The EA9500 is Linksys’s ultra-high end WiFi router. I still remember the days when $100-200 routers were the high end - now if you’re buying $200 routers, you’re decidedly in the mid-range for most manufacturers. The EA9500 is a tri-band monster that brandishes 8 external adjustable antennas, 8 gigabit LAN ports, USB 3.0, and the latest and greatest 802.11ac standards. The SoC used is Broadcom’s BCM4709C0, which offers an interesting 5 core setup, a dual core Cortex-A9 main CPU with dedicated Corex-A7’s per each WiFi band. Like other recent Linksys CES hardware, the EA9500 is a Wave 2 802.11ac WiFi devices.
The biggest change with wave 2 is MU-MIMO. What does MU-MIMO do? Well the more WiFi clients you have the ‘slower’ your wireless network gets since each transmit and receive happens as a timeslice of airtime. If you have 4 clients, client 1 sends/receives, then client 2 sends/receives etc. This all happens so fast you don’t notice. But the more clients you add, the slower you get. 802.11ac’s MU-MIMO helps solve this by allowing groups of clients to exist. Wireless clients group together and are allowed to receive at the same time (802.11ax will introduce send and receive MU-MIMO). All this fanciness is great since more and more of our devices rely on WiFi in the home. The downside: MU-MIMO requires that the client support the technology, and as of the initial release, there aren’t many clients. But hardware manufacturers keep pushing bigger and fancier routers, and eventually the clients will catch up. I once felt like AC was almost unnecessary since so few clients supported 802.11ac, but now almost all my clients are AC, so this router’s time will come. Throw on top of that the EA9500 also features band steering for it’s dual 5Ghz bands, meaning it can intelligently balance large amounts of clients between the two radios. The advantage of buying a router like this is future proofing, and handling a boatload of high bandwidth clients.
It used to be that 5Ghz suffered range issues, any more than a single wall would usually leave you with too little signal. In fact my WNDR3700’s 5Ghz network would oftentimes drop out or barely work. However, that is no longer the case as most of the 5Ghz devices I’ve worked with recently push strong 5Ghz signal much further. This is no exception with the EA9500, as I had no range issues, even with the router placed in one corner of my 3000+ sqft house. Having 8 external antennas certainly helps it’s case, but it is still impressive to have such good range. Even more impressive is what 802.11ac can deliver with just a little signal. If you haven’t jumped on the AC train yet, it’s time!
The EA9500 has an interesting accompaniment of 8 LAN ports in addition to the single WAN port. This build in switch actually leads to an interesting theoretical advantage over most AC routers - potentially multiple wired link aggregated clients. While I’ve already seen a 3x3 client peek out a gigabit wired connection, I could imagine a 4x4 client could actually keep it pegged under right circumstances. With 8 ports, you could hook up a NAS or computer and use link aggregation on the wired network to actually go beyond the limitations of a single wired connection and be able to do 2Gb. I never thought I’d be saying it, but you could actually use the greater bandwidth provided by the wireless connection. Unfortunately I do not have a 4x4 client, nor a spare NAS with link aggregation to test this theory, but it definitely gives perspective on why you’d want a larger switch on one of these bad boys. I stumbled across a review saying this wasn’t a feature of this router, but link aggregation/teaming is usually a feature of the client, not the switch, so I see no reason it wouldn’t work (I effectively team 2 NICs on my Windows Server 2012 R2).
In my real world testing, I found quite speedy WiFi with 802.11ac clients. Even in a 2x2 device could manage 70MB/sec. A 3x3 MacBook Pro was able to peek out gigabit wired at 110Mb/sec which was an eye-openner. These speeds were observed copying to my Windows based NAS.
Unfortunately I saw similar or worse performance for the SMB and FTP though USB shares when compared to the EA7500. For testing I used a USB 3.0 drive (same one I referenced in the EA7500 review). Copying to and from I saw read and write over SMB at 20-30 MB/sec and 15-25MB/sec respectively. FTP generally started out slow but increased in speed as the transfer went on. I saw peaks around 50-60MB/sec read, and around 25-30MB/sec write. While these numbers are in the same ballpark as the EA7500, they are still a disappointment compared to dedicated NAS hardware.
Hardware wise, I find the SoC disappointing. Broadcom’s BCM47094 dual core + 3 cores is certainly capable. While this setup brings quite a bit of raw compute power, the Cortex-A9 BCM47094 main CPU isn’t as theoretically powerful as what you find in the EA7500, which is a bit of a disappointment. That said, I doubt it matters given the software, but one would guess if something like OpenVPN was ported to the firmware, that you’d see better throughput on the EA7500. I can’t be certain of that (as many things factor into that), but it’s a theory I feel somewhat confident in based on my knowledge of ARM CPUs. Furthermore the flash and RAM found on this device (256MB RAM, 128MB flash) is adequate, but not category leading. Does it matter? Again probably not, but WRT series has double the RAM.
For me a tri-band router has always been a bit of a silly undertaking, but I can start to understand the appeal when you're suggesting this for a very large household. As it stands today I have around 15 WiFi clients most on the 5Ghz band, and I'm a small household. I can imagine a household with 3 teenagers and friend along with 2 adults and their devices would bring a much larger foot-print. Tri-band is a niche, and if you need peak performance from multiple high-end clients, it actually makes sense, otherwise it's a bit overkill.
Firmware wise, you’ll find the standard Smart WiFi interface, the same found on the EA7500. This interface is a far cry from the WRT-54G days of yesteryear. Here we have a modern single page web app, with JQuery, Ajax, and -gasp- HTML5. The user experience is much better than other brands of consumer routers I’ve used (I’m looking at you Netgear with your ugly tables, and iframes). That said - my comments on this interface both criticism and compliments have not changed. Smart WiFi exceeds at making hard thing easy, but lacks some degree on common sense such as transport security on guest networks. Once again VPN is absent.
I can’t keep from feeling that the EA9500 is a bit of a let-down. Yes, the hardware is amazingly capable, but I can’t but keep from feeling that some of the hardware and software is disappointing for it’s price point. Don’t get me wrong - I praised the ease of use and parental features found in the EA7500’s firmware, which is identical to the EA9500’s. It was really good as far as stock firmwares go, however even in the EA7500’s price range I said it was a bit lean on features. Unfortunately there’s no VPN, no printer (AirPrint or otherwise) support, only basic NAS (SMB and FTP) with no personal ‘cloud’ access, and only very basic diagnostic tools. As one of my peer reviewers pointed out, if you change the device to AP mode, USB capabilities go out the door - and in fact almost all features go out the door (as the focus in the firmware is QoS, access control, etc - related to gateway/router functionality). This is again forgivable on lower end devices, and excusable on more expensive devices that might keep a degree of ‘ease of use’ over feature bloat.
Now here we are looking at a $400 router that essentially adds another 5GHz band and an additional antenna per band, but that’s it. To add insult to injury, most of your WiFi clients won’t and for the foreseeable future support 4x4:4 - meaning the claims of 2166 require clients that are few and far in between. Most devices are going to be 1x1 (most phones), 2x2 (iPads, higher end tablets, Retina MacBook, most ultrabooks), or 3x3 (MacBook Pro, high end Windows). Who has a 4x4 client? Very few unfortunately. 4x4 specs have been out for over 10 years (part of the 802.11n spec), but I have yet to see one client in person. Essentially, if you don’t seek out and find one of these high end clients - ostensibly to connect several wired devices from one location ala client-bridge mode, you’d be wasting the potential of this router.
I like the direction Linksys was going with the EA7500. It offered MU-MIMO future-proofing, but provided compatibility with almost all 802.11ac WiFi clients with a very fast SoC. It offered a simple, intuitive interface for home users that met realistic needs. A $200 MSRP fell in line with other high end devices, but I could forgive some of the features it missed since it excelled at the fundamentals you would want in a router. However when we work our way up to the EA9500, we double our price point, add hardware that only enthusiasts would need without backing it up with software enthusiasts would want. If I’m blowing $400 on a router I expect it to be an appliance that can fill multiple roles. That said, unless you have very specific needs, you’ll be better off with the EA7500. The EA9500 is a solid performer, and I cannot help but underscore how solid the WiFi performance is. But at it's MSRP, it's no match for many of the competitors out there.