Rich Warren | The latest and greatest in routers – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

One of Editor & Publisher’s ‘10 That Do It Right 2021’
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Updated: October 17, 2021 @ 10:10 am

Your cellphone hides secrets. A little scroll through the settings menus reveals a useful secret. You don’t need a cellular signal for voice calls and texts, assuming you have a cellular plan with a carrier.
My neighbor down the block frequently parks in front of my house in the late afternoon to make his final few calls of the day. I assumed he either wanted privacy or possibly was poaching my WiFi.
I finally asked what he was up to and was surprised to learn he had minimal cellular reception in his home a few hundred feet away. I suggested changing carriers. He responded that then he’d have terrible cell reception from the different carrier in some of the places he worked.
I suggested he set his phone for WiFi calling. This common but little-known feature dramatically increases the versatility of your cellphone. All it takes is going to the settings menu and checking “enable WiFi calling.” Then, whenever you lack a cell signal but do have WiFi, you can make and receive voice calls and texts. This even works in foreign countries. It costs nothing, assuming you can access free WiFi.
Speaking of WiFi, the latest and greatest router just arrived in my office. It’s the new Asus GT-AXE11000, one of the first to not only include the new WiFi 6 channels with wider bandwidth, but also the even newer WiFi 6E that offers even more bandwidth. Very few devices use WiFi 6E at the moment, but just wait a year.
Meanwhile, many newer laptops, tablets and phones take advantage of the improved performance of WiFi 6. It’s especially useful in densely populated areas with many people and devices using WiFi.
Asus aims the $530 AXE11000 toward internet gamers. It offers several tweaks designed for gamers as well as blistering speed and great range. Anticipating future internet improvements, the Ethernet input is 2.5 gigahertz. Formerly, most router inputs topped out at 1 gigahertz. The AXE11000 with its eight (!) antennas looks like a spider on steroids.
While many households will save money with a WiFi 6 mesh system, which starts at about $300, I revel in the performance of the AXE11000. Everything, even the Ethernet connections, seem faster. The WiFi on my WiFi 6 laptop appears instantaneous, just like having it plugged into a wired Ethernet connection.
The range, like Asus’ predecessor GT-AC5300, amazes. In a three-story house, with the router on one side of the third floor, the signal on the opposite side of the basement remains strong and very fast. Incidentally, Amazon now charges only $300 for the older WiFi 5 5300, down from its $450 original price. It’s still a first-rate router.
You can find the “standard” WiFi 6 version, the AX11000 (without the “E”) for about $100 less than the AXE11000. It includes all the same features except the added 6E bandwidth.
The main drawback to the AXE11000 besides its ridiculously high price is that you can’t improve it with better, alternative firmware.
I’m sure most of you are scratching your collective heads wondering if I have lapsed into Greek or geek.
All modern electronics operate from computer code deeply embedded within called firmware. This code frequently can be updated, upgraded or even replaced. Most Asus routers can use an alternative superior firmware called Asuswrt-Merlin.
The terrific Merlin firmware, designed by Eric Sauvageau, further boosts performance while enabling precise fine tuning of the router not available with the factory firmware.
Unfortunately, Merlin can’t keep up with the rapid arrival of new routers and has not developed new firmware for the AXE11000. It could take a year if Merlin accepts the challenge. Installing the firmware, whether the regular factory updates or the Merlin alternative, is simple.
Currently, nearly all new smartphones, tablets and laptops incorporate WiFi 6, so even if you decide upon a much less expensive router or mesh-router WiFi system, be sure to select a WiFi 6 model.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at [email protected].
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