Last week my router was fried by my lovely cable company who can’t be bothered to ground their cables. The power surge came in not on the power line but on the network line. This also took down my PCs NIC as well. The NIC is inconsequential really. This forced me in to a tough decision. Do I go with another Asus router like the two prior? I LOVE Asus routers. Not only does their stock firmware come with virtually any option a moderately well seasoned IT vet could want but they also feature a wealth of tools that make one click jobs out of otherwise complicated time consuming tasks like trying to setup QOS. The catch is that the competition has been working on upping their game with routers like the Nighthawk and the WRT1900AC.
If you’re not interested in the review and just want to get to the instructions for flashing DD-WRT go HERE.
So what’s the criteria for selecting a router? Like most things it’s going to be personal and based on your use case. For me I’m a demanding user. I break data caps, I do things that put stress on my network and Internet connection and I often have many connections going at once. This means the router has to be able to keep pace and more real time connections have to be kept from being stepped on by less important ones. Price, is almost no object but given the opportunity to save a few bucks I’ll take it. After this little nugget http://brockh.at/TWcMkc the Linksys WRT1900AC was right out. This left me with the Netgear Nighthawk or the Asus RT-AC68U for options. The hardware, really, is almost inconsequential. At the $200 price point you’re going to be getting top of the line supporting the latest standard so it really comes down to software support. The Asus firmware is already top notch and I wouldn’t even consider swapping it out. The Netgear on the other hand was a bit of an unknown quantity. I’ve used their firmware on some low end $60 deals on a few occasions and was less than impressed. It wasn’t very well organized and it seemed to need to reboot the router for most changes. This scared me a bit. I had also done a little bit of homework and found that DD-WRT is available for this router though it doesn’t appear to be an “official” release but it is being maintained by a long time DD-WRT contributor. This kind of gives the Netgear an out if the stock firmware falls on it’s face. I figured it was time to try something new so I rolled the dice on the Netgear Nighthawk.
Well, that escalated quickly! My backup router, an EnGenius 802.11G router, wasn’t really holding up well running games and streaming from two machines very well so I had to get the Netgear here ASAP. Thanks Amazon Prime for the discounted next day shipping! You can find the Nighthawk here http://brockh.at/1jVocex. As you can see the packaging is pretty standard fare. Lets have a look at what’s inside.
The device is well packaged and protected. There isn’t much stand out. The power adapter, antennae and manuals are all that are included. Not that there is much else to expect to go along with a router. One thing missing that speaks to Asus’s level of polish is that the Nighthawk is missing a cable tie on the power adapter cord. In addition to the bag on the device there is also a layer of that stick on plastic wrap to keep the top of the device pristine. It’s hefty, feels like a quality device and is HUGE compared to any previous routers I’ve had. From the spec sheet Dimensions: 11.22 x 7.26 x 1.97 in. Here are some pics to illustrate it’s size.
I had to clear some extra space to find a place to park this beast. The previous Asus router I had could be stood vertically and share a space on a shelf on my entertainment center. This thing is so big I had to find another place to put it that provides enough space. The massive fin-like antenna on this thing plus it’s stance had me thinking I might need a landing strip with lights to prepare for the emperors visit.
Size aside you can’t really be mad at a device that elicits this type of visual and emotional response. It’s large and aggressive looking, certainly a muscle car of routers. Hopefully the power is present to go with the looks. The movie analogy’s didn’t end there. This thing has LEDs the likes of which only the science crew on the ground in the movie close encounters have experienced. If you do any Googleing of the matter you’ll find one of the most frequently discussed or requested features is the ability to shut off the LEDs because they are so bright and pronounced. I rather like the dance of lights it makes in the dark. The latest stock firmware provides some basic control over the LEDs including power LED only and full off.
Jokes aside I did finally get it hooked up and running to get a look at the performance and the functionality. I was greeted with the rather standard and unfortunate Netgear firmware interface. It’s split in two between “Basic” where you can do virtually nothing useful. The other tab is “Advanced” and has almost all the options you would expect from pretty standard router firmware. It’s far more responsive and easy to navigate than their low end firmware on their low end devices. If you’re a regular user you will probably be perfectly fine using the stock firmware but it really does lack some features a well informed techie would be looking for. Basics like fine grain DHCP lease control etc.
What led me to this realization was in attempting to setup my new AC wifi adapter because my wired NIC was dead. I plugged in a second 2.4Ghz adapter to get drivers from the internet while my AC 5Ghz adapter was also plugged in. This registered the same machine with DHCP through both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz channels. For whatever reason this pair of leases, after removing the 2.4Ghz adapter, started causing disconnects from the router. For some inexplicable reason the DHCP service had assigned the same IP to my new adapter(5Ghz) that it had to my old adapter(2.4Ghz) that I had plugged in briefly. Since the lease was still active it was registering it as an IP conflict and kicking my new adapter off the network. This lead to the realization that there was no way to clear a single lease. Very disappointing for a high end router.
If you navigate around the UI for a while and start to investigate closely all of the options you start to notice a lot of these little detail features are not present in the Netgear firmware. Lack of ability to set a second WAN for a fail-over device, lack of SSH access(there’s a dirty hack apparently) and I’m sure there are plenty of other little things I didn’t notice. Honestly just the DHCP functionality drove me to jump immediately to DD-WRT so I didn’t investigate further features as I had a need to get my desktop functioning correctly. I could have either wasted time playing with the router, doing a reset to clear DHCP or I could spend my time just flashing DD-WRT to get all the functionality I wanted.
You can find the instructions for flashing DD-WRT HERE.
To wrap up the review the hardware is large and in charge. Performs very well. Certainly up there with all the other similarly priced routers. The stock software is fair to good but not excellent unless you upgrade it to the open source firmware. If you want to save a few bucks and have the technical prowess the Nighthawk is a solid choice. If you want something that just works out of the box and provides everything you want you’ll want to spend the few extra bills and get an Asus router.