If you’re in the market for a router upgrade, the next generation of home routers offers features unheard of even a few years ago: dual-core processors, blazing fast Wi-Fi, USB 3.0 mounting for NAS storage, and more. Read on as we take the Netgear Nighthawk for a test drive.
What is the Nighthawk?
The Nighthawk, formally the Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart WiFi Router (model R7000), is the latest router in the Netgear router lineup. It boasts AC1900 Wi-Fi (a Wi-Fi deployment scheme that combines advanced 802.11ac transfer speeds on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz band), a 1Ghz dual-core processor, Beamforming (which focuses Wi-Fi signal distribution towards the devices using the Wi-Fi), advanced Quality of Service algorithms to ensure smooth traffic flow in the face of heavy media streaming and gaming use, and it includes a slew of little (but welcome) freebies like NAS software and an assistant to help you set up a personal home FTP server.
Cosmetically speaking, it’s a huge router with some serious heft and some really sleek lines:
It looks like a futuristic spaceship (and once it’s all plugged in and powered up, it glows like one too). We don’t know about you, but we’re thrilled the days of blue and gray network gear are fading. It’s nice to have networking equipment that looks so nice you feel bad putting it in the network closet.
All of the speed, features, solid construction with stunning good looks, dual-core processing, and triple-antenna amplification doesn’t come cheap, however. As of this review, the Nighthawk retails for $199.99. Do the features justify investing such a serious chunk of change? Read on as we set the router up and put it through a month of hard testing (which, thankfully, you won’t have to sit through in real time!)
Setting It Up
Setting up a new router is, hands down, the least enjoyable part of using the device. Still, you can make the process a whole lot faster by preparing yourself before just willy-nilly unplugging everything. Before you shut down your old router, you can prevent a whole lot of troubleshooting headaches by doing the following things: write down all the major setting from your old router including but not limited to: whether or not your IP is assigned dynamically by your ISP, what DNS servers you’re using, if any devices on your network have assigned static IP addresses for whatever purpose, and any devices on your network that will likely require additional configuration later (like Wi-Fi networked printers). Having all that stuff written down and available for reference is an enormous time saver.
Once you have it all written down, you can hook up all your hardline network cables to the Nighthawk and power it up and get started. We recommend using a computer with an Ethernet link to the device for the initial configuration. By default, you’ll find the administration panel for the Nighthawk at http://10.0.0.1
The Nighthawk runs on Netgear’s “NETGEAR Genie” operating system that includes a setup wizard which is supposed to make setting up your internet connection painless. Despite the innovations in automated setup and hand-holding-wizards, we’ve never had success with the automated setup included in any router. We could just be terribly unlucky or it could be that the automated assistants are still rather lacking. Regardless, we had to cancel out of the automated process and manually configure the Nighthawk to play nicely with out cable modem.
This isn’t as great of an inconvenience as it sounds, however, as all things considered it was just as fast to tell the router that we wanted the same old ISP-assigned address and DNS servers we’d been using. If you find yourself in the same situation, all you need to do is cancel out of the setup wizard and enter the information you previously recorded from your old router (enter it in Basic->Internet). If at any point you find that the router is not linking correctly to your broadband modem, you need to follow the age-old trouble shooting trail and power down both the modem and router, then power up the modem (followed a few minutes later by the router) to establish a proper link.
Once you’ve got the most critical part done, you’re online, it’s time to do some initial house work. First stop, Advanced -> Administration -> Set Password. The default pairing is admin/password; you should change it immediately.
While we’re in the Advanced -> Administration panel, take a moment to visit Router Upgrade. During our testing, we ran into a handful of small issues that were resolved by upgrading the firmware to the most recent release. We suggest you do so right from the start to ensure smoother functioning.
After changing the administration password, you may wish to also change the Wi-Fi settings. Newer routers, the Nighthawk included, generally ship with an already configured Wi-Fi password randomly generated at the time the router is prepped and flashed with firmware at the factory. You most likely, however, already have a Wi-Fi network setup and dozens of devices from laser printers to game consoles that would require individual tweaking if you were to change your SSID/password. If you’re in that situation, it’s worth taking a moment to change your Wi-Fi settings. You can find the Wi-Fi settings in Basic -> Wireless.
At this point, you’ve connected it to the internet, changed the administration password, updated the Wi-Fi SSID and password, and you could, honestly, just go grab your favorite gadget or sit down at your desktop and enjoy blazing fast speed. You don’t pay all that money just for fast performance though, so let’s take a look at the advanced features the Nighthawk offers.
Test Driving the Specialty Features
The Nighthawk is packed with big and small specialty features, as you might expect from a flagship model. While none of the features are outright revolutionary (if you’re a hardcore geek you likely already have a NAS on your network and shared printers), they take things that used to be difficult for non-hardcore geeks to set up and make them extremely accessible. Using the Nighthawk as a platform, you can have awesome features like a guest Wi-Fi network, a simple NAS, and VPN access to your home network without a whole lot of extra effort.
Let’s take at the features you’ll likely want to start using sooner rather than later.
Guest Networks: The Nighthawk includes a guest network function which is a fantastic tool that more people should take advantage of. Wi-Fi guest networks allow you to give house guests, friends, etc. access to your Wi-Fi but in a more secure way. You can lock down the guest network so they can’t access your local file shares and you can change the password whenever you feel the need to do so without the hassle of going through and changing the settings on every Wi-Fi device on your personal network. You can turn on the Nighthawk’s guest network by navigating to Basic -> Guest Network.
Overall, the guest network works great, however there is one absolutely infuriating hiccup in the deployment. Within the Guest Network settings there is the option to “Allow guests to see each other and access my local network”. By default it is turned off, but there is no way to turn on one part of it and not the other. For example, let’s say you have a bunch of people over that all want to play a Wi-Fi networked game (e.g. they all have iPads, or portable game consoles). If you’ve checked the aforementioned setting because you didn’t want people on your guest Wi-Fi network to have access to, say, your local printers and network shares, they’re also in what is known as “AP Isolation” and none of the people on the guest Wi-Fi network will be able to see any of the other people. If you turned on the guest network so that all the neighbor kids could play Minecraft PE with each other on their tablets but not get into all your networked stuff, you’ll be greeted with a chorus of “I can’t see Billy’s Minecraft world!” It’s a minor oversight that we hope gets corrected in the next firmware update.
ReadySHARE: Included in both the mid-tier and top-tier Netgear routers, ReadySHARE offers several worthwhile features. You can mount a USB hard drive as a network share on the router. You can attach a USB printer to the router and share it on the network. Finally, you can actually set up a helper app on your Windows machines (or use the Time Machine software on Macs) to automatically backup your computers to your new lightweight USB-drive NAS.
Although the ReadySHARE system can be as advanced as a system of automated backups and media streaming via DLNA, it’s really as easy to use in the most basic form of plugging in a USB storage device to the router. By default, the root directory is shared at \\readyshare\USB_Storage\ on your network. If you want to add read/write permissions or specify which folders should be shared, you can do so at Basic -> USB Storage -> Advanced Settings.OpenVPN Remote Access: The Nighthawk supports OpenVPN standards, which means you can remotely and securely connect to your home network, for example, from your laptop while traveling for work. The setup process is a little more complex than the plug-and-play ReadySHARE setup, but if you’re away from home a lot and you want secure access to your files and network devices, it’s a great way to do so and worth setting up. We’ve run VPNs on everything from aging circa-2008 era routers to full blown home servers and we have to say the VPN performance you get out of the Nighthawk is on par with a full size VPN installation; it definitely blows the VPN we crammed into an old WRT54GL out of the water.
All the cool extra features like the NAS functionality are great, but what really matters to most people is how fast and far reaching a router is. Very few of us upgrade our routers to get the little extras like printer sharing, most of us upgrade because the old router is either slower than we’d like or doesn’t reach across our entire house or yard. What’s the point of having broadband and Wi-Fi if you can’t lay in your hammock and play on your iPad?
For the sake of comparison, we also bench marked the ASUS RT-N66U (a very respectable high end router that is, tier-wise, a rank below the Nighthawk in terms of power) and the Linksys WRT54GL (a very dated but still popular router that we’re sure many readers are still using). The goal of the comparison isn’t to pit top-tier routers against each other in a death match, but to compare what you can expect out of the Nighthawk against a classic wireless-g router (the Linksys) and against a high-end router that has sold well over the last year or so (the ASUS).
Wi-Fi Coverage: First, let’s talk coverage. Most of the time when you’re on a Wi-Fi device, it’s a mobile one (like a phone or tablet) and you aren’t as much concerned with total bandwidth as you are with reach. In this department, the Nighthawk really shines. When the router was placed directly in the center of a large home with heavy wire/lathe and plaster construction walls (which are a known impediment to Wi-Fi signals), the signal reached the farthest reaches of the basement, the attic, all the way to the street (approximately 100 feet away) and all the way behind the detached garage (approximately 100 feet in the opposite direction).
There was no test location within the home or property the Nighthawk was tested on where it didn’t have at least a signal strength of -70 dB or better. In comparison to the Asus RT-N66U, the signal was consistently around 25% better; both routers covered the property completely but the Nighthawk provided consistently better readings in every location. The Linksys WRGT54GL, as you can imagine, didn’t even hold a candle to the reach of the radically more powerful Nighthawk and ASUS routers; there were entire areas of the property, including all of the yard, where the Linksys couldn’t reach at all. The WRT54 was a respectable platform in its day, but updates in the 802.11 standard and improved technology really show how dated its performance is.
Data Transfer Rates: Our data transfer tests were the most curious part of our benchmark testing and review. First, leave no doubt about it, the Nighthawk is fast. It’s a beefy router with powerful guts and you can expect (and receive) really solid transfer speeds. That said, however, there are a few caveats worth noting.
First, the rumors that the Nighthawk performed more poorly than would be expected on the 2.4Ghz band seem to be true. For devices that cannot take advantage of the 5Ghz band, the performance of the 2.4Ghz band when it comes to sustained high-speed transfer were a little on the slower side when compared with the ASUS router. This isn’t to say that the transfer is outright slow, mind you. It’s still incredibly fast compared to anything but the most recent routers; it’s just that we expected pushing-the-theoretical-limit speed out of such a high end device. For anything short of high-speed downloads, however, you’ll likely never notice.
On the 5Ghz band, the Nighthawk was a screaming beast, and was able to effectively peg our broadband connection during test transfers. Unless you have a gigabit fiber connection, you’ll have more local bandwidth than you’ll be able to saturate.
Speaking of saturating the connection, that leads us to the next test: taking advantage of the USB drive transfer on the Nighthawk and the ASUS. Speedwise, the Nighthawk dominated the ASUS (which only has a USB 2.0 port). File transfers from the portable drive, through the routers, to the a local wired client showed the Nighthawk had a distinct speed advantage. Where the ASUS routinely capped out at around 75 Mb/s transfer rates for both reading and writing files, the Nighthawk routinely provided a 350-400 Mb/s read rate and a 200-250 Mb/s write rate. If lack luster router-attached-HDD performance has burned you in the past, you don’t have to worry about it with the Nighthawk. It might not be a full home server, but it certainly can transfer data at the same speed as one.
The Biggest Caveat: We’ve talked about coverage and transfer speeds, but now we need to add a very big caveat to the everything. There’s a good chance that you don’t have the hardware to take advantage of the highest speeds the Nighthawk has to offer. That isn’t a ding against the Nighthawk, mind you, just that it’s such a new router and so cutting edge that it’s going to be a good six months to a year before the networking standard driving its top-tier performance actually becomes commonplace. Right now there just aren’t that many 802.11ac standard compliant devices out there and if you want the bring the full potential of the of the router to your laptop or desktop you’ll likely need an ac-compliant USB adapter.
That said, you’d need to spend at least $130-160 or so to replicate the performance levels of the Nighthawk with another lower-tier 802.11n only router just to turn around in a year or two and buy another router to upgrade to the 802.11ac standard. When framed against the lifespan of a good router (easily 5+ years), it makes sense to spend an extra $40-70 to future proof your router purchase.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After a month of trying to bog the router down with multiple gaming sessions, streaming media, huge downloads, concurrent network backups, and other tests, we’re back to confidently report a verdict.
- The Nighthawk has huge Wi-Fi range; expect to enjoy your iPad out by the pool, at the back of the garage, or even down by the mailbox.
- USB 3.0 transfer speeds are fantastic; you’ll finally have a router-based-NAS that can actually stream video to your media devices.
- Extra features like Guest Networks, file sharing (local and over-the-internet), and parental controls are welcome additions to basic router functionality.
- It has so many cutting edge features that upgrading effectively future proofs your router for a good two years or so.
- It’s expensive. There’s really no way around the sticker shock. Your local electronic’s store likely has piles of routers for $40-80, and by comparison, the jump to $200 seems a little shocking even when you know you’re getting more than your money’s worth.
- We’re still a bit miffed about the poor implementation in the Guest Network system; we want to see local network isolation and individual Wi-Fi client isolation as separate options.
- The slightly lackluster performance in the 2.4Ghz spectrum means your oldest 802.11g devices will take a small performance hit in terms of total download speed.
- You’ll need to upgrade your networking hardware or upgrade your entire device to get full 802.11ac speeds.
The Verdict: If you’re still sporting a mid-2000s era 802.11g router, you should run to purchase the Nighthawk, as it would be like upgrading a golf cart to a sports car. If you’re sporting a particularly nice 802.11n router, you might be hesitant to upgrade (and if you just purchased it, we certainly understand you wanting to hold out for awhile), but the Nighthawk is still a substantial upgrade over even a nice last-year’s-model 802.11n router. In short, the Nighthawk is currently the top router on the market, and if you have even the slightest urge to upgrade (or a router older than a year or so), you’ve got nothing to lose in upgrading.
Note: Netgear is running a holiday give-away promotion between November 25th and December 16th. Like their Facebook page here and be entered to win a Nighthawk router (or, if you’re extremely lucky, the grand prize of a Nighthawk router + an Xbox One).
Review Disclosure: The Nighthawk unit used for this review was provided for free by Netgear.