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Do you need a $400 router? Netgear thinks so

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The Netgear Nighthawk X8 is the best router I've ever used. I'm just not sure if, at an MSRP of $399.99, it's better enough than other routers available at half the price — some of which share the Nighthawk name.

Back in late 2013, I wrote up my initial impressions of Netgear's first Nighthawk router, which signaled the company's foray into premium, performance devices. It was an impressive introduction, and since then, I've become something of an evangelist for Nighthawks, talking them up at the slightest hint of provocation. I think that the base Nighthawk model, the R7000, is a great option for most people. The second-generation version, the R7500, features even better range and performance for multiple devices, for just $20-30 more.

I have happily been using an R7500 for a year, and will vouch for it justifying an approximately $200 price tag (if not the $279 MSRP). Setup is easy, even when connecting it to a home gateway device that would typically cause headaches with "dumber" routers — I haven't yet had to disable DHCP on a Nighthawk to prevent gateway conflicts, for example, and if you've ever had to do this, you should understand why that's a relief.

With good, expensive-but-not-unreasonable options like that, Netgear is in an awkward position trying to introduce newer versions of its Nighthawk router, but that hasn't stopped the company from going even bigger. In addition to the comparatively conservative R7500, Netgear launched the six-antenna X6/R8000 in 2014 for a few hundred bucks. And now comes the X8/R8500, with a suggested retail price of around $400.

nighthawk X8 front

You can take a moment to process that if you like. It's a lot of money. Over the last six weeks, I've seen the price fluctuate on Amazon, at one point dropping almost a hundred dollars for the holiday shopping season, but it seems to be hovering around $350 now. In my time with the X8, there are two main reasons people might want to pay that price: powered antennas and dual-gigabit backup support.

The first is most likely to sell the X8. We all love Wi-Fi and can't live without it, but it presents different challenges regarding transfer speeds and wireless coverage: mainly that both are terrible in almost any router you'll buy. The R7000 was the first router that provided reliable coverage in my apartment, which was an achievement given the dozens of wireless networks bombarding it from every direction. The R7500 was even better in this regard, with faster coverage even farther from the device, though my different devices often had to be switched from the faster 5 GHz 802.11ac network to the slower (but better ranged) 2.4 GHz 802.11n network.

However, while the R7500 allowed me to gain internet access in the courtyard in my apartment complex, speeds out there weren't what I would call great. And to be honest, this was the only real litmus test I felt like I could throw at the R8500 to determine whether or not it offered a demonstrable improvement in wireless coverage. After doing controlled tests to determine performance up close — where both the R7500 and R8500 maxed out my 300/30 Mbps internet connection on 802.11ac — I moved outside and started running the same bandwidth tests.

The results were encouraging ... at first. The maximum download speeds I found outside were higher on the R8500, to be sure. But the signal strength was extremely variable — enough to make me question how viable the connection would be for day-to-day use.

nighthawk x8 comparison 4

While the X8 did provide a major speed increase outside, you can see the massive fluctuations in connection speed and reliability present in the wavering graph. In fact, in multiple tests on the powered 5 GHz band outside, I routinely pulled different results on Verizon's FiOS bandwidth test. I'm sure there are many reasons for such fluctuations, but the fact remains that it's not something I'd want to count on.

I'm not likely to work in my apartment's courtyard, so this is unlikely to adversely affect me. But the Nighthawk line has proven popular with users who have multi-level houses or larger properties that traditional routers have struggled to cover. The R8500 can do that at least as well as previous Nighthawks, but I'm not sure how much farther it will reach in real-world scenarios.

This is somewhat surprising, given the major addition touted by the R8500: powered antennas. Large external antennas have become a visual hallmark of the Nighthawk line, along with their slanted, aggressive profile. The R8500 has discarded the latter for some reason, instead featuring a sort of scalloped pattern of swoops across the top (which my cat very much enjoyed sitting on, for some reason). But the antennas are more prominent than ever, glowing blue to signify their new powered status.

nighthawk X8 back

The powered antennas were probably responsible for the most practical benefit I did find with the R8500: better coverage inside my apartment. Netgear has said that the powered antennas allow the R8500's main 5 GHz radio to penetrate walls and surfaces much more effectively, and my experience seems to bear this out. Don't get me wrong: The R7500 I had been using was perfectly serviceable (more than serviceable — great, even), but the signal strength for all devices compatible with 802.11ac was far stronger and more consistent on the R8500.

That last part is kind of important. The R8500 actually has three wireless radios, only one of which supports the nice, powered antennas. If you enable the proper setting, the router will intelligently assign devices to the radio based on their connection capabilities, which I would advise unless you want to try to figure out which 5 GHz radio is the "fast" one. If you're using multiple kinds of Wi-Fi standards on the 5 GHz band, the Nighthawk will segregate each device to a specific radio to make sure everything performs as quickly as possible.

If it seems like I'm meandering here, it's because taken in pieces, the R8500 doesn't really do any one thing orders of magnitude more impressively than its predecessors, save for its support of dual-gigabit connections for network storage for improved transfer speeds. It just does everything better enough to be a universally improved experience. The X8 is a great router. But for the first time in my experiences with Netgear's flagship line, it feels like too much machine to recommend to all but those who have found its predecessors inadequate for very specific needs.