New Asus Wi-Fi 6 router offers a VPN connection to home when you’re on public Wi-Fi

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The Asus RT-AX68U is the company’s newest Wi-Fi 6 router.


Asus

This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

Asus usually brings a router or two to CES, and that was true for this year’s all-virtual event, where the company showed off a new Wi-Fi 6 router that lets you create a VPN connection back to your home network when you’re using public Wi-Fi.

The router is the Asus RT-AX68U, an AX2700 device with full support for 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. That means it supports the newest and most advanced generation of Wi-Fi, with features including OFDMA and 1024 QAM that let it communicate more efficiently with lots of devices at once and send more data with each transmission. Just don’t expect support for Wi-Fi 6E, which adds in access to the newly opened 6GHz band — for that, you’ll need to go with something fancier.

Asus tells me that the AX68U will launch in the coming weeks at a retail price of $200. That’s at the high end of reasonable — other, similar Asus routers with dual-band Wi-Fi 6 designs typically cost about $180; meanwhile, the previous-gen, Wi-Fi 5 version of this router currently sells for about $125.

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The Asus pitch for Instant Guard promises to protect your data on public Wi-Fi networks by encrypting it and routing it through your home network, where Asus can run threat scans.


Asus

The new feature that aims to make public Wi-Fi safer to use is a companion app called Instant Guard. Like all VPNs, it encrypts the data travelling to and from your phone and routes it all through a secure server. The interesting wrinkle is that, in this case, the secure server is your home network. As your data passes through, the router’s own AIProtection Pro feature will scan for threats.

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The Asus RT-AX68U features four spare Ethernet LAN ports and a USB 3.0 jack.


Asus

It’s a similar pitch to Ubiquiti’s Teleport app for routers like the AmpliFi Alien, which can VPN your public Wi-Fi connection back to your home router, too. I thought it was a clever feature when I tested it out last year, but noted that Ubiquiti collected certain bits of usage data to make the feature work. That makes it a less ideal privacy option than a dedicated VPN like Nord or Express that doesn’t collect usage data at all. At any rate, I’ll be sure to take a good look at Instant Guard’s fine print once I’ve had the chance to test it out, too.

As for speeds and specs, Asus claims the AX68U can hit theoretical maximums of 861Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,802 Mbps (1.8 Gbps) on the 5GHz band. It features three external antennas, four spare Ethernet LAN ports, and two USB ports for connecting printers and other peripherals, one USB 2.0 and the other USB 3.0. If you’re bored with black, the Asus landing page for the router teases an albino, white-bodied version, too.

However, the AX68U doesn’t include a multigig WAN port that’s capable of accepting incoming, wired speeds any faster than 1Gbps. And, again, it doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices equipped to operate in the newly opened 6GHz band. So far, the only Asus router that does is the ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000, an extravagant gaming router the company teased last year. An Asus spokesperson tells me to expect that one to launch later in the first quarter of 2021, perhaps by February.

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The AX68U features plasticky chrome trim along the top of the router.


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First impressions

Asus sent an RT-AX68U my way during CES in January — as soon as the show was wrapped up, I plugged the thing in and started testing it out.

The first thing that caught my eye was the chrome trim that runs along the top of the router. It’s plastic, but it’s still an interesting and eye-catching cosmetic touch, and one that almost makes the RT-AX68U look more like a midcentury radio than a router. I wonder if Asus could have pushed the idea further and done more to buck the trend of routers with faux-futuristic designs (but then again, this is Asus we’re talking about here).

I was most interested to see how the thing performed, though — and after my initial run of speed tests here at home, I’m pretty impressed. The dual-band router lets you split the 2.4 and 5GHz bands into two separate networks, but if you like, you can also turn on a feature called SmartConnect that merges them into a single, unified network that automatically steers you from band to band. So, I ran speed tests for all three — the 2.4 GHz band, the 5GHz band, and the SmartConnect network — across multiple spots in my 1,300 square foot home, where I have incoming internet speeds of 300Mbps.

Average download speeds dropped in my back bathroom, the room farthest from the router — but other than that, the AX68U was a strong performer in my at-home tests.


Ry Crist/CNET

That SmartConnect feature didn’t perform well with previous Asus routers I’ve tested, like the otherwise great RT-AX86U gaming router, but it did a fine job here. In the four rooms closest to the router, it matched the near-perfect performance of the 5GHz band, then kicked me over to the 2.4GHz band when the 5GHz speeds dropped in my back bathroom, the room farthest from the router.

Most importantly, when I reran the test starting with a fresh connection at range in that back bathroom, it started me out on 2.4GHz and then quickly bumped me back up to 5GHz speeds as soon as I left the room and moved a little closer to the router. That’s where that gaming router got tripped up last year — it would leave me on the slower 2.4GHz band even after I had left the back bathroom and moved almost all the way back to the living room, where the router sits. No such problem with the AX68U. With SmartConnect turned on, it finished with average download speeds throughout my home of 258Mbps, which is strong for a home with internet speeds of 300Mbps. 

That was with me running speed tests on a laptop that uses Wi-Fi 5 — when I reran the tests using an iPhone 12 Pro, which supports Wi-Fi 6, my average whole-home download speed increased to 337Mbps, with speeds mostly staying at 5GHz levels at distance and peaking as high as 375Mbps at close range. That’s a noticeable improvement, and good evidence that Wi-Fi 6 is ready to hit its stride in 2021.

Performance wasn’t perfect, though. On more than one occasion, the AX68U dropped my connection on the 2.4GHz band while I was at range, and in each case, I wasn’t able to fully reconnect until I moved back within a room or two of the router. That’s a minor red flag, though I didn’t notice any such issues on the 5GHz band, or with SmartConnect turned on.

I’ll keep an eye out for more issues like that as I keep testing this thing out. Up next are speed tests in our lab, where we’ll clock its top data transfer rates when there isn’t an ISP setting the speed limit. I’ll also be sure to test out the Instant Guard app’s home VPN feature, too. Expect an update to this post as soon as I have more to share.

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