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Asus ZenWiFi AC Review: A True, and Improved, AiMesh System

The ZenWiFi CT8 mesh Wi-Fi system includes two identical routers. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

The ZenWiFi AC (model CT8) is not the first canned Wi-Fi system from Asus, but in my opinion, it’s the first built with the popular AiMesh feature in mind. The mesh is part of Asus’s new ZenWiFi family, announced earlier this month at CES 2020, which also includes a Wi-Fi 6 version, the ZenWiFi AX (XT8).

In all, the new mesh Wi-Fi system worked well in my testing, as a standard setup or an add-on to an existing AiMesh router. If you have a home of 4000 ft² (372 m²) or so, this 2-pack sure will take care of it. But if you have a larger home, you can use this with more AiMesh router(s) to create a mesh that delivers even more extensive coverage.

No matter how you plan to use it, at less than $350 the ZenWiFi AC is worth the investment. Just make sure you’re comfortable with tweaking its settings. If you’ve been holding up on an AiMesh setup, this is the one to get.

ASUS ZenWiFi AC CT8 Whole-Home Tri-Band Mesh System

8.4

Performance

8.5/10

Features

9.0/10

Design and Setup

7.5/10

Value

8.5/10

Pros

  • Significantly improved AiMesh feature
  • Fast performance, excellent Wi-Fi coverage
  • Tons of useful features and settings, including free network real-time online protection for life
  • Fast dedicated backhaul, wired backhaul supported
  • Helpful mobile app

Cons

  • Web user interface doesn't always work as intended (bugs)
  • No Guest networking at mesh nodes
  • SMBv1 required for NAS when hosting an external drive
  • Only 3 LAN ports per router
  • Not enough setting instructions

Asus ZenWiFi: The next level of AiMesh support

I had the opportunity to test the ZenWiFi AC back when it was still in the beta state and witnessed Asus’s effort on improving it — especially the AiMesh aspect — from one firmware version to the next. With the latest firmware, version 3.0.0.4.386_21281, it’s safe to say this is the first official AiMesh Wi-Fi system on the market. 

At the core, though, the ZenWiFi CT8 is similar to most Asus routers. Also, it seems all ZenWiFi routers share the same settings, features, and setup process. That said, the differences between this Wi-Fi 5 ZenWiFi AC and the Wi-Fi 6 ZenWiFi AX are only in their hardware specs, and, therefore, the real-world throughputs and costs.

READ MORE:  Asus ZenWiFi AX Review: The Best AiMesh System to Date

Familiar design and interface

The ZenWiFi AC comes with two identical routers. Each looks like a compact single-slot toaster standing 6.35-in (16.15 cm) tall and 6.29-in (16 cm) wide. The hardware is not wall-mountable. On the front, there’s one tiny color-changing status light. On the back, the unit has three gigabit LAN ports, one WAN port, and a USB 3.2 Gen 1 port.

Like most Asus routers, the ZenWiFi AC supports Dual-WAN — you can turn one of its LAN ports, or the USB port, into a second WAN port. However, there’s no Link Aggregation. As a result, don’t expect to combine any two of the network ports to deliver an aggregated 2Gbps connection with it. By the way, when used as an AiMesh node, the router’s WAN port works as a LAN.

If you have used an Asus router before, you’ll find yourself right at home with the ZenWiFi. It has the same web interface, feature sets, and set up process.

The ZenWiFi AC CT8 router has only three LAN ports (instead of the usual four) and one WAN port. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Standard setup procedure, universal setting restoration

Pick one of the two hardware units to use as the router, and the other will work as a satellite unit (or node). And just like any mesh systems, you perform the setup process and manage your network on the router unit; the node will automatically replicate relevant settings to deliver a single seamless Wi-Fi network.

By the way, the setup process is the same as that of all other Asus routers. It’s a standard one found in the most router with a web interface. At the gist of it, point a browser on a connected computer to the router’s default IP address (which is 192.168.50.1) or router.asus.com, and the rest is self-explanatory.

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Alternatively, you can also use the Asus mobile app if you don’t have a real computer anymore. I like the web interface, and it took me just about 15 minutes to get the ZenWiFi AC up and running, using the default settings.

Like most AiMesh-ready routers, the ZenWiFi supports universal restoration. In case of an upgrade, you can restore it with the backup file of your old Asus router and your network settings, for the most part, will remain the same.

An improved AiMesh feature

Out of the box, the two units of the ZenWiFi are pre-synced. As soon as you finish setting one up as a router, you’ll find the other already part of the system, via AiMesh.

The ZenWiFi AC CT8’s web user interface has a brand-new AiMesh section. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

So, there’s no need to do a manual setup. The bond between the two is strong, too. You can do whatever you want with either of the two ZenWiFi units — like using each as a router of a different network. But as soon as you reset them to the default factory setting, one will automatically become part of an AiMesh system hosted by the other working in router mode.

You can also add routers of a different ZenWiFi pack, or any AiMesh router for that matter, to the ZenWiFi’s system. Or, conversely, you can use the ZenWiFi routers as nodes of an existing AiMesh system. In this case, the setup process is the same as when you add any other AiMesh router.

Finally, when working as a router, the ZenWiFi AC CT8 now has a brand new AiMesh section within its web interface that makes managing and extending the mesh more comprehensive. What’s also new, you now can still a ZenWiFi router’s USB port, even when it’s working as an AiMesh node.

READ MORE:  AiMesh: Asus's Ongoing Journey to Excellent Wi-Fi

Specced for a robust mesh

The ZenWiFi AC’s hardware specs remind me of the original Orbi RBK50. Each of the hardware units is a particular tri-band AC3000 router.

Specifically, it has a 2×2 (400Mbps) 2.4GHz band, a 2×2 (886Mbps) 5GHz-1 band, and a 4×4 (1733Mbps) 5GHz-2 band. The 5GHz-2 band, being the fastest, works as the dedicated backhaul that links the routers. This design allows the system to have a strong signal connecting the hardware units with low or no signal loss.

Thanks to this reliable backhaul, users have the option of placing the hardware unit further away from each other without worrying too much about signal degradation. As a result, the ZenWiFi AC can deliver quite extensive coverage with just two hardware units.

The ZenWiFi AC CT8 routers work well as add-on AiMesh nodes for an existing system hosted by another Asus router. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

And you can use wired backhaul with the system, too. In this case, you can configure the 5GHz-2 band as a separate network for end-users. It will not work as part of the primary Wi-Fi network in a SmartConnect setup.

ZenWiFi AC CT8’s specifications

ZenWiFi AC CT8: Lots of features and settings

Like other Asus routers, the ZenWiFi comes with lots of settings and features.

There is a network map that shows you connected clients in real-time. Clicking on a client will allow you to view its information and perform a few actions on it. These include blocking it from the Internet, setting up a schedule for internet access, and binding its MAC address with a particular IP address.

There are a lot of options to customize the Wi-Fi networks, the LAN settings as well as the Internet connection. For security, the ZenWiFi features WPA2, but it’s just a matter of time before WPA3 is available via firmware updates.

There are quite a few notable features that allow you to do even more with the system.

The Asus Router app is sleek and a pleasure to use. It has limited access to the router’s settings and features, compared to the web interface, however. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Everything you want to do with the USB port

You can do all you can think of the ZenWiFi’s USB port.

When hosting an external drive, for example, you now can make the router work as a media streaming server, a server for local data sharing as well as syncing over the Internet. You can also turn on the support for Time Machine backup, or make the router download large files on its own.

Alternatively, you can also use the USB port to host a cellular modem or a printer. In reality, though, it’s not a good idea to use the ZenWiFi AC’s USB port for anything other than hosting a cellular dongle or a printer. That’s because the USB port has rather modest performance when hosting a portable drive — more on this below.

AiProtection: Free and useful real-time online protection

Like other Asus routers, the ZenWiFi AC comes with the popular AiProtection feature that includes a Network Protection engine, powered by TrendMicro, and Parental Controls.

The Network Protection guards the network against online threats in real-time, and it’s free to use for the life of the system. I’ve used this feature for years in many Asus routers and found it useful and practical.

The Parental Controls, on the other hand, is a bit rigid in my testing. It can shield specific clients from a few online categories (Adult, File Sharing, Social Networking, etc.), or control their internet access via a schedule. There’s no way to block a specific website, unfortunately.

Alexa and IFTTT support

The ZenWiFi AC has a smart home feature, which is the support for Alexa and IFTTT. With these, you can set up the router to respond to a voice command.

In all, supported Asus routers, including the CT8, can handle some 14 Alexa commands and about a dozen of IFTTT applets. They worked in my brief testing. I don’t think voice commands are a great idea for a router, though, since anyone can accidentally, or deliberately, mess things up.

The ZenWiFi AC CT8’s real-time bandwidth monitor is a handy tool. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Adaptive QoS and other useful features

Asus’s Adaptive QoS is one of the easiest to use. It enables the user to prioritize the Internet traffic for their needs, be it gaming, Voice over IP, or other services.

There are also a host of other things you can do with the ZenWiFi AC. For example, the router unit can work either as a VPN server or a VPN client, and its Dynamic DNS feature is by far the best among home routers — it’s super easy to set up and includes a free SSL certificate. The combination of the two means it’s one of the best routers on the market for those wanting to build a VPN of their own.

Another thing I like about the ZenWiFi is a set of networking tools that includes a Wake-on-LAN function. Imagine you can remotely turn on your server after a power outage.

So in all, almost anything you’d want to do in terms of network customization, you’ll find it with the ZenWiFi CT8, as well as most Asus routers.

ZenWiFi AC CT8’s performance

I test the beta version of the ZenWiFi AC CT8 for more than a month and then the official hardware release for about a week and was quite happy with it.

Excellent Wi-Fi speeds and coverage

Keep in mind that, even though it’s a tri-band system, from the Wi-Fi clients’ perspective, this is a dual-band 2×2 Wi-Fi 5 system, with the top ceiling speed of 867 Mbps. And I tested in the default wireless setting, with the two hardware units using the 5GHz-2 band as the dedicated backhaul.

The CT8’s router unit did quite well with the top speed of almost 570 Mbps at the close range. At 40 feet (12 m) away, it still registered at some 480 Mbps.

And the system was even more impressive at the satellite unit, likely thanks to the robust and dedicated backhaul band. Clients connected to the ZenWiFi AC working as an AiMesh node got the average speed of more than 510 Mbps at close range and some 420 Mbps at 40 feet away. These were among the fastest.

The ZenWiFi AC CT8 proved to be reliable, too. It passed my 3-days tress test with no disconnection. And the range was quite excellent. Again, the two units can handle some 4000 ft of residential space quite easily. But you can adjust the distance of the two hardware units to deliver more coverage, at the expense of the node’s Wi-Fi speed.

Mediocre NAS performance

Considering the tons of things you can do with the ZenWiFi AC’s USB port, I was obliged to its network-attached storage performance and was disappointed.

When hosting the SanDisk Extreme portable SSD, via a Gigabit connection, the router registered the copy speeds of just 17 MB/s and 27 MB/s for writing and reading, respectively. These were among almost at the bottom of the charts and weren’t fast enough for a real network storage solution. You should get a NAS server instead.

Some shortcomings

Other than the slow NAS performance mention above, the ZenWiFi AC has a few more flaws. For the most part, these are also the shortcomings of Asus routers in general.

Buggy firmware

Due to a large number of settings and features, the firmware can be buggy at times.

For example, when you want to, say, enable or disable the Wi-Fi setting from SmartConnect — where it combines the 2.4GHz band and 5GHz-1 band into a single network — you need to do that without changing the Wi-Fi network’s name. If you choose to do both at the same time, the name change won’t stick.

Also, the firmware update process itself is buggy. The system showed notification there’s a new firmware, but when did a check, it says that all routers in the mesh had the latest firmware, even though that wasn’t true. So the only way to make sure you have the latest firmware is to check for that at Asus’s website manually.

It’s interesting to note that, the Asus mobile app is much better at firmware updates. In my trial, it detected new firmware correctly and I could perform the update, for both the router and satellite units, via a few taps. But the app has limited access to other features and settings of the system.

No Guest working support at satellite units

The guest networking issue has been an issue of AiMesh from the get-go. Specifically, the Guest networks are only available at the router uint and not replicated to the nodes. That was also the case of the ZenWiFi AC.

Asus once told me it’d fix this issue by the end of 2019. This time around, the company again informed me that it was planning to fix it in the future.

You’ll need to turn on SMBv1, which is disabled by default, in the latest versions of Windows 10 to support the router’s NAS feature. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

SMBv1 required for connected storage

This has been the problem with all Asus routers. When hosting an external drive for the network storage feature, the ZenWiFi still uses SMBv1. That’s the original and ancient version of the popular Server Message Block protocol for the Windows network environment.

For security reasons, this version has been replaced by SMBv2, or newer versions, for more than a decade. Most importantly, nowadays, most modern operating systems disable SMBv1 by default.

In short, until Asus adds the support for a newer SMB version to its routers, using the USB port for network storage purposes translate into security risks.

Not enough instruction

While I love the ability to customize a network, the excessive amount of Wi-Fi and networking settings of the ZenWiFi can be daunting for home users. There are just too many of them.

This is partly because there are not enough instructions on how to configure certain settings. This is especially true for band-steering (or SmartConnect rules) which help clients pick that best band (5GHz vs 2.4GHz) to connect to at any given time. The only way to figure this out is via trial and error.

Conclusion

After having worked with so many AiMesh routers from Asus, I find the ZenWiFi AC CT8 is a breath of fresh air. The system manages to bring a new and improved way to manage Asus’s popular mesh feature.

Though it still falls short of being a perfect mesh — the lack of support for Guest networking at the node itself is not acceptable — it’s a step closer. And Asus will continue to try to improve it via firmware updates, though, that could mean it might break a thing or two along the way.

That said, as its current state, the ZenWiFi AC CT8 is an exciting mesh system for those who are willing to spend time and tinker with all the settings and features it has to offer. Wondering if the Wi-Fi 6 version will fare better? Check out its full review.

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

22 Comments

  1. Hi Dong,

    Thank you for your review. We are in australia and our nbn -national broadband network here is only up to 100Mbps. It believe it’s fibre to node and then to the premise. The ISP provider provide a VDSL modem/router. I am thinking of upgrade my routers which have been 3 years old. I’m thinking of the ASUS zenwifi CT or maybe AX92U. But after read ur review, it appears AX92U is dodge. I live in a double storey house of about 200sqm each floor. Would you recommend a router/s? I got CAT5 cables from the modem to each floor. So either wired or wireless could be an option. Thanks a lot.

  2. Hi Dong,
    Nice review ! I was wondering if the AC adaptors are universal 110-220V as usual with ASUS routers. Can you confirm? An US to EU prong adapter will be enough to make it work over the pond?

  3. Thanks Dong, I ended up finding a deal on the CT8 and I much prefer their appearance. Since I have wired backhaul and all three have Tri-bands, will this cause any issues? I have a lot of smart devices and other tech(about 30 devices) and the dual 5GHz seems to help, but I’m not sure how it will work with the mesh routers.

  4. Hi Dong, great reviews! I have just purchased CT8 Zen and think i need another router to add to the mesh. I have 100mbs internet and a multilevel old stone house. On the groundfloor is the ISP connection and i have ethernet connection to another ground floor room 20 metres away. I want to put another ASUS router upstairs as a node but it will be wireless connection. I was thinking Blue Cave but i know its only dual band. The groundfloor wired backroom needs to be a CT8 node for visual impact as i dont want to see antennas. What would you recommend adding and where? Should i put in a new hub and use the CT8s as nodes (1 wired, 1 wireless) or 2 x CT8 on groundfloor wired and a new node upstairs? Your thoughts?

  5. Sorry typo, meant a *wired backhaul*. A second question I have is that my isp router has a coaxial in. The coax coming into the house is split and runs into the modem and router, do you see this being a problem to work around/replace?

    1. With wired backhaul, Matthew, you go with dual-band routers. Get the RT-AX86U and/or Blue Cave. They will work out great. You just need to keep the Coaxial modem (it’s a cable modem) and connect it to your Asus router. You can forget about the IPS’s router. But if for some reason you must keep the IPS’s router then use a double NAT setup. More on that here.

  6. Since I have essentially the same question, I thought I would reply here. I have an isp router that won’t cover my home. I have 300 mbps internet and was looking to add mesh routers. Would you recommend 2 86U or Blue Cave routers over a pair of CT8 with wireless backstop? I’m in Canada and the CT8 is backordered. 2 Blue cave will be a hair cheaper and 2 86U will be a hair more expensive.

  7. Hi Dong, I’ve been noticing a performance drop for OpenVPN connections using ZenWifi. It’s almost unusable. Even though everything is pretty much the same as my AC86U + AC66U_B1 setup. I would’ve thought the ZenWifi would outperform the AC86U since it’s quad core rather than dual. Anyways, curious to know if you might have encountered a similar issue.

  8. Hi Dong, I have the RT-AC5300 and gigabit ethernet. I’m wanting to increase my coverage on the far ends of my house and I was also wanting to see if I can get better speeds since I haven’t seen speeds over 500 Mbps. I would used wired backhaul for my setup and want to know which router combination would give me the best speeds in combo with my current router. I’m leaning toward getting the Zenwifi AC as nodes, but was wondering if a different combo might increase my speeds?

  9. Hey Dong, thanks for the write up. Looks like a nice system. I was wondering what you thought of two of these compared to a ROG GT-AC5300 x2. I didn’t see one in the benchmarks. The 5300’s have beefier specs, and I wonder how these two systems would compare, especially in awkward tri-level house setups, where the 5300 have antennae that can be positioned. I’d love your perspective on it. Thanks!

    1. Strictly from Wi-Fi performance point of view, I think the ZenWiFi is better, Zack. I reviewed the GT-AC5300 before I started Dong Knows Tech. AiMesh wasn’t available then. The ZenWiFi, on the other hand, was built around this feature.

  10. Hey Dong, another great review with a helpful list of shortcomings.
    I noticed in one of your screenshots that you set up your AX88 as a node in your AiMesh, any particular reason why? I thought with combination dual/tri-band components in a mesh, there was no real advantage to routers with tri-band. Also, curious to know, if you had set up the AX88 as the router, what happens to the 5Ghz-2 channel from each ZenWifi node? And how you managed to configure your Smart Connect rules – I have not been able to find the Smart Connect Rule page (it’s supposed to be either next to the Smart Connect toggle in the Wireless page or in the Network Tools section, right?).

    1. Thanks, Adrian. It was just part of my testing. I wanted to add different AiMesh routers to the mix to see if that worked. And yes, it’s not a good idea to combine tri-band and dual-band routers in a wireless AiMesh setup. You can read more about that here. To get to the SmartConnect rules, you can click on the link next to the setting, or you can click on Network Tools (on the menu) and choose SmartConnect Rule. As for how to actually change the settings of the rules, that depends on the router and, honestly, it’s quite tough for figure out with Asus’s interface.

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