Review: Netgear Nighthawk X4S
4.0Overall Score
Price (RRP): $549 Manufacturer: Netgear

Modem routers need not be chunky things, and Netgear intends to prove it, letting us play with its Nighthawk X4S, a network device designed to keep the speeds up with the size down. Does it pull it off?

Features

Now that our households have so many wireless devices, we can’t just rely on the same basic modem router anymore, and basically, the more device you have in your home, the more strength you’ll need.

And it’s not just a battle of devices either. No, this is more about concurrent connections.

If you have kids downloading or playing video games, you watching TV, and someone else listening to music, modern network devices need to work out how to balance all of this activity to provide a solid and comfortable network life.

Unfortunately, generic routers aren’t designed with this in mind, at least not yet, and so if you have quite a few occupants all struggling to get online and make the most of the bandwidth in your home, you need something with just a touch more grunt.

Fortunately, that’s what Netgear’s Nighthawk range has been about in the past few years, with this range of devices all about the speed and often slightly more top-tiered tech you can find in this category.

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Inside Netgear’s Nighthawk X4S, you’ll find specs deserving of that high-speed sounding “Nighthawk” name, with a dual-core 1.4GHz processor to handle the activity passing through it and a chipset capable of working in the 802.11ac network technology, which is also backwards compatible with the 802.11a/b/g/n networks.

The chipset and the way this has been put together are super important, too, because while other router companies are delivering more than the two expected bands that high-end routers often feature, the X4S keeps to the two and tries to improve on the technology, utilising what it calls “Quad Stream” technology to separate its two bands over the 800Mbps maximum on its 2.4GHz and 1733Mbps maximum on its 5GHz bands.

This works in tandem with a second-generation Multi-User Multiple-In, Multiple Out technology more succinctly shortened to MU-MIMO. Specifically, the Wave 2 MU-MIMO Netgear relies on works with the quad-stream component to allow up to three devices to talk to the router at once.

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In theory, this could allow for better and more stable quality of service (QoS) control, meaning the multitude of devices in your home may function better when they’re all trying to connect as the router is deciding who gets the priority as and when they need it by balancing the streams.

Beamforming also plays into this, a technology that allows the modem router to communicate with antennas to localise on their specific needs and strength.

Regardless, as mentioned before, you get two sets of bands, with the 800Mbps and 1733Mbps coming together to equal 2533Mbps, or 2.53Gbps of wireless output for the home.

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Wired output can also be found here, thanks to the inclusion of five Gigabit Ethernet ports on the back, a change from the usual arrival of only four.

Technically, one of these five ports is for the NBN or a cable modem, so you won’t be using it for wired network devices like a computer or a server, but at least the option is there, and given firmware updates, it’s also possible this could be put to use as a network device port later on.

As a modem, it can work for those National Broadband Network (NBN) connections or even with a cable modem, or you can just opt for what most Aussie have, and that’s a phone-based technology, such as ADSL/ADSL2/ADSL2+ or VDSL/VDSL2, which this supports, making it an all-in-one product useful regardless of what sort of technology you’re using.

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Performance

Taking the Nighthawk X4S out of its box, the first thing we were struck with was just how small this modem router was in comparison to the D-Link Taipan we were replacing it with.

That’s the life of a reviewer, mind you: we use and install what needs to be used and tested.

Still, there’s something flatter and less bulky about this design, though there’s a hint less power in this unit, with the 802.11ac technology scaled back to two bands for this model, not the three the larger modem routers have.

And yet Netgear is still pushing out a premium price for this model, highlighting that its Quad Stream Wave 2 WiFi could end up boasting similar performance to the three bands other routers are reliant on, while also keeping that footprint small.

Does it work? Can the smaller modem router keep up with the demands of a modern home without resorting to a massive box of a build and a couple more antennas?

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First things first, take it out and set it up, and Netgear’s typical attention to detail in router design is obvious, with the ports in the right place, and even going a little better than rivals with this one.

It’s normal to put the ports on the back, so we’re not shocked, but offering the USB ports on the left side already makes things easier, as does the knowledge that you’re not shunted back to one USB 2.0 port next to a USB 3.0, which seems to be the way it goes these days.

No, Netgear is offering two USB 3.0 ports — yay! — and even an ESATA port on the right side, ideal for those six people who still use the portable SATA hard drive port.

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Skip past that one for the moment and just plug your devices in, using the VDSL port if you happen to be installing ADSL, because unless you live in Canberra or New Zealand, you’ll be using ADSL not the faster VDSL technology.

Alternatively, if you do happen to have the NBN, plug it right on in using the Internet Ethernet port, because that’s for you.

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In Sydney where this review is being done, it’s ADSL2+ and only that, with none of that National Broadband Network rolled out just yet, so we’ll plug the phone line in and get started with the wireless setup.

From here, you login as expected, using the default SSID and password, and that’s where you begin to feel some of the strength — or lack thereof — with the dual-core processor found in the Nighthawk X4S.

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Indeed, even with a new laptop sitting practically right next to the router — and achieving a connection speed of 833Mbps — the setup tends to go remarkably slow, with a good three to four minutes passing by until Google Chrome has found a way to communicate with the setup of the modem router and display its browser-based setup on screen.

This appeared to be pretty consistent, so be sure to be a little patient, as this modem router needs it. We hope it’s worth the wait.

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Throughout this time, the modem router will blink at you incessantly, but hold on, because Netgear has provided a thoroughly useful feature: you can turn the LEDs off using a switch.

With this engaged, one light will always stay on — power — but at least your living room won’t look like it’s lighting up with every piece of passing traffic.

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When it does work, though, you just enter your settings and wait.

Hopefully, your installation goes more smoothly than ours did.

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Aside for the timing problems, we found after we had entered our ISP details and gone through the Netgear modem checks, the setup basically stalled, and even though the modem router’s LED was saying it had connected successfully — white on the DSL LED means you’re connected — the router’s setup was still stuck in limbo at its “quick scan of PVC protocol”, while subsequent reloads just pushed us back into the initial setup stages once again.

Eventually, it got to working, but it took far longer than the expected 10 minutes we expect for these things, reaching more into the 40 to 60 minute bracket, far too long for a modem setup.

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When it is completed, you’ll be asked to get software for your computer, and then to update the firmware. The first of these is optional, but the latter you should definitely do, bringing the router up to its most recent version, which should provide any bug fixes that may have popped up.

And then you’re online, though we take aim at part of Netgear’s setup: no encouragement to change the network name.

How peculiar this is, we couldn’t help but feel, because Netgear’s numbering system of calling a network “Netgear” followed by a number — Netgear58 for us — just doesn’t seem all that secure, or even friendly.

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To change it to something else, you’ll have to head to your settings in a browser over at http://192.168.1.1 and do it yourself, odd, we think, given out it should be a part of the setup as it is with other modem routers.

In this setting, you also learn quite quickly that while the Nighthawk does include its MU-MIMO technology, it hasn’t devised a way to bring the two network bands together, something you’ll see from other companies.

As such, you’re forced to run two separate network names here if you want that full 2.53Gbps bandwidth.

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For many, this won’t come as a surprise, and given that’s the way networks have been for some time, it will just be the same ol’ thing, though in a day and age where you can bring those together, we’re surprised Netgear has not.

Despite this, though, we’ll press on, and be glad we did because once you’re good to go with your setup name, it’s time to test performance, which is one area our tests have revealed some pretty interesting results.

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While we’re not huge fans of the separate networks, we found speeds of around 835Mbps were common on the 5GHz 802.11ac network and around 230Mbps on the 2.4GHz 802.11n network, though around the home, we found the router tended to provided relatively decent 300 to 500Mbps speeds across the board.

Those aren’t mind blowing speeds, and certainly not up to the sort of performance we expect out of a router touting 2.5Gbps of performance, but the X4S appeared to juggling the amount of devices in our home better than most routers we test, which revealed that Netgear’s dynamic quality of service tech was doing the job right, even if the bandwidth wasn’t being pushed to its limits.

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Towards the back of the house was one of the more interesting results we had seen, because while most routers struggle to provide a connection meters away in the bathroom, the 2.4GHz network offered consistent speeds around 130Mbps, while the 5GHz network jumped between 230 and 430Mbps, keeping devices in four bars of reception the entire way through.

That’s something not even the massive D-Link Taipan could accomplish, and it was far bigger with a potentially larger reach from the three-band network. There are only two bands here — 2.4 and 5GHz, compared to the 2.4/5/5 of the Taipan — and yet the Netgear Nighthawk X4S still feels like it accomplishes just as much, if not more.

Interestingly, the D-Link Taipan — which was our top router for some time — connected at technically higher speeds, revealing gigabit wireless speeds with no problem, but the connections for internet transmissions to networks like Apple’s iTunes Store turned out faster download speeds with the slightly slower connections offered by the Netgear Nighthawk X4S.

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Technically, both are super fast, but the more consistent and reliable range appears to be coming from the Wave 2 WiFi offered by the Netgear Nighthawk, and that’s something we didn’t expect.

We still wish that Netgear had opted for a one network solution, binding both of the network bands together instead of leaving them as they are, separate and running as two individual networks.

Still, network performance appears to be very good, with consistent network speeds and an interface that doesn’t feel like it attacks you too much for wanting to control your network, heaven forbid.

Conclusion

If you can survive the excruciatingly slow setup process and don’t mind a network that forces two individual network names, Netgear’s Nighthawk X4S is definitely worth a look, not just because it looks fairly normal and occupies a fairly standard footprint, but because it handles its own juggling all of your devices.

Yay. A network device that doesn't look remarkably awkward.

Yay. A network device that doesn’t look remarkably awkward.

Review: Netgear Nighthawk X4S
Price (RRP): $549 Manufacturer: Netgear
Small size, fairly standard footprint; Not chunky at all, and wouldn't look strange in a home; Stickers for antenna locations makes for no confusion; Great locations for accessory ports; Excellent reception range;
Painfully slow browser setup; Forced to run two network names if you want the full 2.5Gbps connection, with no way of banding the two together;
Overall
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Value for money
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4.0Overall Score
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