Netgear R8500 Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart WiFi Router review: Highly capable, but way too expensive

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.

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The R8500's web interface is bloated with lots of menu items and can be intimediating to first time users.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Setup required

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.

Bloated interface

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.

Fast performance

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.

CNET Labs' 5GHz Wi-Fi performance

Netgear R8500
632
329.6
D-Link DIR-890L/R
601.7
160.9
Linksys EA9200
577.8
242.7
Linksys WRT1900ACS
536.1
349.21
D-Link DIR-880L
525.6
212.8
Linksys WRT1200AC
522.6
246.8
Asus RT-AC68U
521.4
336
Linksys WRT1900AC
520.67
340.7
Asus RT-AC3200
513.7
289
Linksys E8350
511.1
304.6
Asus RT-AC87U
504.4
278.6
Netgear R8000
482.2
241.6
Linksys EA8500
437.8
272.4
Netgear R7000
432.1
295.4
Netgear R7500
381.7
242.4
Amped Wireless RTA2600
377.6
250.2
Amp Wireless RTA15
205.5
165.5

Legend:

Close range
Long range

Note:

Measured in megabits per second

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.

CNET Labs' 2.4GHz Wi-Fi performance

Asus RT-AC3200
235.7
66.4
Linksys EA9200
226.2
40.9
Asus RT-AC68U
225
211.4
Netgear R7500
188.8
119.3
Netgear R8500
179.4
66.6
Asus RT-AC87U
170.7
56
Linksys WRT1900ACS
170.3
58.6
Linksys WRT1900AC
168.3
50.34
D-Link DIR-880L
160.8
89.5
Linksys E8350
139.4
68.3
Linksys EA8500
138.7
57.1
Netgear R8000
134.4
57.6
D-Link DIR-890L/R
121.8
34.4
Netgear R7000
117.4
63.2
Amped Wireless RTA2600
98.4
45.2
Amp Wireless RTA15
74.6
35.2
Linksys WRT1200AC
57
41.6

Legend:

Close range
Long range

Note:

Measured in megabits per second

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.

Good range

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.

CNET Labs' router network storage performance

Linksys WRT1900ACS
97.0
87.72
Linksys EA8500
90.8
105.52
Linksys WRT1900AC
75.9
105.24
Linksys WRT1200AC
70.9
88.88
Netgear R8500
43.5
59.9
Netgear R8000
42.6
71.76
Asus RT-AC68U
41.2
53.86
Netgear R7000
38.6
60.1
Securifi Almond+
38.5
48.5
Linksys E8350
37.8
85.47
D-Link DIR-890L/R
35.5
65.23
Netgear R7500
33.9
65.86
Amped Wireless RTA2600
31.3
58.78
Asus RT-AC3200
27.5
28.79
D-Link DIR-880L
27.4
44
Asus RT-AC87U
27.2
32.31
Apple Time Capsule
25.8
28.67
D-Link DIR-868L
12.5
12.81

Legend:

Write
Read

Note:

Measured in megabytes per second. Longer bars mean better performance.

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.

Conclusion

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.