Pop-up Review: Portal Wi-Fi
In the world of consumer routers the Ignition Design Labs (IDL) Portal is slightly unusual. Although it uses the typical 2.4 and 5 Ghz Wi-Fi bands it differs in that it also employs Dynamic Frequency Selection or DFS which allows on-the-fly access to a range of 5 Ghz channels from 52 to 140 (in North America) typically reserved for airplane radar. While DFS is not new technology most manufacturers don’t implement it probably due to the strict FCC certification process required for use in routers. It’s too bad, because with DFS it’s (almost) like having your own private Wi-Fi channels.
With 1 WAN, 4 LAN, 2 USB2 and no less than 9 (yes, nine) antennas one Portal can cover ~3k sq.ft. or it can be configured as a mesh network using a maximum of two devices for ~6k sq.ft. of coverage. The Portal site states there is “wireless and wired backhaul available” for communication between Portals. But unlike a tri-band router where the third band is used as a dedicated backhaul the Portal is a dual-band device. Despite this my network speed does not seem to be adversely affected as far as I can tell.
Security features seem on par with typical routers meaning the usual WPA2 firewall and basic parental controls. The lack of advanced cybersecurity is not an issue for me since I use the Bitdefender BOX security hub which outperforms typical router security on every level.
The mobile app is extremely basic but works ok for the initial setup. The configuration settings are accessible via a Web GUI and should offer enough control for the typical user. Though I’m sure hardcore techies will find it limited. But what else is new, right? Finally, for you router geeks that like to tinker its firmware is based on OpenWRT.
I use a Portal mesh in my Wi-Fi challenged home and now have strong seamless coverage everywhere. But that’s not the best part. In my absurdly congested urban neighborhood I have the DFS channels (literally) all to myself. How do I know? I use a network scanner. Everyone else is fighting each other on the usual (congested) channels while I cruise along all by myself. Nice!
But it’s not all perfect and I do have a few nits to pick:
- Dual-band only. No third band for dedicated backhaul.
- Web GUI (and mobile apps) very basic.
- Guest Network disabled in Bridge Mode.
- No IPv6 support.
- USB 2.0 ports.
- Infrequent software/firmware updates.
So far Portal has easily been the fastest and most stable router I’ve owned. It’s also my first experience with DFS and mesh, neither of which have disappointed. Even though Portal lacks the extensive features and polished software of cutting-edge (mesh) routers it’s been a very solid performer. Plus it has an elegantly simple and clean aesthetic. Having experienced the benefits of DFS I can’t (and won’t) go back to a non-DFS router. Part of me wishes more routers used DFS, but I’m also glad they don’t because I like not having to share. There’s a lot to like and could stop here, but...
It seems the original Portal (which is what I own) has been abandoned by IDL in favor of their collaboration with Razer on their own version of Portal. Clicking the Buy Now button on the Portal site now redirects to Razer so draw your own conclusions. While my experience with the original Portal has been positive I’m not sure who is developing the new(er) version at this point, IDL or Razer or both.
If you want a DFS capable router there aren’t many options. The two that jump to mind are the Synology MR220ac and Razer Sila, the latter using essentially the same DFS tech. as Portal. While DFS has raised my expectations of what a router should do I have concerns about the future of Portal and Ignition Design Labs which makes Portal both easy and difficult to recommend. If you need to satisfy your DFS curiosity then pick one up on eBay, otherwise I would say look elsewhere.