, and there are detents at 0, 45, and 90 degrees on all three antenna bodies that make it easy to set them that way.
The bottom of the RT-AC66U is home to a lot more cooling vents, almost the entire bottom surface is covered in slats. Almost all router intended for home use are set up for passive cooling, and most of them get quite warm during normal use. With the RT-AC66U, we have one of the highest performing routers designed for home use, so cooling could be a significant issue. We’ll get a better understanding of the cooling strategy once we open the unit up and look inside. Four rubber feet are arranged on the tapered “wings” of the router, pushed out towards the edge for maximum stability.
Right in the middle is the product label, with the usual information. I’m very happy that the default IP address of the router is printed right on the label, along with the default username and password for logging in from a standard browser session. ASUS and many other networking companies have also implemented a DNS-style redirect feature that uses a URL catch-phrase like http://myhappyrouter.com to send your browser to the router’s setup screen. The trend is towards web-based setups that require an internet connection back to the company’s servers. I for one am not pleased with the direction this is heading. Cisco’s scheme is the most onerous and invasive at the moment, but everyone is moving that way. There comes a point where making it easier makes it more complicated, and it defeats the purpose. I mean, how hard is it to type “192.168.1.1” into the address bar of your browser and hit the enter key?
On the back panel of the ASUS RT-AC66U are all the I/O ports. From left to right they are: Antenna connection 1, Power input, Power switch, 2x USB 2.0 ports, a reset button, 1 Gigabit WAN port, Antenna connection 2, 4x Gigabit LAN ports, a WPS button and finally, Antenna connection 3. I should mention one correction to the legend on the photo below. The power input is labeled “AC socket”, but the external power supply delivers about 19V DC. I can’t imagine the router being happy if somehow, someone fed it AC power. The label on the bottom of the unit describes the power requirements correctly; it’s just this particular marketing material that gets it wrong.
Each status indicator has an icon and a blue activity LED directly above it. They are quite bright, but smaller than most LEDs and not as bright when viewed at an angle, so they’re not as blinding as some others I have in the house. There are a total of 9 LEDs, and from left to right they indicate: Power On, LAN Ports 1-4 Active, WAN Port Active, 2.4GHz Network Active, 5GHz Network Active, and USB Device Connected.
The three included antennas are somewhat large, compared to the main casework of the RT-AC66U. They’re no bigger than a number of antennas that I’ve seen on other wireless router, since the start of the 2.4GHz era. They just look bigger here, because the rest of the RT-AC66U is so sleek by comparison. The antennas attach to the router with standard SMA coaxial connectors that are commonly used for this type of RF application. Antennas are actually very complicated devices, even though they may appear to be simple. They are generally rated by a measure called “dBi”, where the performance is rated relative to the simplest standard antenna, which is a dipole model that has a length equal to one wavelength of the transmission frequency. As I said, antennas are very complex devices, and there is plenty of opportunity for snake oil salesmen to make unsubstantiated claims about how well their miracle antenna works. The standard antennas included with the RT-AC66U are rated at 3.5dBi, which is a good rating. In order to improve the signal strength, the antennas would have to be much larger, like several available 9dBi models that are all somewhere between 12″ and 15″ long. Those are much too unwieldy for normal use unless you mount them remotely and use a cable to connect the antenna to the router. Even a high quality cable, with the right specifications will cause some signal loss, so you may end up with no net signal gain, after all. Besides, the whole point of an 802.11ac wireless router is to use technology to improve performance, rather than brute force hardware mods.
Now that we’ve seen every angle of the ASUS RT-AC66U from the outside, let’s pull out the hand tools and take a peek at what’s inside.