It’s been a little under a year since Linksys unleashed the EA9500, their first foray into Tri-Band MU-MIMO routers, so it should come as a surprise to no one that they continue to follow up with further hardware. Their latest in the series, the EA8300 is a lower cost, more budget orientated device than the frankly mental EA9500 was. Featuring 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports, 4 antennae, and a much smaller form factor than its older sibling.
Once again, our friends at Linksys have been kind enough to provide us with a unit to test and review to the best of our abilities. Packaging wise, this is Linksys’ standard fare for its consumer line, with a clean layout featuring product shots and some specs and stats of the device contained within.
Little Blue Box.
In the box, we have the router itself, a US style power connector (I have been assured that all units shipped will have the correct PSU for the territory it is sold in and it is simply review copies that have this none localised connector.) an Ethernet cable and the usual setup CD and documentation. Appearance wise the router has a lot in common with the previously reviewed EA9500 retaining a very dark grey colour, top mounted venting and a dark, translucent plate in the centre to show the various status lights. This happily maintains the subdued, but pleasing appearance of the 9500, albeit in a much smaller and easier to hide form factor.
Internally we see some other changes too, which make sense considering the aim of this device – to bring Tri-Band Mu-MIMO to a lower, more affordable price point. The 8300 touts a 716 MHz quad-core ARMv7 CPU, with 256 MB of DDR3 RAM and 256 MB of flash storage. In terms of antenna, the 8300 touts a 2×2 array, for its 2.4GHz and 5Ghz radios, rather than the 3×3 seen in the 9500. Of course, this isn’t specifically a bad thing, since its more closely suited to the mobile devices on the market and in most homes today than 3×3 is, and again allows costs to be saved at manufacturing, which contribute to a lower price at retail. Unfortunately, as was the case with the WRT3200ACM, FCC short term confidentiality will be expiring in late August and as ever I am loath to tear open the router to confirm more on the internals however again, using various sources I can confirm that the wireless is provided by a combination of Qualcomm and Qualcomm Atheros chips and the CPU is a Qualcomm IPQ4019. The one main take away with this device is that due to the fact it is using 2×2, rather than 3×3, speeds on the 2.4Ghz network are capped to 400Mbps and 832Mbps on the 5GHz. Of course, in theory this shouldn’t cause too many headaches for the majority of users, but of course the truth of how this impacts overall real-world performance will come out when we come to test the device.
As for the OS that drives the whole thing, as ever, we are treated to Linksys highly competent and user friendly Smart WiFi OS, which ties it into their eco system with mobile apps, Alexa support and more. As with my other Linksys reviews, it would be worth skimming over the coverage of this in the EA9500 review, since there is little real change to be seen here in terms of what to expect. Suffice to say, as always initial setup and configuration of the device was quick, painless and without issue, though it did bring up one interesting change – Linksys have configured the setup process to now ask if you would like to setup a Smart Wifi account, allowing for remote management and indeed extolling the virtues of doing so, such as allowing for remote management of parent’s routers etc. In addition to the extra steps at set up for Smart Wifi account options, there are a few additional features that have been added, such as Airtime Fairness options (literally just an on/off switch)
Of course, while the user interface is something we’re mostly skipping over, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that does bear talking about still. First up is the addition of AirTime Fairness, while the switch is innocuous and unassuming, it does provide a relatively handy function to those who may need to support both legacy hardware and newer devices on a wireless network, while Linksys do provide some useful help articles and links in their firmware oddly there isn’t one on the Airtime Fairness page. Essentially the idea behind it is to ‘boost’ your overall wireless performance at the cost of some network time on the slower devices on the network. By slower devices, this can mean anything from devices with poor signal due to interference or distance or by simply being an older device that can’t communicate as fast as newer ones. Without diving too deeply on this topic, Airtime Fairness acts almost like a toggle to determine if the amount of data or time should be fairly distributed among clients. Slower devices will see data transfers take marginally longer, but faster ones should see an increase over what they would have had previously when sharing with slower hardware due to the bandwidth/time being distributed evenly over all clients. Ultimately the need to enable Airtime Fairness should come down to if you have older devices or anticipate possible speed issues due to using devices over longer distances or in poor signal conditions – I would recommend testing without the facility enabled initially to see if there are any obvious issues prior to enabling it.
Next up we have Band Steering. Much like other recent routers by Linksys and indeed other hardware manufacturers. This is where options for things like Band Steering come into play – while this was an option on some of the other Linksys Routers we have reviewed, it’s not one we really discussed in any real detail in terms of what it does or even why it was an option to be enabled or disabled. Essentially, you could describe band steering as a form of load balancing, in its default configuration it utilises both channels of the 5GHz network shifting clients from one to the other as congestion issues occur on each channel. This can also be used to shift devices between the two networks depending on how each performs over range too, allowing for improved stability of connection for mobile devices, which are likely to be moved around a lot for example.
Disabling band steering is trivial if this is something you would want to do, being a simple click option in the routers config menu, doing so creates a secondary 5GHz network which can be configured as you wish – effectively giving the EA8300 three networks to play with. There are some reasons for band steering, for example if you don’t have many roaming wireless devices, but a lot of static ones for example, since the signal to these devices shouldn’t vary too much, if at all.
Finally, we’d be remiss to forgo a brief explanation of one of the headline features – MU-MIMO. Effectively, MU-MIMO is an evolution of existing MIMO technology. Where MIMO allowed for multiple antennas to be used for ingress and egress of data streams MU-MIMO adds a facility for multiple users to use individual data streams while still benefiting from MIMO. To give a better understanding of what this means – essentially MIMO routers will organise network traffic flowing from a client to the router into single streams, which it then transmits in parallel over multiple antenna, these streams are then re-assembled at either end of the WiFi connection. This allows for faster communication over WiFi and is effectively how WiFi networks are able to achieve the breakneck speeds they are hitting today. MU-MIMO is a natural evolution of this. Traditionally routers will handle a single client stream or streams at a time, meaning other wireless clients will effectively queue to have their data transmitted. MU-MIMO allows for multiple client streams to be handled at once, meaning faster communications for each device connected, with less need to queue each clients stream before transmitting – queuing will still occur as client counts increase, since MU-MIMO currently only handles either 2 or 4 clients at a time. However, this still translates to lower network times for each client, since less waiting is needed due to multiple client transmissions being handled simultaneously.