For years, Synology has been at the top of the hill when it comes to storage devices. Indeed, their recent NAS device, the DS716+, received a 9 out of 10 from us a few weeks ago. Until recently, storage was all the company did and they did it well.
That's why I was surprised to hear that Synology was releasing a wireless router and couldn't wait to try it out. Dubbed the RT1900ac, the device is a merger between the operating system that runs on the NAS devices, and a powerful wireless router.
From looking at the specs, the RT1900ac delivers. Sporting a dual-core 1.0 GHz processor, 256 megabytes of RAM, and 4GB of flash storage, the device appears to have enough horsepower to not only run the network but also to provide some extra services which I'll talk about later.
It has four Gigabit Ethernet ports for the LAN, as well as a WAN port to connect up to your cable modem. In addition, there's a single USB 3.0 port and an SD card slot on the side, as well as a USB/SD eject button, the power button, a reset switch, and a switch to turn Wi-Fi on and off. This last part is important as the RT1900ac comes with the switch in the "off" position and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the wireless network wasn't working.
Speaking of wireless, the device has 3x3 MIMO Omin-directional high-gain dipole antennas that support both 2.4GHz and 5 GHz. According to the documentation, the 2.4GHz has a gain of 3.5dBi, while the 5GHz spectrum has a gain of 4.6dBi.
The size of the box itself is what you would expect. It's relatively light, weighing in at half a kilogram (1.1 pounds), and the dimensions of the device are 0.2 inches by 8.1 inches by 6.3 inches, excluding the antennas.
The power connector is also interesting in that it was designed to accept a wide variety of plugs so that the same hardware can be shipped to different parts of the world. I had to slide in the plugs for the United States and they snapped into place.
The Synology NAS devices all have one thing in common: They're simple to setup. The RT1900ac tries to be just as straight forward, but falters ever so slightly.
There are two ways to start the setup, either via the web or the mobile DSrouter application, both promising a quick and easy installation. I decided to try the mobile app because most of my computers have hard coded IP addresses, and I assumed the default subnet wouldn't be the 172.30.128.0/24 range.
After connecting the router to my cable modem and then plugging the device on, I watched the LED lights on the front blink while I downloaded the DS router app onto my Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The first issue became quickly apparent: I couldn't find the default Synology wireless network to connect to. After spending five minutes trying to figure it out, I noticed something the quick start manual never mentioned: the small Wi-Fi on/off switch on the side of the router. It's odd that out of the box the switch is set to "off," but after turning it on, my phone was able to connect to the temporary Wi-Fi network. Bringing up the DS router app on my phone and pointing it to the RT1900ac was trivial, and I was soon on my way setting up the router.
The first step of the process is to set up an admin account and password. I really appreciated this from a security perspective because too many people leave their accounts as the default, providing a big hole in the network. The next step was to create a Wi-Fi network name and pick a passphrase. Unfortunately I ran into a bug here as the application would not allow me to use a space in the passphrase. I reported this to Synology and they've informed me that a fix will be coming shortly, but it was disappointing to see that their engineers hadn't tested this already.
The app also lacks the ability to configure the network segment of the RT1900ac, instead defaulting to 192.168.0.0/16. While this is probably fine for the majority of users, people who use a different non-routable network address space will probably want to forego the mobile app and do the initial configuration with an actual browser.
The RT1900ac runs a new operating system called "Synology Router Management," or SRM. Anyone who has previously used a Synology device will be at home with SRM, because the entire look and feel is exactly like DSM, only with a networking focus instead of a storage focus.
Most of your work will be done from the Network Center. This is where you can configure Wi-Fi networks, including a guest network, the local network information, traffic control, parental control, and miscellaneous administration. Just like with the Synology storage devices, configuration is simple and for the most part, easy enough for normal everyday people to understand what the features are for.
The RT1900ac has a good built-in web filter that allows you to block access to either specific sites, or to classes of sites. There are two built-in categories: Basic and Protected. The former blocks sites known to host malware and phishing, whereas the latter blocks sites that include adult, drug, and gambling topics.
You also have the ability to make a custom filter. Unfortunately, you're limited to a single custom filter, so you can't create one that blocks some sites for one set of users and another block of sites for a second group. Also keep in mind that the Basic and Protected settings are only as good as the underlying list that Synology maintains. With the filter enabled, I was still able to go to a couple of gambling sites that the company apparently doesn't filter for.
For parents, the Parental Control section is extremely helpful, and the interface is easy to use. The schedule brings up a display of squares that relate to the hours of the day and the days of the week. Simply drag the cursor over whatever blocks you want to allow, and the schedule is "painted" onto the display. You can also easily tie the schedule into the web-filter.
The Traffic Control section of the interface gives you a grid showing all of your currently connected devices, both wired and wireless. It displays both the MAC and IP addresses, and gives you easy access to improve or restrict network access with the click of a button. From here you can easily enable/disable parental controls on a single device, set the device priority using CTF, enable Beamforming if you have a wireless device that supports it, or outright ban a device.
This screen also allows you to set human readable names for many of your network devices. It can be a challenge to figure out what some of your network devices are, but things are definitely easier to manage once you name them. You can also change the icon to make it easier to identify in a glance, but Synology currently only offers ten different icons.
Whereas Parental Control is generally used to provide an outbound filter, under the Security section of the configuration you can setup firewall rules to block incoming traffic (as well as outgoing, if you want). One of the nice features here is that, not only can you select specific IP addresses to block, you can also select entire regions of the world. If you never have a need to allow access from certain countries, then block them to give an extra level of protection for your network. Double clicking on the country will bring up the IP address ranges that will be blocked from that country.
It's also important to note that these settings don't just apply to wireless devices: If you connect an Access Point to one of the Ethernet ports, the RT1900ac will filter those for you just as well.
There's an app store, called "Package Center," just like there is for the NAS devices. Currently there are only five applications available, but considering this is an edge device, I'm skeptical about installing any applications on it anyway. For those who want to use the RT1900ac as a mini-server, you can install a BitTorrent client ("Download Station"), Media Server, a VPN server, a DNS server, or a RADIUS server.
For those who want connectivity, even when your regular ISP is down, the RT1900ac allows you to configure a 3G/4G dongle to provide backup Internet access. For right now, that list appears to be locked down to only Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Germany, but hopefully that functionality will soon be available in the United States as well.
There's also some other more minor features that the device supports, such as a customizable LED schedule for those who use the RT1900ac in their bedroom, and the ability to send email notifications when there are errors in the system. Unlike some devices that require you to have your own SMTP server, the RT1900ac lets you use Synology's email server to send the messages.
One obvious feature that is clearly missing from the RT1900ac is link aggregation, and this is a surprising omission considering Synology NAS devices generally have that feature. It seems like this would be a good selling point for the typical Synology customer in order to provide higher transfer speeds to their storage.
The mobile app, named DS router, is a great companion to the web interface. I've already covered the limitations as it relates to initial setup, but it provides a quick way to see connected devices, easily add parental filters, and see the overall health of the network.
If you configure the RT1900ac to accept connections from the Internet, you can obviously use the application to control it. That said, from a security perspective, the recommendation is to only allow network management from within your own network.
One of the features that's clearly missing from the app is the ability to change the name and icon of the devices connected to the network. This isn't a big deal, but it'd be a nice addition that shouldn't be too difficult to implement.
Overall, performance of the router is very good. As our homes become more connected, the number of devices that connect to the Internet keeps going up, but with 14 devices connected to the Synology router, I never noticed any performance issues and using SpeedTest never showed any signs of slowing down, regardless of how many connections were being made.
Where things are a little less than stellar is with the device's Wi-Fi range. To test, I put the router in the basement, which is where my Internet feed from Comcast comes into the house. Performance while in the basement or on the first floor was great, routinely topping out over 40Mbps. Unfortunately, moving up to the second floor of the house had poor results. While my Cisco Meraki access point still provided over 40Mbps of bandwidth, the Synology RT1900ac dropped down to only 3Mbps. It was still generally usable, but it's clear that the antenna isn't quite as powerful.
For people without multiple stories, the performance of the RT1900ac is great; if you need your Wi-Fi to provide great range, you might want to look at augmenting the solution with an Access Point.
The RT1900ac is a cool device that gives much more visibility into your network than most devices do. Even with all of this power, the interface to control the router is so simple that practically anyone can configure it to do exactly what they want.
The configuration of the device is straightforward and easy to understand, even for non-technical people, but the ability to easily add custom filters and other network protections with the click of a button is great. For parents who want to limit Internet access through hardware instead of an application on a laptop or tablet, the configurations are easy to set up.
That said, there are still a few little issues that Synology will need to work out, such as allowing users to configure strong Wi-Fi passwords within the mobile app; but these are minor and easy bug fixes for the company to roll out.
In addition, I'd like to see the power of the radios increased. My Cisco Meraki Access Point has no problem providing me over 40Mbps on the second floor of my house, while the RT1900ac gives only 3Mbps in the same location. That said, performance is equal on the first floor, so those without basements probably won't notice an issue.
While it's common to hear people complain about the price of Synology's NAS devices, the company has priced the RT1900ac very competitively at only $149. For all of the bells and whistles that the router has, this seems to be an attractive price, although availability is extremely limited right now.