For the past few weeks, we have been trying out the new LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router. In this VPN Router review, we shall be considering its ease of use, usability, speed, and plenty more besides.
VPN awareness and use is on the rise around the globe, thanks in part to the revelations of state snooping from Edward Snowden, but also because they offer a solution to those people living in countries where repressive regimes seek to censor their access to the internet. A growth in both online surveillance and censorship, as well as a myriad of new online security risks, has seen a similar growth in VPN use around the world, and this trend seems likely to grow.
The more recent advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has seen more and more devices connecting to the internet. And while a growing number of these do have VPN capabilities, plenty still don’t including TVs, SmartBoxes, as well as many of the more modern IoT devices.
Yet people are more aware than ever of the need to secure all their connected household devices. This can be a real hassle if you are trying to set up an individual VPN on different items, and you will inevitably find at least one device which cannot support a VPN.
The solution to this problem is a VPN Router. These work exactly like regular Wi-Fi routers but have a built-in VPN capability. This means that the Wi-Fi signal it emits is VPN-protected, thereby removing the need to hook individual devices up to a VPN and even offering VPN protection to devices that do not support VPN use themselves.
Which is why we have been putting the LINKSYS WRT 1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router through its paces. We want to see how it compares to its competitors as well as the usual software VPN solutions we are so familiar with.
What You Get
The LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router retails at £159.99 (approximately $200). It is the budget version of the flagship LINKSYS Router, the WRT1900ACS and offers the same tough and robust design, reliability, and customisation options. The main difference between the two is that the WRT1200AC is only a dual-band stream, whereas the WRT1900ACS offers a triple-band stream.
LINKSYS is an American Company, based in California, and now owned by Belkin. They do not retail the device themselves, but they do offer a ‘Where to Buy’ page which tells you who their recommended retailers are. This router can be found at most good online retailers, though.
The router itself is fairly large, with a robust and angular plastic body in matte black to the back and a striking blue at the front. It’s slightly retro looking design, as well as its size makes it a Wi-Fi router to show off, rather than one to blend into the background, with its array of bright blinking lights at the front and two bold external antennae catching the eye easily.
At the rear of the router, you will find four gigabit Ethernet ports, a USB 3.0 port, a WAN (Internet) port, a USB 2.0/eSATA combo port, a power button, a reset button, and a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button.
It arrived well-packaged, with minimal contents. The external antennae have to be screwed on and there was also a separate power cable, which has adaptors so it can be used anywhere in the world, which is a nice feature.
Other than that, there was the usual paperwork, warranties, and a small table telling you what hazardous substances it contains. There is also a Quick Start guide which included instructions in Hungarian, Slovenian, and Vietnamese, but nothing in English. It took me more than a few minutes to find the English guide on the inside of the cover of the CD which contains electronic copies of all the documentation.
VPN Router Set Up
The Quick Start guide contains five simple steps to follow, and it has the name of the Wireless Network and Wireless Password clearly displayed at the appropriate stage. These details are also printed on the base of the router itself.
To set-up the router, simply connect the external antennae and then plug in the device. Power cycle the device and then connect your internet cable to the port marked (conveniently) ‘internet’.
Once connected, wait until the power light on the front of the device is solid and then connect to the secure Wireless network using the details provided. You can change the details of the network once you are all set-up if you so wish. Be sure to select the option to automatically connect to the network in future.
You then need to open your web browser and follow the setup instructions on the screen. These should appear immediately the first time you connect, but if they don’t you can just type linksyssmartwifi.com into the address bar and that will take you straight there.
It’s a pretty straightforward process to follow and shouldn’t throw up to too many challenges for even the most novice of users. But be aware that the setup wizard can only be used once, and if you want to go through it again, you will need to do a factory reset, which is a bit of a pain!
How was the VPN Router?
The LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router is not intended to be the fastest router on the market. It has been created for the mid-range market, and with that in mind, it is packing a pretty powerful setup.
It contains a 1.3GHz dual-core processor as well as 256MB of RAM and 128MB of flash storage. That’s quite a lot for a model of this nature and perhaps explains at least in part its high price. (More on that later).
It also contains some pretty nifty features, including an interactive network map, which lets you connect with other devices on the network with a single click, a clever parental control feature which lets parents control both the content and times their kids can get online and a reliable (and honest) in-built speed test.
Then there is the Media Prioritization feature. This lets you choose whether to run connected clients in a High or Normal priority list, enabling you to make sure the applications that matter are getting the best speeds.
There are also two Guest networks available, one on each band, which can be activated with a single click and the option to have up to 50 guest clients, each of which can be assigned separate names and passwords. These guest clients will only get internet access, and not be connected to any other local resources you might have on the network.
Connecting the VPN
I was using the LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router with ExpressVPN, and installing it onto the router couldn’t have been simpler.
Firstly, you will need to sign up with ExpressVPN. In their welcome email, you will see a link under the title ‘To set up ExpressVPN on your device, go here’. Click on this link and then select Setup ExpressVPN on the Active Subscriptions page.
This will then take you to a Downloads page. On the left-hand side, you will see an option for routers. Click on this and then select LINKSYS WRT1200AC. You will have the option to ‘Download Firmware’. Do this, making absolutely sure you have selected the right router model first.
The next step is to flash to this firmware. To do this, connect your device to the router using a cable and one of the 4 Ethernet ports. Do not use the internet port.
Making sure the router is not connected to the internet, go to linksyssmartwifi.com. At the sign in screen, enter admin and then sign in. This will take you to the main Smart Wi-Fi home page.
Select connectivity and then on the right-hand side of the screen you will see an option for Choose File. Click on this and you will see a listing for the ExpressVPN Firmware. Click on the start button and then agree to the message telling you the router will be rebooted. After it has rebooted, you will need to choose ok.
You should then be automatically redirected to www.expressvpnrouter.com. You can log-in here using the username ‘admin’ and the password on the bottom of the router.
This is the time to connect the router to the internet, by plugging the internet cable into the yellow ‘internet’ port. Connect the router to the modem if you need to and you should then only have to wait a few seconds for it to connect to the closest recommended VPN location.
On the same site, you can choose which VPN server location you prefer by choosing ‘Select Another Location’.
And with that, ExpressVPN is running through your Router and all of your connected devices are benefitting from the VPN connection.
ExpressVPN is one of the fastest VPNs on the market and I tried this router with and without the VPN to compare the speeds and found the difference to be negligible.
One of the real assets of the LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router is its remote management offerings. These are not unique and can be found with all Smart Wi-Fi routers, but by my reckoning they are amongst the best.
It has an online platform which allows you, once you have signed up for a free LINKSYS account, to monitor and control your home Wi-Fi from any computer, smartphone, or tablet, no matter where in the world you are.
Once you are registered you can access their remote portal which contains a whole host of features. This can be used on your desktop or via a dedicated app which is available for iOS and Android devices, which allows you to control your Wi-Fi from your smartphone.
The Smart Wi-Fi portal allows users to navigate a variety of different menu screens via widgets. It allows you to view your network map, rename SSIDs, assign wireless channels, configure WEP, WPA, and WPA 2 settings, enable DHCP, and assign static IP addresses as well as configure IPv4 and IPv6 firewalls, set up guest networks.
There is a parental control feature which means you can restrict both the content available to minors and the times they are able to get online. And there is also an Apps and Gaming Menu which allows you to configure port assignments for specific games, apps, and other software applications.
If you prefer, and I didn’t, the router also has the capability to replace the router's firmware with OpenWRT firmware, a package from Linux, which allows more advanced users to customise network monitoring and controls.
But for me, the Smart Wi-Fi platform has everything you could possibly need, built into a user-friendly platform that is easy to master and navigate quickly.
No Time Machine support
One nice feature of the LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router is its built-in USB ports which allow you to connect both external storage devices and printers to it directly. Any hard drive formatted in HFS+, FAT32 or NTFS should work and the one I tried was recognized in a matter of a few seconds.
Once connected, you can then share the content of the hard drive with other devices on the Wi-Fi network. It has however been pointed out by others that Apple’s Time Machine backup is not supported, which is obviously far from ideal for Mac users. Not being a Mac user myself, this is not something I can vouch for personally.
VPN Router Speeds
As the name suggests, the device offers dual-band Wi-Fi and this is where the comprise on speed is. When compared to its triple-band brother, the WRT1900ACS, it is always going to be slower, and it is.
The WRT1200AC can reach 400MBps on the 2.4GHz band and 867Mbps on the 5GHz band. That compares with 600Mbps and 1300Mbps respectively WRT1900ACS. A big difference.
What this means in practice is that the WRT1200AC is ideal if your typical usage is through smartphones, tablets, and other devices which only connect occasionally, but can feel a little slow if you are using it with devices which are constantly connected.
That’s on paper. But in practice does it live up to its promises? Well, yes, it is pretty impressive, even with a VPN running which can sometimes slow connections down. I was running this device in my apartment, which is not the largest but offers a pretty standard home environment.
When close to the router, it was hitting speeds of around 60MBs on the 5GHz band. However, from the other end of my flat, this speed did drop to around 35MBs.
There was a similar pattern on the 2.4GHz band, where I saw speeds of around 15MBs up close, dropping to 8MBs from the other side of the apartment.
So regardless of the band, it is pretty fast up close, but speeds do suffer the further away from the router you get. It should be said though that these speeds are favourably comparable to other similar routers. But if you are lucky enough to live in a palatial mansion, this is probably not the router for you.
The LINKSYS WRT1200AC Dual-band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router is a good addition to the LINKSYS selection. It is reliable, durable, relatively simple to set up, and comparable with speeds to many of its rivals.
The main drawback with it is the price. Because at an RRP of £159, it is more expensive than other comparable VPN routers and even some which perform better.
But if the price doesn’t put you off, the LINKSYS WRT1200AC will do exactly what you want it to, and it will do it well. The remote management features are extremely useful and the user-friendly platform they employ is great.
Installing the VPN is straightforward, and once installed it is easy to operate with ExpressVPN online. The router will protect all of your devices online which is great. And the fact that you don’t have to compromise on speeds to have the VPN running is particularly impressive.
It is not the ideal router for a large home, or for 24/7 use, but if the price doesn’t put you off, then for the average home and regular family use, the LINKSYS WRT1200AC is a great VPN router choice.
You can purchase the Linksys router via ExpressVPN using the following link and clicking VPN Apps -> Router.