Netgear Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band WiFi Router Preview
By Bruce Normann
Netgear unveiled their newest wireless router on June 25th and they didn’t pull any punches with this product introduction. The Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band WiFi Router (R8000) builds on the latest 5G Wi-Fi XStream technology from Broadcom and captures the crown for fastest consumer Wi-Fi router, if only for a while. On the surface, the most notable improvement is the addition of another 5 GHz 802.11ac band, stepping outside the dual-band architecture that has dominated the marketplace for more than five years.
That one step brings the total Wi-Fi bandwidth for the Nighthawk X6 up to a theoretical maximum of 3.2 Gbps. There are also a number of supporting technologies employed to ensure all that power is used efficiently. The raw performance of the Nighthawk X6 elevates it to the top of the product line, so it’s a given that Netgear includes in this halo product, all of the convenience and performance-enhancing features at their disposal. This is not a full review, but whenever the old paradigm shifts to the left and a new standard is set, Benchmark Reviews wants you to know about it. If it seems like it was just last year that we were writing about AC1750 devices, well it was…. Let’s dig a little deeper into the technology and design elements that sets this new router apart from the pack, and then we’ll talk about whether an AC3200 router upgrade makes sense for home users.
The last time the Wi-Fi Alliance redrew the boundaries of the wireless box, it was all about escaping the congestion of the 2.4 GHz band, and simultaneously increasing the bit rate for single devices. Millions of new Wi-Fi clients were added around the world, on a bet that the 2007 draft of the 802.11n proposal would be ratified, as is. For the most part, consumers and industry won that bet, and got a two year jump start on the technology. This time, it’s different. The reality of modern home-based networking is that the number of Wi-Fi devices accessing the network has grown faster than anticipated. About 20% of US households currently contain nine or more operational Wi-Fi devices, and many of them are sharing a single RF band. That number is projected to go up to 30% in 2015 and is unlikely to go down in the near future. Since the basic data transmission paradigm for Wi-Fi has always been time-sharing, the most frequent bottleneck that is impacting users today is based on scheduling problems. Your high-end, magnesium clad notebook with the latest 3×3 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter inside is stuck waiting for the slow 1×1 802.11n connection on someone else’s tablet to finish downloading a packet of YouTube content. As that tablet moves farther away from home base and its data rate drops even further, it holds up traffic even more. It doesn’t matter that your newer, faster device can transfer data 10 times faster than that old tablet; it still has to wait in line behind at least one slow dog in the fast lane before it can blast down the information highway at full speed.
It sounds so simple, “Just add another 5 GHz band…”, but the engineering realities of running two radio transmitters side by side in the same frequency band are pretty brutal. When it comes to radio frequencies, the devil is truly in the details. Notice how the two sets of antennas are located as far apart as physically possible? One set is dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz), and the other set is dedicated to the additional 5 GHz band. For the US market, one of the 5GHz radios is restricted to the “low” band (Channels 36-48) and the second one is restricted to the “high” band (Channels 149-165). Frequency allocation is a minefield these days; even with a scorecard you can’t keep track of all the players. Most published frequency allocation charts look like someone spilled a box of fruit loops into a rectangular picture frame. Broadcom has provided the raw technology, with their latest generation of 5G WiFi chips, the BCM4709 CPU and three of the brand new BCM43602 radios. The 43602 chip represents the highest level of integration seen to date for a wireless radio. Not content to just act as a dumb (!?!) 3×3 MIMO 802.11ac device, like last year’s class-leading BCM4360, the 43602 adds an ARM Cortex processor and a healthy chunk of SRAM to the radio capability inherited from the 4360. It’s unclear at this time which computing functions are handled by the BCM43602, but I would bet that beam forming calculations are right there in the mix. The Nighthawk X6 features both explicit and implicit beam forming, which means that you can now get the benefits of this technology even with devices you already own that don’t support it. All three bands use this feature, and each band is steered independently by using the enhanced capabilities built into the BCM43602 radio chip. There may also be some digital signal filtering going on inside the BCM43602, to enable the side-by-side operation of two 5 GHz radios inside one device.
The added flexibility that an additional 5 GHz band offers does potentially increase the complexity of configuring the router and its clients. In my experience, it’s all too easy to get this crucial part wrong, and it’s also hard to keep all the configurations up to date. Even wired networks need to be configured correctly for Quality of Service (QoS) when you have different device classes all trying to use the same data feed. Voice-over-IP users are probably the ones most familiar with this issue, as it’s too easy to let your multiple video feeds disrupt the VoIP signal and garble your phone conversations. Netgear and Broadcom have proactively tackled the problem and designed in a feature they call Smart Connect. The Nighthawk X6 broadcasts a single SSID for the 5 GHz band, but dynamically assigns clients to one of the two available bands (low & high). The Smart part comes in as the embedded software analyzes the data stream and looks at both the device class AND the effective data rate in order to efficiently separate the clients into two groups, fast and slow…or fast and faster, if you like. The only possible pitfall I can see with this scenario is if you establish a data link with a device while it is close to the router, and then you take it to another far-flung location of the house where the bit rate drops significantly. The device allocation doesn’t bounce back and forth, like a true Diversity radio system would, it stays connected to one specific band once a link is established. The Nighthawk X6 also has a relatively simple load balancing scheme where no more than three devices can be allocated to one band if the other band has no devices assigned to it. The fourth device to join the party gets sent to the unused band automatically.
Enough with the technology deep dive….. The question I always get asked, and one that I ask myself is, “Should I buy this thing”? Sometimes new technology gets introduced to the market, and even though it delivers exactly what was promised, it doesn’t really make a big difference to the end user. Early adopters get used to this, and they know that it may take a while for the rest of their systems to catch up. If you bought a new AC1750 router last year, and then had to wait for all your Wi-Fi clients to get upgraded to the new 802.11ac standard, then you know what I mean. Notice I said “all” in the last sentence. The real trouble starts when your brand new, expensive laptop with the 3×3 802.11ac MIMO antenna system doesn’t seem to download videos any faster than your daughter’s two year old tablet, with 802.11n running through a single antenna. The serial nature of Wi-Fi networks and the time-sharing that is an inherent weakness of that data transmission scheme means that the faster device is nearly always sitting idle, waiting for the older, slower device to finish its data transmission. With every member of the typical family potentially using two Wi-Fi devices at once, some of them vintage, the available data rate is effectively throttled down to match the lowest performer. The new class of AC3200 routers breaks down that single-stream paradigm by separating the slow devices from the fast ones and putting them on separate 5 GHz bands. Are three bands enough to break up the traffic jam, or do we have to wait for Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) systems that are in the pipeline? I think the answer to that question boils down to the mix of Wi-Fi clients that are in play, but we’ll have to wait and see what the upcoming AC2350 routers actually bring to the table. The good news is that no corresponding changes are required on the Wi-Fi client side in order to benefit from either of these new schemes, although you will still get the best performance from high-end 802.11ac devices.
So, here’s the short answer to the question, “Should I buy this thing“? My money says yes…. The new XStream architecture from Broadcom, which includes two 5GHz bands, Smart Connect device allocation, and implicit beam forming on each of the three bands, offers a real-world upgrade in total usable bandwidth for the typical household Wi-Fi network. Netgear has put this technology into their premier wireless router line, and the Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band WiFi Router (R8000) has many significant features that I haven’t covered here. Check out the press release here. Without some hands-on benchmarking and a tear down, I can’t offer a full recommendation at this time, but I do think it’s worth looking at if you have any bandwidth-limiting Wi-Fi devices in your home. I know I do….