Whether it’s slow, intermittent, or simply can’t reach the places where you want it most, Wi-Fi is still far from perfect. Manufacturers both new and old are becoming aware of the fact that consumers are fed up with their Wi-Fi and are beginning to respond with some new designs.
Some, like the Google OnHub, are making routers that you’ll want to place centrally, instead of hiding in a closet. Others, like Eero, are not only making routers more attractive, they’re adding mesh networking to blanket your home in signal.
But another newcomer to the home Wi-Fi game, Ignition Design Labs, is raising the ante even further. Its $199 Portal router (sold first on Kickstarter, and now available for pre-order on Amazon) is easy on the eyes, and can offer expanded coverage via mesh networking. But its potentially killer differentiator is its unique ability to move your Wi-Fi devices onto their own dedicated slice of wireless spectrum, thereby eliminating what the company claims is the true enemy of home Wi-Fi — congestion.
These claims, plus the Portal’s aggressively low pricepoint, drove the product through a successful run on Kickstarter. But will backers be getting their own lane on the Wi-Fi highway, or just another router? Digital Trends managed an exclusive – and extensive – hands-on with the Portal to find out.
No antennas? No worries.
The Portal oozes simplicity from the get-go. Its sturdy packaging opens to reveal a four-step instruction card, the Portal itself, the included power cord, and an Ethernet cable — all three in matching white.
The Portal, with it’s glossy white, vaguely pillow-shaped design, joins other routers like those from Google and Apple in placing an emphasis on aesthetics, because a centrally-located router will reach more of your home. You won’t find a front panel full of blinking lights (it only has one top-mounted LED which glows a steady green during normal operation) and there isn’t a single external antenna to be found. The Portal actually has nine antennas, but they’re all internal.
Around the back you’ll find a spot for the power cord to plug in, five gigabit-Ethernet ports (one for your modem and four for your wired connections), and two USB 2.0 ports for accessories. Some buyers may object to the lack of USB 3.0 or e-SATA ports, which are both fairly common on routers at this price point.
If there’s one drawback, it’s the Portal’s power cord. At four feet in length, it may be long enough for most locations, but we could have used an extra two feet. It isn’t proprietary, so if length is a problem for you we imagine a longer, compatible cord and power supply could be easily acquired.
Most Wi-Fi routers are fairly straightforward to set up these days, but let’s face it — it could still be easier. Instead of going the usual route of getting a user to install set-up software on their PC, Portal takes advantage of its built-in Bluetooth radio and does the entire set-up process on a phone or tablet via the free Portal app (iOS | Android).
The app guides you step-by-step, from the moment you unbox the Portal to the moment you’re connected. There’s almost nothing to it. Once the Portal’s single, ring-shaped LED indicates that it’s ready (via a steady blue light) you simply wait for the app to recognize it. When it finds the Portal, you’ve only got one task to complete. Give the router a password of your choosing and (if you want) change the default SSID name.
Once the setup is complete, the Portal does what most other dual-band routers do — it creates two wireless networks, one on the 2.4GHz frequency, and the other at 5GHz. The 2.4 network will be called whatever you chose for the name during the setup (or the default “PORTAL_XXXX”) while the 5GHz network uses the same name and password, but appends “_FASTLANE.”
Though the app-based set-up was a cinch, some users will find the Portal’s lack of a WPS button a pain in the butt. I’ve rarely used this button on my previous routers, preferring instead to use alternate methods, so it didn’t impact my experience.
Just how fast are the FastLanes and how do they work?
The Portal’s signature feature –FastLanes – is not just marketing spin. The FastLanes are four separate bands within the 5GHz spectrum that are normally set aside for military and commercial radar equipment, such as weather and flight.
Because they’ve been reserved, there is no other Wi-Fi activity on them, which means they are wide-open and free of the congestion that can show up in the other 5GHz bands used by every other 5GHz router on the market. In the past, the FCC has prevented home Wi-Fi routers from using these bands, known as DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection), because they haven’t possessed a way to use them safely.
“Safely,” in this case means that the router would need the ability to stop using a DFS band the instant it sensed any active radar signals, and not return to that particular DFS band for a pre-determined amount of time.
The Portal is the first consumer router that can do so, seamlessly moving wireless clients into and out of the DFS channels, in real-time, and invisibly to the end user. It does so using dedicated chipsets, and dedicated antennas (you may have wondered why it has nine – some of them are specifically for working with DFS).
Even though Ignition Design Labs has used the term “turbo charging” to describe what the FastLanes do, that’s not entirely accurate. FastLanes can’t make your iPhone’s Wi-Fi connection any faster than it was designed to run, but it can ensure that your iPhone runs on DFS bands as much as possible, thereby maximizing the phone’s potential Wi-Fi speed.
Technically speaking, the Portal isn’t the only DFS-capable router. There are enterprise-grade Wi-Fi access points that can pull off this same stunt, but they cost thousands of dollars. There are also two consumer-grade routers that can make use of DFS channels — the latest $199 Apple Airport Extreme, and the $299 Netgear R8000 — but these lack the Portal’s ability to move between DFS channels. If the Airport Extreme or the R8000 sense radar usage on a DFS channel, they can’t switch to any other DFS channel and they can’t return to the one they were using until they are physically rebooted.
The Portal will also be able to do another feat of Wi-Fi acrobatics once it receives a firmware update later this fall. Adaptive Band Steering makes sure that all Wi-Fi devices in your home are using the best possible band, relieving you of the need to police these connections yourself. If it works as designed, you’ll be able to give your 2.4 and 5GHz bands the same SSID name and let Portal worry about which one your device should be using.
Excellent everyday performance
So that’s the theory — but how does the Portal actually perform?
In my tests, as well as general day-to-day usage of the Portal, it handily outperformed our comparison router, a $199 Linksys WRT 1900 ACS, providing better speed — and critically — better coverage in every room of our house, even in typically troublesome spots.
My go-to test application, which I used to test improvements on router location and antenna positions here, is iPerf, a network bandwidth tool that lets you send packets of data from a wireless client (in this case my iPhone 6) to a wireless — or preferably wired — server (an iMac). The tool then provides you with real-time feedback on throughput. It’s a reliable way of measuring the performance of a Wi-Fi network, as long as you run it several times from each tested location. Here’s what I found.
|5GHz Band Speed Test (using iPerf 3)|
|Location||Linksys WRT 1900 ACS (Mbit/s)||Portal (Mbit/s)|
The 5GHz Wi-Fi band actually reached the basement, where we keep our entire collection of set-top boxes and game consoles. Our PS3 won’t care that much, but the PS4, Apple TV 4th Gen, and Roku 3 definitely benefit. With the SpeedTest app running on the Apple TV, I was able to confirm the iPerf3 data. It showed download speeds of 30 megabits per second, which is the fastest connection our cable ISP account was rated for.
While these numbers are more than sufficient for decent network performance, readers may wonder why they’re so low overall given that these are both AC routers with theoretical maximum speeds in excess of 1300 Mbit/s (or 1.3 Gbit/s).
Real life is significantly different than theory, however, so in practice, you’ll never come close to that throughput. By some estimates, barely 50 percent of this number can be maintained under optimal conditions, sometimes more like 40 percent. That brings us down to 650 Mbit/s if we’re being generous. But that’s still way more than the numbers above.
So I re-ran the test using a different tool, The Android WLAN test app called FRITZ!App WLAN — a goofy name, but a great (and free) app. Here’s what this tool revealed:
|5GHz Band Speed Test (using FRITZ!App WLAN)|
|Location||Linksys WRT 1900 ACS (Mbit/s)||Portal (Mbit/s)|
The second test shows that both routers do similarly well when you stand right next to them. Step further away, and the Linksys has trouble maintaining its throughput. In fact, in every tested location, the FRITZ! app indicated that the Linksys was transmitting at a lower -dB level than the Portal.
It’s clear from these numbers that the Portal outperforms the WRT 1900 ACS in every location in the house. While there’s no way for this test to definitively show the Fastlanes feature is responsible for the Portal’s performance, it’s clear that the router is much quicker than the Linksys we pitted it against.
Some features are missing, for now
The web interface for the Portal is as simple and minimal as the router itself. You won’t find dark backgrounds, unnecessary graphics for buttons, or heavy branding — just a clean, well-organized menu on the left and the detail screens on the right, all presented on a white background with an easy to read font.We really liked the way the Portal offers a small countdown timer indicating how long you’ll need to wait after performing configuration changes, all of which happened in 30 seconds or less. A full reboot only took 60 seconds.
Router geeks are going to appreciate that the firmware is based on OpenWRT.
Our test router was finalized hardware, but the Portal’s software is still undergoing heavy development. Ignition Design Labs has several commonly available features coming in future updates, but we weren’t able to test them. These include parental controls, guest network set-up and control, quality-of-service support, VPN support, and a dual firewall (SPI & NAT). These features should arrive at a later date, but for now, you’ll have to get by without them.
Router geeks are going to appreciate the Portal (beyond its impressive Wi-Fi performance) because its firmware is based on OpenWRT, the open source router firmware that has found a loyal following amongst those who like to really get under the hood and mess around.Our Take
The Portal is a high performance router that looks good enough to place anywhere, yet it also offers more performance and sheer smarts than any other consumer Wi-Fi router near its price. Some may object to its lack of USB 3.0 or eSATA ports, but if this was the trade-off Ignition Design Labs needed to make to bring the price of amazing Wi-Fi under $200, we’d say it was well worth it.
Is there a better alternative?
Our tests did not reveal if the performance we measured could be solely attributed to the Portal’s exclusive Fast Lane feature, or simply because it packs state-of-the-art antennas and radios, but there’s no doubt that it’s fast — especially for 5GHz devices.
Potential alternatives include Google’s OnHub, the Eero home Wi-Fi system, and conventional routers like the Linksys WRT 1900 ACS. However, our testing shows the Portal outperforms these competitors.
How long will it last?
Wi-Fi as a technology has been changing rapidly ever since it hit the consumer market, with new speed, reliability and security standards appearing every year, and there’s no reason to expect this pace will let up anytime soon.
Still, Ignition Labs has expressed a strong desire to keep issuing software updates for the Portal in addition to actively fostering an open source community around the product. Buyers will likely be able to extend the lifespan of their Portals longer than routers that receive no such support.
Should you buy it?
The DT Accessory Pack
If you live in a densely populated urban area where competing Wi-Fi signals can number in the dozens or more, we think the Portal should be your top consideration for a new router. At $199, it’s a very good value for an AC 2400 Wi-Fi router. And with its proprietary DFS technology, it becomes hard to beat at any price.
The Portal is still early in its lifespan, and it originates from a Kickstarter product. There are some common features, like a USB port and parental controls, that it simply doesn’t have at this time. However, it does support OpenWRT. These traits will be deal-breakers, or deal-makers, for some readers.
If you don’t mind its few omissions, though, the Portal is an excellent router. It’s a rare example of a device that appeals equally to the average user and hardcore geeks, and its performance is impressive.