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back to article Top Ten 802.11ac routers: Time for a Wi-Fi makeover?

The once-sage advice that wired networking was the only way to guarantee suitable speeds for streaming HD video, large file transfers, or buffer-free HD video playback no longer holds true – or does it? The latest wireless standard, 802.11ac, delivers significantly improved speeds over 802.11n thanks to greater bandwidth and …

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Shoot marketing!

Many of these are consumer or small business electronics. Therefore should be named appropriately. That means that TEU751-a/ccrk400085r is a bloody useless name. Simple range name and number would be right. However 'Nighthawk' is perhaps even worse. Is it a stealth router? Does it sneak out at night and bang the neighbour's missus? Or is it just a bit of cheap black plastic stuck in a dusty corner?

They've managed it with printers. So why not routers or TVs? You can have a Thingyjet 3100 or 3200 and then they eventually get bored of the workings of the 3000, and go up to the Thingyjet 4000 range. Easy. Understandable. Everyone can find the bloddy driver software.

At least with TV models they have an excuse, in that they're deliberately trying to obfuscate things, to keep the retailers happy, so you can't compare the prices instore with those online. And so they can stick 'smart' gubbins on the same panel, and double the price. Why anyone wants the internet on their telly is utterly beyond me, but that's another story.

Router manufacturers have no excuse. Aaaargh!

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Re: Shoot marketing!

People will buy either by brand name because they have previously had good experiences with the vendors product, by recommendation, by coolest name or by random. The model numbers are only relevant to the 0.0001% of customers that discover model X has more CPU/RAM/flashing lights that allows it to run third-party firmware and make it a decent product.

Until we have rockets that can be flown into the sun for a reasonable cost, we have to give marketing people jobs where they are unlikely to do to much harm - hence stupid product names and incomprehensible model numbers.

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Re: Shoot marketing!

I disagree. I'd imagine most people will buy routers on price. In Staples / PC World / Amazon / whatever. Although good experience of your last brand may mean you go that route.

Router models often seem to last quite a long time, although they seem to run several very similar ones in parallel. So I don't know why sensible names are a problem. And when I've looked for updates they've sometimes kept the same model number but had two versions. Where going up by 10 would be good.

I'm not such a pessimist. I believe that we can harness marketing people for good. With a bit of retraining, we can retain some to make the jungle of product choice a little less thick, and others can be integrated into other more useful sectors of society.

Odd though. I wasn't expecting my comment to be controversial and upset people so much they hit the downvote button. I guess there's no accounting for taste...

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Re: Shoot marketing!

"Until we have rockets that can be flown into the sun for a reasonable cost, we have to give marketing people jobs where they are unlikely to do to much harm"

I am replying only to thank you for the above.

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Trollface

Re: Shoot marketing!

I'm sympathising with your opinion, I just can't help but feel that the entire text of the post past the title is redundant.

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Facepalm

Re: Shoot marketing!

I was looking for an OpenWRT-compatible router, while glancing at the NetGear WNDR3700 I found there were five different versions...

- WNDR3700v1

- WNDR3700v2

- WNDR3700v3 - with a completely different unsupported chipset

- WNDR3700v4 - back to the v2 chipset but with a load of memory, this is the one to have

- WNDR37AV - a variant of v1

Buying it from a bricks and mortar shop would be an exercise in futility but I couldn't be sure what I was buying online either as too many sellers didn't include the version number and I couldn't find a seller that said they were selling v4 so in the end I went with a Buffalo, all thanks to marketing.

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Re: Shoot marketing!

It's even worse than you think.

I personally don't care what they call it, but I do want to know that if I buy something on Amazon or Ebay called a SharkStar957BW, I'm going to get the same as what was described in a posted review of the same sillynamed thingy. This is especially important if one is planning to evict the manufacturer's firmware and to install OpenWRT or one of its cousins. (Why? Well, the factory firmware will cease being bugfixed shortly after they stop selling it, and your router will be Pwnable by the world and his dog a few months thereafter).

But with several manufacturers, you can't guarantee that the innards of a particular model stay the same. Netgear have a particularly bad track record of keeping the model number and plastic box design, while totally changing the internals. You have to establish whether its a v1, v2, ... v5, ... and that information is not always clearly displayed on the actual unit, let alone clearly written on the packaging or advertized by a seller. I'm not talking minor redesigns (which are bad enough) ... the v4 may be Broadcom and the v5 Atheros!

BTW why doesn't someone make a router specifically for use with OpenWRT? With no proprietary firmware development and maintenance to fund, they could spend the money on more RAM, Flash and USB ports, and on making it unbrickable.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Shoot marketing!

BTW why doesn't someone make a router specifically for use with OpenWRT? With no proprietary firmware development and maintenance to fund, they could spend the money on more RAM, Flash and USB ports, and on making it unbrickable.

being a tomato user, I'm not sure about openwrt, but there have been a number of routers sold for this purpose - a while back linksys released the WRT54-GL basically a re-release of the old blue wrt54 series that were so popular with custom firmware. I also seem to recall easytomato was selling routers preloaded with their build, but that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

part of me suspects the reason manufacturers don't just ship routers with OpenWRT or Tomato is because it would devalue their SMB offerings (it always amazes me how much extra it costs to get the feature set I'm accustomed to at home on my work network).

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Re: Shoot marketing!

"Nighthawk" is indeed a silly name for a router. I picture it hunting nightmice before returning to its nightnest for the nightnight.

But there is a proper name along the same principle of printers as you request. The R7000 part of the name afterwards is the actual, non-marketing name, that lets you work out if it is newer / better.

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Re: Shoot marketing!

@Dan 55

Some places will help in this regard if you ask, I've been into PC World and explained I was after a particular revision of something and they happily cut the security seals off and opened the box to let me check.

Some smaller (relative to Amazon etc) online retailers will also be helpful. I once asked CCL what revision a motherboard they had listed was, where there were 5 revisions on the manufacturers site. They sent someone down to the warehouse to check what revision their stock was, told me and update the product on the website to include it as well.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Shoot marketing!

As a Marketing flunky i would defend my brethren by pointing out that, in my experience, product names are usually thought up by either the CEO (or Managing Director depending on your preference),in the case of small companies. Or by a Product Manager/Director.

Typically marketing get handed the turd and asked to polish away.

My most recent example is a product upgrade that came to me as Product X - 200. When i asked what made it '200', was there some technical spec, speed, or something that made '200' relevant? I was told "no, it just sounds better".

Posting in anon as i'm still employed by said employer.

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Why?

They've managed it with printers. So why not routers or TVs?

Because they don't need to. The only reason printers have an easy name is because people have to find ink for them. People (i.e. Joe Public) go to an electronics shop to buy 'a 42" TV with 3 HDMI ports'. They might want Sharp or whatever brand, but that's as far as they go. There are no consumables, and the only time they're likely to ever look for it is if a friend asks so they can get the same one, or if they call someone to get it repaired.

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ADSL, VDSL built in / requires modem

More info required; it's all well and good you're testing the wireless speeds, but surely one of the other considerations is if the model is an ADSL / VDSL / Requires a cable/vdsl modem.

Hard to tell without going to each and every manufacturer page, (fritzbox, buffalo, tp-link excepted).

Perhaps just a quick comparison table at the end rather than showing us the somewhat pointless "user-interface" screenshots.

Personally I don't care much about the snazziness of the UI, but maybe I'd like to know know if I can have more than 1 wireless LAN with different network settings hosted on the same unit.

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Re: ADSL, VDSL built in / requires modem

Not to mention firewall/multinat/VPN etc etc.

Wireless throughput tests to the nearest millibyte are actually pretty irrelevant in most cases. If I move 0.5 metre one way or another in my living room it can cause a 50% drop in link speed.

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Re: ADSL, VDSL built in / requires modem

"More info required; it's all well and good you're testing the wireless speeds, but surely one of the other considerations is if the model is an ADSL / VDSL / Requires a cable/vdsl modem.

Hard to tell without going to each and every manufacturer page, (fritzbox, buffalo, tp-link excepted)."

Not that hard. The fact Orestis specifically mentions the presence of xDSL modems means it's a reasonable assumption that the others do not.

Or you can just look at the back-panel photos. If it's only got RJ45 sockets with one labelled "WAN" then you'll need a modem. If it's got an RJ11 socket labelled DSL then it's got it's own modem. Should be able to tell at a glance whether a modem is present.

Fair point that a matrix for other features like guest networks, firewalls, IPv6, VPN, etc would be useful.

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Re: ADSL, VDSL built in / requires modem

Agreed. Looks like you need the ASUS DSL-AC68U variant;

Compatible with ADSL2/2+, ADSL, VDSL2, fibre and cable services for complete future-proofing

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ADSL, VDSL built in / requires modem

This article never claimed to provide a full, detailed review of each router, it's purpose was stated on the very first line; "The once-sage advice that wired networking was the only way to guarantee suitable speeds for streaming HD video, large file transfers, or buffer-free HD video playback no longer holds true – or does it?". There's only about 12 lines of text for each router, so be realistic. I grant you, a feature matrix could have been squeezed in somewhere, but nobody's perfect.

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speedy

hmmm so I'll be able to talk from my laptop, phone, tablet and Playstation at super quick speeds to the router and then be throttled to death by the bandwidth available on my rural broadband.

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Re: speedy

Maybe. But it does mean you might be able to stream a video from your computer in one room to TVs in several others.

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Re: speedy

As Spartacus mentioned. If you're streaming HD from your NAS, someone else can be using the internet (or their own stream depending how good your NAS is) and the wifi doesn't start running out of bandwidth. Unless you've got Infinity, 802.11n is far faster than your outbound connectivity, but internal traffic may well be higher still if you're in the habit of ripping your DVD/Blu-Ray collection to network storage.

By way of example my parent's ISP-issued 802.11-b (yuh, really) router is now seriously struggling when you try and connect a slew of phones, laptops and tablets to it simultaneously. It's 10 years old and was designed to sit next to a wired desktop with maybe one or two wireless laptops if you were one of the cool kids. Tablets and smartphones didn't exist back then. Still works fine as far as ADSL goes - they only get flaky rural ADSL so no one tries to stream (which would be pointless over 802.11b anyway) but the wireless chip itself isn't up to the job of talking to 3 devices per person. Gets confused when everyone is home for christmas and it's got 10-15 devices connected, if not doing anything. Just bought them a new n router and turned the wireless off on their old unit, leaving it to do modem/DHCP duties, which splits their devices over 2.4GHz and 5GHz and can cope with them all trying to talk to each other.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: speedy

Bathe availability of these speeds over wifi should give the Ethernet mob a kick up the arse to get 10Gb nics commonplace. I'm sick of being limited in my NAS transfer speeds by the 1Gb/s port speeds. Some of the SoHo NAS boxes now come with them but the availability of switches is low and forget about machines and motherboards. It's all a bit sad really as there's no way I want to use wifi due to congestion, range and other device interference issues.

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Megaphone

"I love the appearance of the the Nighthawk. It not only sounds like a US military war machine, it kind of resembles one too"

I think I should like a router that is somewhat quieter than that!

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re: Nighthawk. It not only sounds like a US military war machine

More like a slightly inept French resistance fighter and cafe owner: " 'Allo, 'allo, this is Nighhthawk. Can you hear me"

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Re: re: Nighthawk. It not only sounds like a US military war machine

Now listen carefully - I shall say zis only once.

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Re: re: Nighthawk. It not only sounds like a US military war machine

@ChrisBedford - Pardonne?

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Fritzbox

Anymore info or user experiences with the Fritzbox - the built in dect feature intrigues me.

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Re: Fritzbox

I use a Fritzbox 7390 on ADSL. I've been very happy with it's stability and the the link up with their plugin Repeater device. I've not used any of the DECT features though. There is an issue where some line tests apparently cause the line to ring so you get "ghost calls". As these tests generally happen overnight they could become annoying. There are forum articles on this issue. Fritz support is pretty good too along with their KB. If you do buy one make sure you are getting a UK/English version of the product as the Euro/German version can't be flashed with English language firmware which makes configuration a bit more challenging.

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Re: Fritzbox DECT

Like it says on the tin, it's got a DECT base station built in which you can use if you have phone service on your incoming line (and if you don't, you can still use them as your home intercom/PBX). The FritzBox also allows hooking up ISDN phones even if you have POTS service.

If I'm not mistaken it can also do VOIP for the PBX, but I've not used that function yet on mine (FritzBox 7340)

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Re: Fritzbox

I have an ISP-supplied 7360, that I am quite happy with. It has a DECT telephone connected and it did experience the ghost calls, up to hundreds a day. I resolved it by making a blocking rule to not accept calls without a number. Probably keeps away the telemarketers as well!

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Unused speed

With available broadband (cable or fiber) currently topping out at about 100Mbps (and ADSL is MUCH slower) for most people, the theoretical top speed of these routers is unimportant. The wireless connection to the router only needs to be faster than the broadband connection for the precise speed to be unimportant.

(If you are one of the few lucky people who can afford a Gigabit broadband connection then go for the fastest router available.)

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Re: Unused speed

If you only ever use your WiFi for Internet access, you might be right.

For the rest of us, the extra bandwidth is essential. Streaming HD video from a NAS to a TV/media centre, for example.

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Re: Unused speed

If you only ever use your WiFi for Internet access, you might be right.

For the rest of us, the extra bandwidth is essential.

There are two kinds of commentards: those who think there are only two kinds of commentards, and those who know better.

I use my WiFi for local comms between my machines frequently, but they're rarely bandwidth-limited. I'm not streaming HD video (or any other media), but that's my point - there are other uses for networking. So no, it is not "essential" for all of "the rest of us".

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Meh

I mostly agree with this article

I have not ventured into the world of this generation of wireless yet. For me there's no need as only one of my devices even supports it, and N is plenty fast in my home for now.

But I have to mostly agree with his findings for the brands I've personally used. I have an ASUS router now, and have been pleased with its performance. It replaced a Netgear that was also good. I had a Buffalo that had an amazing UI but very poor speed and range. TPlink has always been good budget kit. Linksys gets the job done but is nothing remarkable. I've never been fond of DLink nor Belkin.

My one disagreement would be with Airport being wonderful to set up and use. Maybe it is if you have bought into the Apple 'ecosystem' For those of us that are used to simply going to a web address and being done in 10 minutes, Apple's Windows software is frustrating and annoying to use. And not fun for Linux users. Also, Apple's insistence on feebly trying to enhance security by using a different standard IP range than the rest isn't doing anything but making it more of a pain to configure. It's well been proven that "security through obscurity" does little to thwart all but the least skilled and makes life a pain for everyone else.

Occasionally our department (being the catch-all for everything that plugs in) has to configure a home router for a customer that brought it in with them, complete with cables, printer, etc. to be thrown on our desks: "Here you go!" When I see an Airport router, I immediately begin swearing...

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Re: I mostly agree with this article

"Occasionally our department (being the catch-all for everything that plugs in) has to configure a home router for a customer that brought it in with them, complete with cables, printer, etc. to be thrown on our desks: "Here you go!" When I see an Airport router, I immediately begin swearing..."

If it's of any use, Airport Utility is available on iOS as well. Even if you're an MS/Linux house, someone is bound to have an iPhone/Pad.

Agreed it's a bit of a PITA not just having a web-interface like everyone else. Don't know whether that's a security improvement as presumably it's one less service running on the router. Guess it depends on how the Utility talks to the router and whether that's more or less secure than an inward-facing web service.

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Re: I mostly agree with this article

One nice thing about Apple's approach, especially from a security standpoint, is that firmware updates are integrated into the standard OS update process. It's been awhile since I've had a non-Airport router, but I remember having to periodically manually check manufacturer web sites to make sure my access point to the rest of the Internet was up to date. With the Airport Utility (on Mac anyway, don't know about Windows/iOS), if there's a new version, it automatically appears in the standard software update notification, and installing is one click away.

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Re: I mostly agree with this article

"When I see an Airport router, I immediately begin swearing..."

Indeed. Your comments re that "airport config utility" are spot on - it's fine for a bog-standard arrangement but when you want to do something even slightly out of the ordinary it is completely frustrating. The software doesn't allow you to set it up the way you want, it insists, "Wizard"-style, on asking a bunch of ambiguous questions and then basing the configuration on your answers. Too bad if, as a technically competent person, you can't think like the marketing cock who wrote the questions.

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TRT
Silver badge

Re: I mostly agree with this article

The new version is dreadful. Can't even get the ethernet hardware addresses so I can add them to our vLAN.

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Re: I mostly agree with this article

"When I see an Airport router, I immediately begin swearing..."

Concur, even though I own a Mac. Most of the situations I've been in where I've had to configure AirPort gear I've either been on Ubuntu at the time or the gear has been old enough that the AirPort client on my Mac doesn't support it.

I understand Apple's philosophy behind it all but a web-based admin option really wouldn't go amiss. 'Someone nearby will have a Mac or iPad' isn't a sufficient excuse when every other brand of device has an admin interface that doesn't discriminate.

On the plus side it's pretty solid kit once it's set up, so it's rare that the admin interface should be needed again until it's passed onto someone else.

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Silver badge

802.11ac

I'm looking forward to the new tech, but the problem with wireless isn't just the speed so much as the way it changes all the time. Use a monitor app and you will see the wireless (n class) strength waver wildly up and down every few seconds. It might be good to stream 4 movies at once now, but in 15 seconds ? Not so much. Wired is just stress free.

It would have been useful to know the features of each router, eg which ones have gigabit wired ports. Interesting article nonetheless.

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Its a pain that its almost impossible to get a 3x3 card - my current throughput is much better than N - (intel 7260 AC & UBNT managed points) having wasted capacity bothers me! and more speed is always needed! Currently saturating both wired and wireless links copying large files...

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OpenWRT

Call me once someone's done the hard work and got OpenWRT builds for some of these and I'll start listening.

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Stop

Re: OpenWRT

Absolutely. The expensive joke that is the Linksys WRT1900AC has made many claims about it's hackability, yet the code and drivers needed to actually achieve it are missing in action.

I'll stick with my "G" Open-WRT compatible devices until either a true Tomato/Open-WRT AC is widely available or one of these devices can really offer multiple DMZ/routing flexibility, QoS that works and is configurable, Guest networks that can be bandwidth limited and modules/add-ons/plug-ins for all the nice network protection/ad-filtering/iptables things that we'd like to do in an ideal world.

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Real world scenario (upstairs) Interesting

It's a shame that the 802.11n speeds and 802.11ac speeds were not plotted on the same graph.

Trying to compare by eye the result of n and ac for the fastest router, it appears that in the "real world scenario" of being upstairs, ac offers no speed advantage at all.

It's also a shame that nothing further away than 8m indoors and 10m with LOS was tested.

My house happens to be larger than 10m square, and my garden larger still, some test of distance before bandwidth drops below X would have been useful, and a test within a building through more than 1 wall/floor and over more than 8 metres.

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Pity there's no long term test opportunity. I wish I could find out which doesn't overheat (like half the netgear kit I've owned) and which doesn't need periodic reboots because they don't kill sessions correctly (my current TP-Link).

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What About the HomeHub 5?

Top 10 not including the device that's likely to have the widest install base, includes a VDSL modem and can be picked up, new, on eBay for under £50 (or free if you ask a BT engineer nicely) - The BT HomeHub 5.

I bought one for £40 before I had PlusNet fibre installed - The OpenReach engineer said he would have given me one from the van for free, however, I still consider it a bargain for £40.

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Re: What About the HomeHub 5?

I have got one of these and it is pretty good.

Can't compare it to the others for speed myself, but other reviewers have and say it's near the top.

And BT sell them online to non-BT broadband customers for £129, which makes it one of the cheapest.

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Seem to have missed Draytek off the list.

Not only that, the reason for many people to replace the standard box supplied by the ISP is additional flexibility required, my list of things I need a router to do includes;

* SIP

* VPN

* QoS

* VLAN Isolation

* Ability to configure "openwireless.org" and isolate from home traffic

* Ability to stream Linear IPTV

* USB Dongle for 4G Auto-failover

* (Nicety) Ability to directly support Fibre (FTTC)

Hence the use of a Draytek, however I would be interested how many more routers support configuration at this more advanced level.

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Meh

Re: Seem to have missed Draytek off the list.

Hmm Draytek now seem to be steering into "trading off past glories" territory for me.

Too many burnt out wi-fi cards in them for my liking. YMMV of course.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Seem to have missed Draytek off the list.

Draytek make superb routers. Have tried various consumer brands over the years and all were trouble. Just got fed up of routers that needed regular rebooting or died after a couple of years. Worse if you recommended them to friends or family when they went wrong it would inevitably be muggins fault!

So now I only recommend Draytek gear. Never have any problems with them other than initial grumbling about the cost. Have 3 in operation myself and various friends and family now also have them.

The other nice thing about Draytek is that they don't drop support for models after a couple of years. My oldest one (a 2820 I think I got in 2007) had it's firmware updated last week to the latest 2014 version. Updates for 7 year old kit are a rarity these days!

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Re: Seem to have missed Draytek off the list.

I always found my draytek to be rock solid on even the shittiest ADSL connection. Couldn't say the same for the multiple reboot per day Belkin it replaced. Bastard wouldn't even reconnect.

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