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Asus ZenWiFi AX Review: The Best AiMesh System to Date

The Asus ZenWiFi AX XT8 includes two identical routers. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

 

The ZenWiFi AX AX6600 Whole-Home Tri-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6 System (model XT8) is a souped-up version of the CT8. Both are part of the new ZenWiFi family Asus announced earlier this year.

The only differences between the two, albeit big ones, are the fact the XT8 features Wi-Fi 6 and a multi-gig WAN port. Other than that, they share everything else, the appearance, setup process, features, how they work as mesh systems, and even some shortcomings.

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

This review focuses on these differences. It’s intended for those who have already read my take on the CT8.

In all, compared to the CT8, the ZenWiFi AX XT8 has more than enough to justify the extra $100 you’d need to spend. Though not a must-have, it’s a reasonably-priced, flexible Wi-Fi 6 AiMesh system with a ton more to offer than its more expensive rivals.

ASUS ZenWiFi AX Whole-Home Tri-Band Mesh WiFi 6 System (XT8)

8.9

Performance

8.5/10

Features

9.5/10

Design and Setup

8.5/10

Value

9.0/10

Pros

  • Fast Wi-Fi performance and large coverage at a comparatively affordable cost
  • Improved and flexible AiMesh
  • Lots network settings and useful features, including free real-time online protection for life
  • Full 4x4 dedicated backhaul band with optional wired backhaul support
  • Multi-gig WAN port with Dual-WAN and WAN link aggregation

Cons

  • No 160MHz 4x4 support for Wi-Fi 6 clients, for now, in a wireless setup
  • Guest networking not available at the node
  • No multi-gig LAN port or LAN link aggregation
  • Only four network ports on each hardware units
  • Not enough instructions on network settings

Asus ZenWiFi AX XT8: Everything the CT8 has and a lot more

As a mesh system, the ZenWiFi AX, like the CT8, includes two identical routers. From the front, you can’t tell hardware the XT8 and the CT8 routers apart. The two look the same, sharing the single-slot-toaster design, and available in white or charcoal colors.

Here are ZenWiFi AX XT8 and the ZenWiFi AC CT8, from the back. Look closely, and maybe you can tell them apart. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Family design, now with multi-gig WAN support

On the back, though, you’ll note that the XT8’s WAN port is now a multi-gig port that works either at either 1Gbps or 2.5Gbps. Also, the USB 3.2 Gen 1 port is on the right side instead of left.  

Like the CT8, the XT8 features Dual-WAN, you can turn its USB port or another LAN port into a second WAN port, in case you want it to host two broadband connections at a time or load balancing or high availability.

What’s more, the XT8 now also features WAN link aggregation — you can combine the WAN port and another LAN port into a 2Gbps WAN connection. This feature is for modems that don’t have a 2.5Gbps port but still deliver multi-gi WAN speed via two 1Gbps ports.

By default, there’s no multi-gig LAN port. And that’s disappointing since that means locally, the best wired-to-wireless connection you’d get out of the XT8 is 1Gbps.

It’s important to note that when working as a node, the XT8’s 2.5Gbps WAN port now works as a LAN port. However, generally, in real-world usage,  it’s not a good idea to count on the wireless backhaul to reliably deliver the same speed as a wired multi-gig LAN connection.

High-speed backhaul band, presently no 160MHz channel support for clients

Each XT8 hardware unit is an AX6600 tri-band router with one 2.4GHz and two 5GHz broadcasters. The router dedicates one of the 5GHz band, the 5GHz-2, as the dedicate backhaul, which works solely to link the two hardware units to form a mesh system.

The 5GHz-2 is the most powerful band, featuring 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 to deliver up to 4800Mbps. It also supports the venerable 160MHz channel width. Thanks to this strong backhaul connection,  you can place the XT8’s hardware further from each other and still have a fast mesh system.

READ MORE:  Wi-Fi 6 in Layman's Terms: Speed, Range, and More

The other 5GHz band (5GHz-1) uses 2×2 Wi-Fi specification, which generally caps 2400 Mbps for Wi-Fi 6. Unfortunately, however, the XT8’s front-haul doesn’t support 160MHz channels. As a result, in a wireless setup, Wi-Fi 6 clients can connect at 1200 Mbps at most while Wi-Fi 5 devices will get 867 Mbps.

Update: Asus told me on February 11, 2020, that it would release new firmware “in weeks” that opens up the front-haul to support 4×4 160MHz specs, effectively doubling the XT8’s Wi-Fi speed for clients. 

Many mesh routers don’t support 160MHz channel width for end-users. Examples of these include big-name products like the Ubiquiti Alien and the Netgear Orbi RBK 852.

The ZenWiFi AX XT8 shares the same web interface as that of previous Asus routers. Note its 5GHz-2 band’s default setting for the dedicated backhaul role. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Wired backhaul support

Like all AiMesh routers, the ZenWiFi AX support wired backhaul — you can use a network cable to hook one router to another.

In this case, by default, the 5GHz-2 band is still not available to clients — it remains a hidden dedicated backup backhaul in case the wired connection is lost. So, when you use SmartConnect, this 5GHz-2 band is not part of the main Wi-Fi network. In short, it will not be used at all.

There’s a way to make use of this band, however. You can manually create a new unhidden SSID with it, different from that of the primary Wi-Fi network. This SSID will then be available, throughout the AiMesh system, as separate 5GHz-only full 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 Wi-Fi network for clients.

In other words, like all tri-band AiMesh systems, with a wired backhaul, you’ll need to do a bit of tweaking before you can make use of the 5GHz-2 band, which has an SSID of its own. 

ZenWiFi AXC XT8’s specifications

Familiar settings, features, and shortcomings

Again, other than the more powerful hardware, the XT8 shares the same set of settings and features as the CT8. It also uses the same web interface and the Asus mobile app. That said, you can find out more in the review of the CT8, including how to set the system up. 

The multi-gig WAN port is one of a few things that set the XT8 apart from the CT8. It also means the ZenWiFi AX XT8 can deliver a faster-than-gigabit internet connection. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

To avoid repeating myself, I’ll recap here some significant points.

  • Out of the box, the two XT8 hardware units are pre synced. No matter how you change them individually — like using each for a different network — once restored to default settings, they are ready to work together as a mesh. 
  • The XT8 router can work with all other AiMesh-enabled routers, as the router unit or a satellite node.
  • You can restore the XT8 router with the settings of any previous Asus router, making upgrade an easy job. It can also work as a node for a system hosted by any other AiMesh-ready router.
  • There are lots of network settings, enough to make almost any advanced user happy and features anyone would appreciate. These include AiProtection (online protection and parental control), Traffic Analyser, Adaptive QoS, VPN (client or server), and an excellent Dynamic DNS.
  • AiMesh now has a new section of its own, within the web interface, which makes managing and adding additional nodes easier. You can also make use of the XT8’s USB port even when it’s working as a node. 
  • The USB port can do all that you can think of for a router peripheral port. You can use it to host a printer, a cellular modem, or a storage device to deliver all storage-related features you can imagine — data sharing/syncing/streaming, Time Machine backup, PC-less downloading, and more.

And like other Asus routers, the XT8 shares the same shortcomings, too. Most notably is the lack of support for Guest networking at the nodes. Also, the accessive amount of settings can be overwhelming for some users.

ZenWiFi AX CXT8: Excellent performance

For the official scores, I tested the ZenWiFi AX in a wireless setup. The system doesn’t have the Wi-Fi specs to be the fastest on the market. Instead, it’s one that delivers extensive Wi-Fi coverage and still with excellent real-world throughputs.

READ MORE:  The Right Way To Do an Internet or Wi-Fi Speed Test

I used both 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 and top Wi-Fi 5 clients for the testing. Keep in mind that from the clients’ perspective, the XT8 is a 2×2 system of both standards.

Fast Wi-Fi speeds

As a single router, the XT8 delivered precisely the kind of performance I had expected from it. My Wi-Fi 6 client connected at 1.2Gbps and had a sustained speed of almost 840 Mbps at the close range of fewer than 10 feet (3 m). 

When I increased the distance to 40 feet (12 m), it now registered higher than 770 Mbps. Wi-Fi 5 clients fared the worst on the chart. However, that’s because the XT8 is the only one, among the existing handful of Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems on the market, that doesn’t feature 3×3 or faster Wi-Fi 5. That said, its scores of some 660 Mbps and 450 Mbps for close and long-range, respectively, weren’t bad at all.

The XT8 did it best when working as a mesh. The node (satellite) unit delivered the best performance to Wi-Fi 6 clients, averaging 850 Mbps and 792 Mbps for close and long-range, respectively. These were faster than higher-specced systems.

Excellent range, reliable signals

With two units, the XT8 could cover anywhere between 4000 ft² (372 m²) to 5000 ft² of residential space in my testing with fast Wi-Fi speeds.

I tested the system with the node placed some 40 feet away. But in anecdotal tests, I could put it some 70 feet away and still get speed fast enough to deliver my 300 Mbps internet in full. 

Your mileage will vary, but it’s safe to say, thanks to the full 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 backhaul, in a wireless setup, the XT8’s range delivers. The system proved to be reliable, too. It passed my 3-day stress test without any disconnection.

Real Wi-Fi 6 speed with wired backhaul

The XT8’s wired backhaul also worked well in my trial — in this case, the distance between the two units doesn’t matter much. I created a separate network with the 5GHz-2 band and was able to get full 2400 Mbps connection speed from it using my 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 clients.

Note, though, that this connection speed was between the clients and the XT8. So, the only time you truly benefit from the multi-gig Wi-Fi speeds is when you have a multi-gig WAN connection, and the clients connect directly to the router. Since the XT8 has no multi-gig LAN port, clients connected to the node won’t get real-world speeds faster than 1Gbps.

Still, it’s nice to have the option to have a 5GHz band working for high-speed clients. That said, even though not necessary, it’s a good idea to use a network cable to connect the two hardware units. 

Decent NAS performance

Without a multi-gig LAN port, the ZenWiFi AC XT8 can’t compare to those with one in terms of network-attached storage performance when hosting an external drive. But it was much faster than the CT8 in my testing.

When coupled with the SanDisk Extreme portable SSD, via a Gigabit connection, the router scored some 46 MB/s and almost 65 MB/s for writing and reading, respectively. These were decent enough for a casual NAS solution.

Conclusion

The ZenWiFi AX XT8 AX6600 Whole-Home Tri-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6 System is one out of more than a dozen Asus AiMesh systems I’ve tested, and it’s one of the best, if not the best.

The system is far from perfect, though. It’s not the fastest, nor does it deliver all features you can get from an Asus router — it has no game-specific features or multi-gig LAN port. However, it has an excellent combination of everything you’d look for in a mesh Wi-Fi system, which is the ease of use, reliably fast performance, and broad coverage.

Most importantly, at less than $450, it’s a steal. Many other 2-pack mesh systems on the market, like the Netgear Orbi RBK852 or the Arris SURFboard mAX Pro, cost hundreds of dollars more, yet have less in features and network customization.

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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!

98 Comments

  1. Dong, I really appreciate your site and detailed reviews. Regarding the ZenWiFi mesh systems, I haven’t been able to find any official documentation about whether they support the 802.11k/v/r standards for seamless roaming. I found just one unofficial reference online to the ZenWiFi systems supporting 802.11k and 802.11v but not 802.11r. Do you know if this is accurate, and if so, how big of a detriment is the lack of 802.11r support in the ability for clients to seamlessly roam? Also, is 802.11r support something that could be added via a firmware update? Thank you!

    1. That’s probably the case, Brian. 802.11r is popular in enterprise products and clients. Any of those standards will help roaming which also depends on the support on the client side to work. And no, 802.11x can’t be added via firmware.

  2. I was all giddy when I saw the firmware update thinking *maybe* it would have the 160 Mhz front haul but it doesn’t appear to have. Would have made my day being stuck inside the house 🙁

  3. Hi Dong,

    Asus just released new firmware version 3.0.0.4.386.25224 earlier today (March 26th) for the XT8. According to the release notes, this update supports adaptive QOS categories to help users prioritize mission-critical applications. Users who work-from-home & learn-from-home will greatly benefit from this new feature with optimized streaming experiences. This firmware includes new supported categories and apps. Hoping that this new firmware includes support for front-haul 4×4 160 MHz with improved wireless performance. Looking forward to your performance retest and updated review. Thanks again for your insightful reviews!

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