Cisco’s New Linksys Router: Making Networking Interesting Again

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When I think of Linksys, I think of routers. Wi-Fi routers that sit quietly in a corner, doing their job well and requiring little or no attention from their owners.

That’s certainly a argument in favor of buying Linksys products, but it’s also a challenge for Cisco, the brand’s long-time owner. Aside from the those relatively rare moments when a new, faster Wi-Fi standard comes along, there aren’t many instances in which a working Linksys router cries out to be replaced. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

Cisco EA6500

Cisco might have an answer to that question in its latest top-of-the-line model, which it announced yesterday.

For one thing, the $219.99 EA6500 supports 802.11ac wireless, the nascent successor to 802.11n that’s less about yet another speed increase than it is about providing robust, hiccup-free video streaming and supporting multiple devices–laptops, phones, tablets, game consoles and more. (The company also announced the Universal Media Connector, an adapter that lets you upgrade game consoles, TV boxes such as Roku and other devices to 802.11ac.)

But the EA6500 is also one of the first models in a next-generation line which Cisco calls Smart Wi-Fi Routers. The “Smart” refers to Cisco Connect Cloud, a Web-services platform that’s designed to make this a router you’ll actually look forward to interacting with.

Cisco Connect Cloud is intended to be a lot less geeky than your average router management control panel. It finds all the devices on your network and gives each one a section of its own with options for controlling it, and allows device makers to plug their own custom services into their section. It also works with third-party iOS and Android apps such as HipPlay, a smartphone media player which can find video stored on the network and on social networks; and Netproofer, which lets parents block social networks or other sites.

Another appealing feature: Connect Cloud lets you set up the EA6500 and other Smart Wi-Fi Routers from a phone or tablet rather than forcing you to do the job from a computer. The router also supports NFC and lets you put NFC-enabled smartphones (such as the Galaxy Nexus) on the network by tapping them on the router.

Cisco plans to ship the EA6500 next month, and the Universal Media Connector in September.