TP-Link Archer C7 (AC1750) Wireless Router Review

It’s been many years since I last made any significant changes to my wireless internet setup. In fact, the last major router I bought was a Linksys WRT54G, and I bought it at the (now bankrupt) CompUSA store near my house. However, of late the ‘ol 54G has been showing signs of age, and has even crashed a few times in the last couple of months. I finally decided it was time to spend some time researching the current state of the art for wireless standards and routers.

Disclaimer: Although I’ll get into the details later, TP-Link provided the hardware to me free of charge in return for my feedback. They did not edit or otherwise contribute to this blog post, however.

Searching for Signal…

The new hotness on the technology front is 802.11ac which replaces 802.11n, which most devices mnaufactured today support. 802.11ac is an overall bump in speed and reliability. It’s still a draft, and expected to become final in 2013. However, it’s common to see hardware released ahead of the final specification. Usually hardware based on the draft is compatible or just requires a quick firmware upgrade after the final spec is published.

Having brushed up on the technology, it was time to pick a vendor. In the 802.11ac space, there are a number of contenders:

I started on the forums for custom router firmware, since those guys tend to be experts in the best bang-for-your-buck hardware. Then, I went over to Newegg to check out the reviews and get some pricing information.

I ended up digging deeper into TP-Link, as their model was a good $30-50 cheaper than the competition. The difference appears to be that most of the other routers in this space use a much higher power CPU and more RAM. This is probably of interest to people who plan on using their routers as full-blown Linux installs or as dedicated NAS boxes, but not as interesting to those of us who don’t.

One of the major issues with most consumer technology is support – most people will have no issues whatsoever, but if you do, customer support makes or breaks your experience. The TP-Link support guys were very active in the Newegg reviews section, offering personalized support and even replacement hardware to customers having issues.

In one bit of feedback from TP-Link, they were trying to find technically savvy folks who were willing to test out and review new hardware. I threw my name into the hat, and lo and behold I was selected to get one of their new Archer C7 routers, in return for my time in helping to test it.

What’s in the box? Hardware & Docs

The Archer C7 is the top-of-the line model, announced just this year at CES. In addition to 802.11ac support, and all the basic router hardware features like LAN ports, it’s also got a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the back that can be used for file and print sharing. There’s also a convenient switch for power and one to toggle the wireless on and off. I’ve lost the barrel plug from the AC adapter in the morass of wiring behind my router/modem enough times that I appreciate a good physical switch to reboot my electronics.

The inside of the box, in all its cardboard-padded glory.
The inside of the box, in all its cardboard-padded glory.

Beyond the router itself, there’s a standard complement of accessories:

  • Wall wart power adapter
  • Antenna set (this model comes with 3!)
  • An Ethernet cable
  • A quick install guide
  • A mini-CD with the user’s guide, some setup software, etc
  • A letter about GPL software in use as part of the firmware

The nice thing about the included documentation is that it’s all well written. Too much of the time when you have an international company writing documentation, the end result is hard to understand. This can needlessly complicate setting up a piece of electronics. I’m happy to report that the TP-Link documentation is well written and quite useful.

There are also a few guides included for some of the more advanced features, like sharing a printer via the router’s USB ports.

The GPL letter goes over the open source software used in the router’s firmware, and gives you a link to download the source. I tested this for personal curiosity and found it to be working fine.

The Existing Setup

I’ve got quite a mixed network at the house. I’ve got two Macs running OSX, several wireless devices running either 802.11g or 802.11n, and a bunch of wired devices connected directly to my routers.

My Asus router, along with the PS3 and Xbox 360.
My Asus router, along with the PS3 and Xbox 360.

I say “routers” plural, because in addition to the aging WRT54G router, I have another Asus router on my local network. The two are operating in a WDS mode, which means that they look like one access point to any wireless clients. I bought the Asus router as a cheaper alternative to a wireless adapter for my Xbox 360.

As I’m an avid gamer, I’ve got a PS3 and a Wii in addition to the 360. I’ve also got a gaming rig on the wireless network with a USB 802.11n adapter, and my Nexus 4 for the occasional (okay, frequent…) Android game.

Integrating the Archer C7

Before I begin any complex project such as this, I always take a moment to back up the existing configuration. Both the old routers have a mode where you can download the current settings as a .cfg file which can be restored at a later time.

I also took the additional step of using Chrome to save PDF copies of all the key configuration settings pages on the old WRT54G. That way, I didn’t have to go back and remember things like what ports I had forwarded, or what my static DHCP settings were. The config file backups are typically in binary and not much use outside of a full settings restore. I highly, highly suggest making PDF copies of your settings pages to anyone who is considering a router upgrade.

I saved all the .cfg and .pdf files on an old USB key, and grabbed the router, the key, my laptop, and an Ethernet cable, and went to work. I started by turning off the wireless radio on the Asus router, just to avoid any weird SSID conflicts from the existing WDS setup. Then I pulled out the old WRT54G and put the Archer C7 in its place.

The initial setup went pretty smoothly, and there’s a few things that stood out and really simplified my life:

  • The default username, password, and other important details are printed on a label on the underside of the router. This is super convenient. The security nut in me says there’s probably some risk of having these bits of data readily available. However, by the same token most home routers I’ve used print it in the instruction manual which you can find online in seconds, so I don’t really see the additional risk.
  • Instead of having just a default IP address, by the router also has a default DNS entry for the router’s IP. That’s pretty slick, and certainly makes remembering it and entering it easier. Instead of going to http://192.168.0.1 to pull up the configuration interface, I went to http://tplinksetup.net.
The status page on the router's web interface.
The status page on the router’s web interface.

(If you’d like to play along at home: there’s a simulator here where you can play with the settings UI)

I used the “quick setup” feature to get the basics going, like the SSID, encryption method, and the WPA key. I noticed WEP wasn’t an option during this setup phase, and that’s probably smart. WEP is not considered at all secure by modern standards. However, it is available if you go into the security settings after the quick setup is finished.

Bringing Everything Online

My Windows 7 laptop immediately recognized the new network and I could connect right away without issues. I plugged the Tivo into one of the gigabit LAN jacks, and that worked right away as well. Both of the Macs in the house had no problems connecting, either. Likewise, my Nexus 4 worked immediately. That brought a large chunk of my network online, with only a 30 minute effort.

I then connected directly to the Asus router’s LAN ports to reconfigure its wireless. In the past, I had difficulty using it in “Ethernet bridge” mode with the old router. However, it too worked flawlessly on the first attempt. After a quick check of the Archer C7′s UPnP settings, I booted my Xbox 360 and got connected to Live with “Open NAT” on the first try.

My HP DeskJet has built-in support for wireless, but no way to enter a WPA key manually. I used the C7′s WPS feature and the DeskJet’s WPS pin to get the two connected. That also worked without any issues, and my wife was printing inside a few minutes.

Note to self: Do not use enterprise grade Linux installations on consumer netbook hardware and expect the wireless to work.
Note to self: Do not use enterprise grade Linux installations on consumer netbook hardware and expect the wireless to work.

The one hiccup in the setup was my Asus Eee PC Netbook. I had long avoided using WPA-PSK on my home network in favor of WEP just so I wouldn’t have to tackle setting up WPA-PSK with the oddball hardware and CentOS 5 install on it. I banged away at it for a while, but finally caved and put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on there instead of CentOS 5, which fixed my driver issues and everything ran smoothly.

Advanced Setup

After I got all the clients online, I turned my attention to the advanced setup options in their web UI. Port forwarding was no big deal, and UPnP is on by default, so there was nothing to do there.

I have static DHCP set up for a few of the clients on my network that I need to connect to remotely. The C7 was a bit picky about MAC address formatting (had to be dashes between bytes instead of colons, like my old setup) and there was no “description” field, which I find handy for keeping track of which MAC/IP address corresponds to which device. I also had to reboot the entire router to get the settings to take effect.

However, it handled the static allocations without any issues, and all of my machines are now where they need to be. I was able to set up static allocations both inside and outside of the DHCP address lease block, which not all routers can do.

There are handy bits of documentation on each page for each setting, much more detailed than I’m used to. As a power user, I can’t say I was referring to these frequently, but it was still nice to have since sometimes the terminology varies depending on the vendor.

Tomato's pretty bandwidth graph is the high water mark for web UIs, in my opinion.
Tomato’s pretty bandwidth graph is the high water mark for web UIs, in my opinion.

A couple of things that I think hardware providers could improve on in their web UIs is:

  • Pretty graphs. There’s a nice page in the UI for tracking what clients are using bandwidth on the network, but a realtime graph would have been awesome here.
  • Web 2.0. There’s probably a good reason for sticking with iframes for compatibility with older browsers, but some AJAX refreshing of the data on some of these screens would have been nice. Some of the status/statistic screens refresh periodically and kick you back to the top of the page.

Play Time!

Now that everything is squared away and running smoothly, it’s time to play!

First up was the Playstation 3. It’s been bugging me to download new firmware, but it really had a hard time with my network previously. With the new router, everything went smoothly and quickly.

I also tested a couple of rounds of Black Ops 2 on the Xbox 360, and that also worked fine. UPnP was enabled by default, so I had no NAT-related issues.

After testing the consoles, I kicked off a long Steam download on my gaming rig to ensure there weren’t any issues dealing with a large load over an extended period. The download was smooth, and afterwards I was enjoying some Dishonored.

Finally, I did a quick torrent download of the Ubuntu Server CD. Torrent traffic tends to be taxing on NAT traversal and also tends to saturate download bandwidth. The performance was consistent across the entire download.

Alternative Firmware

One question I always try to answer when dealing with a new router is “can I run other firmware on it?” The TP-Link brand has a lot of DD-WRT supported models, and the Archer C7 features Atheros-based chipset. At this point, 802.11ac support is still somewhat in its infancy, and “alternative firmware” support for this particular chipset is not there yet.

Given that it is an Atheros chipset similar to those used in other TP-Link device, I expect that over time we’ll see compatibility with the major open source firmwares.

Conclusion

On the hardware side, I am sold. This is a solid piece of gear, and I’m happy to have it as part of my network. I don’t yet have a pair of 802.11ac adapters to test the highest speeds this router is capable of, but thus far I’m happy with the performance.

Software setup was easy and straightforward. I had no (router-related) issues during setup or getting my crazy assortment of devices online. All the “advanced” features I rely on to keep my network running smooth were present, well documented, and easy to use. The interface is typical for stock firmware in that it is serviceable but could use a Web 2.0 facelift.

  • Mark

    Thanks for this no-nonsense review. Thinking of getting this router to replace my Cisco E4200 (?) as even with DMZ and port forwarding i am having a devil of a time reducing lag on BO2 with my PS3. With the capacity to manage bandwidth on the Archer i hope to make inroads on the lag reduction before the PS4 fronts up.

    Thanks again.

    • https://plus.google.com/u/1/106821154503898033506/ agent86

      No problem. I don’t know if you have options in your area of different ISPs, but where I used to live we had a couple of different ISP options. One was unaffiliated with the TV/Phone monopoly and good gosh was it fast and low latency. I’ve found that for lag in games (esp. high speed games like CoD), your ISP makes a heck of a difference.

  • Allen

    Thanks for the detailed review. I am looking for a new router and the capabilities of the Archer falls in line with my needs. I do have a question, have you thought about what device you could use to connect media streaming devices (Vizio Costar, Roku) so that they use the 5GHZ band instead of the 2.4 GHZ band? I am trying to eliminate contention of the 2.4 GHZ band. Most of the devices I have (laptops, Vizio Costar, Roku) really saturate the bandwidth of my 2.4 GHZ. On the % GHZ band are my phones and a few laptops. I know that ZyXEL makes a 5 GHZ Wireless N Media Streaming box that has two LAN ports and ASUS makes a Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit 3-in-1 AP/Wi-Fi Bridge/ Range Extender that looks like it would do the job and work well with the ASUS RT-AC66U, which was one of your options. I appreciate any thoughts you may have. Thanks again!

    • https://plus.google.com/u/1/106821154503898033506/ agent86

      Personally I’d probably pick up an open-source capable router to be your bridge in that case – that’s what I did with the Xbox/PS3/etc in my house and it works well. I’ve been using mine before and after the swap to the Archer with no issues. I think having two full-featured routers tends to be the best solution rather than purchasing a bridge, but the cost may be prohibitive to get to 5GHz 802.11n on the whole ‘net.

      You don’t mention a model, but if you’re talking about the Asus EA-N66 as your bridge/AP, it got really bad reviews at PCMag. That’s kind of why I prefer the router + OSS as my bridge, since it tends to be better hardware and more stable software.

      I owned a couple of ZyXEL devices and was very unimpressed with them. However, it’s been a couple of years now, so perhaps the quality has improved.

  • Jpeg

    Very nice review indeed…I’d like to add that some people are experiencing a couple of issues. 1. Downloads hanging and 2. No internet on the 5GHz band. A workaround for 1 is to disable Hardware NAT. And, for 2. set the 5GHz wireless to 802.11an. TP-Link promises firmware fixes soon. All in all, I’m quite pleased. My wireless download speeds have increased from about 30Mbps to over 100Mbps on either band (about 75ft and a few walls away). And, my wired connection is now capable of handling my IP’s full 160Mbps speed where as my old TP-Link WR1043 would top off at about 60Mbps.

    • https://plus.google.com/u/1/106821154503898033506/ agent86

      I’d experienced the download hanging bug, but I thought it was specific to my Windows 7 box’s USB wireless adapter. I reported it to TPLink as part of my feedback, so good to hear that there’s a workaround and that they’re working on the bug.

  • Cas

    To overcome the download getting stuck you should not disable the hardware NAT, as that guy ensures the high WAN to LAN translation. A better solution is to enable bandwidth control and set it to the speed limit of your provider. This solved the problem for me without losing the hardware NAT, as my ISP download speed is 120Mbit :-)

  • Goofy

    I have just bought the Archer C7 and connected it to a cable modem wirelessly, trying to use it as a repeater (as my study is very far away from the cable modem connection point and there is a brick wall half way along the path), but could not make it work. Can the Archer C7 work as a repeater?

    • https://plus.google.com/u/1/106821154503898033506/ agent86

      I haven’t tried this myself – in my network, I use the old Asus 802.11g router in this fashion as a client to the Archer C7. I’ve found that for advanced things like this it helps to have an open source firmware on the client router. I don’t know if there’s been a release of any of those for the C7 yet.

      If you wanted to try this with the stock C7 firmware, I’d suggest attempting to enable “WDS Bridging” under Wireless Settings. There you can specify the wireless router you wish to bridge with. This may require changing settings on your cable modem’s wireless router as well.

      I’ve had good and bad experiences with this type of WDS setup in the past. The “bads” are things like my Nexus 4 would tend to drop the wireless from time to time, and you can only use WEP security. Also sometimes there are firmware incompatibility issues if you’re not running the same open source firmware on both routers.

  • john

    Good review thanks for taking the time to post it. I had same disconnect issues especially when streaming netflix (My ISP is Virgin Media usingthe superhub in modem mode.) I downloaded the latest firmware released on 29th July which seems to have sorted it (so far). Here is the link if it helps anyone … http://bit.ly/18AXzoK

    cheers

  • KiwiBri

    thanks for the review. Based on your review, I purchased one at Christmas :) Its working great.

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  • agent86ix

    Bummer. I think OpenWRT says that on certain revs of the hardware, some of the radios are closed source as well. Looks like I’m sticking with the stock firmware for at least a while longer…