If you’re in the market for a router upgrade (we’re looking at those of you still rocking the router your ISP gave years ago), the Nighthawk X6 is an ultra-premium does-it-all router with speed and features to spare. Further, it looks like a mad scientist’s experiment involving cross-breeding a beetle with the Batmobile. Read on as we put it through the paces on your behalf.
What is the Netgear Nighthawk X6?
The Netgear Nighthawk X6, formally known as the Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Router (R8000), is a powerful premium router and the product-line successor to the previously reviewed Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart Wi-Fi Router (R7000). (Note: there was an R7500 but it was a major upgrade to the R7000’s hardware and not a total overhaul.)
The Nighthawk X6 builds upon the design and success of the original Nighthawk with more processing power, more bands/antennas, and a more sophisticated array of features. While we’ll drive into the user-accessible features in the “Test Driving Specialty Features” section in just a moment, the best features of the X6 are actually largely invisible to the user (which is a great thing, we love technology that works so effectively without so much as a button press on our behalf).
Unlike older and earlier 802.11ac class routers the Nighthawk X6 uses three discrete Wi-Fi radios which are, unless you configure it otherwise, hidden behind a common SSID. The router then, on the fly, seamlessly assigns incoming connections to the band best suited for the device and the activity on it without any input from the user or any decision made by the user as to which SSID/band to connect to. The Nighthawk X6 will just auto-magically, behind the scenes, place your devices on the band best optimizes for them and, in the process, keep older devices on your network from impacting the performance of newer ones.
That feature combined with the advanced beamforming technology in the X6 made using it in a device-packed household a very consistent and speedy affair. Add in the myriad of other features like the dual layer firewall that combines traditional Network Address Translation (NAT) protection along with Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI), Virtual Private Networking (VPN), parental controls, file and print sharing, and you’ve got the makings of a speedy and solid does-everything router.
Setting It Up
Setup and configuration of the router is a snap. Typically we don’t note physical setup requirements when we review routers (because that generally amounts to plugging it in and possibly mounting it on the wall) but there are two physical configuration quirks with the Nighthawk X6, both of them fairly minor.
The first quirk is that it isn’t immediately obvious that the antenna have both horizontal and vertical adjustments. Not only can you fold the leg-like antennas in and out but the body of the top and bottom antennas rotate outward approximately 45 degrees. The second setup quirk is that, when wall mounted, the router is upside down. From an installation standpoint this makes perfect sense. Most routers mount with the ports up, the Nighthawk X6 mounts with the ports down; this puts less stress on the cables and makes for a neater installation. Unfortunately, however, it also means all the indicator lights and their text are upside down. It’s a very minor thing but as the kind of folks that like wall mounting their routers we noticed the quirk immediately.
As far as actually setting up the router beyond the physical installation, however, the process is a breeze. This is one area where modern routers have come light years from their predecessors. Netgear, D-Link, Asus, across the board the quality of the setup process and the administrative dashboards of modern routers is great. The Nighthawk X6 uses the same Netgear Genie style interface that the R7000 does and other than some small cosmetic tweaks and some reconfigured menus it looks just like it did (which from a usability standpoint is just fine by us).
To configure your router connect to it via wireless or, more ideally, via Ethernet and navigate to http://www.routerlogin.net or to the IP address, 192.168.1.1. The default login is admin/password and your first order of business after the initial setup should be to change that.
If the router detects you’re running Windows or Mac OS X it’ll prompt you to download the Genie app and the ReadySHARE Vault app. The first app isn’t necessary but if you’re opposed to installing an extra app it does offer a dashboard view of your router without firing up your web browser and logging in via the web portal.
The second app, seen above, pairs with the ReadyShare Vault on your router for automated local file backup and restoration. Again, you don’t need that app to use the network share feature (and your can use your own apps or OS tools to backup to the network share) but it’s a nice inclusion that’s there if you want it.
Aside from installing the auxiliary apps and doing a little minor configuration (which should be a snap if you followed our guidelines from Clone Your Current Router for a Headache-Free Router Upgrade) you’ll be up and running in no time. Even configuring secondary features like the parental controls is straightforward thanks to the router setup wizard prompting you to learn more about them at the end of the initial setup process. As we said above, router configuration and controls have come so far from the routers of yesteryear that configuration these days is about as pain free as possible.
Test Driving the Specialty Features
Speaking of configuration and specialty features, let’s take a look a look at the above-and-beyond speciality features included in the Nighthawk X6 that provide functionality beyond simple routing and Wi-Fi deployment.
Many of the features in the Nighthawk X6 are the same or upgraded features found in it’s predecessor the original Nighthawk; that’s fine by us as we appreciated the features the first time around and we’re happy to see them attached to a newer router with more processing power and a wider range.
Parental controls on many routers and computers/devices tend to be really kludgy and poorly implemented. Netgear does things in a very practical way by linking the content filtering provided by OpenDNS (a free DNS service) with the router and offering device-by-device granular control over the deployment.
As such it’s very easy to setup and implement. Use your existing OpenDNS account or sign up for a new one, tell the router which devices on the network need content filtering (e.g. the computer in the kids’ playroom and their two tablets) and boom, instant content filtering for those devices. Even if you’re already using OpenDNS locally on individual computers, it makes sense to switch to this way of doing it: you’ll get centralized control that not only includes said computers but also extends to portable devices (and any other device on your network including game consoles and smart TVs).
Guest networks are such a handy router feature and the Nighthawk X6 supports not one but three of them. Guest networks are great for giving guests Internet access for their devices without giving them access to your private network, they’re great for restricting kids’ access (nothing like killing Wi-Fi access until the chore list is empty to get them motivated), and otherwise separating network activity from the main SSID.
One complaint we’ll make about the guest network feature on the Nighthawk X6 that we also made about the original Nighthawk is that the guest network option for network isolation and local network access is the same toggle labeled “allow guests to see each other and access the local network.” Yet in older Netgear routers we’ve owned/tested the option was split into “allow guests to access my local network” and “enable wireless isolation.” There are numerous, and perfectly valid, reasons for wanting to enable one and not the other (e.g. your kids want to play network games with their friends on the guest network so network isolation must be disabled, but you don’t want them to access to your LAN) and there’s no good reason why the settings aren’t more granular on such a high-end router.
Other than that relatively minor complaint the guest networks are pretty awesome. You get three (1 2.4Ghz and 2 5GHz), and you can independently configure them all.
ReadySHARE & Print Sharing
When you’re paying the premium price for a premium router it makes sense to take advantage of every bit of power and every feature it offers. The two USB ports on the Nighthawk X6 can be put to good use for both file and print sharing. Plug a USB storage device into the USB 3.0 port and you have an instant file server. Plug in a printer to the USB 2.0 port and you have an instant print server.
Both the file sharing and print sharing are pretty basic, but that’s to be expected as, at the end of the day, a router is still a router and not a full blown Network Attached Storage (NAS) installation. You can configure simple network shares on the attached storage, automate your backups using the aforementioned ReadySHARE app (or a third party solution of your choice), and use the network share as a media streaming source thanks to DLNA support.
For someone who wants simple network storage without the hassle (or energy cost) of running a full blown NAS or home server the Nighthawk X6 paired with a USB 3.0 hard drive is a great way to get the benefits of speedy network attached storage without the headache of maintaining a separate machine.
VPN & FTP
Like it’s predecessor, the Nighthawk X6 sports both VPN and FTP servers. Bundling VPN in with the router is an ideal solution as it creates a secure and always on VPN portal for remote network and file access; the Nighthawk uses OpenVPN and is compatible with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux (unfortunately there is no Android/iOS support at the moment).
The router also includes a simple FTP server, but it’s fairly limited in two ways. First, it runs vanilla FTP with no security (beyond a simple password). Second, you can only FTP-share files that are stored on the attached storage device. It’s simple enough for sharing non-sensitive files with friends but for anything else you should really use the end-to-end encryption provided by VPN.
Router technology has improved so much in just the last few years alone that increasingly we find that what sets routers apart is stable performance and feature-rich firmware, not necessarily the absolute bleeding edge speed.
In terms of sheer coverage the Nighthawk X6 R8000 didn’t necessarily blow the Nighthawk R7000 out of the water; both units are so powerful that they easily blanked the test zone with complete wall-to-wall coverage. In fact, both of them provide property-line-to-property-line coverage. That said, our signal strength readings for the Nighthawk X6 were significantly stronger. With the extra radio chips and wattage we enjoyed at least -60 dB throughout the test zone (a significant algorithmic step up from the -70 dB we experienced with the Nighthawk R7000). But again, both of those are really great and anyone upgrading from an old 802.11g router would be thrilled with either amount of coverage, really.
In terms of raw transfer speed the Nighthawk X6 has more than enough bandwidth to go around. It’ll peg any consumer broadband connections out there without a hitch and still have more than enough potential to max out dozens of local connections across your home network.
Within 10 feet of the router we could transfer data with a combined output across all the channels at a screaming fast 734 Mbps. Using just a single 5Ghz channel we could pull down around 300 Mpbs. Moving out to approximately 150 feet (the back edge of the test property) we could still pull down a consistent 165 Mpbs. Even when we loaded up our network with remote video streaming, local video streaming, neighbors browsing the web, kids playing games, file downloads, and more, we were never able to saturate the local bandwidth enough to cause any network latency or compromise the user experience.
The triple channels combined with a very intelligent algorithm that shifts and groups devices together in the radio space to best optimize bandwidth for everyone really does the trick. And that right there is where the Nighthawk X6 really shines. Yes, it’s fast. When it first came out last year it was the first tri-band router and definitely the fastest on the market (followed quickly by tri-band routers from other companies). Is it the absolute bleeding edge fastest router on the market now, months after its initial release? No, no it isn’t.
Does that matter? Not in our opinion. We’re power users with home servers, tons of connections, tons of devices, and something going in, out, or across our network 24/7 and even we don’t care about getting the absolute maximum single connection speed out of a device because in reality that’s not the most important thing in a modern household. The most important thing is a router that can handle many devices and thoughtfully and purposefully allocate air space so that all those devices are a pleasure to use. To that end the Nighthawk X6 doesn’t a phenomenal job playing traffic cop and putting those 6 Wi-Fi radios to good and efficient use.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After testing the Nighthawk X6, putting it through the paces, and giving it a solid month of stress testing and real world use, what do we have to say about it?
- It’s stylish. Beetle-Spaceship, Spaceship-Beetle, however you see the thing it’s got a very distinct and very cool profile.
- The range, especially on the 2.4Ghz band, is fantastic.
- It’s speedy and the intelligent radio/bandwidth management features are truly useful and effective.
- Manual LED toggle switch a minor but very welcome feature.
- Despite the beefy hardware, the open-mesh design of the case ensures no fan is necessary (a welcome design choice given that routers with fans are now appearing on the market).
- Auxiliary features like VPN, network sharing, and parental controls are easy to access, configure, and deploy.
- No eSATA port for external hard drives.
- Non-detachable antenna (you can’t install longer/directional aftermarket antennas if you so desire).
- Quality of Service rules less complex than in the R7000 (the Netgear website notes that a full QoS update is coming this quarter via firmware update).
- It’s huge. We don’t mind the look of it, but good look hiding the thing if you do.
- The price. There’s no way around it, awesome router or not $300 is $300.
If you have an aging router and you’re looking to pick up a new router that’ll last you just as long as the old model you’re about to toss in the ol’ recycling bin, the Nighthawk X6 is a very solid upgrade with fantastic range, snappy speeds, and a host of features that’ll carry you well into the future. Expense aside, it’s a stiff $300 still, there’s no good reason not to pick this router up if you’re looking for a beast of a device that’ll give you years of service and offers a big dose of future-proofing with a double-band quad-chip 802.11ac radio system on top of a very strong single-band dual-chip 802.11g system.
If you have a newer router, like the previously reviewed (and frequently mentioned in this review) Netgear Nighthawk R7000, then we’d advise you to wait for an upgrade simply because the router you have likely has a lot of life left in it and waiting for the next iteration of this solid router line would get you more bang for your buck. Besides, who knows what the next one will look like? Maybe the Nighthawk X8 R9000 (?) will end up looking like a dragonfly.