By Colin Ackerman
Now that wireless routers are cheap and ubiquitous, there’s one way that a router can separate itself from the rest of the pack: features. The D-Link DIR-685 Xtreme N Storage Router takes this concept to the Xtreme (okay, sorry, no more of that) by including a 3.2″ LCD, room for a hard drive, and a whole bunch more. We’ve got a full review for you, after the jump.
D-Link first introduced the DIR-685 Xtreme N (don’t worry, it does B and G as well) Storage Router back in January at CES. At the time, it seemed like a very CES-y product: take something that everybody uses (a wireless router) and add a whole bunch of stuff to it (like a 3.2″ LCD) to make it stand out from the crowd of all the other wireless routers that are functionally pretty much the same. So let’s just say I was a bit skeptical, at first, as to whether all of the features that the DIR-685 offers are actually useful, or just window dressing.
The DIR-685 come out of the box looking awfully pretty, with a nice combination of glossy and brushed matte black, and right away I was surprised by how small it was. I suppose I shouldn’t be, though… Most of the routers I’ve used have seemed to be made up of 25% plastic and 70% empty space. It measures a compact 4.4” x 5.8” x 1.2,” uses internal antennas, and comes with a handy (and detachable) base to keep it upright.
The 3.2″ LCD sits front and center, with an array of touch controls is just off to the right. The back has 4 ethernet ports, a WAN port (i.e. where you plug your internet in), and 2 USB ports (more on those later).
One of the primary (in my opinion) features of the DIR-685 is that it has a slot for a 2.5″ SATA hard drive (up to 1 TB). Just stick a drive in, and supposedly, you’ve got yourself some network storage, simple as can be. D-Link thoughtfully included a drive for me to try out, and installation really was just as easy as opening a little hatch on the side of the router and shoving the drive in there. It comes out again with the aid of a sliding thing on the left side, and small button lets you mount and unmount the drive at will.
Alright, time to fire ‘er up. There was a big sticker over the ports on the back of the DIR-685 that said “STOP! INSERT CD AND RUN WIZARD FIRST!” That’s fine, I understand the purpose for that, but when the sticker doesn’t come OFF without leaving all kinds of gunky residue, I’m not pleased. Also, my netbook doesn’t have a CD drive. It would be nice if hardware manufacturers would just start including setup software on USB drives instead of CDs… You can of course download the setup wizard from D-Link’s website, but there’s a slight problem when you’re trying to use that technique when setting up a router.
The DIR-685 started right up as soon as it was plugged in, and a message flashed up on the LCD offering to format the hard drive I’d just installed. Sure, okay. It’s certainly nice to have a graphical interface (not just a screen, but an interface) to alter options and settings on the router directly. The drive formatting (an 80 gig SATA drive) took less than a minute, and after that, the router parked itself at its home screen (more on that later), and it was time to try to get the wireless working.
This next step, the initial network setup, is the primary factor by which I judge any wireless router: how much pain do I have to go through before I can set up access to the internet through it? After all, who cares how many cool features a router has if it doesn’t route anything. Generally, setting up a wireless network is either easy, or practically impossible, and I was a little bit worried that all the features crammed in to the DIR-685 were going to make things complicated.
Without an install CD, I just followed the instructions in the little paper installation guide that comes with the router: plug modem into router, plug computer into router, and go to 192.168.0.1 in your web browser to get to the router’s control panel. This last bit is sometimes 192.168.0.0, and there’s usually a username and password to enter, but D-Link, in a stroke of genius, actually labels the back of the router with the default IP address, username, and password. You also need to enter a CAPTCHA, which is a recent security addition of D-Link’s.
The router control panel is a dead cinch to use, and comes loaded with options. Setting up my wireless network was as easy as going into the wireless settings screen, telling it to let me mess with my configuration settings manually (there’s also a built-in wizard to help you out if you need it) and setting my network name and my security options. +1 for D-Link, that’s as easy as it gets.
The most notable feature of the DIR-685 has to be the 3.2″ LCD on the front. Why the heck would anyone ever need a screen on a router, you ask? D-Link has gone to great lengths to help you answer that question. Built into the router itself are a bunch of different ways to use the screen. First and foremost, you can use it to get information about the router, including internet status, network status, wireless status, and statistics on bandwidth and transfer speeds.
You can also use it to change some of the settings on your router directly, allowing you to alter power settings and format the internal HD. Finally, and this is the really nice bit, you can set up the LCD to display content from the internet. What sort of content? Well, just about anything, really.
D-Link has partnered with an online service called FrameChannel that allows you to customize the stuff that appears on your router’s screen. These things can include current weather (based on your zip code), weather forecasts, your own photos (that you upload), your friends’ photos (that they can email to your FrameChannel account), pics from your Flickr account, Twitter, news, traffic, or anything else that’s available via an RSS feed. You can customize the display options for every single thing you want to include, from the time of day that each thing shows up, to the duration that it shows up for, to the priority that it has compared to the rest of your stuff. So for example, you can have traffic and weather and news headlines show up in the morning, followed by RSS feed items in the afternoon, and pics from Flickr in the evening. Generally I find services like this to be bloated and cumbersome, but FrameChannel is refreshingly simple and full featured. You can even set how often your router updates its FrameChannel content, which is a nice touch.
Although small, the LCD is actually quite nice, with adjustable brightness, good color reproduction, and enough resolution to accomplish its purpose. It’s not great for picture detail, but for me, it was more effective to have the router displaying information (weather, traffic, and news bites) on my FrameChannel account as opposed to pictures.
If you spend too much time playing with the LCD, it starts to get sluggish and eventually freezes up. I experienced this while trying to mess with the router’s settings for FrameChannel, and my guess is that it has something to do with the Flickr widget I was trying to access, but I’m not sure. Hopefully, a firmware update will solve the problem. This sluggishness brings up a minor quibble: the buttons on the front are touch sensitive, which is neat, but there’s no feedback when you push them. So, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the screen is being sluggish or has frozen, or if you just aren’t pressing the button properly. Don’t get me wrong, FrameChannel doesn’t freeze up that often, and in my testing, it only seemed to do it if I was trying to change a lot of stuff all at once, and even when it did freeze, the router still worked. Once you have it set up, if you just let it run, it should be fine.
One thing I didn’t entirely understand was how the power options on the LCD work. You can set it to turn off after a period of idleness, but that sort of defeats the whole purpose of having it. Ideally, you’d be able to set specific times for the LCD to be on and off, so that it turns itself off at night but is displaying information when you get up in the morning. Seems like a firmware update might be able to add that capability, or perhaps it’s something that could be accomplished through the FrameChannel interface.
The router has 2 USB ports on the back that you can access over your network using D-Link’s Shareport utility. It’s as easy as plugging in a USB drive or printer, starting up the utility, and connecting to the drive. The drive then shows up just as if you’d plugged it into a USB port on your computer. You can do this with printers, too. Only one person can be connected to a USB device at a time, but if someone else is using the drive, you can send a “request use” message and ask them to disconnect. It took about 5 seconds to move a 30 mb file from my computer to an attached USB drive, which is faster than I can complain about. It was slightly more difficult to figure out how to access the drive inside the router. There are no instructions on how to do this, probably because the drive is just supposed to show up as a network drive. It didn’t, but I figured out (the next day) that unmounting the drive and remounting it (there’s a little button on the side that does this) got it to work.
There’s a fan inside the router that goes on sometimes, I think mostly when you access the internal HD or when the processor is working especially hard, which it seems to when it’s trying to update your frame with pictures. It’s really loud and annoying in a high pitched whine sort of way. Like, it’s much louder than the fan in my netbook, and you can hear it if you’re in another room. This is a bit of a problem… Part of the point of this router is that it’s nice looking and has a screen which shows pictures and weather and stuff, so you might feel like you can leave it out somewhere instead of relegating it to the bottom of a closet. But there’s really no way you can leave it out with the fan going. Maybe the fan doesn’t turn on unless the HD is being used, but having that HD available is also part of the point of this router. So it ends up being, leave the router out and forget about the HD, or use the HD and put the router in a closet and forget about the screen. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what triggers the fan to turn on, and I should emphasize that the vast majority of the time, the router is silent. Still, it’s a bit of a bummer that this nice router has what sounds like a really crappy fan.
The DIR-685 also offers a whole host of other features which you may or may not ever end up using, including FTP access to the internal hard drive, an iTunes server, UPnP media streaming, integrated BitTorrent support, scheduling, remote management, guest network access, user/group storage access restrictions, VoIP priority, WPS, auto email alerts… The amount of stuff that this router can do for you is just crazy.
As far as speed goes, I’m not really equipped to test that out, but it’s fast. Really fast. Really, really, really fast. Check here for more on that. Suffice it to say that it’s faster than your internet connection by a LOT, and fast enough that it’s not likely to be a bottleneck for anything you try and do through it for the foreseeable future. I was able to test out the range of the router by plugging it in and walking down the street with my laptop. In an urban setting with all kinds of other networks around, I made it nearly 200 feet before losing the signal. Pretty impressive for such a cluttered environment, I’d say.
I guess I’m of two minds about having a fancy router… More features is good, but that implies more complicatedness, and there’s also more that can get screwed up. I have to say, though, D-Link has really impressed me with all of the features that the DIR-685 offers, and none of them seem to be screwed up, except maybe the fan. None of the features seem to be fluff, either, but as far as usefulness goes, that’s more of a personal decision. I’ve had a bunch of issues with NAS systems, so for me, having a HD inside the router (and having the option to use a connected USB HD as a pseudo-NAS) is definitely worth it, as is the ability to access the internal HD via FTP. I appreciate being able to connect to my printer through the router as well… There is definitely something to be said for a piece of hardware that seamlessly integrates a bunch of important functionality. I don’t really like using the screen for pictures due to its small size, but I do like being able to see weather and news headlines at a glance. The speed and range of the DIR-685 are certainly going to be upgrades from nearly any other router. And don’t underestimate the convenience of being able to leave your router out in full view of the public, and have it look good and be doing something useful at the same time.
-Easy to set up
-LCD content actually useful
-Lots of integrated options for storage and remote content access
-Cooling fan is unacceptably loud when on
-Interface occasionally sluggish
-No feedback for touch controls
The D-Link DIR-685 Xtreme N Storage Router is available now for about $300 (although you may be able to find it online for less). Is that too much to ask for a router? Yes, yes it is. Is it too much to ask for a router that does everything the DIR-685 does? After having the Xtreme N for a few weeks, I’d say not. If you just want to set up a wireless internet connection, this is not the router for you, but if you demand top of the line speed, features, and good looks, you should give the DIR-685 some serious consideration.