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ASUS PCE-AC88 Dual-Band AC3100 Wireless PCIe Adapter Review

Introduction


The wireless network speeds seemed like they were standing still for a while through the AC1200 and AC1900 times, but lucky for all of us, those times are gone and we’ve arrived at the AC3000 times. To use the newer and faster speeds, we also need new Wireless network cards and routers. Today I’m testing ASUS’ latest PCIe adapter, the PCE-AC88 which is an AC3100 adapter with a total bandwidth capability of 3167 Mbps.

The ASUS PCE-AC88 is a dual-band AC3100 4×4 Wi-Fi PCI Express adapter for desktop PCs and since that name is way too long to keep repeating, I’ll just call it the PCE-AC88 from now on. With its NitroQAM (1024-QAM) technology, it can deliver combined wireless speeds of up to 2167Mbps on the 5GHz band and 1000Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. That is up to 60% faster than 3×3 adapters and should ensure smooth high-resolution streaming and low-latency online gaming. This is also the first 4×4 802.11ac PCIe adapter to arrive on the market, giving you improved Wi-Fi reception, especially when paired with a 4×4 router.

With the four-antenna design for transmitting and receiving, both the Wi-Fi range and the signal strength are improved dramatically for an even better, faster, and stronger wireless network connection. The best results will naturally be achieved when used in combination with a 4×4 router or access point, but it will still perform great when combined with a traditional 3×3 setup.

The PCE-AC88 comes with four dipole antennas included and you can mount them directly onto the card too if you want to, but that’s not the smartest setup in most cases. Having the antennas on the rear of your system and maybe even tucked away under your desk isn’t the best solution. The more things in the way of your signals, the worse the reception. Not so with the PCE-AC88 as it comes with an included antenna base for remote placement of the antennas.

The antenna base has fixed cables that you can run to the add-in card itself and then place horizontal or vertical on suited surfaces. It is magnetic, so you could, for example, place it on the side of your chassis. You can also easily mount in on the wall simply by hanging it on a nail, or you could put it on top of a shelve. The only limitation is the length of the cable and the distance to the system.

It can easily get hot inside of a system, especially for an add-in card that might be wedged between two hot running graphics cards. To make sure that the card runs great in all setups, ASUS equipped the PCE-AC88 with a large and stylish custom heatsink. It gives the card an improved stability and reliability for connections when running bandwidth-intensive network tasks in hot environments and it also gives the system some extra style over a bare-looking PCB.

Despite all the features, both the heatsink and four antenna mounts, the PCE-AC88 is still small enough to be used in small form factor systems (SFF). It comes with an included SFF bracket that will make it compatible with those smaller systems too.

Feature Highlights

Specifications

Packaging

We can instantly see that it is an ASUS product on the package, it’s their classic design that makes it easy to recognize. The front has all the important features mentioned and the included antenna base is showcased through a transparent part.

The rear of the box explains everything in more detail, the performance abilities, features, and comparison to other network standards.

A Closer Look


Inside the beautiful box, we find some beautiful hardware along with other bits and pieces. There’s an easy setup guide to help you get the add-in card installed into your system along with warranty cards and a driver disk. The driver disk is a vital part to get when we purchase new network equipment as it can be tricky to download drivers before we have a network connection.

The four included dipole antennas have a classic look. They can be turned 360 degrees and angled in 45 and 90-degree steps. In case that you want something better or different, then it’s easy to replace them other ones as they feature default SMA connectors.

The antenna base is heavy enough to have a good footing when placed on a flat surface and magnetic when you want to hang it on the side of things such as your case. The hold in the middle also makes it easy to hang up on a nail or screw. The attached cable is about a meter long, allowing you to place the antennas quite a bit away from your system and other interfering objects.

the bottom of the stand also features a rubber cover, preventing scratches when it’s placed on the side of your chassis, for example.

Being as small a card as the PCE-AC88 is, it also fits into small form factor chassis’. For that kind of usage, ASUS included a low profile bracket with can be replaced with the full sized with just 2 screws.

The card in itself is relative simple. The PCB is red from both sides, matching the large custom heatsink. We also see that it is built with quality components such as solid capacitors and gold plated connectors for the best and clearest signals.

The rear side features a large EM shield to protect the wireless controller from interference inside the system. There are also stickers with the MAC address and other numbers such as the serial.

Test System, Software, & Methodology


New network technologies also require new testing equipment and as such I’m using a different access point to test this wireless network add-in card. I’ll be using the Linksys LAPAC2600 access point as the connection to the network as it is a 4×4 MU-MIMO compatible device and as such a perfect choice for this test.

Testing the wireless performance is relatively simple and I’ll be using Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8’s advanced network test for this. It allows to define the connection type, packet sizes, and test length and as such, it provides a great amount of information.

I will run tests with both TCP and UDP connections and both times I’ll run tests with fixed packets of 16384 Bytes and variable packet sizes from 32 Bytes to 16384 Bytes. Each of these tests will run for 5 minutes.

While the tests are easy as-is, there are factors that you should know about when it comes to wireless testing. There is no such thing as the perfect wireless test-setup unless you live inside a Faraday cage. Other wireless signals will affect the performance. I live in a very crowded area, signal wise, with 20+ accessible wireless networks at any given time. On top of that, there’s a huge industrial complex area across the street which creates so much signal interference that digital broadcasting such as TV and radio over the air is impossible.

The above-mentioned things will have an impact on our performance and I used to think of that as a bad thing. I couldn’t show how well these devices could perform under perfect conditions as I can with anything else. But now I think of it as a great coincidence as it allows me to show how well devices work in a difficult environment instead.

Hardware

Network

Software

WLAN Performance: 2.4GHz 802.11n


The 2.4GHz band is the older of the two wireless bands that are in use today. On this band, we find 802.11b/g/n wireless standards with up to 600Mbps bandwidth on offer when using wireless-n compliant devices. Due to the lower operating frequency, 2.4GHz signals offer a wider level of coverage, but the lower throughput speeds are a disadvantage to this aging band.

Fixed Block Size

To test the maximum throughput speed that a wireless connection can handle, a fixed block size of 16384 Bytes is sent from the client to the server over a period of five minutes. The higher block size will allow the transfer rate to stay as high as possible – in the same way that large files transfer from one drive to another quicker than lots of small files of the same total size.

Variable Packet Size

In a real world situation, the blocks of data that pass through a wireless adaptor are not of the same size each time, so to give a more realistic impression of how an adaptor performs, the adaptor is once again tested at each range for a period of five minutes. This time, however, the block size will vary from 32 Bytes up to 16384 Bytes in increasing steps of 148.7 Bytes each time.


Performance Analysis

Each of the lines below represents a single test and the colour represents the distance between the two network devices during this test. Blue is for a short distance, green is for a medium distance, and red is for the longest distance.

TCP Performance – Fixed Packet Size

TCP Performance – Variable Packet Size

UDP Performance – Fixed Packet Size

UDP Performance – Variable Packet Size

WLAN Performance: 5GHz 802.11ac


WLAN 5GHz 802.11ac

5GHz is a more recent addition to the consumer WiFi specification and on this frequency, we find both 802.11n and AC standards on offer. We note that 802.11n is the only standard to run at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies and this is the most common standard for ISP routers to feature. Unlike the 2.4GHz band, 5GHz radio waves and solid brick walls do not go that well hand in hand, so whilst it does support a much faster throughput speed, its range can be severely crippled in a dense operating environment.

Fixed Block Size

To test the maximum throughput speed that a wireless connection can handle, a fixed block size of 16384 Bytes is sent from the client to the server over a period of five minutes. The higher block size will allow the transfer rate to stay as high as possible – in the same way that large files transfer from one drive to another quicker than lots of small files of the same total size.

Variable Packet Size

In a real world situation, the blocks of data that pass through a wireless adaptor are not of the same size each time, so to give a more realistic impression of how an adaptor performs, the adaptor is once again tested at each range for a period of five minutes. This time, however, the block size will vary from 32 Bytes up to 16384 Bytes in increasing steps of 148.7 Bytes each time.


Performance Analysis

Each of the lines below represents a single test and the colour represents the distance between the two network devices during this test. Blue is for a short distance, green is for a medium distance, and red is for the longest distance.

TCP Performance – Fixed Packet Size

TCP Performance – Variable Packet Size

UDP Performance – Fixed Packet Size

UDP Performance – Variable Packet Size

Final Thoughts & Pricing


Pricing

At the time of writing, the ASUS PCE-AC88 4×4 Wireless AC3100 PCIe Adapter can be yours for just $119.34 at NewEgg, £89.99 at Scan Computers, and €96.99 through Geizhals. A more than fair price for one of the most advanced WiFi cards available.

Conclusion

The ASUS PCE-AC88 4×4 Wireless AC3100 PCIe Adapter is a beautiful little add-in card that doesn’t just come with great specifications, but also adds some flair to the system. The large heatsink and red colours will match well with most gaming systems. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be great in a workstation too, but they’re for the most part closed systems and the design isn’t as vital here. A thing that is important to workstations is size, and the PCE-AC88 is small enough to fit into SFF styled chassis’ and comes with an SFF IO bracket included. The heatsink will also make sure that the card runs optimally in all situation, even when it has been wedged between hot graphics cards or otherwise tight setups.

ASUS made a great bundle with this card, starting with the external antenna base. It allows you to place the antennas in a better position than the rear of your system and as such get a better reception. The base is heavy enough to stay where you place it, features a magnetic button for placement on metallic surfaces, and a hole in the middle that makes it easy to wall mount too.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, I’m situated in a bad area when it comes to interference and as such, I’ve rarely seen wireless speeds go higher than 300Mbps. This 4×4 setup with the ASUS-PCE-AC88 reached over double of those numbers, proving that you can get a great throughput even in the most difficult areas – you just have to use the right equipment. Definitely one of the best choices you can make when you invest in your next wireless add-in card.

Pros

Cons

“The ASUS PCE-AC88 takes wireless networking to the next level with the best network penetration that I’ve seen in this apartment. “

ASUS PCE-AC88 Dual-Band AC3100 Wireless PCIe Adapter Review

Thank You ASUS for providing us with this test sample