Ever wrestled with getting a router working right? I did. For years my AC1200 router wouldn’t transfer files faster than 2-3 megabytes per second (MB/s) to devices separated by a wall. I tried everything from changing the antenna several times to redoing all my wiring with the fastest, shielded CAT7 cabling. After weeks of research and tinkering, my internal network speeds improved to 6-7 MB/s. Until D-Link sent me their newest AC3200 router, the ULTRA. And then my speeds went through the roof – and into outer space.
Here’s my review of the ULTRA, along with some tips on how you can improve your own network speeds.
Aesthetics and Internals
The DIR-890L Ultra router looks alien. Its six, flat antenna, sloped flat-paneling, and blood red plastic shell, gives the appearance of an invading alien spaceship or a bloodied, robotic insect. While intimidating to behold, its design offers a straightforward implementation of the 802.11ac wireless standard. For those unaware, 802.11ac (oftentimes referred to as Wireless-AC) offers varying degrees of data transfer speeds, beginning at AC1200 and ending with its penultimate implementation, AC3200. It also includes Smart Connect, which simplifies the connection process. Instead of choosing between connecting to either the 5 or 2.4 GHz channel, Smart Connect enabled routers automatically link devices to whichever channel offers the best speed and connectivity.
What this means for consumers is faster speeds with less complication. The easier configuration and faster set up isn’t even the best feature of the ULTRA. It also features DD-WRT compatibility; in fact, it could be the last great router to feature DD-WRT compatibility, thanks to recent attempts by governments to ban firmware modifications of routers. For those of you unaware of how awesome DD-WRT is, check out how to flash DD-WRT onto your router.
The ULTRA also includes the standard number of ports and buttons, including 4 x LAN ports, a WLAN port, a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 port, and a reset and power button.
Like most other AC3200 routers on today’s market, Broadcom supplies the guts, or system-on-a-chip (what’s an SoC?): the Broadcom XStream platform. The XStream platform consists of the following components:
- CPU: Broadcom BCM4709A, dual-core A9 ARM
- RAM: 512 MB
- Memory: 128 MB
- Wireless chipset: Broadcom BCM43602
At present, though, AC3200 and Tri-Band routers aren’t particularly well understood amongst consumers and some myths cause confusion in the marketplace.
Discussing AC3200 and Tri-Band routers requires some explanation.
The term AC3200 comes from the theoretical transfer speeds that your router could hit—approximately 3,200 megabits per second (Mbps) or 400 megabytes per second (MB/s). But your router could only transfer data at 3,200Mbps with multiple devices running simultaneously. No individual devices connected to your network could reach those kinds of speeds.
Note, that as a matter of course, reviewers prefer using the MB/s nomenclature and advertisers prefer the larger, but less preferred, Mbps. For the sake of simplicity, I favor MB/s in this review.
So, to recap, AC3200 isn’t the speed of an individual device, it’s the maximum speed that traffic on your network can collectively hit. It’s the saturation point. And very few of our readers at MakeUseOf will ever need that kind of capacity.
What the Heck is Tri-Band?
Wireless-AC broadcasts over the 5GHz (what’s a dual-band router?) spectrum. D-Link advertises the ULTRA as a “Tri-Band” router (what’s a Tri-Band router?), although two of the 5GHz bands fall along the same 5GHz frequency. Technically, a tri-band router lurches back onto the Wireless-N’s 2.4GHz spectrum. The supposed third band enables AC3200 wireless adapter to hit speeds of around 400 Mbps, in theory. On high end routers the actual speeds will vary according to your internal network configuration. For example, when I reviewed the AC1900 NetGear R7000 NightHawk, the transfer speeds equaled my AC1200 NetGear A6200v2 router. While its transmit distances went off the map, its overall speed didn’t justify an upgrade. In a head-to-head test, the wireless transfer speeds of the Nighthawk’s (the original model) AC1900 didn’t exceed my NetGear’s AC1200.
We’ve also covered — in detail — the myths regarding the technically faster AC3200 and so-called Tri-Band routers. Neither feature really matters for an individual wireless adapter on the network. In fact, 103 MB/s (or 867 Mbps) remains the fastest individual adapter speed (on a 2×2 MIMO), which maxes out the 5GHz channel. And that’s assuming there’s a perfect connection between an 802.11ac router and the wireless adapter.
The Configuration Process of the DIR-890L ULTRA
Configuring and deploying the ULTRA takes minimal effort, thanks to a slew of guided configuration tools. The entire process requires little more than plugging in the router and connecting your wireless devices to its SSID. There’s also a fairly good Android or iOS application for managing your network.
Unlike other 802.11ac routers that I’ve tested, the DIR-890L broadcasts a single SSID (router name) and automatically configures dual-band configurations for each device that it connects to it. It should improve overall network performance by moving slower devices on the longer range 2.4GHz band and faster devices onto the 5GHz channel automatically. The weighting of each channel translates into better network performance when users run multiple streaming devices at the same time.
Smart Home Configuration
If you also own some of D-Link’s Connected Home range of sensors and other Smart Home gadgets, the 890L offers an extremely easy configuration and deployment feature — provided you’ve purchased one of their ULTRA branded routers. At present there’s only the $300 DIR-890L/R (which this review is based on), but the second half of 2015 will bring the AC3100 DIR-885L, and the AC5300 DIR-895L. Each of these should offer the same simplified configuration as the 890L.
Configuring each smart device just requires that the user visit mydlink.com. After creating a login and password, users then receive a manifest of all their connected devices. Adding new devices to the manifest doesn’t require much time. Each paired smart device should pop-up in the bottom right-side of the mydlink interface.
Users then add the device to their pool of Connected Home products. From this point on, users can interact with their devices from this menu. It even shows the individual status of each paired device, including whether or not they’re online.
Speed of the DIR-890L ULTRA
As mentioned above, the individual device speeds of an AC3200 router shouldn’t go much higher than AC1200. The real advantage of the ULTRA router is its ability to support faster speeds at a distance and through barriers, a task which the 5GHz band suffers from wall penetration issues, thanks to its physical properties.
My two points of reference include an older AC1200 router (a NetGear A6200v2) and an AC1900 router, from NetGear, the R7000 Nighthawk. The ULTRA shares the same Broadcom dual-core processor as the Nighthawk.
In order to eliminate wiring or electromagnetic interference as a potential limiting (or interfering) factor, I replaced my CAT5e cables with CAT7, shielded cabling. Using a non AC3200 router, my network speeds actually increased around 20%, going from around 2 MB/s to 3 MB/s on my 802.11ac workstation. However, keep in mind that my workstation stretches roughly 25 feet from the router and there’s a wall and a serious amount of metal between the two points. After switching to the D-Link speed jumped up to 16 MB/s, which represents the single greatest improvement in wireless connectivity that I’ve ever seen after changing a router. This occurred after struggling for months with improving my home network’s data transfer speeds. Distance and walls, in general, impacts 802.11ac devices on the 5GHz channel more than it impacts devices jacked into the 2.4GHz channel. Much of the performance differentials deal with the physical shape of the 5GHz spectrum, which penetrates walls with less capability than 2.4GHz. So another measure of a router’s capabilities is to look at how quickly it transfers data relative to distance and wall penetration. The best device to test data transfer speeds is a laptop connected to a home server.
My Dell XPS 13 laptop, which also employs a 2×2 MiMO 802.11ac wireless adapter, managed to squeeze out 9-12 MB/s connection speeds on the older NetGear AC1200 router at point-blank range from the access point. After upgrading to the D-Link, my connection speeds hit 54 MB/s (which translates into 433 Mbps). These speeds eclipse all other routers I’ve tried and put it at the very top of wireless connectivity speeds. However, keep in mind that users receive this bump only for internal network file transfers and not while browsing the Internet, unless you have super high speed fiber-optic lines.
On my ADSL connection, predictably, the D-Link’s AC3200 theoretical speeds provided zero impact on download, upload, and ping speeds. One of the biggest router misconceptions is that theoretical speeds impact Internet performance. This just isn’t true unless you’re on a fiber connection; your Internet speed is the bottleneck.
So while the ULTRA offers outstanding performance, its price-tag of just under $300 doesn’t offer value to those on ADSL lines without a lot of internal network traffic. Those who would benefit get Internet from fiber-optic connections or with lots of internal network traffic. For the smart home, with potentially hundreds of connected smart devices, the DIN-890L offers an excellent means of seamlessly connecting swarms of devices, without seriously impacting network transfer speeds.
Range of the ULTRA
While the Nighthawk gets better range, the ULTRA does what no other router I’ve tried could: offer speed at range. Simply going from an AC1200 router to the ULTRA increased network speeds on my distant workstation from 3 MB/s to 16 MB/s. I know that many router experts will claim that AC1200 shouldn’t differ for individual connection speeds than AC3200, but something about the ULTRA – perhaps its antenna design – allow for superior speeds, all other factors being the same.
The ULTRA also includes a variation on the non-proprietary beamforming technology. When implemented on a router, beamforming allows the router’s wireless signal to be directed where needed. More or less, it can shape its transmission to receive better speeds at a distance. D-Link’s own internal version of beamforming is called Smart BEAM. I should note that NetGear offers a similar implementation, known as Beamforming+, which requires a special NetGear wireless adapter in order to work (which is not a part of the 802.11ac standard). Smart Beam, on the other hand, works regardless of the adapter’s origin.
On the Downside
Not everything about the D-Link is perfect.
Non-Replaceable Antennas. First, its antenna aren’t replaceable, which prevents users from bumping up the antenna to something like this 12 dBi model and going hog-wild with DD-WRT’s ability to increase broadcast range.
No Night Time Mode. For those of you who host the router inside of their bedroom, you’ll be disappointed to find there’s no obvious means of disabling its white LED status lights. I eventually covered the lights with a red tape, which helps diffuse the harshness of its light.
High Power Consumption. All high-end routers consume absurd amounts of power. The ULTRA doesn’t drift very far away from the pack in this regard. It consumes around 12-13 watts during standard operation. In the United States, this translates to around 13 dollars per year in power costs. In Germany, the prices can jump as high as 43 Euros per year. I did not notice any kind of low power state, for reduced power costs.
Competition in the AC3200 Marketspace
In the ULTRA’s market segment, you might also consider the $330 ASUS RT-AC3200 and the $300 Netgear Nighthawk X6, though all of these are currently on sale leaving them at a similar price point. D-Link’s router departs mainly in its approach to aesthetics and D-Link’s Smart Home configuration tool.
Is the D-Link DIR-890L Worth $300?
Considering that the D-Link DIR-890L might end up one of the last high-end routers to offer DD-WRT compatibility, it is worth $300. But does it beat the other $300 routers? The ULTRA differentiates itself by offering a Smart Home (what’s a Smart Home?) tie-in along with the easiest to configure settings out of all the routers out there. Together it makes for a winning package in the $300 range. Those on a budget, though, might balk at its price.
In my experience, raw performance isn’t everything. Ease of configuration played a key role in getting my wireless network speeds up to its current levels. I recommend the ULTRA to anyone who wants to configure D-Link’s Connected Home range of products or anyone who wants a really easy-to-configure Wireless-AC router.
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