The Linksys EA4500 is one of our favourite routers, but we found it lacked one key ingredient: 802.11ac. At the time it was a somewhat unfair criticism since this next generation networking standard had yet to be released, but the fact remained compatible products would be hitting the market in a matter of months. Keeping to that schedule is Cisco itself and now we have the 802.11ac-equipped EA6500 in our hands. Do we have a new class leader? In short: yes.
The first thing we noticed about the EA6500 is it makes no attempt to shout about its headline functionality from the rooftops. The EA line has established a discrete and stylish look and the EA6500 doesn't try to break from that. As such it is only subtly different from the EA4500, keeping the same rectangular (and wall-mountable) shape, while the metallic band down the middle has been widened and slightly sunken into the router to allow for extra ventilation grills. In all the effect makes it look slightly more muscular and powerful than the EA4500, which was clearly the aim.
Cisco has also addressed our biggest complaint about the EA4500, swapping out the moulded plastic feet for proper rubber strips. This isn't rocket science but since the old model's surprisingly pointed hard feet felt capable of scratching or scuffing delicate surfaces, it is welcome.
Aside from the design tweaks, a quick look around the back of the router reveals another welcome change: the inclusion of a second USB port. This remains a frustrating omission from many routers and means you can simultaneously network a printer and an external hard drive. Both are USB 2.0, but this standard is yet to become a bottleneck for such setups. Sadly Linksys hasn't increased the number of Gigabit Ethernet ports, however, so we're left with the usual four. We really would like to see a change here given a PC, games console, digibox and Smart TV alone will occupy all ports and households often have more wired equipment than that.
Despite this, it is inside of the EA6500 where things get interesting. Like the EA4500 this is a dual band 2.4GHz and 5GHz router, but with 802.11ac added to the 802.11b/g/n variants. In line with other router makers Linksys quotes the theoretical maximums for these bands (450Mbit on 2.4GHz and 1300Mbit for 802.11ac on 5GHz) but with the inclusion of six internal 3D antennas with high power amplifiers for each band meant our expectations were high. Needless to say the EA6500 also has IPv6 support out the box.