Western Digital entered the networking market in 2012 with an 802.11n router. The company has now delivered not only its first 802.11ac Draft 2.0 router--the My Net AC1300--but also its first 802.11ac bridge, the My Net AC Bridge (which we'll review separately). So what does a company that builds storage devices know about designing wireless networking hardware? Enough to deliver a light spanking to the best Wi-Fi router we've tested, the Asus RT-AC66U--at least on the 5GHz band.
But merely outperforming the RT-AC66U on a couple of benchmarks isn't enough to knock Asus's router out of our best-of-the-best ranking: Western Digital's router is speedy enough on the 5GHz frequency band, but it offers fewer features and services than the Asus product does. It also delivered considerably lower 802.11n performance on the 2.4GHz band.
We suspect that the AC1300's mediocre 802.11n performance is due to WD's decision to use internal antennas in a horizontally oriented enclosure (it has no provisions for wall mounting). Asus remains one of the few router manufacturers to employ external dipole antennas that the user can position for maximum range and performance, and its router can stay horizontal on a stand or hang vertically on a wall. On the other hand, WD's router doesn't call much attention to itself, while Asus's screams "I'm a router!" We think performance trumps decor, but you might feel differently.
The AC1300 is easy to set up and doesn't require an installation disc; you simply log in to the router to see a graphical user interface with seven large icons arranged across the top. The interface doesn't look as slick as the one that Cisco provides with its EA6500 802.11ac router, but it is intuitive enough to figure out without your needing to resort to a user manual.
The router comes with WPA2 security preconfigured, with easy-to-remember passwords assigned to both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios (ours came from the factory with the password "19PinkTuna" assigned to both). You can, of course, change the factory-assigned SSIDs and passwords to whatever you like. The unit also supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which enables you to connect client devices by pushing buttons. You can operate guest networks on both frequency bands, but these are disabled by default and do not have preconfigured security.
Thanks to dual USB 2.0 ports, you can attach both a USB printer and a USB storage device to the AC1300 and share attached devices over the network. In addition to the typical UPnP server, WD also provides DLNA, iTunes, and FTP servers. The Asus RT-AC66U, however, delivers each of those features plus a SAMBA server, an integrated BitTorrent client, and a VPN pass-through for secure remote network access. And unlike Asus (with the RT-AC66U) or Cisco (with the Linksys EA6500), Western Digital offers no cloud-based features that enable you to access your network or your network-attached storage remotely.
The AC1300 is also weak in parental controls, although we're not big advocates of such technology in the first place; we believe that the better strategy is to talk to your kids about the seamy side of the Web, and then keep the family PC in a well-traveled room. If you don't think that strategy is adequate, you can program the AC1300 to block Internet access (on a per-client basis). You can also limit the number of hours that each device can access the Internet (with different schedules for weekends and weekdays), and you can block specific URLs (although you're limited to just eight). If you have a strong interest in parental controls, you'll be happier with a paid third-party service--such as OpenDNS--that will curate the Web for you.
We benchmarked the AC1300 alongside both the Asus RT-AC66U (our reference-point router) and Cisco's Linksys EA6500 router. The WD device lagged the Asus significantly on the 2.4GHz band (we paired the routers with the Intel Ultimate-N Centrino 6300 adapter integrated into an AVADirect gaming laptop), but its performance was on a par with that of the Linksys device. When we measured 802.11ac performance on the 5GHz band using the Linksys WUMC710 802.11ac bridge, however, the AC1300 pulled out wins at all three of our test locations (at distances of 9, 35, and 65 feet, respectively). The AC1300 performed even better when we paired it with WD's own 802.11ac bridge (the RT-AC66U also did better with this bridge - particularly at a long distance).
When we turned our attention to performance with network-attached storage (we connected a 500GB Western Digital My Passport drive to the router) and hardwired the client, the AC1300 fell significantly behind the Asus and Linksys routers when reading a single large file from the drive; it took second place, though, when writing that same large file, as well as when reading and writing a batch of small files to and from the attached USB drive. The Asus router dominated the field in all four of these benchmarks.
Western Digital is a newcomer to wireless networking, but the company has made an impressive entrance. Although the Asus RT-AC66U remains our top pick in this category, WD's My Net AC1300 is a strong contender - especially for people with less experience setting up a wireless network.