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
- 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
- Web user interface doesn't always work as intended (bugs)
- Only 3 LAN ports per router
- Not enough setting instructions
- Guest networking still has issues
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, versionit’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.
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.
Asus ZenWiFi AC CT8’s detail photos
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.
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 as an option. 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. Note that it’s always better to set up the system from scratch to avoid setting conflicts.
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.
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. (Yes, you can buy a 2-pack and separate the hardware units as two standalone routers for different households). 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 tested 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 stress 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, its network-attached storage performance was very disappointing.
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.
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.
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 management. 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.
The thorny Guest network issue
The guest networking issue has been an issue of AiMesh from the get-go. Specifically, the Guest networks are only available at the router unit and not replicated to the nodes. In the case of the ZenWiFi AC, it’s supposed to be a bit different.
According to Asus, if your network consists entirely of ZenWiFi hardware, then the Guest network feature is available throughout. However, if you use a non-ZenWiFi AiMesh router, then the Guest network remains at the router.
In reality, though, no matter how I used it, even after multiple firmware updates, the Guest network remained at the router unit, similar to the case of other AiMesh setups. Asus has insisted that this feature will be fully functional in “the near future.”
SMBv1 required warning for connected storage
This has been the problem with all Asus routers. The ZenWiFi AC, too, shows that it needs SMBv1 to work as a mini NAS server. 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 reality, the router worked fine with devices that used SMBv2 and newer.
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. That’s 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.
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 current lack of support for a complete system-wide Guest networking 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.