Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart WiFi Router review: Highly capable, but way too expensive
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.
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.
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?
Yes, it has two, one USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0. You can use these ports to connect an external storage device or a printer. Unfortunately, these ports are located on the router's right side, likely to make quite a bit of clutter when you attach an external hard drive to it. It would be better if these ports were placed on the back of the router.
Familiar feature set, but not user-friendly
The R8500 shares the same Netgear Genie interface as the previous R7000 and R8000 and the same set of features. And this is not a good thing. Before I go into the details, keep in mind that as a high-end router, the R8500 has all the common settings and features found in routers of its tiers, such as port forwarding, dynamic DNS, MAC filtering, guest networking, IPv6 support and so on. Basically, you can expect to use it to set up the kind of networking services that you'd want for a home.
First of all, the router comes with a preset Wi-Fi network printed on a label attached to its top, but in my experience, I couldn't just use the router right out of the box. This is because I needed to first log in to the router's interface and allow it to run the initial wizard before the router could successfully connect to the Internet. This is especially true if you use the router behind another gateway, such as if you live in a dorm or a condo with shared Internet access. The only time you might be able to use the X8 right out of the box with its default settings, is when you connect the router directly to a broadband modem (and not a modem/router combo.)
To access the router's interface, per the instructions, just point a browser from a connected computer to http://www.routerlogin.net (or the router's default IP address which 192.168.1.1) and log in with the default username and password, which are admin and password. Once logged in, I was greeted with links to download software, instead of going directly into the router's interface. It took me a while to find the link that opened up the interface itself
Note that no software is needed to use the router, but it seems Netgear insists that users install the Netgear Genie desktop software on their computers. I tried the software anyway and it while was easier to use, it didn't offer access to most of the router's advanced features and settings. In the end, it's a better idea to use the Web interface, if you want to get the most out of the router, even though the interface itself is not the best I've seen.
The interface is bloated with many menus and submenus. For example, there's the Basic section, which offers some items to quickly setup the router, and you will also find Setup and Advanced Setup items in the Advanced section, each will open up to even more subitems. Having so many menu items, the interface makes it quite hard to find the settings you need and you can get lost between so many choices and options. What's more, some of the router's features, such as Parental control, or ReadyShare, will require you to download more software, or open another website for extra registration, to use.
Overall, to get the most out of the router's feature set, it can be quite tiring for first-time users. If you want an advanced router that has a much easier to use interface, I'd recommend one from Asus, such as the RT-AC3200.
Buggy mobile app
Apart from the Web interface, you can also use Netgear Genie mobile app (available for Android and iOS). This app is very similar to the desktop app of the same name, offering limited access to the router's setting and features. The app works right away when you're in the local network hosted by the R8500. If you want to use it when you're out and about, it requires a confusing registration process. And in my testing with an iPhone 6S and an iPad Mini running iOS 9.1, it crashed frequently.
Limited Wi-Fi settings and no Time Machine backup support
With three Wi-Fi bands, the R8500 can host three main Wi-Fi networks, one for each band. Or you can combine the two 5GHz bands into one network in the Smart Connect mode. In either case, you have limited customization options.
For example, you can customize each network to operate at "up to" a specified top speed, which is kind of redundant since there's no reason not to pick the highest number. Unlike other routers, the R8500 doesn't allow you to make a network work in a specific Wi-Fi standard, such as 802.11ac, or 802.11n. So if you want the 5GHz band to only host 802.11ac clients and not 802.11n clients, there's no way to do that.
When hosting an external hard drive, the R8500 can work both as a file server and a media server, streaming content to a networked media player. However, you can't make the connected hard drive the backup destination for Time Machine. This is a major shortcoming for Mac users.
I tested the the R8500 both on 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands and it did well for the most part.
Top score on 5GHz band
On the 5GHz band, when working with a three-stream client, the router topped the chart with 630Mb/s of sustained Wi-Fi speed at a close range of 15 feet, some 30Mb/s faster than the runner up on the chart. When I increased the distance to 100 feet, it then scored 330Mb/s, which is among the top three fastest.
Average score on 2.4GHz band
On the 2.4GHz frequency, it was a different story; the R8500 didn't stand out at all compared with other high-end router, registering 179Mb/s and 67Mb/s for close and long range, respectively. In fact it was even slower than its older brother the R7500. In all, its performance on this band was about the high average among 802.11ac routers. To be fair, the performance on the 2.4GHz band has always been like this for all 802.11ac routers. In other words, if you want fast Wi-Fi, it's a must to use 5GHz clients.
Outstanding Wi-Fi signal stability
The R8500 did very well in my stress test, during which it was set to transfer data between multiple wireless clients. Over more than three days, it didn't disconnect even once. This was likely thanks to the active antennas that help deliver very high signal quality.
The R8500 had good range in my testing, slightly farther than that of the R8000, but not quite as far as that of the R7000. In my trials, it showed an effective range of around 180 feet, which wasn't the best I've seen but better than many others. In real-life usage, expect the range to be shorter if you live in a house with thick walls and to be longer if you're in a place with lots of open spaces.
Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are obstacles and many Wi-Fi devices that can change without notice and are out of my control. Generally, obstacles such as 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.
Average network storage performance
When coupled with a portable drive plugged into its USB 3.0 port, the R85o0 delivered decent speed as a network storage server. Via a Gigabit connection, it scored a sustained data rate of 43MB/s for writing and 60MB/s for reading. A year ago, these numbers could be considered excellent, but compared with recently reviewed routers, they were just above the average. The Linksys EA8500, for example, scored more than double that for both writing and reading. Nonetheless, the X8's performance was fast enough for local media streaming and file sharing. But considering its port aggregation feature, you best get a high-end NAS server to use with it.
At $400, the R8500 Nighthawk X8 is way too expensive a router with no standout features that make it a must-buy.
While I love the fact that you can combine two of its LAN ports to deliver a super-fast wired connection to a compatible device, for about $300, you could also combine an AC1900 router like the Linksys WRT1900ACS and a separate Gigabit switch with port aggregation and achieve the same thing.
Also, while the R8500 delivered great overall performance, it's not the fastest I've ever tested. A part of me feels like if you're spending $400 on a router, it should be the very fastest router, with the longest range there is, in addition to the many other features it has. Now, since the R8500 is a tri-band router, it's able to spread its available bandwidth over three different bands. So, if you have a really high number -- like 10 or more -- of active devices -- devices that are actually being used and not just sitting there dormant -- connected to the R8500 at one time, you'll see faster speeds on those connected devices than if you had the same devices connected to a normal dual-band router like the Netgear R7000 , or the Asus RT-AC68U .
Unless you're planning to have that many active devices connected, there's no good reason right now to spend $400 on the R8500. You're much better off going with the Linksys WRT1900ACS , which costs only about $200 and delivers a super long ranges and some of the fastest Wi-Fi speed of any router I've tested. If you're strapped for cash, consider the single-band TP-Link WR841N . It's less than $20 and though it doesn't have the bells and whistles of more expensive routers, it delivers somewhat similar Wi-Fi performance on the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band.