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Rich Warren | The Latest and Best Routers | Scientific technology

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Your cell phone hides secrets. A quick scroll through the settings menus reveals a useful secret. You don’t need a cell signal for voice calls and texting, assuming you have a cellular plan with an operator.

My neighbor down the block frequently parks in front of my house in the late afternoon to make his last calls of the day. I assumed he either wanted privacy or poached my WiFi.

I finally asked what he was doing and was surprised to learn that he had minimal cell reception in his house a few hundred yards away. I suggested changing the carrier. He replied that then he would have poor cell reception from the various carriers in some of the places where he worked.

I suggested that he set his phone for WiFi calls. This common but little-known feature greatly increases the versatility of your cell phone. Just go to the settings menu and check “enable WiFi calls”. Then whenever you don’t have a cell signal but have WiFi, you can make and receive voice calls and texts. It even works in foreign countries. It doesn’t cost anything, assuming you can access the free WiFi.

Speaking of WiFi, the latest and greatest router just arrived in my office. This is the new Asus GT-AXE11000, one of the first to include not only the new WiFi 6 channels with higher bandwidth, but also the even newer WiFi 6E which offers even more bandwidth. Very few devices are using WiFi 6E at the moment, but wait a year.

Meanwhile, many newer laptops, tablets, and phones take advantage of the improved performance of WiFi 6. It is especially useful in densely populated areas with many people and devices using WiFi.

Asus is targeting the $ 530 AXE11000 for Internet gamers. It offers several settings designed for gamers as well as blazing speed and great range. Anticipating future improvements to the Internet, the Ethernet input is 2.5 gigahertz. Previously, most router entries peaked at 1 gigahertz. The AXE11000 with its eight (!) Antennae looks like a spider on steroids.

While many households will save money with a WiFi 6 mesh system, which starts at around $ 300, I revel in the AXE11000’s performance. Everything, even Ethernet connections, seems faster. WiFi on my WiFi 6 laptop seems instantaneous, just like it’s plugged into a wired Ethernet connection.

The range, like the predecessor of Asus GT-AC5300, amazes. In a three story house, with the router on one side of the third floor, the signal on the opposite side of the basement remains strong and very fast. Incidentally, Amazon now only charges $ 300 for the old WiFi 5 5300, down from its original price of $ 450. It is still a top notch router.

You can find the “standard” WiFi 6 version, the AX11000 (without the “E”) for about $ 100 less than the AXE11000. It includes all of the same features except for the added 6E bandwidth.

The main drawback of the AXE11000, besides the ridiculously high price tag, is that you can’t upgrade it with better alternative firmware.

I’m sure most of you are scratching your head wondering if I’ve fallen for Greek or geek.

All modern electronics work from computer code deeply embedded in so-called firmware. This code can frequently be updated, improved or even replaced. Most Asus routers can use another higher firmware called Asuswrt-Merlin.

The terrific Merlin firmware, designed by Eric Sauvageau, further improves performance while allowing fine tuning of the router not available with factory firmware.

Unfortunately, Merlin cannot keep up with the rapid arrival of new routers and has not developed new firmware for the AXE11000. It could take a year if Merlin accepts the challenge. Installing firmware, whether it’s regular factory updates or the Merlin alternative, is straightforward.

Currently almost all new smartphones, tablets and laptops have WiFi 6 built in, so even if you go for a much cheaper router or mesh router WiFi system, be sure to select a WiFi 6 model.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime consumer electronics critic. Email him at [email protected]


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