Despite being a crucial component in keeping your network speedy, the humble router is an item that frequently ends up on the list of afterthoughts when putting a home computer setup together. For those looking to keep ping low, especially for gaming, the Netgear Nighthawk X8 AC5300 Smart Wi-Fi Router represents a sound, but very expensive investment.
This is an 802.11ac router, capable of up to 5.3Gbps of Wi-Fi bandwidth over three separate channels, and it comes packed to the gills with just about every feature you could ever want in a router. It’s got beamforming. It’s got MU-MIMO. It can be run as both a DLNA and an FTP server. It comes with built-in VPN utility, and it comes with security features like firewalls and built-in DoS protection.
If you are someone who doesn’t know a damned thing about routers, nothing in that last paragraph is going to mean anything to you so allow me to translate: this is a router will give you fast, strong coverage, and it’s got everything but the kitchen sink in terms of features.
Here’s the thing though — all this juice comes at a price. You might want to sit down for this. The Netgear Nighthawk X8 has an RRP of AU$699. If you need to take a minute to let that wash over you, feel free.
The pricetag isn’t the only thing that’s huge about the Nighthawk X8. Subtlety was not in the Nighthawk’s design manifesto. Perhaps they saw this old JonTron clip and took its wisdom to heart:
The Nighthawk X8 is three times the size of any other router I’ve ever owned. It’s jet black and has four giant antennas on the back, each with a blue LED strip along the top. It looks like something that could turn into a Decepticon at any moment. It looks like it could comfortably house a family of four under the right conditions. The LED’s are so bright that when I went out to get a glass of water in the middle of the night, it looked like the ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind had landed in my kitchen. Unless you can nestle it in with a home theatre setup, this thing is going to destroy any interior aesthetic your home might have.
The device itself is flat along the top, but you shouldn’t dare stack anything on top of it. Doing so would only cause the device to overheat. That’s right, this is a router that asks you to take its cooling process into consideration. This means is you’ll have to find a nice bit of open space that the router can sit in all by itself — no easy task given its size. There really is no tucking this one away. It will sit on a desk or benchtop, it’s LED’s blazing angrily.
Around the back are seven Gigabit Ethernet ports — one for running internet to the router and four that are your standard LAN ports. The remaining pair are aggregated ports and these should be used for higher bandwidth to top-of-the-line NAS arrangements. If you don’t know what that means then you likely won’t need to worry about them. You’ve also got a USB 3.0 and a USB 2.0 port on there, which will be great if you plan to attach any network storage or devices.
It’s the wireless performance that’s the real showstopper here, however. Using that 802.11ac Wi-Fi to push the speed up to 5.3Gbps across various devices, the average home would see a profound jump in performance. My home, however, is the router equivalent of Thunderdome. At our peak, we had five people living under our roof, four of them gaming enthusiasts. While our walls are only slightly thicker than grease-proof paper, our usage is gruelling. Peak hours would regularly see a battle for decent ping going on — Netflix, downloads, games on consoles and PC’s and no less than six smartphones and tablets dangling from the network.
Here’s the remarkable thing, though: the Nighthawk X8 didn’t even break a sweat. I asked everyone to go HAM on the internet all at once — download, stream and game like mad and we’ll see what it looks like. It looked good. Our Overwatch ping rose no higher than 40ms during this onslaught. That’s a big tick in the router’s favour, especially one that is aimed at power users like this one — latency is the problem to be solved, download speeds are ancillary.
The coverage is really something too. We live in a one-story home and it’s covered end-to-end with no blackspots or dips. Indeed, after taking my phone on a walk with me, I was able to pick up the Nighthawk X8 from the end of my street (so I’m glad our password’s a strong one).
Accessing the router’s admin tools is pretty straightforward. You can get in via any web browser, as is standard on most routers (and this will pop up the first time you connect the router). The web interface is pretty simple and I had no trouble getting the router on its feet. The process took only a few minutes and, given that this is a router built for People Who Know What They Are Doing, this ease of use came as a relief.
The web interface is actually very cleverly put together. The list of router functions is ordered by degrees of complexity. The easy, everyday stuff is at the top, the power user/tweaker options are at the bottom. The easy stuff assumes you’re a beginner and labels every on/off switch with its function, often stopping to ask you simple questions like “Do you have any other routers on this network?” to help you out.
When you start monkeying with the more complex stuff, like Port Forwarding, the router will simply leave you to it, assuming that you are one of those people who Know What They Are Doing.
The second way to access the router is through the Netgear Genie app, which is available for desktop and mobile. It lets you easily manipulate the router settings and check your diagnostics. Better yet, you don’t need to be on the same network to run it. This will be very beneficial for those who have their room mates text them at work complaining that the internet has gone down. It also lets you change the network prioritisation without having to alt-tab out of your game.
With its over-the-top AU$700 price tag, the Nighthawk X8 certainly isn’t going to be for everyone. The vast majority of users will notice an immediate jump in performance, especially those running a lot of different systems. If gaming is your big priority and low, low ping your white whale then the Netgear Nighthawk X8 is going to get you about as close to lag-free as possible. It’s huge and a bit of an ugly duckling, yes, but it’s also set-and-forget and that counts for a lot.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Reliable; Fast; Can take a beating in terms of network traffic; Great for gaming
Lowlights: Crazy expensive; Gigantic chassis