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The Nighthawk X4 AC2350 Smart Wi-Fi R7500 Router has aspirations to be Netgear's competitor to the recently reviewed Asus RT-AC87U . Alas, it doesn't turn out that way.
Despite sporting a much more powerful processor, the new router doesn't outdo its Asus counterpart. In fact, it doesn't even fare much better than Netgear's original Nighthawk AC1900 R7000 . What's more, the router's bloated interface shows no improvements over those of previous Netgear models.
The R7500 is not a complete loss, though. On the whole, it's still quite fast, it has very long Wi-Fi range, and it includes a smart QoS feature that intelligently manages your Internet connection for a better overall experience. When hosting an external hard drive, the router becomes a robust NAS server, and even supports Time Machine natively.
In the end, it's the price makes it hard for me to recommended the Netgear R7500 to anyone. At $280 in the US and £230 in the UK (pricing for Australia is not yet available, but converted it's about AU$300), you're better off buying the Asus RT-AC87U (which also runs $280) instead. The Asus is much faster and easier to manage, and has more features.
For more choices, check out this list of top 802.11ac wireless routers on the market.
The Netgear R7500 is the second quad-stream (4x4) 802.11ac router on the market, after the Asus RT-AC87U that came out a month ago. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.) Yet it sports a Qualcomm 1.4GHz dual-core main processor, currently the fastest on the market. By comparison, the Asus uses a dual-core 1GHz model from Broadcom as its main processor.
This chip powers the 2.4GHz frequency band (at up to 600Mbps), NAS functionality, and all other functions of the router. For the 5GHz frequency band, the router uses second dedicated dual-core chip, the 500MHz Quantenna QT3840BC, which is the first quad-stream 802.11ac chip on the market, capable of delivering up to 1,733Mbps of Wi-Fi speed.
As a true dual-band router, the R7500 has the combined total bandwidth of 2,333Mbps. Netgear rounds this number up to designate the R7500 as a AC2350 router. Asus, on the other hand, rounds up even farther and calls the RT-AC87U an AC2400 router. Both routers have the same total Wi-Fi bandwidth, however.
Note that while the router supports all existing Wi-Fi clients on the market, in order to achieve the quad-stream speed, you'll need clients (such as a smartphone, tablet, or PC) that adhere to the same standard. Currently there's no quad-stream client on the market, though first adopters are expected to be available by early 2015.
The R7500 is also the first home router that has two USB 3.0 ports and one eSATA port, promising to be a very powerful network attached storage (NAS) server when coupled with external hard drives.
The R7500 looks almost exactly the same as the R7000, using the squarish shape designed to stay flat on a surface. But now it's even bulkier, thanks to the four detachable antennas (the R7000 has only three antennas). These antennas are numbered from 1 to 4, and you need to attach each one to the router at a specific place. The router is wall-mountable but considering how large it is, it's a better idea to keep it on the floor.
On the back, the R7500 has the usual four Gigabit LAN ports (for wired clients) and one Gigabit WAN port, to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem. There's also the power port, a power on/off button, an on/off switch for the LED lights and a recessed Reset button, which brings the router back to its default settings.
On the left side, the router has two USB 3.0 ports, and on the right side, there's an eSATA port. Up until now, the R7500 is the first that has these many high-bandwidth peripheral ports. (Most others have just one USB 3.0 port, if at all.) You can use these ports to host printers or external storage devices.
On top, toward the front, there's an array of usual LED lights that show the power status and the status of the Wi-Fi networks, the router' ports. There's also a Wi-Fi on/off button and a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button that initiates a two-minute window that other WPS-enabled clients can enter the router's Wi-Fi networks.
Similar to the R7000, the R7500 is ready to use right out of the box if you're happy with its default settings. The router comes preconfigured with a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network for which the information -- name and password -- is printed on a label on its underside. (The 5GHz band network's name is the same as the 2.4GHz network plus the "-5G" suffix and shares the same password. Note that these networks' names are visible to Wi-Fi clients.) With this information, you just can just plug the router to an Internet source using the included network cable, turn it on, and you're good to go.
If you want to change these network's name or customize other settings or features of the router, you'll need to use the router's Web interface, and for certain features, also its downloadable Netgear Genie app. While you can use the interface to access most of the router's features and settings, you can't use it to do everything. For example, the Parental Control feature -- which is an OpenDNS-based service -- requires you to set up the app. On the other hand, the Genie app has limited access to the router's settings. For example, it can turn on the Guest network feature for just the 2.4GHz band, but not the 5GHz band.
The Netgear Genie app is available for Windows, OS, Fire, Android, and iOS, but it only works within the local network. This means you can't use the app on your smartphone to remotely manage your home network when you're out and about.
It's quite easy to access the router's Web interface. From any computer that's connected to the router, just point its browser to www.routerlogin.net or the router's default IP address, which is 192.168.1.1. The default log-in credentials are "admin"for the username and "password" for the password.
Using it, though, is another matter. First off, the interface is very similar to that of the R7000, which I've never liked. The interface has so many settings and options that it's overwhelming to novice users, and it doesn't include common Wi-Fi settings available in other routers. For example, you can only set each Wi-Fi network to operate at "up to" a specified top speed, instead of allowing you to pick the Wi-Fi standard you want. You can't choose a channel width (20MHz, 40MHz, or 80MHz) for each network to operate on, either.
On top of that, the interface is sluggish at times, taking as much as a few seconds to transit from one section to another. And to take effect, most of the changes require that the router be restarted, which takes quite a long time (more than a minute). All that makes customizing the router a time-consuming and frustrating experience, even for savvy users.
Overall, the R7500 utilizes the same feature set as the R7000, and you can set it to provide basically all you want from a home router, including Firewall, Dynamic DNS, port forwarding, and so on. It also includes a OpenVPN server and a new Quality of Control (QoS) feature, called Dynamic QoS, that's intended to compete directly against Adaptive QoS of the Asus RT-AC87U.
Like all QoS features, Dynamic QoS automatically prioritizes Internet bandwidth for a better online experience. However, with the R7500, this feature is now very smart. Instead of treating all devices and applications equally, Dynamic QoS recognizes each individual application -- gaming, streaming, file transfers, Web browsing, and so on -- and prioritizes them accordingly. To make this work, this feature keeps a database of applications and their respective Internet-related attributes, including required bandwidth and desired latency. This database needs to be updated on a regular basis, and users can set the router to update it automatically or do that manually.
R7500's Dynamic QoS is also device-aware, meaning it knows the difference between gaming consoles, smart TVs, computers, smartphones, and so forth, and hence is able to allocate its bandwidth appropriately. This is very helpful, because even for a single task such as Netflix streaming, a difference in screen sizes translates into different bandwidth requirement for the same experience.
In my trial, Dynamic QoS worked well, but only when I used a slow or moderate Internet speed, around 25Mbps for download or slower. The faster the broadband connection is, the less likely you'll see any benefits. Since most residential broadband connects are just around 30Mbps or less, however, it will be a helpful feature for most users. Just note that turning this feature on (it's off by default) can also create unexpected outcomes. In my experience, Dynamic QoS seemed to interfere with my security IP cameras, making viewing live images and recordings become sluggish. This is likely because this type of application is not included, or well-defined, in the Dynamic QoS database.
Also, keep in mind that while you can turn Dynamic QoS on or off, there's no way to customize it. In the case of the Asus RT-AC87U, its Adaptive QoS includes a manual mode for those who want to program QoS rules for themselves.
Considering the powerful hardware, I naturally had high expectations for the R7500's performance. The router totally let me down. Since there is virtually no other 4x4 802.11ac client on the market, I used another R7500 unit in bridge mode for testing. I also tested it with 3x3 clients.
In 4x4 testing at a close range of 15 feet, the router registered a sustained speed of 205Mbps. When I increased the range to 100 feet, it now scored just 147Mbps. (By comparison, the Asus RT-AC87U scored 1030Mbps and 381Mbps in these test, respectively.)
Surprisingly, the R7500 did much better in tests with 3x3 clients, scoring sustained speeds of 382Mbps and 242Mbps for close and long range, respectively. However, these were just in the low average range among high-end 802.11ac routers. Still, note that R7500 is in fact a very fast router, just not as fast as its peers, and can handle all home networking needs.
Since that 802.11ac works only on the 5GHz frequency band, on the 2.4GHz, the R7500 remains an 802.11n router, and thus did much better with sustained speeds of 189Mbps and 119Mbps for close and long range, respectively. These were among the fastest of high-end routers.
The R7500 has a very long effective range, about the same as that of the Asus RT-AC87U, up to some 300 feet (91 meters). Effective range is the distance at which a client can connect to a Wi-Fi network and remain connected with a stable connection. Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are plenty of walls and many Wi-Fi devices, including those from adjacent buildings which are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal, and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
The router also passed my 48-hour stress test with no problems at all. During this time, it was set to transfer data constantly between multiple devices, both wired and wireless and of different Wi-Fi standards, and none of the clients disconnected even once.
The R7500 was at its best when hosting a storage device. Via a Gigabit connection, it scored sustained speeds of 34MBps for writing and 66MBps for reading. These were among the fastest I've seen in routers with NAS features, and comparable even with some dedicated NAS servers. Basically, with the R7500, all you need is a sizable external hard drive, and you'll also have yourself a great NAS server for data-sharing, media-streaming and data backup needs.
The Nighthawk X4 AC2350 Smart Wi-Fi R7500 Router is not a bad router, it's just that it needs to deliver much more to justify its price. At the same cost, the Asus RT-AC87U has more than twice sustained the 802.11ac speed, includes more features, and is also much easier to customize.
Chances are the R7500 will get better via future firmware updates, but for now, I can't find many reasons why you should buy one, other than its robust NAS feature. As a Wi-Fi router, for the most part the new R7500 is very much the same as the older R7000 model, but you'll pay $100 more for it.