For those who don’t know my background, I have over 20 years in Network Engineering under my belt, with a heavy emphasis on routing and switching technologies. This has served me well in my career, but has also given me a great deal of insight when I do hardware reviews. Nowhere is this more true than when I do deep dives into consumer-level routers from the likes of Netgear, Asus, and Linksys. Now, a newcomer has joined the ranks, and they are bringing a whole lot of technical expertise to the table for their freshman effort. I’m excited to get under the hood of Razer’s first router, the Sila, to see if they are a worthy competitor.
Routers used to be sleek with rounded edges and few protrusions, if any. Now, they look like plastic crowns, the Eye of Sauron, or some sort of strange inverted crab with its many antennae like so many flailing legs. I was surprised when I unboxed the Sila and found none of the obtuse shapes or constantly MIMO fingers reaching from the sky. Put simply, the Sila is simply a rectangular box. It has ports for connections and power, but beyond that, there is nothing sticking out or hanging off of this innocuous box. This was my first clue that Razer had figured out something else that their competitors were overlooking.
Inside the case lies a whopping nine antenna that provide 3,000 square feet of coverage without the need to point a single rubber-nub in a single direction. How, you might ask? Software — something that Razer, a hardware manufacturer at heart, has become exceedingly good at delivering with their products. Partnering with a company called Ignition Design Labs, Razer has integrated a new bit of technology called “Multi-Channel ZeroWait DFS”. DFS, or dynamic frequency selection, enables dynamic load balancing, channel hopping at sub-200ms speeds, congestion avoidance, and most eyebrow-raising, the ability to mesh. It also has the ability to dynamically analyze the least congested wireless channels with the least amount of usage and then automatically switch to them without user intervention.
The Sila is a Tri-Band AC3000 router. This specification means that there is one band at 2.4GHz that will push up to 400Mbps to devices in that range, and two additional 5Ghz bands that will deliver 1.733Gbps and 855Mbps, respectively. Whether you can hit those vaunted numbers is a matter of distance, interference, and a myriad of other factors, but we’ll get more into that later. Let’s get this thing set up and ready for testing, but first…tech spec dump!
- Razer FasTrack to prioritize gaming applications
- Congestion-free WiFi channels
- Reliable, widespread connectivity
- Zero downtime and fast speeds
- iOS and Android app for easy management and support
- Tri-Band AC3000
- IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
- 802.11n: up to 400 Mbps
- 802.11ac: up to 1734 Mbps + 866 Mbps
- WPA / WPA2-PSK
- 9 x internal industrial-grade antennas
- Razer FasTrack QoS Engine
- Multi-Channel Zero-Wait DFS
- Tri-Band mesh support with dedicated backhaul channel
- Multi-User MIMO & Beamforming technology
- Intelligent active steering
- Isolated guest network support
- Simplified app setup via Android or iOS
- 1 x Gigabit WAN port
- 3 x Gigabit LAN ports
- 1 x USB 2.0 port
- 1 x USB 3.0 port
Nearly every router out there in today’s market has an app, but there is a wide variance in their overall usefulness. Razer wanted theirs to be useful right out of the gate, so they made it an integral part of their setup process. Rather than plugging everything in and then banging your head on your keyboard until your PC recognized the device enough to get into the configuration panel, as is the case with most routers, the Sila’s initial configuration is done from your phone or other Internet-capable device.
When powered up for the first time, the Sila will begin broadcasting two signals – a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz beacon for you to latch onto with your device. Upon connection you’ll launch the Razer Sila app.
Without needing to be prompted, my Sila reached out and grabbed the latest firmware from Razer and began to update itself. I’m not the “read the manual” type, so I simply asked the app what the blinking logo color on the top of the device meant, and apparently “Blue (Blinking)” means firmware update.
With the firmware update complete, it was time to pair up with the device and begin configuration. Clicking the device and selecting “pair” brought the fireworks.
Once I gave the Sila an SSID and a password, I was surprised to be done. No complicated tunings, no in-depth arcane knowledge necessary. While the router is aimed at the technical-minded gamer type, Razer has built a device that anyone can use.
Giving the router a few moments to settle, devices in my network began to latch onto the connection and register with the Sila. Eventually, all of them were loaded up and clickable via the Devices icon in the app.
My only complaint with the app is that it doesn’t divide the devices in the same useful way that the web interface does. In the web portal, devices are split between connected, disconnected (devices that just check in and then fade out), wired, registered objects in the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz range, and guests in both ranges as well. In the app, everyone is in two buckets, either online, or offline.
In both the app, and in the Quality of Service section of the web interface, I can click on a device and change its name, the device type (computer, digital camera, gaming device, general, streaming, Razer laptop, Razer phone, smart phone, smart TV, tablet, or web camera), and set the priority. Device detection is based on the MAC address, so as expected it’s a bit spotty. You’ll likely have to do a bit of intuiting or Internet MAC address lookup (here’s an easy one I recommend) to nail down precisely what’s connecting to your network, but the simple interface is a nice change from the slick-but-ineffective approach we get from the big industry names.
Ports, ports, ports
When connecting up the Sila, it became very clear that it’s a device aimed at wireless connectivity. It’s most clear when you find that the device has one less port than contemporary devices. The ports on the rear of the device are all Gigabit Ethernet, but three are built for LAN and one is devoted to WAN. Obviously the WAN port connects to your cable modem, DSL, or fiber connection, so that leaves just three ports for connectivity. I use a Cisco switch to widen my LAN a bit, but it’s something to know going in if you are planning on a mostly-wired configuration.
Also on the rear of the device are two USB ports, one at USB 2.0 and one at USB 3.0. These USB ports are meant to connect to backup storage devices. Connecting a Seagate 2TB drive, the Razer immediately found the device. It was reachable via an FTP, or mappable as a SAMBA connection. My NVIDIA Shield was able to detect it and map it as smb:\\devicename and without breaking a sweat.
Sailing deeper into the Charybdis to meet the Sila
There are a few things you’ll want to adjust the moment you get the basics out of the way. The Web UI is not enabled by default, so you’ll want to do that and then immediately change the password. Why? The default password is…well, it’s “password”. Once you secure that gaping security hole, you’ll also want to toggle the separation of your network bands (2.4 and 5 GHz). While the router does a good job of balancing these out in the newest firmware, I like to sequester my lower bandwidth devices into their own sandbox, keeping the high speed things in their own fast lane. I have a few devices that insist on jumping back and forth between 2.4 and 5 like a jackrabbit on meth (thank you, Samsung 4K BluRay player!) which only causes nothing but noise where none should exist.
Fully configuring the Sila requires a little more knowledge, but very little additional effort. In the Sila app, clicking on the router icon gives you access to the basic and advanced device settings. This grants access to beamforming (e.g. Multi-in, Multi-Out or MIMO, and Multi-User MIMO — here’s a super deep primer if you’d like to know more), filtering out MAC addresses, upgrading firmware, and even running a speed test. If you want more than that, you’ll need to toggle on the Web UI and sail deeper into the web interface.
Should you have a need to enable IPv6, build out Dynamic DNS, set up a Service VLAN (explaining QinQ tunneling is WAY outside of the scope of this review, but know that if you need it, this is the ONLY consumer-grade device I’ve ever seen with this capability), build out inbound/outbound firewall rules, set up a firewall DMZ, build static routes, establish a VPN tunnel, or anything as complicated as any of these items you’ll need to know what you are doing, and you’ll need to do it in the web portal. There are no pop-ups, tool tips, or hand-holding helpers anywhere in the interface. Like the edge of an ancient map, there be dragons around the edge of this manuscript. It’s very easy to accidentally set something that you might not necessarily understand and find yourself a bit lost in the woods. It was surprising to me that there is no way to backup and restore your configuration. It’s certainly something that can be patched in, but it seems like an easy oversight.
Razer FasTrack and Gaming Mode
Network Engineering a few years ago used to be all command line and routing protocols. Nowadays the industry is rapidly moving towards SDN, or software-defined networking. Whether you are plugged into that industry or not, you’ve likely seen SDN without knowing it. Linksys put out a router (the Linksys WRT32X — another multi-antenna behemoth) that advertised that it could detect and prioritize Xbox traffic. It did so by identifying Xbox application traffic and pushing the Quality of Service setting to the highest level, prioritizing that traffic above all others. Where the Linksys solution only provided this for one platform, Razer’s FasTrack system provides it for all. To understand that best, you need to also get a grip on how Razer is handling wireless channels.
I mentioned that the Sila has a technology called “Multi-Channel ZeroWait DFS”. DFS, or dynamic frequency selection, allows the device to look at the wireless spectrum, assess the available channels, and then move your traffic to the least congested ones. In the commercial application space, this usually requires a separate wireless device to perform the assessment, and software like AirMagnet to analyze the wireless space — the Sila is doing it all internally, at sub-200ms speeds, and at no additional cost.
It gets a lot more complicated when you extrapolate out to 5 GHz from here, and adding in channel bonding and time division makes it even more complex, but below is a quick reference that shows how the channel concept works, courtesy of Wikipedia. It’s a good visualization that helps bring it all together if you are unfamiliar with the overall concept.
With clean wireless channels to operate on, Razer doubles down on the speed angle with a “Gaming Mode”. Gaming Mode automatically reserves a slice of your available upstream and downstream speed (30%) to ensure a lag-free experience without bandwidth constraints. It’s all done with a simple slider to enable — no complex algorithms or crazy computations.
In addition to reserving a portion of bandwidth, the device also pushes competing applications away from gaming to streamline latency. In practice, as my wife streamed 4K Netflix in two rooms, I measured a 10-20ms drop from my usual latency readings to Steam, Xbox Live, and PSN.
Stating the not-so-obvious
Routers are not magic, but what I mean by that isn’t so readily obvious. No router, whether it’s made by Asus, Linksys, Netgear, or Razer will somehow condition the radio waves between devices. What that means is that this device cannot improve RF through software or prioritization technology. What they can do is improve coverage. For most people that’s the source of the problem, with thick walls and whatever materials are used within them being the largest culprit. Applying prioritization or putting devices into different bands can help corral the devices into better management areas, but interference between devices will continue to be a problem. Put another way, a wireless iPad next to a running microwave oven will be a problem, at least if that iPad is older. Why? Microwaves operate in the 2.4 GHz range, as do things like older cordless phones, some wireless speakers, baby monitors, and if recent reports are to be believed, older Christmas lights. The worst offender, however, is likely far out of your control, and that’s the blaring WiFi emissions of your neighbors. When there are this many dirty signal operators, having a router that constantly works to avoid those interferences and changes channels automatically can be helpful, but there are no silver bullets.
All the Guests
One of the things I love about the Sila is the way it splits up normal users and your regular devices. Within the app there are two buckets — devices, and guests. If you’ve not set up a guest network, clicking on Guest lets you create a new one on the fly. You specify the name, drop in a password, click save, and your guest network is broadcast and ready to go. When it’s this easy, there’s no reason to leave it in place all the time, meaning you can remove it just as quickly to keep your network more secure. I named mine “Pesky Guests” as you can see below.
Unlike most routers, you are free to add more than one guest network. You can keep adding SSIDs, each with their own password. If you’ve separated the network bands, you can even split out your guest networks to lock down slower guest devices to a specific path, while keeping your 5 GHz guests on a faster band. It would be nice to have a full complement of QoS options for the Guest networks, but unfortunately that’s not an available choice in this current firmware version. Sometimes your friends come over for a little game time — it’d be nice to give their performance a boost without bringing their machines onto your primary network.
Just about every non-commercial wireless router I’ve ever used has offered a “mesh” mode of some kind. They may call it something different, but they all have the intent of making it easy to bridge two of them together to extend their wireless range. They all tend to fail at this endeavor by some measure, either in complexity of setup, or instability of outcome. Razer looks like they are going to make it easier than ever to bridge two devices and mesh them together, but could they deliver on the performance side?
Adding a second router to create a mesh is insanely simple. By simply opening the app and clicking the plus symbol next to the router, you get a prompt that says “Add a new Razer Sila to my Network”. After that, you simply plug the second router into a power outlet and the setup will proceed as simply and smoothly as the initial router build. Once complete, the second device grabs any firmware updates available, and then snaps online — no configuration whatsoever required. I’ve never, ever, had a wireless mesh work correctly, so I could never have anticipated that it’d work this flawlessly.
Razer advertises that you can reach upwards to 3,000 square feet of coverage per device. Meshing a pair of them pushes that up to 6,000, and by transitive property, a third can drive that to 9,000. I have a pair of Sila devices in Mesh, and my home is 4,200 square feet, so these two working in concert should provide coverage for every bit of my house. Time to pull out my NetSpot wireless analyzer app to see where the rubber meets the road.
As you can see, much of the interference is, as I mentioned earlier, coming from outside my house. My neighbors are using wireless routers with coverage that bleeds into my home, and their Chromecasts and various devices obnoxiously reach out like wireless kudzu vines seeking any connection to the wireless world. Wireless channels know no physical boundaries. Here’s a look at what all of the devices in my immediate vicinity, and across all channels, looks like.
Digging further into the spectrums, you can see from the following images how the router (at least at the moment of measurement) was dynamically avoiding noisy channels, bonding, and otherwise optimizing against interference.
As a fun experiment, I also watched the device switch up the channels in real time when I ran my microwave in close proximity to the router. As you can see below, the device recognized the interference in the 2.4GHz range and immediately adjusted channels to compensate for the additional noise.
For comparison, I have relatively current router models from Linksys, Asus, and Netgear to test against, all of which make similar (or even higher) claims on range. What I found was that, despite their seemingly endless antenna arrays, the Razer Sila has them all beat, at least in mesh. Thick walls, multiple floors, and plenty of glass couldn’t stop the signal — I saw a 10-15% improvement in signal quality over Razer’s more tenured competitors. Not bad for a freshman effort!
The MSRP for a Sila is $249. This places it right in the middle of comparable routers with similar features. My Asus router was $50 more, the Linksys was $30 less, and Netgear came in at the same price. Between those, I’d say the Asus was closest in capability. That said, these three routers all had a ridiculous number of antennae on them, reaching between 4000 and 5000 square feet of coverage. To hit those same numbers, you’d need a pair of Sila. In practice, however, having a dedicated router on separate floors provides stronger coverage. It’s a world of tradeoffs that work for and against all of the players in this space. In the end, I find that the Sila’s expandability and ease of use make up for any range shortcomings a single device may have. Whether it works for your home layout is something you’ll have to suss out for yourself.
Internal testing speeds:
Transferring files across the network was actually a challenge as the Sila maxed out the link of everything I threw at it. My NAS has two 100Mbps links in aggregate, and it had no trouble maxing those out. I walked a copy of Just Cause 4 (at 50 GB) over the network, and it maxed out the gigabit link on my motherboard (and my SSDs, for that matter). Over the air speeds were, naturally, all over the place, but much of that has to do with the temperamental nature of transmission through space, as we’ve already discussed. They were consistently in line with my Asus router which advertises the same speeds, which is to say in the roughly 180 Mbps to 280 Mbps range at a distance of about 60 feet. This makes it consistently a solid performer over WiFi, but easily the fastest router I’ve ever tested over a wired connection.
The untested scenario:
There is one area I wish I could test, and I simply cannot — gigabit. In point of fact, Texas (where I live) ranks 48th in the United States for broadband adoption, and I count myself lucky to get the paltry 60Mbps downstream speeds that I do. Until my ISP finishes laying fiber in my area, I simply cannot test the higher end throughput of the Sila for external speeds. If you are lucky enough to have a Sila and gigabit speeds and can provide me with some methodical testing to update this review, I’d be happy to update this copy and credit you for the work. In the meantime, I’m going to have to assume it’s as robust as the rest of the device capabilities, trusting that the gigabit WAN port isn’t going to waste.
Razer Sila Router
Razer claims to have the fastest gaming router on the market. Everything I’ve tested seems to indicate exactly that. With purpose-built software defined networking and hardware to match, it over delivers on range, speed, features, and simplicity of configuration. Areas where it may fall a little short are thankfully patchable. Razer clearly did their homework -- their first entry into the router space is pretty solid, and now it’s easy enough for anyone to use.