Devices that do support Wi-Fi 6 are capable of sending and receiving data faster and more efficiently than previous-gen Wi-Fi devices. That’s potentially a pretty big deal for mesh routers, because the range-extending satellites that pair with the router need to pass a lot of data back and forth as you connect. That means that Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers can offer noticeably better performance for your home even if you don’t use any other Wi-Fi 6 gadgets just yet. Sure enough, the Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers we’ve tested so far have been among the fastest mesh routers we’ve ever tested — and at $230, the Netgear Nighthawk is the most affordable one yet.
I was excited to test the system out for myself — but in the end, I came away disappointed.
Yes, the Nighthawk mesh router was plenty fast in our lab-based top speed tests — it actually notched the fastest close-range transfer speed that we’ve seen from any of the mesh routers we’ve tested thus far, including a few models that cost twice as much. But when I took it home to conduct my real-world speed tests, things were a lot different. At several points during my tests, where I move from room to room running speed tests from various spots around my house, my speeds would plummet, forcing me to disconnect and then reconnect in order to get my speeds back up where they should be. It wasn’t an issue with my network — it was the Nighthawk router getting confused by a non-stationary client device.
Basically, the Nighthawk mesh router is brawny enough to hit impressive top speeds, but not brainy enough to maintain a steady connection as you move throughout your home. Other mesh routers I’ve tested have all done a much better job of optimizing my speeds — and other surprisingly affordable Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers are coming soon, so you’ve got alternatives worth waiting for. All of that makes Netgear’s mesh entry to the Nighthawk brand a tough system for me to recommend.
The power of the dark side
If the Nighthawk mesh router looks a little familiar, that’s because it’s the same basic design as the recent dual-band, budget-priced version of the Netgear Orbi mesh system, which I reviewed a few months ago. The Nighthawk takes that same boxy build with cheese grater-like heat vents on top, then paints it black, slaps a Nighthawk label on the front, and adds in support for Wi-Fi 6.
I liked the small, unassuming design quite a bit back when I reviewed the Orbi, and I think it works well here, too. It’s good-looking without drawing too much attention to itself, and does a good enough job of blending in that you won’t feel embarrassed about keeping both devices out in the open, where they’ll perform their best.
One other design upgrade of note: The Nighthawk mesh system adds a spare Ethernet jack to the back of the satellite, something that the dual-band Orbi mesh system lacks. That’s useful to have in case you want a wired connection between the router and the satellite for faster system performance, or if you want to wire something like a media streamer directly to the satellite.
The Nighthawk doesn’t have everything, though — which isn’t surprising given that this is a Wi-Fi 6 system on a budget. You don’t get a multigig WAN port on the router like you do with the Netgear Orbi 6, for instance, so your incoming internet speed will be capped at 1 gigabit per second. You won’t find many extra bells or whistles in the app, either. And don’t even think of getting a third band to use as a dedicated backhaul for transmissions between the router and the satellites at this price.
As for specs, the Nighthawk is a dual-band AX1800 router, with the “AX” indicating that it supports Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and the “1800” indicating the combined top speeds of the two bands. As always, combined speed ratings like those are a bit misleading since you can only connect to one band at a time. Netgear claims that the 2.4GHz band can hit speeds of up to 600 Mbps, and that the 5GHz band is capable of hitting speeds as high as 1,200 Mbps.
That 1,200 Mbps speed claim would indeed be pretty impressive, but keep in mind those ratings come from the manufacturer’s own lab, where conditions are designed to be as optimal as possible (and again, the WAN port caps your incoming wired speed at a single gig, or 1,000 Mbps). In a real-world setting, with range to worry about, walls in the way and interference from nearby networks, your speeds will be always be lower.
Still, the Nighthawk router did a lot better than I expected when we ran our own lab-based top speed tests. With the router wired to a MacBook acting as a local server, we connected to the Nighthawk’s network using a second laptop that supports Wi-Fi 6. Then, we downloaded files from the MacBook at various distances and measured the transfer speeds. At a distance of just five feet, our average speed rang in at 901 Mbps. That’s a terrific result, and better than any other mesh router I’ve tested, including fancy triband mesh routers like the AmpliFi Alien, the Arris Surfboarf Max Pro, and Netgear’s own Wi-Fi 6 version of the Orbi mesh system. Each of those costs more than twice as much as the Nighthawk.
That said, the Nighthawk saw bigger speed drops than those systems as we increased the distance. At 75 feet, its speeds had fallen by about 40% to 520 Mbps. Most mesh systems I test are able to hold that drop-off to 30% or less.
Real-world speed tests were a real pain
With our lab tests finished, it was time to take the Nighthawk home and test it out in a real-world environment — specifically, my 1,300 sq. ft. shotgun house in Louisville, KY. It’s a relatively small space for a mesh system, but it gives me a good chance to see how these systems actually perform in a home environment.
In this case, it’s where things sort of fell apart.
At first, everything seemed fine. Netgear’s Nighthawk app walked me through the setup process and my network was up and running within a few minutes. My first few speed tests, conducted from the comfort of my living room couch with the router sitting just a few feet away, were just as fast as you’d expect, essentially maxing out my home’s 300 Mbps fiber internet plan.
But then I picked up my laptop and moved to a new spot — the kitchen. It’s a bit further from the router, but it’s an open concept floorplan that connects with the living room, so there aren’t any walls in the way. All the same, my speeds plummeted to well below 100 Mbps.
Needless to say, this was weird. And, when I see a weirdly slow result like that in my tests, I’ll make a note of it in my spreadsheet, then reset the connection. That did the trick — after disconnecting from the network and then reconnecting to it, my speeds were back up were they should be, just shy of 300 Mbps.
But then it happened again. And again. And again. I’d move to a new spot during my tests, and my speeds would nosedive. I alternate rounds of speed tests from the front of the house to the back, and then from the back of the house to the front — on one of the latter rounds, where that close-range living room test is the last test in the sequence, my speed came in at 93 Mbps. That was with the router only a couple of feet away.
In the end, the Nighthawk returned an overall average speed of 219 Mbps throughout my whole house, which is worse than all but two of the dozen or so systems I’ve tested in my home, Wi-Fi 6 or otherwise. And that was with me frequently re-connecting in order to give the system its best chance to succeed.
So what was happening here? It wasn’t my network — I made sure to run some control tests with my existing router, and didn’t see anything like I was experiencing with the Nighthawk. Same goes for the online speed test software and the server I was connecting to, neither of which registered any issues when testing with my own router. In fact, I’ve run thousands of speed tests in my home over the past several months under the same controlled settings, and the Nighthawk is the only router that’s given me this much of a headache.
It really seems like the Nighthawk, for whatever reason, isn’t all that good at optimizing the signal for a client device that isn’t in a fixed location. If that device moves from one spot to another, the connection gets confused and things slow down. That might be due to poor beamforming or a wonky mesh algorithm that isn’t good at deciding when to route your connection through the satellite and when to go straight to the router, but whatever is happening, it’s an annoyance that I wouldn’t want to deal with in my home.
I’ll also note that it isn’t the first time that I’ve had issues with Netgear’s mesh performance. Both the dual-band Orbi and the triband Orbi Voice Wi-Fi 5 systems dropped my connection on multiple occasions during my at-home tests. Only the high-end, Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi managed to impress me with the stability of its signal.
Speaking of signal strength, we test for that, too. To do so, we move over to the 5,800 sq. ft. CNET Smart Home, where we set each mesh system up with the router and one satellite on opposite ends of the home’s main floor. Then, we use NetSpot’s online software to track how strong the connection is across dozens of locations. It’s a bit of a stress test — the two-piece Nighthawk system is designed for homes of up to 3,000 square feet.
The results were pretty close to what you might expect for an entry-level Wi-Fi 6 system like the Nighthawk. The signal strength on both the main floor where the router and satellite were located and the basement level below was adequate and slightly stronger than a comparably priced Wi-Fi 5 system like the Nest Wifi, but not nearly as strong as a high-end, triband Wi-Fi 6 system like the Orbi 6 that sells for $700. Credit the Nighthawk for hitting the middle ground between those two, especially given that it costs less than the Nest.
Still, at the farthest distances we test, the Nighthawk’s speeds dropped by about 40% in our lab and by a little less than 30% in my at-home tests. Those are both low-end results among the Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I’ve tested.
Wi-Fi 6 should prove to be a particularly fine upgrade for mesh routers, and it’s encouraging that we’re already seeing options that cost less than most Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers were selling for not even a year ago.
At $230, the Netgear Nighthawk fits that bill, which makes it pretty tempting — but the shaky mesh performance leaves too much to be desired. Speed is important, but stability matters, too. The Nighthawk has plenty of the former, but it lacks the latter. With lots of other interesting new mesh routers making their way to market in 2020, that’s too much of a compromise.