ON TOP OF YOUR GAME: GAMING ROUTERS SUPERTEST
A NEW CATEGORY OF WI-FI ROUTERS PROMISE TO GIVE YOU FLAWLESS ONLINE GAMING, BUT DO THEY DELIVER?
Wi-Fi might be one of Australia’s proudest technological creations (thanks, CSIRO!), but we all know how flaky it can be even under the best circumstances. Unfortunately, not everybody can lay Ethernet cable through their home or use Ethernet-overpowerline kits, so Wi-Fi is often the only available option.
Thankfully, the technology has improved massively over the last few years, but there are still some huge caveats and misunderstandings about the technology. The biggest marketing mistruth is the speed that today’s Wi-Fi routers are capable of, with many claiming combined speeds of over 5,000Mbps.
This is usually designated on the box as a speed beginning with the term “AC [insert speed here]”. For example, the ASUS RoG Rapture GT-AC5300 claims to have a top speed of 5,300Mbps, but closer examination reveals that this isn’t quite true. Sure, the router can pump out that theoretical maximum speed, but not to a single device. Instead, it uses a single 2.4GHz network to push out 1,000Mbps, with another two 5GHz networks, each delivering 2,167Mbps. Add the three together, and you have the end result of 5,300Mbps, hence the ‘AC5300’ in the title.
This extra bandwidth definitely comes in handy if you’re connecting a stack of different devices to your Wi-Fi network, but no single device can utilise all of that bandwidth, as there’s the issue of the numbers of transmitting and receiving antennae. Most of today’s high-speed routers use a 4x4 configuration, which means they have four transmitting and receiving antennae. However, most laptops, tablets and smartphones only have a 2x2 configuration, which means they can only achieve at most half the speed of each channel. And they can only connect to one channel at a time. Again, if you’re loading up several devices onto the same channel the extra antennae will be of benefit, but if you’re only hooking up a couple of devices that extra bandwidth won’t get used.
There are lots of terms being bandied about regarding the latest in today’s Wi-Fi routers, but arguably the most important is MIMO. This allows multiple devices to connect at a higher speed to a single frequency than routers that don’t feature this tech. Unlike a year ago when many devices claimed to be MIMO compatible* (*pending a firmware update at some indeterminate date in the future),
“Nearly every premium router these days features QoS, but some do it automatically while others require
the user to configure which PC on their network gets the most network love.”
today’s routers actually are MIMO-ready.
The other buzzword is QoS, or Quality of Service. This allows the router to look at the different forms of traffic being passed through the router, and then prioritise them based on their needs. Generally speaking, gaming traffic is given the number one priority, then streaming video, and then everything else. Nearly every premium router these days features QoS, but some do it automatically while others require the user to configure which PC on their network gets the most network love.
We tested eight of the latest premium routers on the market for several things. Firstly, how did they perform during gaming when under load and not under load; for the former, we ran a 5GB download file on a laptop connected to the router via Ethernet, while also running
CS:GO and a 4K YouTube video on the client PC. From here, we could use
CS:GO’s detailed network performance monitor to see the difference QoS makes, measuring both the ping to the server, as well as the packet loss. As you’ll see, the performance difference isn’t huge, but this is largely in part because we tested using an Optus Fibre to the Home connection, tested at 95Mbps down and 34Mbps up.
Secondly, we tested the file transfer performance on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks at both near and far range, by transferring a 1GB file using the LAN Speed Test application. We should point out that, since the April update of Windows, simply sharing a folder between two PCs hasn’t been documented well. It took us six hours and two laptops to get it working; firstly, the removal of workgroups from Windows 10 means that both machines must log in to the same Microsoft account, using the same authentication method — one machine using a PIN can’t share with another using a password. Secondly, we simply could not get our Windows 10 desktop to share a folder with our Windows 8.1 laptop, so had to swap the latter out for a Windows 10 laptop. Note that this laptop was equipped with an 802.11ac Wi-Fi module using a 2x2 radio, which is basically the norm these days, and explains why the speeds tested are well below the advertised rate of the router’s maximum.
While our results show that most of the routers were pretty evenly matched, the fact that we only used two devices at a time on each router means that those with higher overall AC ratings will perform better if you’re using many more devices. This is definitely something to consider if you’ve got a house of four or more people, all using laptops or smart devices, where that extra bandwidth will actually be used.
We should also point out that we tested in a residential area, where interference from other networks and even microwaves or garage remote controls can lower overall performance.