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TP-Link Archer AX90 review: A fast and affordable tri-band Wi-Fi 6 router

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
200
inc. VAT

The versatile TP-Link Archer AX90 offers not one but two 5GHz radios – though one’s a lot faster than the other

Pros 
Great outgoing VPN support
Very strong headline performance
Excellent value for a tri-band router
Cons 
Second 5GHz radio is fairly slow
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We don’t see many tri-band Wi-Fi 6 routers. Thanks to the technological improvements introduced in the 802.11ax wireless standard, a single 5GHz radio can service dozens of clients at once without clogging up the airwaves, so there’s not much need to pay a premium for a router with two.

Yet there are still benefits to a tri-band design. The extra bandwidth can be useful for large households or small offices with lots of computers all wanting to exchange data concurrently. Alternatively, you can dedicate one radio to a single gaming rig or server, so it can enjoy a full-speed connection with no need to share bandwidth.

With the Archer AX90, TP-Link has come up with a clever way to keep the cost down. Instead of using two matching 5GHz radios, the Archer AX90 combines one high-speed transmitter with a slower one – plus, as is the norm, a legacy 2.4GHz transceiver – giving you the versatility of a tri-band router for less than some dual-band rivals.

TP-Link Archer AX90 review: What you need to know

The Archer AX90 is a standalone wireless router, which supports both the latest Wi-Fi 6 connections and older 802.11ac devices.

The main 5GHz Wi-Fi module promises connection speeds of up to 4.8Gbits/sec over a Wi-Fi 6 connection, while the secondary transmitter is rated at a more modest 1.2Gbits/sec, and the 2.4GHz radio claims a top speed of 574Mbits/sec. These are decent figures, but they’re theoretical maximums; I’ll discuss real-world performance below.

To cater for all of these radios, the body of the router is set around with eight pointy-uppy antennas, supporting 4x4 MIMO on both 5GHz radios and MU-MIMO on the faster one. Round the back, you’ll find a pair of USB ports and five Ethernet ports – including, unusually, one that supports 2.5Gbits/sec connections.

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TP-Link Archer AX90 review: Price and competition

The Archer AX90 currently costs £200, and there are a few other router options at around that price. One is our recommended Asus RT-AX82U, which is a feature-packed dual-band router that costs £173 and matches the AX90’s quoted connection speed of 4.8Gbits/sec. The Linksys MR9600 is another rival with similar hardware, though it didn’t achieve such strong performance in our tests and it’s a little pricier at £230.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, there are some powerful premium options to consider. Among the fastest Wi-Fi 6 routers we’ve tested are the Asus RT-AX88U, which can be had online for £275, and the Netgear Nighthawk AX8, which costs £239. These are both dual-band models, however.

For tri-band alternatives, you’ll need to really stretch the budget. The Netgear Nighthawk AX12 and the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 each contain a pair of 4.8Gbits/sec radios, giving them greater total bandwidth than the AX90, but they’ll set you back £340 and £478 respectively.

If you’re trying to keep costs down, our favourite low-cost Wi-Fi 6 router is the Honor Router 3, available for £79 on Amazon or as cheaply as £30 from international resellers. You could also consider the fast and solid Linksys MR7350, for £98.

TP-Link Archer AX90 review: The hardware

The Archer AX90 is one of the smallest tri-band routers I’ve tested. Including the aerials, its footprint measures a manageable 311 x 207mm. Even so, it’s a striking thing, with an upturned snout and a showy fanned pattern on the top.

The design isn’t entirely user-friendly, however. It features only a single multicoloured status LED, which isn’t ideal for troubleshooting or checking the router status at a glance. And the buttons for turning the Wi-Fi, LED and WPS functions on and off are located beneath the router’s angled front, meaning they can only be seen and accessed from below.

More accessible is the USB socket on the left-hand side, which allows you to conveniently hook up a storage device and share files over the network. It’s limited to the original USB 3 standard, with a maximum speed of 5Gbits/sec, but that’s fast enough to saturate a wireless connection, and there’s a secondary USB 2 port at the rear.

The spec is completed by an unusual arrangement of network ports. Three yellow sockets provide regular Gigabit Ethernet links for wired clients, while the two blue ports are switchable, so you can connect one to your modem and use the other as an additional LAN port.

Interestingly, the first blue port supports 2.5GbE, so you can use it to connect a multi-gig broadband line, or to drive a 2.5GbE switch, allowing compatible wired devices to talk to each other at faster-than-gigabit speeds. In practice, though, I suspect very few customers will have a use for this technology, and it will mostly get used as a fourth gigabit connector.

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TP-Link Archer AX90 review: Setup and software

As usual with TP-Link, you can set up the router using either a native web portal or the Tether mobile app. The latter is the easier option: I tried it on Android and it let me simply scan the QR code on the underside of the router to connect, then walked me through a brief process of picking my internet and Wi-Fi settings. The router rebooted to apply these, and within five minutes of opening the box the AX90 was up and running.

You can continue to use the Tether app for simple administrative tasks, such as checking the status of your network, turning guest networks on or off (you can configure up to three, one per radio), and browsing, blocking or prioritising connected clients. You can also enable band splitting: by default, the Archer AX90’s three networks all broadcast under one name, with the router automatically shuffling devices onto whatever it thinks is the most suitable radio, but if you prefer you can separate these into three different SSIDs, and connect each of your devices to whichever one you want.

One of the router’s big distinctive features is HomeShield. Don’t confuse this with TP-Link’s extensive HomeCare security platform, which until recently was included as a perpetually free service with most of the company’s routers and meshes. HomeShield is a much less generous proposition, covering only basic network scanning, parental controls and QoS capabilities – unless you pay $55 (around £40) a year for HomeShield Pro, which unlocks the full set of security features, including active malware blocking and time limits for kids’ devices. You’ll find a full feature comparison on the TP-Link website; whether you pay or not, it’s clearly a downgrade in value from the old HomeCare service.

Another potentially useful feature is OneMesh, which lets you team up the AX90 with other compatible TP-Link routers to create a range-extending mesh. If you just need a small boost to your coverage, it will almost certainly be cheaper to buy a regular wireless repeater, but the mesh approach lets you centrally manage everything from one console.

Advanced configuration has to be carried out from the web portal. Here, you can adjust your DHCP and DNS settings, set up reserved IP addresses and port forwarding. You can enable a built-in VPN server too, for secure access from outside your network, and configure outbound VPN connections on a per-client basis. If you’ve signed up with a third-party VPN service, you can use this feature to send all traffic from (say) your smart TV through a US-based server, while everything else goes at full speed via your ISP. It’s a great convenience that I haven’t previously seen on any other router.

Lastly, if you’ve plugged in a USB storage device, here’s where you can enable sharing: the AX90 can present the disk’s contents as an SMB network share, serve them up over FTP or make media files available for streaming over DLNA. Mac users can also use attached storage as a Time Machine backup destination. Neither USB port supports printer sharing, though, nor can you use a USB mobile broadband adapter as a failover service in case your main internet connection goes down.

TP-Link Archer AX90 review: Performance

As I’ve mentioned, the AX90’s two 5GHz radios aren’t identical. Not only do they claim different top speeds, they use different frequency sub-bands: the 4.8Gbits/sec radio operates in the 110-116 DFS channel range, while the 1.2Gbits/sec radio uses the standard 36-48 channel set.

This means the slower radio will probably experience more interference from neighbouring networks, and it doesn’t help that it’s limited to an 80MHz channel width. The 4.8Gbits/sec radio, by contrast, supports the wider 160MHz width, which often copes better with obstacles and interference.

The effect of this was quite visible in my real-world performance tests. As usual, I set up the router in the study of my home, and connected to it over Wi-Fi 6 from my standard test laptop – a 2020 HP Elite Dragonfly laptop, with an integrated Intel AX200 2x2 MIMO network 160MHz card. I then ambled around to various locations in my home, and tested upload and download rates to a network share on a NAS appliance connected to the router via Gigabit Ethernet. Here are the results I obtained, along with the speeds from a few other competing routers for context:

Download speedsBathroomBedroomKitchenLiving RoomStudy
TP-Link Archer AX90 5GHz (1.2Gbits/sec)7.724.42351.560.7
TP-Link Archer AX90 5GHz (4.8Gbits/sec)30.447.643.552.359.1
Asus RT-AX82U144738.151.353.2
Asus RT-AX88U25.343.942.255.562.3
Netgear Nighthawk RAX12027.546.538.262.663.1

Upload speedsBathroomBedroomKitchenLiving RoomStudy
TP-Link Archer AX90 5GHz (1.2Gbits/sec)1.911.21124.529.8
TP-Link Archer AX90 5GHz (4.8Gbits/sec)7.318.215.627.428.7
Asus RT-AX82U9.522.916.626.333.3
Asus RT-AX88U13.123.421.240.640.6
Netgear Nighthawk RAX12011.324.722.835.838.9

As you can see, the Archer AX90’s two radios both performed excellently at short range (the living room is directly beneath the study). Once I moved further away, the difference between the two became very clear. The slower radio kept up a solid signal all around the house, but transfer speeds were only in line with what I’d expect from a sub-£100 router.

On the faster band, however, the Archer AX90 acquitted itself superbly. Upload speeds weren’t quite so swift as those from our long-term favourite, the dual-band Asus RT-AX88U, but download speeds compared very favourably indeed. Considering the AX90 is £75 cheaper, these are excellent results.

The TP-Link also held its own alongside Netgear’s tri-band Nighthawk RAX120, although it’s worth reiterating that the Netgear offers these speeds across both its 5GHz radios, so there’s more bandwidth in total to go around.

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TP-Link Archer AX90 review: Verdict

The AX90’s lopsided radio provision means it isn’t as versatile as other tri-band routers we’ve seen. However, if you divide up the bandwidth, one device (or set of devices) is going to get a slower service. It’s disappointing, too, that you’ll have to pay a considerable fee for TP-Link’s previously free network security offering.

What saves the AX90 is its performance. Just make sure you connect to the right SSID and, in everyday use, you won’t notice any difference in speed between this and the greatest, priciest Wi-Fi 6 routers out there.

It’s true that you can say something similar for the Asus RT-AX82U. But for just £27 more, the TP-Link Archer AX90 adds 2.5GbE expandability, flexible per-client VPN routing and, of course, a whole extra radio, allowing you to be picky about which clients get into the wireless fast lane, without having to relegate low-priority traffic to 2.4GHz speeds.

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