The days of compromising between speed and range with a WiFi router are now over. Netgear’s Nighthawk AC 1900 Smart WiFi Router is one of the first 802.11ac devices on the market and it lives up to the hype for the latest WiFi protocol.
While the ac protocol hasn’t been formally approved by the I.E.E.E., the devices are starting to be sold and used. If the final spec changes, the Nighthawk router can be updated with new software.
Black and wedge-shaped, Nighthawk looks more like an alien space ship than a piece of Internet communications equipment. Inside, it has a Broadcom WiFi chip, 1GHz dual-core processor as well as 128MB of flash storage and 256MB of RAM.
There are LEDs for everything from power and Internet activity to which ports are being used, making it look like a Christmas tree when it’s turned on. The router comes with three screw-on wing-like antennas and the system includes a small plug-in AC adapter. It has mounting holes on the bottom for hanging it on a wall, but be warned the antennas can make the router look like a coat rack.
In addition to an on/off switch and a recessed reset button, the Nighthawk’s back has LAN outlets for connecting it to the school’s broadband source as well as four gigabit Ethernet ports. It has USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports that can be used with an external hard drive or printer and you can even make the material on a drive publicly available through online downloads.
Setting up the router is simple and can be done via Netgear’s Genie app, which holds the installer’s hand and automates many of the steps. It can also be configured manually with the ability to customize a multitude of details, from packet size and the ability to block access to the Internet to setting up a guest network that allows Web access but restricts access to the network.
You can use the included Ethernet cable or a WiFi connection to get started. Unlike most new networking gear, the Nighthawk comes with a customized password and encryption turned on to prevent hackers from invading the system while it’s being configured. A thoughtful sticker on the bottom shows the router’s default connection details.
Changing the settings to match the school’s network takes a few minutes. Unlike most LAN equipment, the software for the Nighthawk is beautiful and functional. On the main menu there are six prominent boxes that make a great way to see what’s happening inside the device at a glance. It shows if the router is connected and the number of clients it is supporting while the WiFi details scroll by. It also displays whether content controls are in place, if anything is plugged into the router and if the guest network is turned on.
There are screens for setting up the wireless details and security. The Nighthawk router has two radios that work with the 2.4- and 5GHz bands that 802.11ac uses. The system can work with WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK, WPA-AES and WPA/WPA2 Enterprise encryption settings so it can match the other WiFi equipment in your facility and be seamlessly integrated.
It has SPI and NAT firewalls and can help protect a school’s infrastructure from a denial of service attack, but lacks the ability to tap into an LDAP server for authenticating clients. With a few changes, the router can be converted for use as an access point.
The system has the latest beam-forming technology that customizes the Nighthawk’s transmissions to best suit the receiver, regardless of whether it’s an 8-year old desktop using 802.11b or the latest 802.11ac notebook and worked well with a variety of systems. Better yet, slower clients won’t hold faster ones back because each link is optimized to get the most out of the connection.
Able to work with IP versions 4 and 6, the router has an integrated FTP server so that large files can be distributed without the overhead of a Web page. It comes with software for automating the backing up of Windows or Apple computers on a connected hard drive. In fact, this is a great way to create a LAN-based storage system on the cheap. It is also one of the rare routers that includes Quality of Service software built-in so that interactive lessons and video can always travel in the fast lane.
Capable of nearly 2Gbps of throughput, in a typical school setting, the router can support dozens of connections at once and can use DHCP auto-IP addressing for clients or static addresses. The Nighthawk router had a range of 135 feet in a hundred-year old building of mixed masonry and plaster construction, making it one of the strongest routers on the market. At 10-feet from the router, it was able to move 838Mbps of data back and forth, making it one of the highest performing routers available.
That should be plenty to have one router shared by two adjacent classrooms or to cover an auditorium or a lab, allowing a school to get by with fewer devices yet still blanket it with top-speed WiFi.
+ Excellent range and throughput
+ USB ports for hard drive or printer
+ Quality of service
+ 802.11ac dual-band design
+ FTP server
+ Back-up features
- Three antennas
- No LDAP authentication