Netgear Nighthawk X4S review: A beast of a router, and the best around

Price when reviewed

The Nighthawk X4S was a world first when it first launched. It was the only DSL modem router that supports Wave 2 Wi-Fi, quad-stream on both bands and multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). Typically, Wi-Fi signals are shared among devices from a single pool, with less bandwidth available as more devices connect to a network. MU-MIMO lets a router broadcast a signal from a number of sources to multiple systems simultaneously, directing separate bandwidth streams to up to four devices, as long as the devices are MU-MIMO compatible.

Netgear Nighthawk X4S review: A beast of a router, and the best around

With the addition of quad-stream broadcasting on both frequency bands and beamforming, the Nighthawk X4S has a whopping maximum bandwidth of 2.53Gbits/ sec, with 800Mbits/sec on the 2.4GHz band and 1,733Mbits/sec over 5GHz. However, this presents a problem. The only way to get the best possible wireless speeds is via a 4×4-stream, MU-MIMO-compatible network adapter, but no such component exists. You could use two routers in bridge mode, but this isn’t representative of real-world use. It currently comes at a cost of £170 on Amazon UK (or $198.99 on Amazon US).

Netgear Nighthawk X4S: Performance and features

We tested with an AC1900, 3×3-streamWi-Fi card, one of the fastest NICs you can buy today. It can’t max out the Nighthawk 4S, but it indicates what performance would be like right now.

In our close-range tests, file-transfer speeds over 802.11ac – 73.3MB/sec – were seriously quick, albeit not as fast as some tri-band models. Taking bandwidth overheads into account, 17.1MB/sec over 5GHz 802.11n was an excellent result. Long-range results over 802.11ac were only average, at 22.2MB/sec, but 14MB/sec over 5GHz 802.11n was one of the fastest speeds we’ve seen from a wireless router. When the right hardware arrives, the Nighthawk X4S should be blazingly fast; right now, it’s able to hold its own against the competition.

Naturally, there are four Gigabit LAN ports for speedy wired performance, along with a Gigabit WAN port for a separate cable or fibre modem. With both ADSL and VDSL modems onboard, however, you won’t need two separate boxes next to your phone line unless your ISP forces you to use its own hardware.

The eSATA port is an odd inclusion: while it could be useful for legacy devices, the two USB 3 ports on the side will be much faster. We measured file transfers at 82.3MB/sec, which is practically quick enough for the router to double as a NAS device once you attach an external hard disk. Connecting a printer to the second USB port will turn it into an Apple AirPrint-enabled device.

Netgear has retained the outlandish looks used for the original Nighthawk AC1900, making the X4S look more like a stealth bomber than a wireless router. It’s huge, but the four removable, adjustable antennae will let you fine-tune the spread of its wireless networks.

Netgear Nighthawk X4s from the rear

The web interface also remains unchanged, which is unfortunate: compared to Linksys’ excellent Smart Wi-Fi or Synology’s SRM, Netgear’s user interface feels very basic for such a high-end router. At least it’s responsive, with a 1.4GHz dual-core processor handling the grunt work. There are still plenty of manual settings and all the features you’d expect, including VPN access and Netgear’s excellent Live Parental Controls. This lets you sign up to the URL blacklists maintained by OpenDNS in only a few clicks, with the ability to block websites by category or apply different filters on a set schedule.

Dynamic quality of service (QoS) is another welcome addition, quickly reconciling individual applications running on each connected device and prioritising network traffic accordingly. This helped prevent video buffering when watching a Netflix stream, even with three smartphones on the network simultaneously downloading an iOS firmware update. Netgear’s Genie smartphone app makes a reappearance, too, letting you monitor the network without having to log in on a PC first.

Netgear Nighthawk X4S: Verdict

There’s no escaping the fact that the Nighthawk X4S is expensive, and anyone with an ADSL connection won’t get any benefit from having a VDSL modem onboard. It’s already exceptionally fast and when MU- MIMO devices arrive in greater numbers it will stay fast – unlike its rivals – even when you have multiple wireless clients connected at once. Features such as dynamic QoS truly make a difference to networks with multiple connected devices, and wireless range is excellent. That’s why it’s our top choice. 

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