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MiFi-style wireless routers have fallen out of fashion, thanks to smartphones with good data plans and coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. But there's still a place for portable cellular connectivity, especially in a world of hybrid work where the option of being online anywhere has great value. Netgear's Nighthawk M5 5G WiFi 6 Mobile Router is an attempt to update the MiFi form factor for modern demands.
The Netgear Nighthawk M5 (MR5200) costs £779.99 (inc. VAT; £649.99 ex. VAT) in the UK, or $699.99 in the US.
A simple black box with an LCD touch screen on the top, the Nighthawk M5 has two ports: RJ-45 Ethernet and a dual-purpose USB-C connector for tethering laptops and powering the router. Inside there's a slot for a 5040mAh battery and a Micro-SIM card. The bottom pops off easily, allowing you to remove the battery and swap out SIMs as needed. The Nighthawk M5 also has two TS-9 antenna connectors for working with external MIMO antenna to increase range.
Under the hood is Qualcomm's Snapdragon X55 chipset. This is a standalone set of 5G hardware, with both modem and RF components. It's one of the better 5G customer premises chipsets, supporting MIMO antennae and capable of using all the bandwidth in a 5G signal for impressive download speeds. Wi-Fi performance is good, with Wi-Fi 6 (dual-band 2.4/5GHz 802.11ax) support for up to 1.8Gbps. We were able to get speeds of over 200Mbps in a busy London suburb in a home with relatively poor indoor 5G performance.
Getting started is simple enough. Put in a SIM, make sure the battery is charged and turn on the router. You'll be prompted to set up a network SSID and password, as well as adding an admin password for the device's web-based admin tool. Usefully all this is handled on the device, using the touch screen and an on-display keyboard. We did find you needed to make a relatively firm press on the keys, so take your time if you don't want to have to reset the device after an inadvertent typo!
The router will then connect to your cellular provider, displaying the signal strength and how much data has been used. The display serves as a reminder of your wireless network, showing the number of connected devices and giving access to quick on-device settings.
While the on-device quick start is enough to get you started, not everything can be managed from the device's screen -- it's for relatively simple tasks like setting SSID and passwords, as well as managing tethering. More complex tasks, like managing the build DHCP server and changing device IP ranges, need the web-based admin tool or the Netgear Mobile app, which is available for both Android and iOS.
This is perhaps the Nighthawk M5's biggest drawback: it's hard to remember which admin tool you need to complete which task. It's fair enough to have a limited UI on a small LCD screen, but when your mobile admin app forces you to use the web for complex tasks it's clear that there are too many tools.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax); AX1800 max throughput (1.2Gbps on 5GHz, 600Mbps on 2.4GHz)
Number of devices supported over Wi-Fi
Up to 32
105mm x 105mm x 21.5mm (4.14in. x 4.14in. x 0.85in.)
240g (0.54lbs) with battery
2.4-inch LCD touch screen
Up to 13 hours on a single charge
Netgear Mobile (Android, iOS)
$699.99, £779.99 (inc. VAT; £649.99 ex. VAT)
Save battery life
One of the Nighthawk M5's more interesting features is its support for battery-free operation. Keeping a battery on charge can significantly reduce its life, so if you're using the M5 as a 5G wireless broadband access point for a wired network, you can simply pop out the battery and restart. The router will run off its USB-C power supply while it provides Wi-Fi and wired connectivity.
While the device will warn you that the battery isn't installed, the warning is quickly dismissed. Removing the battery when you're working in one place for a long time and have access to power makes sense, especially when you're considerably reducing the risk of catastrophic battery failure.
With the battery removed, the Nighthawk M5 behaves much like any other Wi-Fi access point, with some additional features that make it a useful option for small offices and for edge computing. While you can use it to quickly provide Wi-Fi anywhere there's a 4G or 5G signal, there's also the interesting option of using it in what Netgear calls 'Always-on Wi-Fi' mode. Here you're using the device as a standard Ethernet-connected wireless router. However, if it detects loss of internet connectivity, it'll automatically switch to its 5G modem.
Other options include support for data offloading, where the router works with an external Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection to reduce load on your cellular data connection. This approach has the added advantage of letting you use the Nighthawk M5 as a travel router, sharing one Wi-Fi connection between multiple devices. Just make sure you're using a separate IP address range from the host Wi-Fi network.
I've been using the Nighthawk M5 for failover connectivity in a small/home office network, connecting it to the Ethernet WAN port on a Draytek broadband router. It's installed near the router, close to the main windows. While performance is good, it is limited by being indoors. There's the option of using an external MIMO 5G antenna, connected to its TS-9 ports, which can be mounted outside the house.
It's important to note that this isn't a budget device. Like much of the Nighthawk family, the M5 carries a premium price. However, you do get premium performance to go with it. Paired with an unlimited data plan it's a good alternative to fixed-line broadband, with the added option of being portable. Slip it in a pocket or travel bag and your laptop will have excellent connectivity -- as long as you're in a 5G area.