Published on December 3rd, 2012 | by Greg1
Buffalo Three: AirStation AC1300 / N900 Router Blazes, With A Catch
Another year, another set of nifty new wireless routers. It’s also, unfortunately, that in-between time where a draft wireless specification means unsettled waters. It probably won’t be until late 2013, alas, that the IEEE working group finalizes the new standard for 802.11ac. Which means that routers in the next year or so are using technology and protocols that might not be the final version. This happened with 802.11n as well, and meant some rocky times, but we’re still working in a world where most existing devices aren’t yet compatible with it. This means that routers, by and large, come with dual-band technology. One band supports older legacy devices, like your iPhone 4 or your aging video game consoles and laptops- and another band to help your newer devices reach their potential.
We’ve got three devices from Buffalo that we’ve been checking out over the last month or so- the first of these is their top-tier router. Technically the WZR-D1800H, it also is labeled as Buffalo’s AirStation AC1300 / N900 Gigabit Dual Band Wireless Router, with those numbers indicating the theoretically maximum speed available in those bands. We don’t have any devices that support Buffalo’s AC1300 connection other than the item that’s going to be featured next, their Media Bridge. So, most of this review will focus on use of the router with other 802.11n and 802.11g devices, including the usual spate of smartphones, tablets, and OSX and Windows 7/8 wireless laptops and wired desktops, as well as use through AirPlay devices like our old favorite the Zeppelin Air, the recently-reviewed Contour 200i, and the Audyssey Audio Dock Air. Gaming consoles will be covered and discussed in the follow-up.
We’ll start with some good news for AirPlay fans: we found this router to be pretty solid for AirPlay use, through iTunes 10 or 11. Some older router models get occasional drop-outs, and even newer ones face the occasional issue with Apple’s wireless streaming protocol. The router looks pretty sexy, black and metallic, with a matte finish and a design that can work vertically or horizontally. Like most newer routers, there aren’t any visible antennas, which is both a pro and a con, since it means less adjustability but cleaner looks. The one-button WPS connection worked fine, and though we didn’t get to try the AOSS functionality, it’s available as well. We got this one setup in a default state pretty quickly thanks to the included information, connected a few devices, and were off to the races. And, as we’ll mention later, this swift Buffalo in the proper setup is the fastest available router we’ve seen, offering speeds that will blow away other devices.
But we were fairly quickly stalled. The firmware is proprietary (no DD-WRT available), difficult to figure out, and just plain ugly. It requires reboots for even fairly minor changes to the setup, and documentation is sometimes unclear. We saw visible settings that should not be adjusted, and the update to the latest firmware (1.90) didn’t help much. Speed was quite good, but not excellent, on the 802.11a/b/g/n bands, and we did notice a decrease in range of about 15% versus other non-AC routers that we had on-hand. Real-world speeds ranged from 35-75 Mbps depending on distance, about average for the category and less than some other available routers. A single USB port for connecting your thumb drives or external devices is fine, and we appreciated the inclusion, but another contender that we’ve been testing concurrently offers two and faster file transfer speeds. The lack of native IPv6 support isn’t a shock, but still a bit of a disappointment for a cutting-edge wireless device.
Overall, this router is probably not the best choice for those who will be using it solely with existing infrastructure. There’s not enough reason to move from 802.11n if you already have a router with support for that protocol, and some very good reasons to wait for the the newer standard to mature (and devices to actually support it). But there is one not uncommon situation in which this is perhaps the best currently available option- if you also have a set of devices, like gaming consoles or a media center, and want to connect them wireless to your router.
The best solution for high-speed streaming needs like high-definition video and gaming is always wired cabling, but if that’s not possible, Buffalo makes the next best (and much easier to install) solution. We’ll look at their Dual Band Media Bridge in our next piece. But for the moment, know that AC is blazingly fast- almost three times the speed of 802.11n. We saw a transfer reach 350 Mbps, an unheard-of speed, thanks to the 80MHz band. It was an impressive feat, and certainly made us thrilled to have one on-hand with the Media Bridge. And at $130, it’s not a bad value either- but you can spend a bit more for a router that is easier-to-configure or save a bit and grab a model that sacrifices the 802.11ac you won’t be using anyway.