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Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart WiFi Router review:

Highly capable, but way too expensive

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Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart WiFi Router

(Part #: R8500-100NAS) Released: Oct 1, 2013
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The Good The Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 Router supports the latest Wi-Fi speed standard, AC5300. It mostly delivers fast Wi-Fi performance and has outstanding signal stability. The router has six LAN ports (as opposed to four seen in most routers) and has a super-fast wired connection.

The Bad The X8 is crazy expensive and doesn't necessarily deliver a better Wi-Fi experience than much cheaper routers. Currently there are no clients on the market that can take advantage of the AC5300 speed standard and at launch the MU-MIMO feature is not activated. The router has a bloated interface, cumbersome setup process and a buggy mobile app.

The Bottom Line Only savvy users with a high-end server in their network should consider the Netgear R8500; for everyone else, there are many other router options that deliver as good or better performance for less.

CNET Editors' Rating

6.9 Overall
  • Setup 5.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Support 7.0

The Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 costs $400/AU$699. That's a hell of a lot for a router, especially since we live in a world where you can get a decent one for less than $20. So the big question is, is this router worth its steep asking price?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is maybe in the future, depending on who you are and what your needs are. The X8 is the first-ever router to support the AC5300 standard. This means it has a top speed of 2,166Mbps. The problem is that clients, such as laptops or tablets, that support X8's top speed, simply don't exist yet. To be sure, the X8 does indeed work with all existing Wi-Fi clients, but only at a speed much lower than what it's actually capable of.

For now, though it is fast, with excellent signal stability, it isn't consistently faster than other high-end routers, such as the Asus RT-AC3200, which costs at least $100 less. Also, the X8's range, though great, didn't stand out either compared with routers that cost much less.

However, this is the first router with six Gigabit LAN ports (as opposed to the four found in most routers), two of which that can combine into a single extremely fast wired connection. So, if you have a high-end NAS server that has multiple LAN ports, such as the Synology DS1513+, the X8 will bring the server's data rate to a totally new level, making local file data sharing, media streaming and backups happen much faster.

This added benefit to your home network alone could make the router worth the investment for some, but most others should steer clear of the X8, as it's simply not worth its price given that there are plenty of other highly capable routers available for much less.

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Though huge with plenty of spaces on the back, the R8500's two USB ports are placed on its right side.

Dong Ngo/CNET

First AC5300 router

The AC5300 Wi-Fi standard is the next step in Wi-Fi routers. As such, the Netgear R8500 is a tri-band, quad-stream router. In a way, it's like the combination of the R8000 (tri-band) and the R7500 (quad-stream) routers from Netgear. Netgear says that the R8500's hardware also supports multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output (MU-MIMO) though this feature is not available at launch and will be activated via a firmware upgrade in the future.

What exactly is tri-band?

Tri-band means that the router has three separate Wi-Fi bands. Each band is a Wi-Fi broadcaster or access point. If a dual-band router has one band that runs at 5GHz and another that runs at 2.4GHz, a tri-band router (the R8500 in this case) would have an additional 5GHz band. In other words, a tri-band router is like a dual-band router with an extra 5GHz access point attached to it. Note that 5GHz bands are typically faster than 2.4GHz bands, the range on 5GHz bands is usually shorter.

OK, so tri-band means faster speed, right?

That depends. Having more bands in the same box doesn't necessarily increase the connection speed of an individual Wi-Fi connection because a client can only connect to a router one band at a time. However, a router with multiple bands does allow more clients to connect to the router without adversely affecting the speeds of the others.

Since there are multiple Wi-Fi tiers, the router can group lower-tier 5GHz clients to one band and the higher-tier clients to another. So, lower-end products like an old phone or tablet would connect to one 5GHz band, while your brand new laptop would connect the other 5GHz band.

That said, having a tri-band router with two 5GHz bands is only helpful when there are many active 5Ghz clients (a dozen or more) in the network. The router can then spread out the connections among the 5Ghz clients, diminishing bandwidth issues. However, if you have a small amount of concurrent active clients, a tri-band router makes no difference compared to a dual-band router.

And quad-stream, what's that?

On each band, the Wi-Fi signal is delivered in spatial streams, the more streams the band has the faster the Wi-Fi data rate it can output. The number of streams also determines the grades (or tiers) of Wi-Fi performance. There are currently four tiers including single-stream (1x1), dual-stream (2x2), three-stream (3x3) and quad-stream (4x4). As a quad-stream router, the Netgear R8500 on paper can deliver a Wi-Fi speed up to 2,166Mbps on each of its two 5GHz bands. On the 2.4GHz band, its theoretical top speed is 1,000Mbps.

So my 5GHz clients can connect to the router at 2,166Mbps, right?

No. Right now there are no quad-stream clients (laptops, phones, etc.) on the market. In fact, to conserve power, most mobile clients support either single- or dual-stream. The fastest clients for now are three-stream, which have a top on-paper speed of 1,300Mbps. The actual speed you'll experience between these clients and the R8500 depends on many factors and is always much lower than that. (More on this in the performance section below.) However, the more streams the devices have will generally translate into faster sustained Wi-Fi speed.

So what is MU-MIMO?

MU-MIMO is a new Wi-Fi technology designed to handle Wi-Fi bandwidth efficiently, hence it should be capable of delivering faster data rates to multiple connected clients at a time. As mentioned above, there are four different Wi-Fi speed tiers and without MU-MIMO, a router would treat each device connected to it equally with no regard for which tier the device fell under. In this case a router could waste its transmission power on a device that didn't need that much power in the first place, potentially wasting your router's bandwidth.

With MU-MIMO, multiple simultaneous transmissions of different Wi-Fi tiers are sent to multiple devices at the same time, enabling them to connect at the speed each client needs.

In other words, having a MU-MIMO Wi-Fi network is like having multiple wireless routers of different Wi-Fi tiers. Each of these "routers" is dedicated to each tier of devices in the network so that multiple devices can connect at the same time without slowing down one another.

Bulky design with six LAN ports and four active antennas

Though still called NightHawk, the X8 doesn't look anything like a flying object. Instead it's a squarish shape with four antennas on the back. Also on the back are six Gigabit LAN ports (most routers only have four) in addition to the Gigabit WAN (or Internet) port. The two extra LAN ports can work together in a aggregation mode to create a 2Gbps connection to a wired client.

The router is huge, measuring 12.44 x 10.39 x 2.44 in. (316 x 264 x 62 mm) and weighing 3.7 pounds (1.7kg). It has a wavy texture on top in an effort to resemble a piece of art. Overall, though, coming in black, the X8 is a quite mundane-looking networking device. The router is designed to stay flat on a surface but it's also wall-mountable.

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The R8500 comes with six Gigabit LAN ports, two of which can aggregate to create a super-fast wired connection to a single client.

Dong Ngo/CNET

What's the big deal about six LAN ports?

The more LAN ports mean the more wired clients (servers, desktop computers, game consoles) you can connect to the network before you need to add more ports via a switch. Though Wi-Fi is getting more and more popular, for the best possible connection (both in terms of speed and connection quality) nothing can beat a Gigabit wired connection.

So what's port aggregation anyway?

Support for port aggregation allows you to combine two Gigabit network ports into a single connection. Generally, this feature is often available in enterprise switches and routers and the R8500 is the first consumer router that includes this. To take advantage of port aggregation, the client, likely a server, also needs to have two LAN ports as well as the support for port aggregation. Most high-end NAS servers have this feature. When testing a Synology DS1515+, this feature of the R8500s worked out very well, consistently increasing the server's sustained data throughput significantly. In fact, I find this feature the best the R8500 has to offer, so really consider it if you have a NAS server at home that supports port aggregation.

How about the active antennas, what's the deal with them?

Traditionally in a router, the antennas a passive, they just relay the signal broadcast from the amplifier located inside the router. In the case of the R8500, the amplifiers are moved on the antennas themselves. This design help them deliver better signal quality and eliminate the possible noise created by the router's circuit board and other parts.

To stress the active notion, Netgear put an blue LED on top of each antenna. You can turn these light (as well as the router's other LED indicator lights) off via a button on the front, however.

In testing, the R8500 did deliver very good signal quality. The active antennas didn't translate into longer range than other routers, however, and they are not detachable. This means you can't replace them with third-party high-gain antennas and if you break them, you'll need a new router entirely.

Does the router have a USB port?

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