For some, the only purpose of a router is to get you online. With the Cisco Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500 ($141), there's a lot more to the story. The first router to offer legitimate apps and widgets that you can use to extend its capability, the EA4500 is a groundbreaking device. While it lacks the fastest networking speeds, the other features make this router one of the best money can buy.
Click to EnlargeThe low-slung Cisco Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router EA4500 is sleek and understated; its black matte top has a single band of chrome running down the middle. Like the rest of its routers over the past few years, there's no antennas sticking out the top. On the back are four Gigabit Ethernet ports, as well as one USB port that can be used to network an external hard drive.
Setup and Install
From start to finish, the installation process for the Linksys EA4500 took less than two minutes. The router comes with an installer CD that walks you through everything. (You can also download the installer app online.) Fortunately, even if you want to explore the more advanced features, you don't have to take a trip out to your browser and type in an IP address. Instead, most of the advanced settings are available right from the main installer app.
But the big difference is when you install a new software program called Cisco Connect Cloud, which includes widgets that run in your browser. There's one for changing passcodes, enabling parental filters and adjusting network optimization. Cisco has promised a boatload of new widgets for Connect Cloud, including those that will work with a laundry room appliance, your Xbox in the living room or maybe even a sprinkler system.
Connect Cloud is designed for those who don't live and breathe tech. For example, when you want to adjust settings under Media Prioritization, you don't have to learn about techie terms such as quality-of-service. Instead, you see a list of attached devices and commonly used Web apps, and you can drag and drop these in order of importance.
To evaluate Connect Cloud, we set Netflix as the top priority on our entire network. That meant, no matter what happens elsewhere, Netflix will play smoothly. We tested this feature by playing the movie "Thor" on one laptop, downloaded a 6GB file on a second laptop, and played multiple Hulu.com videos on a third laptop. The Hulu streams stuttered and the download took 14 minutes, but the Netflix stream stayed smooth.
Click to EnlargeThe EA4500 isn't the fastest router, but it is one of the speedier devices we've tested. At 5 feet from the router, we averaged throughput of 201 Mbps using Ixia Chariot on the 5GHz band. That's about 50 Mbps faster than average, and only rivaled by the D-Link DIR865L, an 802.11ac router that notched 200 Mbps. Linksys also sells a router that supports the 802.11 ac draft standard, the $199 EA6500.
As expected, transferring a 6GB collection of files between two HP Envy 17 notebooks took 10 minutes 20 seconds, and a 1.2GB collection of files took 2 minutes and 14 seconds. Those speeds are fairly typical for 802.11n.
At 150 feet from the router, the EA4500 notched 62 Mbps, which is on a par with the average. The D-Link DIR865L, however, was more than twice as fast, at 170 Mbps. The Belkin AC1200 averaged 160 Mbps from 5 feet, and 65 Mbps from 150 feet.
Click to EnlargeThe Linksys EA4500 uses widgets in the Web browser when you want to configure settings and extend the features of your home network. The widgets are designed for home automation, but the EA4500 also lets you use mobile apps. We tested one called NetProofer, which connects through the Cisco Connect Cloud portal. You can flip a switch to turn off specific websites such as Tumblr or Facebook. Another app called Gemini is used to control an IP camera. Cisco has promised to work with third parties and make sure there are many more mobile apps for the EA4500.
The Belkin AC1200 offers a couple of extras not found on the Linksys EA4500. That router has a tool for monitoring traffic, and a way to set specific download and upload speeds for an attached device.
Click to EnlargeWhile it doesn't offer the blazing throughput of 802.11ac routers, speed isn't everything. The Cisco Linksys EA4500's innovative widgets not only make the router easy to use, but portend a future when most home devices are Internet-connected. At $141, this is a fantastic premium router that offers an unmatched balance of ease of use, performance and flexibility via mobile apps.