Routers are odd little creatures, aren’t they? They sit on shelves or behind computers or sometimes on the floor, constantly working to provide us with the stable wireless connection that our fast-paced, always connected lifestyle demands. They are so very easy to forget about, especially since Internet service providers typically hand you a cheap one when you sign up which gets plugged in and never touched by the average user. But a good router can be a solid investment.
Last year I reviewed D-Links very pricey DIR-890 which made the odd claim of being a gaming router, which didn’t make much sense because gamers really want the same things as everybody else from a router: stable wireless, good functionality and absolutely no loss of speed or disconnections. This time I’m checking out its younger brother, the DIR-885L/R. To my surprise it is, in many ways, superior.
Like its big brother it looks a bit like someone wanted to build a pyramid for Iron Man’s corpse to reside in when he’s dead. It’s hot-rod red, shiny, angular and possibly some sort of Stargate Replicator in disguise, just waiting to come alive at night and consume any nearby material to make more of its. It’s an extreme styling choice likely to divide opinions, and unfortunately mine tends to fall on the side of disliking it. On the upside it’s reasonably smaller than the gigantic DIR-890L at 15.23 x 9.73 x 4.7 inches and doesn’t have a chunky power brick.It also comes with wall mountings in case you fancy displaying it like a work of art.
One welcome change compared to its bigger brother are the four detachable antenna that can be swapped out for more powerful ones to boost wi-fi signal in case you aren’t managing to get the signal you want. This was something I thought was sorely missing in the DIR-890L, especially given the price.
Looking at the back of the DIR-885 we find pretty much everything you’d expect; a power button, slot for your modem cable and four 1GB ethernet connections, which is a smaller amount that I’d like especially since other routers offer eight in the same price range. There’s also a USB 3.04 slot so you can use D-Links software to stream media and other things across your network by plugging in a pen-drive. More on that later.
Despite the pretty sizable pricetag you’re going to require a seperate modem to run this beast as well since it doesn’t have one built-in. That means finding space for another electronic device and mucking about with more settings…look, I always have been and probably always will be a fan of having an inbuilt modem. I get that enthusiasts want to choose their own modem, but having one in the router is just so, so much easier.
As for the specs under the shiny red hood there’s a dual-core 1.4GHz processor along with 512MB of DDR3 system ram. The wifi is 802.11 a/g/n/ac, and according to D-Link the operating temperature is 32 to 104 °F, something I can’t verify myself due to having no testing equipment for heat generation.
First things first, upon connecting to the router a simple wizard will guide you through the setup steps and immediately begin prompting you to enter a custom admin password and wi-fi password for security, which is nice to see.
Coming from the DIR-890L I was immediately comfortable with the clean interface of the DIR-885L, the first screen greeting you with a brief overview of the network, indicating how many devices are connected, how long your internet connection has been established and much more. From there a quick click takes you to the client list where you can examine all the devices that are currently connected to the router, reserve an IP address for them and even turn on the parental controls.
D-Link clearly want to emphasis a sense of accessibility with their router as only the most basic options are displayed unless you hit the advanced buttons to see some of the deeper choices, but even these might feel limited to experienced users. It’s both a strength and a weakness of the router. Perhaps the best example of this is their Smart Connect system which automatically handles wi-fi channels and dynamically swaps devices between the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands, the idea being that the user just has to sign into a single SSID and never worry about it again. It’s awesome when it works, but in their quest for simplicity D-Link didn’t pop in a way to select the channel band without turning the Smart Connect system off, a problem for myself since some channels don’t work here, thus it has to be switched off and everything handled manually.
The QOS system lets you set how much speed should be alloted to specific devices or to certain types of program. You could, for example, set gaming to be given the highest priority, with the next two slots being given over to media streaming and file transfers. The system tends to work well, recognizing traffic types and adjusting accordingly, although sometimes it seemed to have a bit of trouble adjusting everything correctly. It’s definitely a handy feature for larger families who maybe have a couple of kids vying for speed.
Speaking of which, for speed the box promises that the DIR-885L can deliver up to 1000MBs on the 2.4GHz band and 2167MBs on the 5GHz band. It also happens to support the relatively new Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) technology. If you don’t know what that is, then here’s a very quick lesson: most routers at the moment can only speak to one device connected to Wi-fi at a time. Now probably you’re using multiple things in your house and thus might be thinking this is nonsense, but the way the router does this is by acting as a sort of machine gun, firing off bits of data to each device one by one. It can only ever focus on one device at a time, so it jumps from one to the other incredibly fast, giving the impression of seamless, constant wi-fi. MU-MIMI allows a router to talk to multiple devices at the same time, increasing effectiveness, effeciency and speed. The downside is you need to have MU-MIMI supported devices as well to see the benefits, which I don’t have. Indeed, if you want accurate speed tests, I’m not the reviewer to look at.
Over a wired connection I saw a sustained 110MBs transfer speed using a 1.7GB folder containing a mixture of music and video files, which isn’t spectacular rates but are quite reasonable. With no portable 5Ghz wireless device for testing at the moment I simply grabbed my 2.4Ghz MotoG phone and loaded up WiFi Hotspots, an app that measures network speed constantly in order to let you find where your wifi is strongest and weakest. It isn’t the most accurate test, but will still provide a reasonable idea of speeds. Standing in the same room as the router saw speeds of around 60MBs, while moving out to the hallway at a range of roughly 15-20ft saw those speeds drop a small amount to 55MBs or so. Heading upstairs I tested the signal in my room which is above the router, and speeds only dipped by a fraction to 53MBs. Entering the second bedroom across from mine saw the same speeds again. Indeed, the whole house proved to be really consistent on the transfer speeds and signal strength. It wasn’t until I stepped outside and moved up my garden, putting me about 20ft away from the router with a solid wall concrete between me and it, that I saw a substantial drop down to around 15MBs. None of these speeds will have the titans of the router market shaking in their metaphorical boots, but they’re still perfectly respectable.
Importantly signal strength stayed generally consistent and strong throughout my entire house, outperforming the bigger, more antenna-heavy DIR-890L. There were no drops even when streaming games, watching videos and browsing the net, although it’s fair to say that I can’t push the router near its limits with what I have here. What I can say with confidence is that for the average user the DIR-885L is more than capable of handling what network traffic you can throw at it.
Other features include a Quick VPN server that you can use to connect to a local area network securely, and in-built firewall plus website filtering, although frustratingly you can only enter 24 addresses. Have you seen how much porn is on the internet, D-Link? 24 addresses isn’t going to cut it. The other option is you can have up to 24 sites that the user can access, with everything else off-limits. Neither solution is perfect, so getting some software instead might be the better choice.
There’s also the single USB port at the rear where you can plug in a USB drive and then share the files across the entire network. Better still you can access these files from anywhere else via mobile devices or by using a web address. It also supports DLNA streaming to any compatible TV or console. Using the same account you can log in to the router from anywhere in the world in order to keep an eye on your network or tweak settings. The only complaint here is there’s no option for safe ejection of the drive. Sure, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll mess up the drive by simply disconnecting it, but it would have been nice to have a proper ejection option for drives that contain important information or files.
I’m also a fan of the fact you can setup up a separate guest network complete with its own DHCP server. This keeps your main network nice and secure. Not that I’m suggesting your friends are actually government spies in disguise. *cough*
Despite being the DIR-890L’s smaller brother I found the DIR-850L to be just as good, if not perhaps a touch better as it was able to provide more consistent wi-fi signal around my entire house. The replaceable antenna are great, the transfer speeds are solid, the user interface is sleek and easy to use, and it isn’t overly huge. On the downside it’s still a pretty price of kit with fewer ethernet connections than I’d like and it may be lacking in advanced options for power users.