Hands-on: Linksys WRT1200AC pre-flashed ExpressVPN router
One VPN connection to cover all of your devicesBy Jose Vilches
VPNs are especially useful when you travel or have to log on to an untrusted network, like a coffee shop or at the airport, but there are plenty of reasons why you'd use one at home, too. It allows you to browse privately over an encrypted connection, bypass throttling for certain services that your ISP may frown upon, and access location-restricted websites --- to name a few.
Usually you'll have to pick among dozens of free and paid VPN services and setup a VPN client on each device you want to run the VPN on. It's not terribly complicated, far from it. However there are some limitations to be aware of depending on what your planned use is. For example, VPN providers usually limit the number of devices that can be used simultaneously on a single subscription, and not every device --- game console, streaming boxes --- is capable of running a VPN client.
One popular way around this if you want to protect every connection at home is to run the VPN client from the router itself. I've been doing just that for the past few days courtesy of the folks at ExpressVPN, who sent us a pre-flashed Linksys WRT1200AC wireless router to test out.
Those who have used the now legendary WRT 54xx series will immediately recognize the iconic blue and black angular plastic body. The WRT1200AC Dual Band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router is the entry-level version of Linksys' WRT1900ACS and the flagship WRT3200ACM.
There's a 1.3GHz dual-core processor inside, alongside 512MB of RAM and 128MB of flash storage. Being an AC1200 class router, it offers a top theoretical speed of 867Mbps on the 5GHz band and up to 400Mbps the 2.4GHz band. That compares to 600Mbps and 1300Mbps respectively for AC1900 routers, and up to 600Mbps plus 1300Mbps on each 5GHz signal for the Tri-Band WRT3200ACM.
The full selection of features on the rear includes the WPS button, four Ethernet LAN ports, the Ethernet WAN port, one USB 3.0, a USB 2.0/eSATA port, reset button, power socket and power switch.
I won't delve into performance as this year-old device has been widely reviewed already by the likes of SmallNetBuilder, TrustedReviews, Cnet and others. Suffice to say it's a fast and reliable mid-tier option with enough bandwidth for several devices to stream HD video and fairly rapidly transfer files, but you can get superior performance at the same $100 price range with an AC1750 class device like the TP-Link Archer C7 and an AC1900 option like the Asus RT-AC68U --- two of our best router picks this year.
Built on the foundation of the original WRT's open-source heritage, the WRT1200AC is customizable with popular firmware alternatives like OpenWRT or DD-WRT. The ExpressVPN firmware is a customized version of OpenWRT.
We should note that using a third-party firmware can unlock more advanced router features but it also invalidates your warranty with Linksys. FlashRouters.com, which sells this pre-flashed version of the WRT1200AC (for a hefty premium), includes its own 90-day hardware warranty and 1 or 2 year warranty upgrades for a price. Of course, you can roll back to the original Linksys firmware if needed.
Setup couldn't be easier --- just hook everything up as you would with any router and upon launching the administrator interface you can enter your 23-digit activation code for ExpressVPN's service. Although the pre-flashed router itself is $300 this doesn't include an ExpressVPN subscription, which will cost you $99.99 for a year or $12.95 if purchased on a monthly basis.
You don't need a subscription to use the router as it will function like a normal router sans VPN, though I can't imagine why would you pay the $200 premium if you don't plan on getting one.
The ExpressVPN firmware offers a very polished interface divided in four main sections: VPN, Network, System and Status. As you would expect there is a range of advanced routing settings, diagnostics tools and graphs to stay on top of your network's performance in real-time.
The VPN section in particular lets you choose between ExpressVPN's 136 VPN server locations in 87 countries --- or let it automatically determine the best one --- choose between UDP or TCP protocols, and even select which devices should or shouldn't be routed through the VPN connection.
As for ExpressVPN's service itself it's consistently rated among the top providers around in terms of speed, reliability and privacy. The British Virgin Islands-based company behind the service claims to be "a vocal advocate for Internet freedom and privacy," offering financial support to nonprofit organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Defense League, Fight for the Future, and Access.
They use AES-256 cipher with RSA-4096 handshake, SHA-512 HMAC hash authentication, and Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) key exchanges for data channel encryption. They promise to keep no logs that might enable someone to match an IP and timestamp back to a user, and work entirely on the basis of shared IPs, meaning that a single IP does not track back to an individual user.
BitTorrent and other file-sharing traffic allowed on all servers and recently implemented a "network lock" feature that halts all internet traffic when the connection to the VPN drops to prevent DSN leaks.
It's definitely on the pricier side of the VPN spectrum: a monthly plan costs $12.95, a bi-yearly plan is $9.99 per month, while a yearly subscription cuts it down to $8.32 per month. But makes up for it with polished and easy to use apps for every major platform and 24/7 live customer service.
I can definitely see the value in a router-based VPN connection that covers all of your devices --- normally a single subscription can be used simultaneously on three devices with ExpressVPN, regardless of platform, but a router only counts as one connection against your account.
Whether this particular router priced at $300 is a good value is another question --- which can be answered with a resounding no. That's not to say we're not impressed by the ExpressVPN flashed WRT1200AC as a plug and play option for less technically inclined users.
However, flashing the firmware yourself is a pretty straightforward endeavor if you know what you're doing, and thankfully ExpressVPN offers its custom firmware as a free download for WRT1200AC and WRT3200ACM routers as well as detailed setup instructions for a range of other devices.
Moreover, while ExpressVPN is a perfectly fine alternative, by going the DIY route you can switch to another provider as you see fit based on who offers the best features and value for your money, without throwing away your initial investment on a pre-flashed device.