It isn’t all Dragon Age and Rock Band drums for me – my real-world job is even more geeky than that. I’m the Manager of Production Network Engineering for one of the largest companies in the world. I’ve been in the Network world for nearly twenty years, so when Netgear came a-knocking with a chance to check out their Nighthawk X4 AC wireless gaming router, it was a chance to combine my two geeky passions into one package. The timing couldn’t be better either…my Belkin router had decided that it had had enough of my heavy holiday season downloads and my wife’s incessant streaming habits.
Wireless 802.11ac? Didn’t we just upgrade to 802.11n? Yea, but as Google Fiber hits Gigabit speeds (and local providers scramble to catch up), your wireless router might have just become the biggest bottleneck in your network. We’ve come a long way from Wireless b/g. If you aren’t running a shiny new Mac or a laptop capable of ac, why do you need it? Let me explain.
The router you are using right now is likely wasting your time. More accurately, you are likely losing half of your router’s computing power just processing the WiFi signal and routing, meaning slower than line transfer speeds. Since wireless signal quality is more important than strength, simply having a bigger antenna isn’t gonna fix it either. That fat and expensive pipe your ISP laid at your curb? Now your router is also wasting your money. So how do you fix it? Discrete processors, discrete RF bands, and some backend magic.
4×4? Guess that thing about Internet dump trucks is true!
The Nighthawk series of routers (there are three, each targeting different demographics – we are going to focus on the X4 since it is heavily focused on the gaming market. For reference, the X6 is built to accommodate a large number of devices in the home, and the X4 is built for gaming) are the first Quadstream 4×4 routers. What does that mean? It means it utilizes the entirety of the 5Ghz band (1.73Gbps) combined with the 2.4Ghz band (600mbps)of RF to achieve a staggering 2.33Gbps throughput! Still think that Wireless N router is getting the job done? At least, that’s the theoretical numbers – it’ll be fun to see what we can stuff down the pipes, but here’s an easy representation to see how that banding comes together in layman’s terms:
It isn’t as simple as combining the RF spectrum to hit maximum speeds, you need discreet band WiFi as well. This means putting your slower devices on a separate band while allowing your high speed devices to enjoy the fast lane. For instance, an iPhone 5 can hit roughly 65Mbps, but without discrete banding on your WiFi it’ll slow everything on your wireless network down to the slowest speed device. By splitting them into separate channels you can get a massive increase, allowing your shiny Macbook Pro to enjoy over 1200Mbps of transfer while your phone chugs along at its normal speed. Since the X4 is device-aware, it can dynamically chop up the channel in a fashion most optimized for the consuming appliance on the other end. Let’s dig deeper into that 4×4 streaming chipset.
4×4 streaming is a little easier to show than it is to explain, but to understand it you need to get a handle on Beamforming+ and MIMO. MIMO stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output – something you might have seen scribbled on a box for a router on the shelf, but what does that mean? It means that there are multiple independent channels capable of handling data streams from several sources. In the beginning of MIMO it meant that your slow-lane 802.11g devices monopolized one antenna while your other 802.11n devices used a completely separate antenna. With 4×4 MIMO, there are four independent data streams. These streams can be combined (dynamic digital Beamforming+) to extend range (something that has been shrinking as speeds have increased) as well as the overall reliability of the data throughput. By allowing the device to dynamically combine and tear down these streams, when interference disrupts part of your RF spectrum, the device can essentially ‘route around it’. Beamforming+ allows the device to essentially discover where the consuming devices are located and ‘listen’ in that direction. Obviously that comes at a cost, so let’s talk about discreet processing.
1.4GHz Dual-Core Awesome
Remember your old Nintendo Game & Watch toys? They could only hold a maximum of 72 ‘state segments’ – we aren’t talking about high technology here. Now, compare that to the freshly released New Nintendo 3DS. Obviously the capabilities of the two devices couldn’t be any further apart. Unfortunately, routers haven’t seen that same logarithmic upgrade and many consumer-level devices are beginning to groan under the strain of the incredible speeds being offered recently. Even if you don’t have a gigabit pipe to your curb, there is no reason you can’t have those transfer speeds inside your house…that is, unless your router isn’t up to the task.
At roughly 25ms of processor-induced lag, a slowdown becomes noticeable. Netgear didn’t want this to happen so they’ve installed not one but two processors into their device. Sure, every router has a processor in it, but Netgear has opted for a Qualcom Snapdragon 1.4Ghz dual-core CPU (IPQ8064 for those interested) to handle the heavy lifting. But what about all of that route processing, dynamic QoS, storage, FTP, and operating system? To ensure that there is never a moment when the backplane and the software processing never clash and cause lag, Netgear has placed a 500MHz dual-core offload processor exclusively to handle the 802.11ac backplane. What does this mean? You are getting essentially line speed and you aren’t losing 50-60% of your CPU just to handle WiFi processing. By making it independent, there is never a CPU bottleneck.
Seriously, stop with the babble! What does it all MEAN?!
If it isn’t clear, I could talk about wireless and RF all damned day, but what does all of this technobabble mean? Well, it’s quite simple really – Netgear doesn’t want you to care about it at all. If they’ve done their job correctly, you’ll never know any of this swanky tech is even there. But we don’t play theoretical throughputs and additional processors – we are media consuming bandwidth destroying gamers.
The Nighthawk series is shipping with a software called Netgear genie. The genie has a simple but ambitious goal – bridge all of these high-end components into the applications that will use them. Obviously not all applications and games are built the same. Surfing a webpage is a very different experience than pulling up your favorite reviews on the Gaming Trend YouTube page. Netflix is an entirely different kettle of fish altogether. Where YouTube is non-adaptive bitrate, simply using as much speed as can be negotiated from the Google side of the pipe, Netflix is adaptive, adjusting quality to match the available bandwidth and latency being pushed through the service. A “dumb” router would treat them the same, serving neither very well. So how is the Netgear X4 getting around this problem? API hooks and a system called Enhanced Dynamic QoS.
QoS stands for Quality of Service. Put simply, you need QoS to separate out your traffic. Things like a website can handle some retransmits without the end user knowing, but with video the packets need to arrive in the order they were sent. Retransmits in voice makes the other side sound robotic or fills the gap with silence. With QoS you can have somebody on a voice call (Vonage anyone?) consuming bandwidth while somebody else watches Netflix as a third person downloads a game over Steam and none of the three will be degraded. If you’ve ever been playing Diablo III and somebody else in your family posts a picture on Facebook causing a lag bubble that kills your level 60 Hardcore character, you know what I’m talking about. The X4 might dynamically throttle that download a small amount to ensure a smooth stream, and then allocate a burst for the first time a page loads, then throttle it back until you load the next page. Without QoS, traffic is simply served in a first-in, first-out basis, so you can see how a torrent or video stream could wreck the experience for the gamer in the next room.
Most modern routers have a generic QoS policy, but they are very broad and do not adjust to meet demand in an intelligent way. By giving the X4 the processing power to (through packet, header information, IP address, flag inspection, and heuristic signature detection) detect the type of traffic coming through the pipe, it can fire up the appropriate streaming hooks to handle the data payload in the most optimized way possible. How does this help you? It means less jitter and a drastic reduction in mid-stream buffering.
But this is a gaming router, right? Absolutely. Using the same sort of hook system, as well as profiles downloaded from Netgear, the X4 can tune your router to match the game you are playing. Shooters must have the lowest latency possible, whereas a turn-based title would be a lot more lenient – the X4 knows the difference. The first time you launch a game, the X4 reaches out to the cloud service and grabs the profile that matches. The X4 is still very new, but Netgear promises frequent updates to these profiles to make sure the latest and greatest games are captured at the very least.
What else is in the box?
To say that the X4 is absolutely packed to the gills with tech would be an understatement, but there are a few other goodies and improvements that bear mentioning. The first is an added bonus from the X4’s predecessor – an eSata connector. Hearkening back to a previous note, the discrete processor in the X4 also means you can take backups running to the eSata ports (roughly 40-45MB/s for write and 80-95MB/s for read) without interrupting WiFi as it runs on the secondary proc. You also have the option of hooking up a drive via the two USB 3.0 ports on the other side of the router. This links directly into a product Netgear is calling ReadyShare Vault. This backup software is very similar to Time Machine on the Mac, tacking continuous backups incrementally, all without tying up your PC to do so.
As routers get smarter and more powerful, integrating high-speed and high-capacity NAS (network-attached storage), DLNA becomes a critical component. I personally use software on my PC to sling media around my home, but with the X4 I have an alternative. Using an app called Genie, I am now able to manage my media, but it does it in a far more elegant way. Giving it a slick presentation (instead of a plain list of files and folders), Genie does a bit of organization. If you are familiar with PS3Media Player, you will immediately recognize the format as it is almost the same. It also integrates directly with iTunes, allowing content from that source as well as your own files to be pushed to any Airplay-compatible devices you may have in your home. I run all PC and Android in my home, with a Samsung and a Panasonic Smart TV, as well as all of the consoles. In practice, playing a 1080p/60fps file directly from a USB stick proved to be a halting experience with a great deal of buffering and jitter. Smaller files proved to be fairly easy to tackle. I don’t have an eSata drive to test with, but I suspect that this has a lot more to do with transfer speeds of the thumbdrive than the capabilities of the router. Music streaming and picture viewing on the other hand was flawless. I simply pointed it at the folder(s) I wanted to have it stream from my router’s attached storage and then turned it loose. Even running off a USB stick it didn’t buffer or stutter.
The X4 also ships with OpenVPN built directly in, as well as access to Netgear’s own Dynamic DNS service. If you’ve ever wanted to set up direct but secure access to your own network, you’ll need both. I’m not going to teach a class on setting that up in the middle of this review, but suffice it to say that it’s pretty simple if you understand both technologies. Since Netgear allows you to change the firmware at will, and they encourage open source, you also have a great many resources at your disposal at MyOpenRouter.com. Want to run a TOR via DD-WRT? Knock yourself out.
Like most modern routers, the X4 is capable of sharing a printer wirelessly across your network without the need for a PC to act as a print server. Unlike most routers, however, this one also has a personal FTP server built in. Obviously accessing your network is important, but being able to interact with files in your connected file storage is pretty awesome indeed. The router gives you several options to open ports to allow remote access locally from a network machine, globally via a port 80, or via FTP on port 21. You can select all of them, none of them, or anything in between to match your needs.
The last thing in the box is the box itself. The Netgear team designed the Nighthawk to look not unlike the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Sharp and angular looking, the device sports four adjustable antennae in the rear, one Gigabit Ethernet uplink port, four Gigabit Ethernet switch ports, two USB 3.0 ports on the side, and a whopping thirteen LED status lights on the front. The standard power and Internet connectivity lights are present and accounted for, as are the lights indicating which switch ports are being actively used. There is also a 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz status indicator, letting you know which (if not both) of the RF bands you are currently using. The last two buttons are a WPS button and a WiFi on/off toggle. The second button being obvious, the WPS lets you allow a user to join the network without having to type in the WiFi password. Given that you can set up a permanent and guest network SSID separately, I’m not sure what you’d use this for other than ease of use for a temporary access scenario. If all those blinking lights seems like you are running an Electric Daisy Carnival in your room, you can also use the toggle switch in the back of the router to turn all of the lights off. You can get a really good look at all of these features in this quick promo video:
I don’t have no fancy Gigabits! Why do I care?
Ok, so you aren’t one of the lucky people with access to Gigabit Internet. Why does this device matter to you? Well, I’m here to tell you it matters even more, and that’s all due to the QoS system in the router. When bandwidth is plentiful, it’s pretty easy to manage. If you have Gigabit flowing through your home, it’s easy to carve out space for a call, your kid’s iPad streaming, Netflix, and gaming without a whole lot of management. Ookla, one of the premier speed testing services in the country, revealed that the nationwide average for speed is just 30Mbps. That Dynamic QoS policy looks pretty attractive when you don’t have nearly as much headroom to spare. When you figure that Netflix requires at least 5Mbps for 720p streaming, and 25Mbps to hit the recently-released 4K shows like House of Cards, you can see how fast that can get consumed.
If you are an advanced user, or if you don’t find that the Dynamic QoS feature is tuning things quite as you imagined, you can use the Netgear Genie app to simply turn it off.
Enough talk – let’s test this beast.
I’ve told you enough about the Nighthawk X4 – it is time to put it through its paces. Normally I’d compare it against my current gear, but my Belkin router has decided that taking upwards of two minutes to connect a wireless device and hand out an IP address is somehow reasonable. The Netgear beats it out by simply being functional. Like the F-117 Nighthawk, this router is going to embark on this mission alone.
The first thing you should know about RF testing is that it’s laughably inaccurate. Unless you are living in a carbon copy of my house, my RF signal testing won’t make much sense. That said, you can at least get an idea of relative antenna quality and signal. Again, just realize that your mileage may vary. All of that said – my router is sitting just outside of the MDF I have built into the wall of my office closet. At 6’ you have exited my office and have one wall impeeding the signal. At 12’ there you are in the middle of my Arizona Room – a large open space that serves as my front room. In that room is the last two generations of consoles (plus debug kits), a full 7.1 surround sound system, and a Panasonic Plasma TV to interfere with signal. At roughly 24’ you now have a large granite countertop and kitchen cabinetry full of pots and pans further interfering with the signal. By the time you reach 36’ you’ve entered a bedroom at the other side of my home and placed a rear wall full of kitchen appliances and a glass backsplash between the router any any device it might reach. Glass is one of the worst enemies of RF, so keep that in mind when you think about the placement of your router and how it may affect your own personal situation. For my testing I used a Fluke Wireless tester and ran each test 5 times, then averaged the numbers – lower dBm is better, as is a higher strength percentage. (Technical note – -50 to -100 you start to get noticeable degradation and you need a -65dBm or better to carry a voice call reliably) All of that said, let’s get into the numbers:
2.4ghz: -37dBm at 100% strength
5ghz: -45dBm at 100% strength
Speed Test: 95.1mbps / 14.5mbps / 66ms ping
2.4ghz: -50dBm at 100% strength
5ghz: -64dBm at 92% strength
Speed Test: 87.3mbps / 12.7mbps / 59ms ping
2.4ghz: -65dBm at 90% strength
5ghz: -69dBm at 82% strength
Speed Test: 73.1mbps / 11.9mbps / 75ms ping
2.4ghz: -66dBm at 88% strength
5ghz: -79dBm at 62% strength
Speed Test: 53.4mbps / 10.4mbps / 62ms ping
I live in a pretty normal sized home at 1500sq/ft with a fairly standard layout. It’s pretty likely that you live in a similar sized home, so you’ll likely see similar results should you run these same tests. Compared to my Belkin router, even when it was new, I was unable to connect reliably at the 36’ distance mark, with signal strength dropping to nearly zero. Clearly the 4×4 antennae system has a substantial and real-world result here. Ping speeds remained fairly consistent to a test server here in Phoenix, with speeds remaining more than usable even at longer distance.
If you are living in a larger home, or one with multiple levels, there is an option to connect another router to act as an access point (Netgear also sells range extenders), configurable by simply clicking a toggle in the Netgear Genie App.
My MSI GT70 laptop is an absolute beast, sporting a Qualcomm Atheros Killer E2200 network chipset. Lately, when I bring my laptop back from hibernation it takes upwards of two minutes to reconnect to the network. I was thinking it was time to re-image my machine, but it turns out that it had everything to do with the Belkin router I replaced. Once the Nighthawk X4 was put in place I could verify in the logs of the router that it took longer for the browser to load than for it to reconnect to my network. You cannot imagine the frustration that alleviated.
During testing I tried to connect every single device I could to the Netgear X4 to tax it. As I identified each device, I was surprised to see that you cannot adjust the priority on your own. Each device type determines the QoS, loading the appropriate profile as Netgear sees fit. Unfortunately that means that anything labeled “Game Console”, such as my PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, or NVidia Shield was given a Medium priority. I had to change them all to be PCs to switch their QoS profile to high. It seems a rather arbitrary thing to lock out. I know that the layman would typically pick the wrong profile, and everything can’t be “high”, but in my household at least, those game consoles are high priority. At least on the PC there are profiles that help specific game types – I’m just wondering if Netgear will bring this same technology to the console gaming market.
Streaming media was a bit of a pain with the Belkin. I’m not talking about using their integrated sharing system, but more the stability of the platform when slinging media. Even through the wired network it was a problem. I’m thankful that this has completely abated with the Nighthawk. Watching Netflix in the bedroom ran just as smoothly as streaming an.mkv or .mp4 to any of the smart devices anywhere in my home.
If you don’t think you need a security-conscious router, you’ll be shocked the first time you turn on active logging in the X4. The moment I fired it up the X4 immediately identified two IP addresses that were hitting my ISP’s IP ranges with DOS attacks, actively blocking those incoming attacks from passing through my router. The logging is deep on this router, going down to individual SYN and ACK packet receipt and acknowledgement.