There are a lot of router manufacturers out there, but unless you have a background in Network Engineering, it’s hard to know what to look for without a great deal of research. Simply buying the most expensive router may not serve the specific needs of your family. Are you planning on gaming with this router? How many people will be online at once? How many devices, including mobile platforms like tablets and phones, are connected? How many square feet of coverage do you expect out of your WiFi? These questions make it difficult for your favorite geek from Best Buy or Fry’s Electronics to narrow down exactly what you need.
But thankfully you’ve got me.
Today we’ll take a look at the latest in the Armor series from router manufacturer ZyXEL as we review the Z2 AC2600 router. In this review we’ll also talk a little bit about the bullets on the back of the box, and how each of them help you determine if the AC2600 is a wise choice for you.
Put simply, the AC2600 is an excellent router in every way. It’s highly engineered, insanely powerful, and has every feature you could ever want. That technology comes in at $190 on Amazon — roughly half of its nearest similarly-featured competitor.
Previous generations of routers focused hard on being sleek and power-lean. Tiny processors are great for saving power, but in a world where more and more devices are connected, you need more horsepower. In the case of the AC2600, it has a 1.7 GHz dual core processor. Similar routers from Netgear, Linksys, Asus, and others all have processors at that speed. As more devices connect, their webpage choices, video transfers, app updates, and any other activities require a little slice of processing power for the router to send traffic to the right locations. As more devices connect, you need more of that core. In most cases, the second core on the router is for running the devices features and backend, while the first core does all of that routing and switching.
Nearly as important as processing power is memory. Each activity needs a pool of memory to hold internet addresses for DNS (translating IP addresses to .com), MAC addresses of devices (the unique hardware address that allows us to reach that endpoint), and torrent. Before you point to piracy for that torrent comment, remember that Battle.net (now called Blizzard Technology), Facebook and Twitter (internally), file syncing, Linux distributions, and many more examples use that technology. The reason torrenting uses up a great deal of memory is that it uses hundreds and sometimes thousands of individual threads to collect and assemble files. The routing table to reach those threads is managed in real time by the router in memory.
The AC2600 specifically has 512MB of RAM and 4GB of eMMC. eMMC stands for embedded MultiMedia Card, meaning that the device has 4GB of dedicated storage. That dedicated storage is used for application storage. In this case, the ZyXEL Armor Z2 comes with a few apps that we’ll cover later, including StreamBoost, DLNA support, a usage dashboard, realtime network map, diagnostics, and more. As you can see in the screenshot below, with all of the devices in my home this consumes roughly 40% of available memory:
Most top-tier routers nowadays have ethernet ports in the back, allowing the router to also serve as a high-powered switch. The ZyXEL Armor Z2 has four gigabit-capable ports, like most other routers, but ZyXEL went the extra mile and made them MDIX-capable. MDIX, better known as an “uplink”, allows you to connect two like-devices. What this means is that you can, without a special cable, connect the router to another router in a bridge mode to expand your network, or a switch to provide more ports. In my particular configuration, I’ve wired my home with Ethernet, so these MDIX ports gave me an easy interconnection point for my Cisco switch.
Beyond the high-speed ports, there are two USB ports. One is USB 2.0 and the second one is USB 3.0. I’m not sure why ZyXEL went with two different bus speeds, but there is a fairly significant speed difference between the standards. Using the DLNA features (DLNA enables in-home streaming for compatible devices, like the NVidia Shield or Roku), hard drive speeds may be a factor, so keep this in mind if you intend to plug in an external hard drive.
While some routers end up looking like something that might support the Eye of Sauron, most routers have adjustable antennae. The ZyXEL Armor Z2 has four dual-band antennae supporting a few features that’ll require a little explanation as they are much more than simple marketing buzz.
MU-MIMO, or Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output solves a problem that many routers have — the “Internet of Things.” In my own home I have an Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, a Nexus 6P phone for my wife and I, a TiVo, an NVidia Shield, and a laptop all attempting to hit the wireless in my house at any given time. Without MU-MIMO, the router would hit one device, then rapidly transition to the next device, and then back to the first device. It does this very quickly, fooling the user into thinking it’s a constant connection, but to say that there is waste is an understatement. MU-MIMO uses multiple antennas to allow those devices to reach the router and stay connected without all of that switching. The result is that the router is able to maintain a much higher speed. How much? Try up to three times the speed of a non-MIMO (aka Single-User-MIMO) router, when in 802.11ac configuration.
The AC2600 has uses its four dual-band antenna to address the RF space at symmetric (upstream and downstream) speeds of 800 Mbps at 2.4 GHz, and 1733 Mbps for 5 GHz. If you are unfamiliar with those two RF bands, it’s sounds a little complicated. It’s not. 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz are just different widths of the same frequency. 2.4 GHz offers longer distances, but 5 GHz can pour more speed on at a shorter range. 2.4 GHz is also a ‘crowded’ RF space, occupied by older cordless phones, microwave ovens, many Bluetooth devices, and even car alarms. It means your wireless signal is very susceptible to interference. At the end of the day, your frequency selection is more about the square footage you want to cover.
You shouldn’t have to have a degree in Network Engineering to operate your router. ZyXel did a great job of making router management easy with their user interface. Setting up your network (including NAT, DNS or free Dynamic DNS), wireless, and security is a snap. The configuration is straightforward and simple. In fact, most of the work is done for you, asking just enough to set up your SSID for 2.4 and 5 Ghz. Clicking on the “Expert” tab unveils the rest of the options for configuration.
The Live Network Monitor section of the router gives you a realtime look at the traffic traversing your network. It gives a visual tree of your connected devices, though it doesn’t translate the customization of device names across. I also found that it’s unable to detect the traffic moving to and from my Netgear NAS appliance, showing a 0kbps in both directions and when streaming or copying files.
Unfortunately, I found this to be the case with the usage monitoring section of the utility. While you could see transfers in real time, no aggregation or graphing beyond the instant data points were available for any device.
Similarly, the Common Usage and Traffic Statistics sections were far from useful. 98% of my traffic is “uncategorized” and it was detecting YouTube traffic from a device that was powered off. Letting the stats run for several days didn’t yield more clarity
Setup is a snap, courtesy of the “eaZy123” button, and the interface at the bottom is simple enough to get the job done as well. There are a few welcome forward-looking technologies present and accounted for, including all flavors of IPv6 tunneling, MAC cloning, nine flavors of passthrough options, and four flavors of dynamic DNS support baked in.
ZyXEL ONE Connect – Mobile configuration
Beyond the router configuration, ZyXEL ONE Connect gives you much of the same systems in a mobile platform. Using an iOS or Android platform, you can log into the router remotely and see what other devices are connected and their status. As you can see below, the router isn’t great at identifying devices, but a quick check against the MAC address revealed them pretty quickly. The icon set is limited, so my printer looks like a PC, as does my TiVo, and Denon receiver. I was surprised to see that it didn’t detect the Cisco switches that provide connectivity throughout the house, but it did see everything behind them. This simple interface allows you to identify devices connected to your network and block them with a single click from your phone.
Also present is the ability to enable or disable guest WiFi. There is a pretty awesome feature hidden here, however — you can give your guests a QR code that allows them to connect without handing out a password. It’s good security obfuscation with the added bonus of ease of use.
The app also provides a front-end for a speed test, remote firmware upgrades, and a diagnostic engine. The diagnostics will let you initiate an automated flow that confirms the date and time, provides uptime readings, lists all connected devices with their IP and MAC address, provides the routing table, and traceroutes out to the Internet. These are the diagnostics that any Network Engineer would want you to perform if you had an issue, and this app does it in one simple click.
Firewall rules and Parental Controls
I was happy to see a full-featured firewall rule system for IPv4 and IPv6 in the router configuration. With maximum granularity I was able to set specific firewall source, destination, ports, protocol, and even MAC filtering with just a few bits of information. While the average user likely won’t dabble here, for those who have the specific need you’ll find it served with the AC2600.
Similarly, there are options for NAT, Port Forwarding, FTP server, UPnP, and other standard options. I opened up some ports for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network with ease. I also hit the router with a few tools like Nessus, NMap, and Metasploit (all potent hacking tools) and was unable to punch past the firewall — a good test and a better result.
Parental Controls are also present, but I had almost zero difficulty bypassing them entirely. I put in keywords for piracy, and even the full URL for a certain boat-affiliated torrent site, but the router didn’t so much as put up a fight. I had more success with blocking porn, but using a VPN let me cut through that as well. If you have smart kids, this router isn’t going to stop them from doing dumb things. That said, the scheduling utility can cut devices off at specified times, and that worked like a charm.
There was one thing the AC2600 (and unfortunately several other routers in this space) does that violates security best practices. The username for the ZyXEL router is automatic, leaving only your password to defend the front door of the device. As the router holds the key to your digital kingdom, it’s doubly important that you use a secure password when the bad guys know that they don’t have to guess the username.
A lot of routers will give you the ability to select a channel. Channels are actually small bands within the 2.4 or 5GHz space. A channel is normally 20 or 40 MHz wide, and for the 2.4 Ghz spectrum, that gives you 11 channels to choose from. If that antique Sports Illustrated Football phone is hogging up a portion of that band, this router can simply select a channel that avoids those bands. At 5GHz, the bands come in 20, 40, or 80 MHz widths. This is how 5GHz obtains its higher speeds, but larger widths have more trouble penetrating your walls. Your walls have all sorts of metal in them, including electrical boxes, nailing plates, drywall corner flashing, and that doesn’t count the possibility of thermal barriers in the drywall. All of those are the enemy of distance and speed with WiFi. The AC2600 has the full range selectable, but I used an extra long CAT6 cable to walk the router around the space while running pings and speed tests couldn’t get a single drop. The hardware in the ZyXEL Armor Z2 AC2600 is rock solid.
I’ve covered a bit about Phased Array Antenna Beam Steering (better known as Beamforming) technology in other articles I’ve written, but it’s a large part of the ZyXEL Armor Z2’s ability to reach long distances with high speeds comes from this technique. At its most basic, non-beamformed WiFi radiates in a semi-circle around the device antenna, and the other devices within range can connect. It’s a lot of waste. Beamforming connects to the other device with a narrower band focused more specifically, allowing faster speeds and better distances. While it is natively supported by 802.11ac devices, there is limited support for older devices, so obviously newer gear will handle it better.
QoS, or Quality of Service, is a networking technology that allows the user to prioritize certain traffic over others. While data transmissions like email and web surfing can absorb packet retransmits, VoIP, video streaming, and latency-sensitive gaming is far less tolerant. ZyXEL brands their Dynamic QoS “Speedstream” and it attempts to prioritize traffic based on the parameters I just described.
In practice, the device identified my TiVo as a streaming-capable device and dropped it in the #1 spot. Unfortunately it identified my Shield TV as an asterisk and put it in the 7th position. Unlike every router I’ve looked at in the last five years, however, there is a drag and drop interface to put the devices in the order I choose. It’s always hard to prove that QoS is working, but in two weeks of testing I didn’t see any issues with speed, packet loss, tiling during streaming, or modulation during Skype calls. Speedstream works, and the ability to re-order it makes it perfect for a mixed-device environment.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not the guy that springs for a slim Xbox or PlayStation — if the one I have works, that’s fine for me. That said, there is a pretty common angular design being adopted by many manufacturers. Not too long ago routers were passively cooled, but as more powerful processors are built in to handle a multitude of simultaneous devices, proper air circulation becomes critical.
The ZyXEL Armor Z2 AC2600 router looks like a spaceship, much like the Netgear Nighthawk or the LINKSYS EA8500. Unlike those other two, however, the Armor Z2 attempts to create a positive air pressure, pulling cool air in and venting hot exhaust away from the chassis. There are four intake ports and four exhaust ports — double that of their nearest competitor.
Saving the best for last, I wanted to go over the real-world results of my bandwidth tests — the aspect that matters more than anything else. My home in Texas is an oversized 4200 square feet, so reaching every corner of the place takes a high powered device. Moving to the furthest edge of the house, upstairs and through several walls I was still able to reliably connect to the device. Here’s are the download speeds I found at various distances:
5 feet at 2.4GHz – 170 Mbps
50 feet at 2.4 GHz – 157 Mbps
100 feet at 2.4 GHz – 115 Mbps
5 feet at 5 GHz – 379 Mbps
50 feet at 5 GHz – 261 Mbps
100 feet at 5 GHz – 140 Mbps
As you can see, the speeds drop off at longer distances, but still manage to impressive numbers. My connection out to the Internet is only 60 Mbps, but my internal network is far more capable. This is handy for transferring files within my home network, and for streaming, but my Internet provider is the bottleneck.