Having good Wi-Fi in your house makes life so much easier. Faster speeds mean you can stream HD video from your PC to TV without tangling cables all over the place. The extra range means you can check emails in your car before you back out of the driveway. Netgear's Nighthawk R7000 router promises all that and more.
What Is It?
Routers generally aren't the most modern or attractive pieces of technology, but Netgear's R7000 actually looks pretty great. It's nicknamed the Nighthawk, presumably because its sloping angular sides and three trapezoidal antennae look vaguely like the stealthy F-117. Like most other super-high-speed 802.11ac routers, it's quite large, measuring 285 x 185 x 50mm — and that's with the antennae disconnected.
Netgear claims the R7000 is the fastest router available today, and at least on paper, it is — with AC1900-rated Wi-Fi, it has maximum theoretical transfer speeds of 1300Mbps 802.11ac and 600Mbps 802.11n, using beamforming and simultaneous dual-band frequencies to deliver seriously fast performance for plenty of wireless devices at the same time. It's the equal fastest-rated wireless router you can buy, so if you pick it, you'll be future-proofing your network for several years to come.
Apart from some side vents and a Netgear logo on the top, the Nighthawk is a basic and reasonably un-noteworthy grey box — apart from its sharply sloping wings. 12 status lights across the top front of the R7000 cover everything from power, Internet connection status, 2.4GHz and 5GHz, connected USB devices, LAN clients, and so on. There's no way to turn these lights off that I could find, but at least they're not especially bright. (Update: apparently the lights can be disabled as of the latest firmware update.)
Around the back is where the magic happens. Along with the three antenna ports distributed across the back panel's left, right and centre, there's the 12V DC power jack, power button, a USB 2.0 port, WAN jack for Internet (from the modem you'll have to have alongside the Nighthawk) and four gigabit-capable LAN ports. Everything is as you'd expect, although it would have been nice for Netgear to include at least one extra LAN port with the number of wired devices an enthusiast might have.
What Is It Good At?
Like any good modern router, the Netgear Nighthawk is fast. I recorded impressive transfer speeds over 802.11ac (using a Linksys WRT-1900AC configured as a bridge, connected to a LG UltraPC, which has its own internal 802.11ac Wi-Fi chipset by Intel that is only capable of 867Mbps), and over a huge range compared to even the best 802.11n option.
Netgear Nighthawk R7000: Performance
Wireless: 802.11ac, 2m: 82MBps 802.11ac, 10m: 66MBps 802.11ac, 15m: 52MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 2m: 41MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 10m: 41MBps 802.11n 5GHz, 15m: 36MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 2m: 35MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 10m: 28MBps 802.11n 2.4GHz, 15m: 18MBps USB 3.0: 1GB: 28MBps 5GB: 24MBps USB 2.0: 1GB: 19MBps 5GB: 18MBps
These speeds are, by and large, pretty good. Compared to a recent high-end 802.11n router, the R7000's top 802.11ac speed of 82MBps — 656Mbps in the old money — is very impressive, and the speeds are largely maintained all the way to 10 metres' range. Moving out to 15m — the outside range of even larger residential properties in any built-up area — the R7000 can still deliver 52MBps, so it's more than fast enough for quick file transfers or 1080p video streaming to a PC or media player.
As a general rule, 802.11n 5GHz has faster throughput but a somewhat shorter range, while 2.4GHz has a lower outright speed but has the tradeoff of a longer outright range. Of course, 802.11ac trumps both, as long as you have a compatible device. Since I tested the Nighthawk out with a Samsung Galaxy S5, LG UltraPC and Samsung Galaxy NotePRO, there was no reason to fall back on 802.11n
Being one of the new, significantly more powerful breed of Wi-Fi routers, the Nighthawk also has pretty decent USB 2.0 and 3.0 transfer rates to a PC connected either wirelessly or over Ethernet. If you want to use the R7000 as an impromptu NAS and either transfer files to or from a PC or watch videos on a TV or other media player, it'll serve decently for DVD or 720p video. I found it struggled to smoothly show 1080p content where my ioSafe N2 performed flawlessly, so it's not perfect, but for an all-in-one device it does a good job.
Netgear's Genie app for iOS and Android lets you monitor most of the facets of the Nighthawk's performance. It's not especially noteworthy, but it does a good job of showing you an overview of what's going on without presenting too much info at once. Routers are generally set-and-forget, so it isn't too important to have an app, but the Genie app does the job without any significant complaints from me.
What Is It Not Good At?
The setup procedure for the Netgear R7000 is a little intimidating. Unlike its competitors, when setting the router up via a PC you'll have to first connect to its default wireless network (printed on the base of its plastic shell) which is password protected or use WPS, whereafter a Web browser page loads with the setup procedure. This is a little more involved than other modern routers, which generally start up with an open Wi-Fi network and then prompt you to secure it as part of the setup procedure. You'll do just fine if you can follow Netgear's instructions to the letter, but other brands do it a little better. At the end of the day, once the router is set up, there's no difference.
The R7000 is also somewhat limited by its software — it isn't able to function purely as a wireless bridge, for example. That's not something you'd generally want to do with such an expensive wireless router, but there are some times when you might need to, and this isn't the right device for that job. (Update: the R7000 can be used solely as a bridge, according to Netgear. So that's another point in its favour.)
Like other high-end 802.11ac routers, the Nighthawk is expensive. The cheapest I was able to find it online was $239, and it's a full $319 at JB Hi-Fi, although online prices generally hover around the $259 point. For a router with no internal ADSL2+ modem this is a lot of money, so the R7000 is necessarily restricted to knowledgeable networking enthusiasts who want the absolute best from their home networks.
It's also quite large, and its antennae are long. This is a very minor point, but I generally keep all my networking gear hidden away under my computer desk, and there's not a lot of room to spare. You could fit my usual Dovado Pro inside the R7000, with its antennae connected, and you could say the same of almost any garden-variety 802.11n or older router. If you're tight on space, the Nighthawk might be asking a bit much.
Should You Buy It?
If you need a fast router, and don't mind having an external modem for your actual Internet connection — and you're happy to set up the network in the first place — the Nighthawk R7000 fills that role perfectly adequately. It looks good, runs reliably, and has an expanded feature-set that should be an additional selling point for any potential buyer.
It's not perfect in any aspect of its performance, but it fills all of its possible roles pretty well and you get a lot of bang for your buck. If you're buying the $259 Netgear Nighthawk, you'll also be future-proofing your home network for a few years to come. It's a qualified yes, but if I was in the market for a 802.11ac router — and I soon will be — the R7000 would be sitting near the top of my list.