You think Western Digital is big into hard drives, don't you? Wrong! Western Digital is big into hard drives and, as of today, routers as well. We've had a look at WD's new lineup and it's actually got some impressive levels of cleverness going on, especially if you like streaming movies or online gaming.
When it comes to routers, there are three things that we care about. They are, in order:
- The router should spend the vast majority of its life being entirely ignored. It shouldn't be a bottleneck for anything and it should never crash.
- The router should be painless to set up and easy to configure using a Web interface.
- The router should have a few features we care about. Namely: a guest networking option, quality of service controls, Ethernet ports, and (if we want to get super fancy) remote accessibility.
Yep, that's it. That's our want list. So how do the new WD routers stack up? Let's start from the top.
Is it fast and reliable? Short of attempting to imbue these routers with 802.11ac (which most people can't actually use), WD's router lineup offers dual-band 300+300 Mbps or 450+450 Mbps Wi-Fi speeds, and if you're not satisfied with a max transfer rate of 900 Mbps (!), you should probably re-examine your life choices. Reliability is harder to measure at this point, but based on our other experiences with WD's products, we're not initially worried.
Is it easy to set up and configure? WD took us through the setup process from scratch, which amounted to a total of three clicks. In fact, you don't even need a computer: you can do the entire thing through your smartphone or tablet. Once you get past the initial setup, a streamlined and almost painfully user-friendly Web interface lets you tweak network names and passwords and stuff. It's a cinch.
How about features? As we'd expect from most non-budget routers, WD provides all the features you could possibly want plus a whole bunch more that you'll never ever use. There's a guest network. There are Ethernet ports (if you want, you can spring for seven of 'em). The routers have USB ports (one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0) to make it easy to share printers and hard drives over your network, and one of those ports is even set up for remote accessibility. Nice.
So, okay, these are totally decent routers. Good routers, even, just based on these specs. But why, specifically, should you think about buying a router from a hard drive company instead of from a more established networking name? There's one big reason, and it's the quality of service controls, and you should definitely care about those.
In its new router line, WD is introducing what they're calling FasTrack. FasTrack is some clever software that not only optimizes the routers for streaming media (such as Internet video or games), but can also automatically detect and prioritize different kinds of media using traffic analysis. With the fancier routers, this is called FasTrack Plus, and you don't have to do anything or set anything up: the router will watch all of the traffic flowing through your network, and if it detects a service that needs a low-latency, high-bandwidth connection, it'll automatically prioritize it. So if you're streaming a movie or playing an online game and someone else on your network starts looking at lolcat pics, the router will automatically pipe all of your lag-sensitive data straight through, giving the lolcats a back seat.
This level of quality of service (QoS) optimization is something that it's always been possible to do with routers by assigning different priorities to different ports and IP addresses, but what's so clever about WD's FasTrack Plus software is that you don't have to do any of that. The router is always watching your traffic and automatically making sure to give bandwidth priority to the services that need it. It's just that simple, and based on the demos that WD showed us, it really does make a significant difference. As a gamer, this is exactly what I want: I don't have to worry about lag spikes when my computer decides to back itself up, or when my roommate is doing her homework, or if I'm transferring some files at the same time. WD's FasTrack plus will always make sure that gaming (and movies) has priority over other data on my network.
Today, WD is releasing a series of four routers: the My Net N600, N750, N900, and N900 central. The N600 and N700 are available for $80 and $120; the N700 has faster data rates and two USB ports instead of one. Both have standard FasTrack QoS software. The N900 has seven Ethernet ports, the full 450+450 dual-band speeds, FasTrack Plus, and will run you $180. The N900 central is just like the N900, except sacrifices two Ethernet ports for either a 1TB or 2TB internal hard drive for $300 and $350 respectively.
So far, we're impressed, but there are two things that irk us: first, the more affordable routers (the My Net N600 and My Net N750) don't include the FasTrack Plus — just the regular FasTrack, which has to be configured manually. We totally get that FasTrack Plus is a premium feature, but on the other hand, the people who benefit from it most are going to be the people who don't know how (or don't want to bother) manually configuring their QoS, and those people probably aren't going to splurge on a fancier and significantly more expensive router.
The other issue is that FasTrak Plus, as clever as it is, doesn't let you prioritize anything. FasTrack Plus is set to give highest priority to video chatting (think Skype), followed by audio chatting (also think Skype), followed by movie streaming (Hulu or Netflix or YouTube), with gaming bringing up the rear. Personally, I have a roommate who likes to watch Glee non-stop, which steps all over my time with Diablo 3. I'd love to be able to reorder the FasTrack Plus priority list to put gaming on top, and while I can still do that manually, it would just be nice if WD gave consumers the option of deciding what's most important to them.
Overall, we like where WD is going with this. The demos we saw of FasTrack Plus were impressive enough that it's a feature we'd look for in a router, but for most people, it's going to be hard to justify making that $60 (or $100) jump up to the N900. For a company best known for making hard drives, it's a solid foray into the world of home networking.
Western Digital's My Net routers are available as of today at retailers and online.
Via Western Digital
All photos taken by Evan Ackerman for DVICE unless stated otherwise.