It's a worthy upgrade for power users, but for most of us, the Netgear Nighthawk RAX120 is more router than you need.
If you're going to spend more than $300 on a new router, then it's fair to expect strong performance, high-end features and fast, future-proofed speeds. And with support for up to 12 streams of wireless, Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, that's what the spacey-looking Netgear Nighthawk AX12 (model RAX120) is offering. Currently available for about $400 (about £310 or AU$620), it's an expensive, high-powered option for folks looking for an upgrade, and there's a lot going on under the hood to take into consideration.
The broad view is that this is a dual-band router with support for the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi and lots of customization options, particularly if you want to use the thing to manage access to networked storage. With a multigig LAN/WAN port that supports incoming speeds of up to 5Gbps and the option to combine two of the single-gig Ethernet jacks for aggregated incoming wired speeds of up to 2Gbps, this router takes some of the common networking bottlenecks and busts right through them.
That said, the RAX120 is best suited for advanced users ready to experiment with those multigig jacks right now. If you're just looking for a Wi-Fi 6 router that'll provide a reliable connection throughout your home, there are good alternatives out there, including ones that cost less. We saw faster top speeds in our lab from the $269 TP-Link Archer AX6000 and also from the soon-to-be-released Asus RT-AX89X, which costs a little more at $450. Both of those outperformed the Nighthawk in my at-home tests, too, and the same goes for the $379 AmpliFi Alien -- though as of writing this, that router is listed as out of stock on the Ubiquiti website. You'll also find a number of new Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers this year that might be a much better fit for folks who'd prefer something simple that they don't need to think about too much.
In other words, I think this router is probably overkill for most people -- and the shaky SmartConnect feature, which only did a so-so job of steering me from band to band as I moved around in my home, gives me some pause before recommending it for the rest of you. But if it's speed you're after -- and an end to those pesky bottlenecks -- then you'll find a lot to like in the Nighthawk's cockpit.
With its eight antennas hidden within a sleek set of fold-up wings, the RAX120 looks less like a router than like something Kylo Ren might zip across the galaxy in. Or maybe it's the router Dark Helmet would use aboard Spaceball One, if only because it could double as a prop during play-time with his Spaceballs action figures. I'm dating myself, perhaps, but my point is that the thing looks futuristic (if not a bit aggressive, which seems to be the trend in high-end router design these days).
Turn the thing around and examine the aft, and you'll discover a speedy set of Ethernet jacks, including the WAN port, a multigig port and four gigabit LAN ports. You can wire two of those LAN ports to the same server and combine their speeds to support transfer rates of up to 2Gbps, or just use that multigig port to see speeds of up to 5Gbps. That multigig port and those aggregate-able LAN ports can also operate in WAN mode, which means that this router will be able to keep up if your incoming internet speeds ever rise past 1Gbps.
That's a lot of flexibility, and it opens up a whole new world of wired networking. Just know that those faster connections won't do anything to speed up a slow incoming signal. They're a nice piece of future-proofing, and terrific if you plan on wiring your router to a local server to transfer files between computers on your network -- but if you're just looking to connect to the internet, they won't make much of a difference anytime soon.
As for the internals, here's a quick hardware rundown:
The RAX120 is an AX6000 dual-band router (a tri-band version with a second 5GHz band, the RAX200, is available for about $100 more). The "AX" in "AX6000" indicates that it supports Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), while the "6000" indicates the combined top theoretical speeds of each band. Netgear pegs those speeds at 1,200 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 4,800 Mbps on the 5GHz band -- but remember those numbers are based on optimized, lab-based tests that don't take things like range, interference and physical obstructions into account. Your actual speeds will be much, much lower. And you'll only be able to connect to one band at a time, lest that "6000" mislead you.
In our own lab, where we wire each router to a local server and then download files wirelessly on a 2x2, Wi-Fi 6-equipped laptop from various distances, we clocked the RAX120 with a top-sustained speed of 1,263 Mbps on the 5GHz band. Speeds fell to about 818 Mbps when we increased the distance from 5 feet to 75 feet.
Those are great numbers -- each of them a few hundred Mbps faster than you'll see with pretty much any Wi-Fi 5 router -- but they're not quite as fast as the fastest Wi-Fi 6 router we've tested yet, the TP-Link Archer AX6000. That one registered speeds of 1,524 Mbps at 5 feet and 869 Mbps at 75 feet in the same test, and it also kept speeds above 1,000 Mbps at a midrange distance of 37.5 feet. The RAX120 did not -- that suggests that TP-Link might offer better range, too.
My at-home tests seemed to confirm this. Across multiple days of tests in the 1,300 sq. ft., single story house, where I have an AT&T fiber internet connection of 300 Mbps, the RAX120's 5GHz band was able to average speeds well above 250 Mbps in the majority of the space, but speeds fell to 100 Mbps in my back bathroom. That's the farthest room from the router and a common dead spot when I'm testing a single-point router like this one.
Mind you, 100 Mbps is a strong result, especially when you compare it with the abundance of routers I've tested that have plummeted to single digits or dropped the signal outright back there. Still, it wasn't as strong as the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which returned an average back bathroom download speed just above 150 Mbps. The yet-to-be-released Asus RT-AX89X, which is one of the next routers I'll review, did even better, with a back bathroom average of 191 Mbps.
But the Nighthawk router has a trick that Asus model lacks, and that's SmartConnect -- it combines the two bands into a single network, and then automatically steers your connection between the two as you move through your home.
That's an appealing approach for many, but the feature wasn't flawless when I tested it out. At multiple points during my speed tests, the connection would fall to 2.4GHz speeds even when I was just a room away from the router and still well within 5GHz distance. The only way to get my speeds up where I wanted was disconnect and reconnect. Notice how my SmartConnect speed in the back bathroom splits the difference between what I saw from the dedicated 2.4 and 5GHz connections. That's because roughly half the time, the system decided to connect me to the faster 5GHz band. The other half of the time, it chose the 2.4GHz band's stronger signal.
That's more of an annoyance than anything, but it still points to inconsistent band-steering. You'll have a much better experience with a well-developed mesh system that puts band steering front and center,. Among the ones that support Wi-Fi 6, I like the $450 Asus ZenWiFi AX the best, but you've got a lot of new options this year that are worth a look, too.
Speaking of mesh, it's worth noting that the Nighthawk doesn't make it as easy to use satellite devices to extend the range of your setup as other routers. For instance, many comparable Asus routers support a feature called AiMesh, which makes it easy to cobble multiple networking devices together into a multipoint mesh setup. With the Nighthawk, you're pretty much limited to Netgear's lineup of plug-in range extenders.
The RAX120 supports denial of service protection and the latest WPA3 encryption. It also lets you block specific sites or services outright or on a schedule. It doesn't include a traffic-scanning threat detector, though. That's a little odd, as previous-gen Nighthawk and Orbi routers ship with support for Netgear Armor, a set of cybersecurity tools powered by BitDefender.
As for the Nighthawk app, it makes quick work of setup and offers basic system controls, including the option to run a quick speed test. There aren't a whole lot of advanced settings to dig through, though -- for that, you'll want to connect with the router via your browser.
Netgear's Wi-Fi 6 Nighthawk routers were some of the first 802.11ax routers to hit the market last year. They're still an appealing upgrade option in 2020 -- particularly if you think you'll be able to get good use out of those multigig connection capabilities.
That's a fairly narrow subset of the router-buying populace, though. If you're just looking for a fast, reliable upgrade that supports Wi-Fi 6, you can likely get away with spending less. For that reason, the TP-Link Archer AX6000 is still my Wi-Fi 6 router of choice -- at less than $300, it's the better balance between value and performance.