Published on September 19th, 2011 | by Greg0
Cisco’s Linksys E4200: Snazzy and Snappy
Regular consumers might be forgiven for not knowing Cisco. One of the largest networking equipment manufacturers, in 2003 they purchased a company and brand that produced some of the best routers ever made. Before 802.11n was available, the classic Linksys WRT54G was one of the best-known routers, and thanks to open source firmware like Tomato and DD-WRT, also became super-capable with plenty of interesting features. Time have changed though- 802.11n is now standard for most people, and Cisco went from minimizing the Linksys brand to re-launching it with their latest hardware.
That’d be the Linksys E4200 Dual-Band N Router- their current top-of-the-line consumer router. As with many of the latest iterations, the antennas are ‘invisible’ and it looks less like a piece of boring networking equipment and more like a sexy set-top box or piece of home entertainment equipment. Even their marketing suggests this, with plenty of suggestions that it is “home theater ready” and mentions of Internet-ready TVs. Of course, other routers and networking firms are offering competing products- and our latest review of TRENDnet’s highlighted the hardware and dual-band range that could both operate at 450 Mbps. The E4200 won’t quite hit that mark, offering a 300 Mbps band and a 450 Mbps one, though in practice we can say that it doesn’t actually end up mattering much.
On the hardware front then, the E4200 supports creating networks on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHZ bands- the latter is superior, but not supported by all devices (like the iPhone 4 for instance). Other notable features are fairly standard: 3×3 MIMO antennas means three streams can be easily handled concurrently, four gigabit ethernet ports, support for WPA2 encryption and WPS (wifi protected setup). But at least one feature is a bit more unusual and deserves special attention- the built-in USB port. Handy for plugging your flash drive in and sharing it, it also works in connection with the media server functionality (via what appears to be Twonky even!) allowing you to pop in your thumb drive and stream media without the need for a computer handy. The feature was a bit harder to setup than we liked and required installing the Cisco Connect software; it worked fine on a few drives that we tried, but would not work through a USB hub. Don’t expect performance to equal that of a true NAS though- we noted mediocre speeds. Another feature of note: you can easily setup a separate guest network for those who need internet access but not access to shared media or files. One concern: Cisco’s page suggests that USB printing will be supported via a firmware update in ‘Summer 2011′, but we had trouble getting it working.
The force is strong in the latest from Linksys- we were impressed by the strength of the signal, reaching even to far corners and through walls and floors in our offices. Don’t expect miracles- the range was only slightly greater than the last few routers we’ve tried. But especially considering the hidden antennas and fairly small footprint, we were happily surprised. The unit does get hot though- don’t try hiding it! Further, throughput speeds were impressive, outdoing every router from the previous generation, and averaging in the 50-80mb/s range once configured.
The E4200 is particularly notable for improvements in the software. Often, router firmware is hard to use and understand, and there can be plenty of room for confusion. But the user interface and feature set this model above many competitors. Linksys does offer a variety of other options, if you don’t need all of the feature set in the E4200. For those who don’t need USB and mostly use wifi, try the E2500 and save more than 50%. The next step up is the E3200, which is a bit awkwardly placed- a few steps short of this model but without enough of a price difference to recommend.
For those in need of a solid router, look no further- the E4200 does almost everything right. It isn’t perfect- more configuration options like those common in open-source firmwares would be great. DDNS and VPNs worked perfectly, and though not specifically labeled as DLNA certified we had no issues streaming to our Xbox 360 and PS3. Configuration for novices is simple, but pro users will be disappointed in the Cisco Connect software and tools. It’s also fairly pricey- at $160, we recommended upgrading only for those who are using a router more than a couple of years old. As always, make sure to update the firmware to the latest version, and if you have any issues, try changing the ‘channel’ in the router’s settings- it can work wonders.