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Reliable wi-fi transmission to large numbers of devices
New standard, yet to be ratified
Few client devices at the moment
"Network capacity is the new network speed". That's Netgear's pitch with its Nighthawk AX range of routers, based on the new 802.11ax wi-fi standard. Of course, this new standard -- also known by its marketing label Wi-Fi 6 -- does offer greater speed than the current 802.11ac standard when connecting to traditional client devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, the real goal of Wi-Fi 6 is to lay the foundations for the future Internet Of Things (IoT), by improving performance and reliability for the increasing range of smart devices -- lights, security cameras, televisions and more -- that are now being connected to wi-fi networks in homes and offices all over the world.
There are several models in the Nighthawk AX range, with the entry-level AX4 and mid-range AX8 routers being primarily aimed at home users who may have 20-30 devices connected to their home network. But for larger numbers of devices, the Nighthawk AX12 is the current top-of-the-range model, priced at £300 (ex. VAT; £360 inc. VAT, or $500). It also boasts a number of additional features that will appeal to business users who want to upgrade an office network, or a network in a public location such as a hotel or restaurant.
Design & features
The Nighthawk AX12 makes a striking first impression, with its eight internal antennae housed within large 'fins' that stretch up like wings on each side of the matte-black router. The hinged fins fold upwards and slot into place when you remove the router from its packaging, but they don't rotate freely -- as the individual antennas on many routers do. That's a potential weak spot: at one point I made the mistake of picking up the router by holding the fins, and while they didn't break I'd definitely be wary of doing that again.
That's our only minor criticism of the design, though, and the AX12 provides an impressive range of features for both wired and wireless connections. Businesses that still require wired connections for an office network are well catered for, with four Gigabit Ethernet ports available for wired connections, and a fifth WAN port for your internet connection. Two of those ports support 'dual Ethernet port aggregation', allowing you to combine them for 2Gbps performance, and there's also a separate 'Multi-Gig' interface that supports speeds of up to 5Gbps. The router also has two USB 3.0 ports for connecting hard drives for shared network storage. Oddly, though, there's no support for 10Gbps Ethernet, which is now available even on relatively affordable desktop computers, such as Apple's recently updated Mac Mini.
But, of course, it's the 802.11ax/Wi-Fi 6 features that justify the router's price tag. We have covered the technical details of the new standard elsewhere, but the key features of the AX12 include dual-band wi-fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, with 12 data streams providing a total data throughput of 6Gbps. As well as greater speed, the AX12 supports Wi-Fi 6 features such as OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). This improves the router's ability to transmit data to multiple devices simultaneously, while the high-power antennae are designed to boost the signal range as well.
The AX12 also supports the new WPA3 for enhanced security, as well as 802.11ax features such as TWT (Target Wake Time), which can help to improve battery life for devices, such as security cameras, that require an 'always on' network connection.
Netgear is also planning to release a tri-band version of the Nighthawk AX12 later this year, which will offer a top speed of 10.8Gbps and is designed for networks with more than 50 connected devices, with an anticipated price of around £350 (ex. VAT (or £420 inc. VAT, or $600). The 802.11ax standard won't be finally ratified until later this year, and the Nighthawk AX routers are based on the current 'Draft 3' version of the standard. However, Netgear has informed us that implementing the final standard should only require a relatively straightforward software update.
As you'd expect, the new 802.11ax is backwards-compatible with devices that support 802.11ac and older forms of wi-fi, so you can use Netgear's Nighthawk app to set up the router using any existing Android or iOS devices. The app guides you through the initial setup process quickly and easily, although its options for configuring the router and your wi-fi network are fairly limited.
By default, the router creates two separate networks on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, but the app's 'smart connect' option will create a single combined network and automatically connect devices to the fastest band that they support. It also allows you to create guest networks on either band, and to pause or block network access for individual devices. There are some simple diagnostic tools within the app as well, along with a traffic monitor that records data usage for the last two months.
Those features will certainly get your new network up and running quickly enough, but if you want more advanced configuration options you'll need to use the router's web browser interface, which is helpfully divided into 'Basic' and 'Advanced' sections for users with different levels of technical knowledge. Additional security features are available in the browser interface, along with remote management controls, and the ability to backup files over the network to a storage device that's attached to the router.
Few client devices, such as smartphones or laptops, currently support 802.11ax, so we tested the Nighthawk AX12 using a number of existing 802.11ac devices in our office. Even so, we still recorded significant improvements in both performance and range for the new Nighthawk network. Devices in the same room as our normal broadband router generally record speeds of around 250Mbps, but when connecting to the Nighthawk AX12 in that room we saw the speed more than double to 690Mbps. That's only slighter faster than a high-end, tri-band 802.11ac router, but still a strong performance given that the Nighthawk AX12 is only a dual-band router working with 802.11ac clients.
The real test, though, was using it to receive a wi-fi signal in our second office, further away at the back of the building. Our normal router tends to drop down to a speed of 180Mbps in that location, yet the AX12 kept going with a genuinely impressive 605Mbps -- far faster than any conventional 802.11ac router we've come across.
It's still early days for 802.11ax, and it's currently only Samsung's latest Galaxy smartphones that support the new standard, so there's certainly no immediate need to rush out and upgrade your office network with a new router.
However, the performance of the Nighthawk AX12 is undeniably impressive, so it's certainly worth considering if you're currently thinking about a network upgrade. And, with more and more smart devices being connected to office and home networks every day, it won't be long before a new 802.11ax router such as this is a must-have upgrade for many business users.