Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart WiFi Router (R7000) review

Excellent throughput and range at the 5GHz band, lots of features (including full VPN)—plus a cool name—all make the Nighthawk one of the best routers we've seen from Netgear in a while, despite a few annoyances.
Photo of Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart WiFi Router (R7000)

The Nighthawk, is Netgear’s latest router in the company’s premium dual-band 802.11ac router line-up. The router looks as cool as its name suggests, with a trapezoid design and flared sides. The shape is reminiscent of the famed fighter jet of the same name. Yet the Nighthawk (model R7000) is not just dressed to impress: Excellent speeds on the 5GHz band when paired with Netgear’s latest mini 11ac A6100 USB adapter and enhanced Quality-of-Service (QoS) that really shortens the time to buffer and stream video make the Nighthawk one of the top 802.11ac routers currently on the market for heavy-duty throughput tasks.

It’s not a perfect device, with just okay throughput at 2.4GHz—at least testing in a heavy RF signal environment. It also takes quite some time to apply settings changes. However, with 802.11ac, the speed factor is most important at 5GHz, and the Nighthawk delivers the goods not just in data rate but in range, too. Bonus for router geeks: Nighthawk can be flashed with open-source firmware.

Specs and Design
The R7000 is a large router. It measures 1.97″ x 11.22″ x 7.26″ (HWD) and weighs a little over 1.6 pounds. Netgear revamped the design from its last release of dual-band routers including the Centria and the R6300, both of which have an upright design with the devices meant to operate vertically in attached bases.

The Nighthawk operates horizontally (although it can be wall-mounted). The design represents Netgear’s slickest router look yet. The wide base of the R7000 makes it very sturdy, even with cables connected to every port. With its wide base and rubber feet, this big router won’t slip and slide all over a surface.

A beefy router certainly deserves beefy specs. Inside the Nighthawk is a dual-core 1GHz processor—powerful, for a consumer router. The R7000 supports 600Mbps at 2.4GHz and up to 1300Mbps at the 5GHz band. Three external antennas ship with the router and attach to the back panel. The R7000 also has 128MB flash memory and 256MB RAM.
There are two USB ports; one on the front of the router and the second on the rear. The front port is USB 3.0 and the back port is USB 2.0. The USB 3.0 port was deliberately placed on the front, away from the 2.4GHz radio, to reduce Wi-Fi signal interference. Both ports support USB storage and printers.

On the back panel are Gigabit WAN and four Gigabit LAN ports, a reset button, and a power button. LEDs on the top of the router indicate wireless, Internet, USB device connection, and other network activity status.

I wasn’t surprised that with its hardware specs, the R7000 runs a tad warm. Not hot, just a little warmer than room temperature. I would place it in a location with good air circulation.

One other design aspect to note: The brick on the power cord is huge. It is thin, though, so you shouldn’t have a problem placing it alongside other power adapters in a strip plug.

Setup
As is the case with most of the newer routers, the R7000 is easy to set up. An installation guide is in the package and outlines the few steps needed to set the device up. The instructions are clear, concise, and easy to follow.

The last step instructs users to launch a Web browser to finish configuration. When I did, a page displayed that the router was successfully connected to the Internet and the pre-configured wireless SSID and passphrase. I had the option to print this page or click a button “Take me to the internet.” Clicking this button redirected the page to Netgear’s external website where I could download management apps for the router, including the Genie desktop or mobile app, the ReadyVault app (for using the router as part of a backup solution), or access a link for help and support.

I have reviewed the two aforementioned apps, and they have not changed significantly since those reviews. You can read the provided link to the reviews for more details. The R7000′s setup process is streamlined, well done, and should not present a problem for most users.

QoS
A feature Netgear is highlighting in the Nighthawk is enhanced QoS. I tested it, and am happy to say that, in my testing, the QoS capability of this router isn’t just hype. The QoS feature is excellent at optimizing video streaming.

Enabling QoS requires configuring a few settings in the interface. You can turn on WMM (Wi-Fi MultiMedia) for either the 2.4 or 5GHz signals (or both). WMM, is a feature that will give priority to multimedia data, such as video or audio streams.

Also, you can set the router to optimize upstream Internet traffic for gaming or downstream traffic for video streaming.

I tested playing a Netflix movie while wirelessly connected to the R7000, at first with these QoS settings disabled. The time from when I clicked “play” on my movie choice and from when I saw the start of the movie was 21 seconds.

After I turned on these QoS features the time from clicking play to viewing was reduced to 4 seconds. I was impressed. Typically, performing the same test of other routers’ QoS will yield some performance gains with QoS enabled, but I’ve never seen such a significant difference.

QoS has pre-set rules within the interface. These rules include ones that set upstream traffic from widely used services including Xbox applications, popular games, and VPN to “High” priority. Downstream-intensive data from sites such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube are also set to “High.”

Netgear does a good job of covering most of the common services the typical home user would access. All of the preconfigured settings can be edited. For example, if your Netflix movie must run despite Junior’s online gaming, you can set gaming traffic to low or medium priority and video streaming as high priority.

Advanced users can set their own custom QoS rules. Doing so is a mixed bag—I found setting up upstream custom rules quite easy and configuring downstream custom rules absolutely confusing. I didn’t see a way to specify ports or priority level for upstream rules. Buffalo’s newest 11ac AirStation router, has the edge as far as customizing QoS.
QoS in the R7000 still impressed me, though. It’s one of the highlighted features of the router.

Beamforming + and Performance
The R7000 is not the fastest 802.11ac router we’ve tested, but its throughput at the 5GHz band is among top speeds we’ve seen. Also, the router’s ability to sustain good throughput at further distance is among the best we’ve tested.

The decent range coverage is courtesy of a feature called Beamforming +. Beamforming is a wireless technology that directs a wireless signal from a router to wireless clients, improving throughput and signal strength. Beamforming + is an enhanced version of this technology that Netgear has baked into the R7000 for the 5GHz band.

At a distance of about 15 feet testing away from the R7000, the connection between my test wireless client the router had an average speed of 174Mbps. This excellent data rate (in an environment with lots of access points) was achieved using Netgear’s latest 11ac USB adapter, the A6100.

This is still not the fastest 802.11ac throughput we’ve tested. Buffalo’s AirStation AC1300/N900 Gigabit Dual Band Wireless Router WZR-D1800H averaged 187 Mbps conducting the same test, and Trendnet’s AC1750 Dual Band Wireless Router (TEW-812DRU) averages an unmatched wireless speed (in our lab) of 283Mbps. However, the Nighthawk sustained throughput at greater range better than the Trendnet router, and just as well as the AirStation.

I was surprised at the rather lackluster performance at the 2.4GHz band. Now, it’s speedy enough to do the tasks you should keep relegated to the 2.4GHz signal, such as web browsing and checking e-mail. I did expect better throughput, though. The Nighthawk averaged 69Mbps at a distance of 15 feet with the router’s 2.4GHz band configured in up 600Mbps mode (equivalent to “Wireless-N only” mode).

In comparison, the Trendnet router mentioned above managed 99 Mbps, and the AirStation clocked 87Mbps in 2.4GHz with comparative configurations.

Netgear plans to release an upcoming firmware update that will add enhanced beamforming to the 2.4GHz radio, so that may help with the speed at 2.4GHz in the near future. Also, the true speed that the Nighthawk can obtain will not become apparent until we start seeing compatible 3×3 built-in wireless 802.11ac adapters in devices (probably in abother 6 months to a year). The USB adapters available now slow throughput down somewhat because of the limitation of USB speed.

Therefore, I won’t knock the R7000 too hard for this less-than-expected throughput at 2.4GHz. Where you want the power in this router is at the 5GHz band, for heavy-duty tasks requiring strong throughput, and that’s what you get.

Other Features and Observations
With the USB ports, you get some NAS functionality in the R7000. The NAS capability is Netgear’s ReadyShare technology. I attached a Western Digital My Passport drive to the USB 3.0 port. There is an area in the router’s interface for managing attached storage. Drives can be configured to support HTTP/HTTPS or FTP access. You can also create network folders via ReadyShare.

I did a file copy of a 1.5GB video clip to the attached My Passport. The Write speed was a little under 11 MBps. This is absolutely typical speed for copying a large file wirelessly to a USB storage device. You will want to use the NAS functionality for smaller file sharing. If you want to share large files or stream video within your home network, you are better off getting a dedicated NAS, or at least, connect your client device via Ethernet cable to the Nighthawk when you want to work with an attached USB drive and large files.

The USB ports also support printers using the ReadyShare printer feature and you can turn an attached USB drive into a backup solution with Netgear’s ReadyShare Vault app.

The Nighthawk has many of the same features you would find in other premium dual-band routers, including guest networking, DMZ, NAT filtering, parental controls and other access and content controls. One feature it has that’s missing in a number for other routers is full-blown VPN capability. You can set this up for VPN access into your home network when you are away. We will test the capabililty of the VPN service in a dedicated review.

I did notice while making settings changes within the interface, the time to apply these changes was rather lengthy; a good 20-30 seconds in some instances. I also noticed that while it’s beneficial that the R7000 can operate as an access point, bridge, or repeater, but placing it in Bridge mode was a pain.

In other routers, you simple click on the wireless network you want to bridge the second router to, and the bridging happens pretty much automatically. In the R7000, I had to first turn off security and set a specific channel for the wireless band I wanted to bridge before I could even click the option to set in bridge mode! Then, I had to manually enter the MAC address of the router with which to bridge. Bridging in the Nighthawk is a sloppy affair.

Morning, Noon, and Nighthawk
There’s a lot that I like about the Nighthawk, including its cool name and retro stealth design. You get excellent speeds on the 5GHz band and great enhanced Quality-of-Service (QoS). These, along with the Nighthawk’s VPN and NAS capability, offset the slower speeds at the 2.4 GHz band, lengthy reboot, and annoying bridge-mode configuration. Netgear’s Nighthawk earns four out of five stars and the PCMag Editors’ Choice award for 802.11ac routers.

Specifications
Networking Options 802.11ac draft

Verdict
Excellent throughput and range at the 5GHz band, lots of features (including full VPN)—plus a cool name—all make the Nighthawk one of the best routers we've seen from Netgear in a while, despite a few annoyances.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc