Reviews

D-Link AC3200 DIR-890L Router Review – Router, Or Robot In Disguise?

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The chances are that you’ve never paid too much attention to your router except for when its gone horribly wrong. These magic boxes tend to sit in corners, under desks or are otherwise hidden away in obscure dimensions of space, forgotten about despite the important task they play in delivering wi-fi and herding the constant stampedes of data passing through them. Most people simply use whatever cheap, generic one they were given by their Internet provider, while other people go out with the intention of buying something better and wind up feeling more than a little confused as they try to navigate the many numbers and strange words that PR companies so love to use. Investing in a good router is worth the effort, though, especially if you’ve got a damn good Internet connection and plenty of wireless devices, which brings us today’s offering. There’s expensive routers, and then there’s really expensive routers. With a pricetag of £220-250 D-Links AC3200 DIR-890L certainly falls into the second category, but is it actually any good?

Before we delve deep into the world of routers, a world I often despise because of how they frequently fail to work, we need to chat about how I’m approaching this review. When D-Link offered this router to me I was quick to point out that while I was certainly interested in covering it I had never reviewed a router before, owned a relatively cheap router myself because I’m a poor broke guy, had pretty slow Internet (thanks to being in a rural area of Scotland where sheep are the dominant military force) and quite frankly probably wouldn’t even know where to begin when talking about it. D-Link, as it transpired, didn’t mind this, saying that they already have plenty of reviews that talked in-depth about the technical aspects of the router, offered detailed statistics and could compare it with other top-line routers. In other words they had actual professionals for that kind of thing.  Instead, they said, they wanted the opinion of an average gamer, since they were marketing this router toward that audience. How exactly could I refuse? I was also especially interested in the way the D-Link seemed to be suggesting that this was a prime router for gamers, an idea I found odd because we gamers want what everyone else wants; a router that provides a strong, stable connection. So, with all that said and done this review will not feature any detailed statistics regarding transfer speeds or talk too heavily about the technical side of the device, because I don’t have the knowledge or means to do that. There’s plenty of reviews available written by talented professionals who can bring  vast stores of knowledge to the fore, as well as proper software for running detailed and thorough tests. If that sounds terrible, then please do feel free to check out one of the many more technically minded reviews out there. Instead this will be from the opinion of the average user, someone who is pretty good with a computer but views routers as something essential when working, and like something built by Satan when not.

Usually I wouldn’t bother to talk about the packaging of whatever I’m reviewing since all cardboard and foam is abandoned mere minutes into owning anything interesting, especially if its shiny, but in this case I’ll make an exception because D-Link’s monstrous AC3200 Dir-890L arrives in a beautiful, hefty box with a lift-off lid and is nestled inside plenty of foam padding. Inside the box you’ll find the router itself, a power brick that needs to be nestled away and accompanying cord, a CAT5 Ethernet cable that measures 1m in length, and some mounting screws in case you want to attach the whole thing to a wall, which is a nice touch.

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Out of the box the first thing that needs to be mentioned is that despite its hefty price-tag the D-Link AC3200 is a pure router, rather than the router-modem combo that most people are used to. Most ISPs provide a router-modem combo to their customers in order to ensure ease of use. What this means is that you’ll need to use a separate modem or you’ll need to configure your existing router-modem into what is known as bridge mode and then connect it to the AC3200. I’ll be honest, I struggle to see why there is no inbuilt modem. I understand that advanced users like to use a separate modem in order to get the very best performance, but one of this router’s biggest strengths, as we’ll talk about throughout this review, is how its features and UI design make it a very easy device to use. Having an inbuilt modem would have supported this user friendliness, while an option to disable modem functions could have been included for any user wanting to use separate units.

With its angular design, bright red finish and six antennae the AC3200 looks suspiciously like it’s going to suddenly transform into Optimus Prime and seek out Megatron for a climatic battle directed by Michael Bay. Or it’s going to flip over and eat your face off, Facehugger style.  It’s not a router that wants to sit in the corner and go unnoticed; it demands your attention, and will likely smack you in the face if it doesn’t get it. It’s not a pretty beast, in my own opinion, but it is a striking one, its design reminding me of all those “gaming” products that include lots of sharp angles and LEDs. I can’t tell you how many times a friend dropped by and had to do a double-take as they spotted the AC3200 sitting on the desk, preparing to launch into the air and execute an airstrike. They’ve become fascinated by it solely because of its aesthetics. It’s ability to command a room’s attention is only bolstered by its massive footprint. At 15.2 by 9.7 by 4.7 inches this is a behemoth, one that has an even bigger footprint of 21″ wide by 13″  long when the antennae are angled at 45-degrees as recommended for the best wireless coverage possible.

Located on the back we find the Internet port and a slightly lackluster four Gigabit Ethernet ports. Considering that this is an incredibly pricey router aiming for the top-end of the market it would have been nice to see a few extra ports, especially since as good as wireless is all hardcore gamers know that having your gear connected up via ethernet whenever possible provides the best speeds and most consistent connection available, minimising the chances of having your game ruined by terrible ping. With two computers and two consoles I could easily take up all four existing Ethernet ports and be utterly stuck if I ever decide to get a PS4 as well. In fact I’d imagine a large portion gamers would be able to fill all four Ethernet ports and find themselves wishing for a few more.  Having said that this router is clearly aimed toward folk with a lot of wireless devices, so while the lack of ports is perhaps disappointing it is at least understandable from a design perspective. Still, with a price-tag this high I’d expect excess, not limitation. You’ll also find a single USB 3.0 slot and a USB 2.0 slot where you can plug in hard-drives and share the contents with everyone on the network. Again, there’s a small complaint there; why not two 3.0 connections? The rest of the router’s rear-end isn’t much to look at; there’s a power switch, which is nice because a lot of routers don’t have one and I hate just yanking out the power cable; a WPS connection button and a master reset that’s accessed using a toothpick, hairpin or other small object. The fact that the DIR-890L supports WPS is a bit surprising considering the security risks WPS has been proved to pose.

Interestingly unlike much of its competition the D-Link AC3200 doesn’t boast detachable antennea, so you can’t take them off and replace them with higher gain options for improved wi-fi. D-Link must be confident that the AC3200 has more than enough wi-fi signal for everyone, then.

Setup is a breeze as the router greets you with a basic 4-step wizard designed to guide owners through the process, asking confirmation of your Internet connection type and prompting you to create a wi-fi name and password as well as confirm an administrator’s passcode, too. Once I’d managed to configure my existing Belkin N1 to act solely as a modem it took mere minutes to get the AC3200 setup and pumping beautiful Internet to my computers. Such ease of use is greatly appreciated.

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So, what’s the basic specs, here? Underneath the hood the AC3200 boasts a 1Ghz dual-core processor to help it keep the data flowing during times of heavy use and features one 2.4Ghz wireless band and two 5Ghz bands for a total combined speed of 3,200Mbps. Of course that speed is actually impossible to achieve since a wireless device can only ever connect to a single band. In reality the 2.4Ghz band will allow for up to 600Mbs while the two 5Ghz bands can offer up to 1,300Mbps each.  That’s a lot of oomph, and in the average users case probably more than they’ll ever actually need, but in a world where wireless devices are becoming more prominent within households it does also allow for plenty of growth room. It’s overkill for a single person with a phone, computer, console and maybe a Chromecast or SmartTV, but for a family with a couple of kids sporting phones, consoles, computers, Chromecasts, laptops and more it’s perfect. A house full of people gaming, streaming and transferring files shouldn’t even make this thing sweat. Y’know, if Transformers could sweat.

The control panel, accessed by typing in the router’s IP address into the search bar of a browser, is pleasing to the eye and incredibly easy to navigate, which is outstanding because routers can often be a source of frustration to the average user. The homepage clearly shows whether there’s an Internet connection or not and how many devices the router is currently servicing. From this page you can see how long the Internet connection has been running for, the router’s IP address, default gateway, DNS servers and more. With a click you can quickly double check the name of your wireless network and its password and the IP address of connected devices. By clicking on the small icon on the top right of each connected devices little card you can opt to reserve an IP address for it, engage parental controls and edit the devices name. Located at the top of the screen are drop-down menus for settings, features and management. It’s clean, streamlined and a doddle to get around.

Inside the router’s interface you’ll find the QoS system which lets you prioritize the traffic flowing through the AC3200 using a straightforward drag and drop menu system. In other words if you stick your games console in the top slot then the router will provide it with whatever speed it requires by cutting speed to the devices that are in the lower tiers. There’s one Highest slot, two Higher slots, and six Medium slots for a total of nine devices. Sadly, though, there’s no way to prioritize specific types of traffic, such as gaming or Netflix streaming. If my Xbox One is in the top priority slot and I’m using it to download a new game or play multiplayer then all is well because I want it getting as much speed as possible, but if all I’m using it for is to half-heartedly watch some videos on Youtube then it doesn’t need to be sucking speed away from other sources to do that. That lack of fine control will be a negative point for advanced users, for sure. Furthermore the system is a tad inconsistent, sometimes failing to shift speed around to adjust for a Steam download or just for general Internet use. For example, while downloading a game on a computer in the High slot the router didn’t provide adequate speed to the PC in the Highest slot like it should have.

Both the QoS System and the ability to manually reserve IP addresses suffer from a problem; only devices currently connected will actually show up and be configurable. This means that if you want to manually assign IP addresses to all your devices you can’t quickly check which laptop or table has what address without turning everything on at the same time. Likewise you can’t assign QoS priority without actually having the device turned on and within range, rather than the router simply being able to remember previous devices. Being able to reserve IP addresses for a client without having to have it currently connected is a very handy feature that most router’s have, and it’s especially useful if you need to re-assign an address from a crashed computer. On the AC3200 if such a situation occurs you need to reset the whole thing.

There’s some other limitations in place that may frustrate experienced users, too. You can allow or block ALL connected clients from fifteen websites, but there’s no way of blocking or allowing access for specific clients, so if you don’t want your son or daughter accessing a certain site then you better be sure it’s a site you don’t want to use, too.  Port Forwarding is included, but again you can only create up to fifteen instances of forwarding which might be too low for power users.

The Smart Connection system is one of the main selling points that the AC3200 offers customers, the premise being that using a single SSID it will seamlessly transfer your wireless devices across the three bands as needed, which of course is also somewhat restricted by your own devices compatibility, as well as automatically handle channels. It is a claim that has been made before, but more often than not devices would have a mild panic attack when swapping over and lose connection. To my surprise, then, the Smart Connection system here seemed to work wonderfully, bouncing devices around whenever it was required with no notable interruption in connection. Color me impressed with this feature. It’s going to be superb for people with a lot of wireless gizmos.

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An interesting addition is the Guest Network which does what it says on the tin by providing a network for visitors with a different SSID and password to your main one. If you’ve got the Smart Connect feature enabled, however, you can only have a single guest network active. Turn off the Smart Connect and you can have multiple guest networks, letting you create one for your guests and perhaps another for your kids, or something like that. It seems utterly insane that you have to turn off a headlining feature to get multiple Guest Networks.

Moving on you can access the router from anywhere in the world using D-Link cloud feature. You simply need to create a D-Link account and then add the router to it, and after that you can access the router and a rfrom a browser or by using the official app on a smartphone, which gives you less options to tweak. The DIR-890L can also be setup as a quick VPN server, meaning you can access your home network while you’re out and about or even in another country entirely. You will need quick VPN client installed on the computer you wish to use to access the network, plus you’ll need to understand how dynamic DNS works, too.

For the sake of honesty it has to be said that the AC3200 has proven to be somewhat troublesome as my Xbox One, smartphone and laptop had wireless connection issues. If I turned them off or moved out of the wi-fi range then they simply wouldn’t be able to reconnect automatically or manually. In order to reconnect them I had to restart the router itself, obviously meaning I had to politely ask everybody else in the house to stop using the Internet briefly.

This did give me a chance to check out Dlink support, though. The member of staff I managed to reach via phone was very helpful, but sadly the expense of calling was too much for my poor mobile phone contract so I decided to try the online support instead to save the phone bill a little. To my irritation there was no live chat option, instead you’ve got to register an account and open up a case, whereupon you’ll be given a password rather than choosing one of your own. Once the case is opened to access it you must log into your account, and then search for the case number. Exactly why there’s no simpler way of selecting a case is a mystery. The quality of the service was a little mixed Whomever I was put in touch with struggled to understand that I couldn’t provide proof of purchase or even a location of purchase since the unit was given to me for review, and couldn’t understand that the serial number wouldn’t show up for the same reason, which of course was again due to it being a test unit.However, once the ball was finally rolling I was put in contact with an extremely helpful person who used Team Viewer to examine the problem. I cannot possibly do justice to how helpful he was, and the fact that he was willing to put in time at the end of the day when he was technically supposed to be leaving. I hope this is the standard level of customer care, because if so it’s superb.

Following a full factory reset of both the AC3200 and the Belkin N1 being used purely as a modem I reconfigured the entire network, but that didn’t help. Eventually I manually configured both my Xbox One and laptop with static IP addresses, providing them both with all the relevant subnet and DNS information, too. This seemed to do the job, but was obviously a stopgap measure. Eventually we discovered the problem was a relatively simple one, and manually assigned each of the three bands to a different wifi channel, the problem seemingly being channel interference. The catch is that to assign channels manually Smart Connect has to be disabled, meaning each Wifi band also needs to have a name and password assigned to it. Whether this issue was unique to my due to my wireless devices or environment is hard to determine, so it could potentially be unique to me. For the most part other users, at least according to Amazon reviews and the forums, are having no problems, but a very small amount are experiencing symptoms similar to mine. Whether they have the same problem and whether the same fix would work for them is, of course, is difficult to know. D-Link are of course adamant that having to assign channels is a common issue for routers, but the fact that a headlining feature which promises to handle this sort of thing automatically had to be turned off to resolve the problem speaks for itself. It’s hardly a massive problem, but it does somewhat ruin the ease of use persona that the AC3200 has going for it.

But let’s stop and talk about actual performance, which was pretty damn good across the board with only some relatively small complaints. We’ll start with the least impressive aspect which shockingly turned out to be wireless range. I live in a pretty small house, and for the most part signal was strong, but not much better than my existing Belkin N1, which is actually a good number of years old. Across the house the signal held at 4-5 bars, with five being the most common.  Out in the shed the signal was only slightly better than what the Belkin had been delivering prior which I found surprising, staying steady at three bars. Regardless, though, the signal was always good enough and stable enough that I was able to stream HD videos to my phone or laptop while sitting at the top of the garden 50ft away from the router itself, but I did note that throughput speed dropped off fairly rapidly in relation to range. I should put out here that throughout speed is entirely separate from Internet speed. Essentially it’s how fast files can be transferred across the network, and thus isn’t limited by your bandwidth, but rather purely by network itself. Out the 100ft mark the speeds on 5Ghz were around 160-170Mbps with the 2.4Ghz band getting around 30-35Mbps. Getting closer at the 50ft mark the router was delivering about 180Mps on 5Ghz and 45Mbps on 2.4Ghz. Up close, though, as in around fifteen feet or so, the speeds were awesome, delivering damn near 600Mbps on the 5Ghz band, with a little low 120-130Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band. Keep in mind these numbers are rough, and were not done by a professional. Please do check out other reviews for better, more detailed numbers.

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When it came to gaming there was the expected occasional bit of slowdown or bad ping, which is again why most gamers will want to have their console or PC connected via wire, but the performance was generally excellent for wireless.  The Xbox One, which sits upstairs while the router is situated on the ground floor, was holding fine at four bars, but I should point out that my house has always been notorious for being troublesome for wifi signals. At the moment I’ve not had the chance to plug up the Xbox One with an Ethernet cable, and the signal from the AC3200 was good enough that I’m seriously considering just not bothering, at least for the time being. It remained strong and consistent throughout my testing. Streaming entire games across the network using Steam’s in-built service was also flawless, the router handling the flow of data with ease. This was tested using wired computers, because my aging laptop can only run on the 2.4Ghz band and thus testing it seemed pointless.

Likewise the ability to plug-in a hard-drive or thumb-drive into the back of the router was nothing short of great. You can allow everyone on the network access to the drive or limit it via user accounts with their own passwords. You can also stream digital content via D-Link’s in-built software, and access the drive from anywhere in the world using D-Link’s cloud feature. Even the biggest files weren’t a problem on wired connections, and the wireless was great, too, again due to its consistency and strength around the house. Again, the only issue is that second, slower USB2.0 which feels oddly cheap on such an expensive piece of kit. Sure, you could just plug a printer into it, but I’d much rather have a second USB3.0 that could get the best performance possibly out of another external drive.

Ultimately the AC3200 looks like an American drone that’s being secreted around people’s homes in case the U.S. ever needs to suddenly obliterate the country. It’s incredibly powerful, delivering strong speeds across the board with great user interface that’s perfect for people who just want to plug it in and get going. But it does come with an incredibly high-price tag, a shortage of advanced options and wireless range which is good, but brilliant. That leaves me at something of a crossroads, because in reality the AC3200 is not a device I would recommend to most people or the majority of my readers, as it’s frankly overkill. It feels like it’s built for a small to mid-sized house with a strong Internet connection and a wide array of wireless devices that can really take advantage of the solid Smart Connect system, consistent signal and great speeds at closer ranges. For most gamers there’s plenty of other much cheaper options that will do the job just as well, and for advanced users there may not be quite enough settings here to sway them from choosing something else.

However, all of what I’ve just said comes down to that painfully big price-tag, and if you’ve been reading this website for a while you know I have a rule; I may talk about the price in a review, but my final opinion will always be delivered without any thought to the price, because cost is entirely subjective and a review should be purely about whether a product is good or not. Whether the level of quality warrants the cost is up to the reader. So with that said the AC3200 really is a great piece of kit that’s perfect for someone looking for high quality with fairly minimal fuss and thus earns a recommendation sticker, the most coveted prize within game journalism. No, really. It is. Seriously.

Shut up.

Reco

 

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2 replies »

  1. Just a word of caution: AC3200 is only a specification and not actually unique to this router (just Google “AC3200” and you will see what I mean).

    Thanks for the review! It is a bummer that Smart Connect must be turned off if you manually configure the different bands; and that priority slots seems to be severely limited!

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