Sleek, militarized and ahead of its time, Netgear’s Nighthawk R7000 802.11ac wireless router emanates pure masculine sex appeal: It looks like the future of routers – and technically, its AC1900 specification leads nearly all competitors. It also offers Netgear’s proprietary Beamforming+, which greatly increases the reliability and network speed at distances, compared to traditional Beamforming technology. But does the Nighthawk successfully penetrate consumer airspace or will it end up dropping a bomb on takeoff?
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The $199.99 Nighthawk comes with a militarized design, inspired by the clean lines of the Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft.
Competition in the AC1900 niche is quite steep. There’s the very well-regarded ASUS RT-AC68U ($219.99), which Netgear sued ASUS over. Specifically, the lawsuit charged that ASUS illegally modified the AC68U’s broadcast range to fall outside the legal limit, imposed by the FCC. I don’t endorse criminality, but that’s probably a sign the router offers powerful performance. There’s also the Linksys EA6900 ($199.99), which offers performance on part with the Nighthawk (but wasn’t sued for illegal broadcast range/power).
The Nighthawk comes packaged inside a simple box, which includes an RJ45 networking cable, a power supply, instruction manuals and three, very large WiFi antennas, which screw onto the back of the device.
The Nighthawk’s sleek design, quite obviously, apes the recently retired F-117 Nighthawk, a radar resistant “stealth” attack aircraft in the United States military inventory. The router uses a variety of hard angles in its build, giving it a similar, slender profile with the aesthetic resemblance of a black gemstone. It employs a USB 2.0 port in the back, in addition to a front-mounted USB 3.0 port. The USB port allows the Nighthawk to access external storage at speeds approaching 5 Gbit/s – ten times the speed of USB 2.0. I assume the USB 2.0 port exists for connecting to network printers.
An aesthetic flourish that sets it apart from similar routers is its use of white LED connectivity lights, instead of the ubiquitous blue. I found the white lights to be more visible, although difficult to sleep next to. Overall, it’s a mixed bag.
- Dual core 1GHz ARM CPU
- 256MB RAM
- 128MB internal storage
- 1 x Gigabyte WAN port
- 4 x Gigabyte LAN ports
- OpenVPN: You can log into your home network, securely, using VPN.
- DD-WRT: The Nighthawk supports DD-WRT firmware, meaning users can install such software as Tomato to gain granular control over the R7000’s features.
- 256QAM: The latest standard that allows faster wireless transfer speeds.
- Quality of Service (QoS): This is a proprietary stream technology, which, according to Netgear, improves streaming video quality.
Getting Started with the Nighthawk
Like most Netgear products, configuring and using the Nighthawk took a minimal amount of work.
The physical setup process required less than a minute of my time, like most of Netgear’s newest routers in the R6000 series. I first connected the antennas, plugged in the WAN cable and the power cable and it turned on immediately. The process required connecting to the R7000’s network and entering its key. After that, I then opened my browser and clicked through two screens.
It automatically performed a local address IP change, which prevented a conflict with my Internet service provider. Finally, I opened my browser and accessed Netgear’s NetGenie application. The internal memory of the R7000 permits a few configuration apps to run, which greatly simplifies tweaking router settings. In the past, everything required manual configuration. Fortunately, the more recent generations of router provide instantaneous and automatic operation. In terms of simplicity of operation and set up, Netgear’s R7000 is a top-performer.
Coming from the Netgear R6200’s simple set up, I already knew the absolute simplicity with which the R7000 Nighthawk configures. Going from plugging the device in to receiving Internet access took less than a minute, with virtually no input on my end, aside from clicking “okay” several times. On the other hand, if you use a wireless router-modem combination (a common device among the big telecoms) you must disable the wireless feature on your router-modem or otherwise you’ll get interference and slower and more unreliable network speeds.
The R7000 Nighthawk features, technically, AC1900 data transfer speeds, Netgear’s Beamforming+ proprietary variant on Beamforming technology and outstanding broadcast range.
Dual-band routers offer better connection quality and speed over single-band. They broadcast at both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. While 2.4GHz offers better range, 5GHz provides better speed, particularly for streaming videos and other online content. All dual-band routers offer two separate SSIDs, one for 2.4GHz and one for 5GHz. The user chooses which provides better connectivity to their device. In apartment complexes, 2.4GHz tends to be overloaded with users. In houses, walls tend to impede the 5GHz band.
I compared the R7000’s performance against an older R6200 router. The R6200 uses an internal antenna and doesn’t offer Beamforming+ technology. It’s important to note that Beamforming+ only works with compatible wireless adapters.
- One wall: With one wall between the R6200 and a non-Beamforming wireless-N adapter, streaming on the 5GHz bandwidth was problematic. I frequently experienced freezes using Netflix. Using the R7000 Nighthawk, the connection problems vanished. Using a Beamforming+ adapter, I noticed no qualitative difference with the R7000.
- Two walls: My wireless-N adapter couldn’t stream video at all on the 5GHz wavelength to the R6200. On the other hand, it managed to connect, and stream video, with the R7000. It’s worth noting that Beamforming+ appears to offer an advantage over a non-Beamforming+ adapter in this scenario.
USB 2.0 Bottleneck
Netgear recommended the A6200 USB 2.0 WiFi adapter, which its marketing department erroneously claims to offer AC1200 connect speeds, despite the unfortunate lack of USB 3.0 support. In theory, the Nighthawk can hit transfer speeds of 1300 mbps on the 5GHz spectrum and 600 mbps on 2.4GHz.
While the A6200 WiFi adapter does technically use AC1200 technology and Beamforming+, its throughput remains bottlenecked by the maximum 480 mbps transfer speeds of USB 2.0. We remain confused as to why Netgear would release an AC1900 Beamforming+ router without also releasing alongside it a wireless adapter capable of exploiting those kinds of stupendous transfer speeds.
I managed to transfer data over my internal network at around 16-25 mbps, which falls short of the maximum transfer rate permitted by USB 2.0. Technically, USB 2.0’s maximum transfer rate is 480 mbps, but real world transfer rates tend to fall substantially below that due to various bottlenecks and other limitations.
For example, my RAID 5 array’s maximum transfer rate is approximately 8,500kbps (or around 8.5 mbps). I should also note that many reviewers posted transfer speeds using the same adapter that exceeded the theoretical speed of USB 2.0. Possibly I am doing something terribly wrong.
By directly wiring my USB 2.0 hard drive to the Nighthawk, my transfer rates inched closer to the real-world maximum transfer rate of USB 2.0. It’s worth noting that your transfer rates will decline substantially on the 5GHz wireless spectrum with more walls between you and the router. That’s where Beamforming+ comes in.
Netgear’s proprietary variation on wireless-AC’s Beamforming, Beamforming+, improves wireless connectivity at range and through barriers. Netgear claims its technology offers better wireless network connectivity – in my testing, this proves true. Compared to a non-Beamforming+ Nexus 5 device (read our review on the Nexus 5), the A6200 wireless-AC dongle shows better connectivity, including transfer speeds when walls and distance present problems.
One of Netgear’s best practices is their consistent policy toward keeping even older devices updated with the latest firmware. As with many other Netgear devices, the R7000 received a firmware update while in my possession. The R7000 is not an exception to this rule.
As you can see from the screenshot, updating the firmware just required clicking “yes”. The process remains one of the easiest I’ve ever dealt with. Although some routers do automatically update, the difference is relatively trivial.
Another handy feature is Netgear’s ReadyShare app, which makes it a snap to configure network storage or printers.
Broadcast coherency and range remains the strongest feature of the R7000. Using a variety of wireless adapters, I compared the R7000 against the older Netgear R6200. To my surprise, the R7000 maintained better quality connections at greater distances than the R6200. It particularly excels at streaming video over the 5GHz channel at ranges which the R6200 couldn’t match.
On a lark, I took my Nexus 5 out into the parking lot of my apartment complex to see if the connection would hold. It was at over a 100-feet distance, with several walls between, that the connection finally dropped out. For broadcasting range, you can’t go wrong with the Nighthawk.
On the Downside
The R7000 suffers from two serious problems: First, it’s impossible to fully test its maximum transfer speeds on a Beamforming+ device and it’s not a great improvement over cheaper wireless-AC routers.
Impossible to Test Maximum Transfer Speeds
As mentioned prior, Netgear didn’t release the R7000 alongside a wireless-AC adapter capable of hitting the advertised speeds of AC1900. Therefore if you want Beamforming+ (and you should), you won’t get the fastest transfer speeds of 1300 mbps + 600 mbps.
Not a Big Improvement
While its range and superiority at streaming make it a clear advancement over the older R6200, those owning an AC1200 or AC1300 router may not find the R7000 to be much of an improvement.
While the Nighthawk compares favorably against its competitors at the $200 price point, it’s not a tremendous upgrade over its predecessor, the AC6200. Is it worth more than twice the price of a refurbished AC6200? I would say no, but that’s only because no adapter with Beamforming+ can max out the Nighthawk’s transfer speeds. You may be better off with either an older device or another AC1900 router.
But if you’ve never owned an 802.11ac router, you may benefit greatly from the Nighthawk. Before buying, weigh the pros and cons of whether you should update to a wireless-AC router.
MakeUseOf recommends: For future-proofing, it’s a great buy. But for current needs, you’ll get a better deal from a cheaper router.
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