I won't beat around the bush: Netgear's Nighthawk X4 Wi-Fi router is a major disappointment. It's not just slower than the first 802.11ac Wave 2 router to reach the market, the Asus RT-AC87U, it's considerably slower than its competitor — on every benchmark.
The Nighthawk X4's one saving grace might be its adaptive quality of service (QoS) that analyzes the data flowing across its wireless network and automatically adjusts the priority given to each bit stream. Netgear co-developed this technology with Qualcomm, which supplies the Nighthawk X4's secondary CPU (the QoS algorithms run on a 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor that also operates the router's 2.4- and 5GHz 802.11n radios, manages its dual USB 3.0 and eSATA ports, and controls a few other functions). Adaptive QoS is turned off by default, and that's how I left it for benchmarking.
QoS isn't new. Many routers can assign high priority to a media stream or an online gaming session and throttle a web-browsing session or a BitTorrent download. But this Netgear/Qualcomm solution is much more granular. It not only recognizes the difference between Netflix and YouTube video streams (the former adjusts its resolution in relation to connection speed, while the latter relies on buffering).
The Nighthawk X4 can also differentiate between a PC client and a tablet or smartphone client and support them accordingly. But I think households with lots of wireless clients competing for limited bandwidth would be better served by Netgear's other new router, the Nighthawk X6, because it operates two distinct 802.11ac networks.
The 802.11ac radio in the Nighthawk X4 — aka the R7500 — is operated by the same 500MHz Quantenna chipset found in the Asus RT-AC87U, so I'm at a loss to understand why the Netgear's performance is so underwhelming by comparison.
In the benchmark scenario that lets each router shine the brightest — with the laptop client hardwired to a matching router that's been configured as a wireless bridge — the Nighthawk X4 was on average 30 percent slower than the RT-AC87U. It was also slower than the Linksys WRT1900AC, the Asus RT-AC68U, and the original Netgear Nighthawk (aka the R7000), although the margins were narrower. In fact, the only router that was slower on this score was Netgear's Nighthawk X6 (aka the R8000).
The results weren't any prettier in my other benchmarking scenarios. The Nighthawk X4 trailed the field when a wireless client was connected to its 2.4- and 5GHz 802.11n networks (that client being a Maingear gaming laptop with an Intel Core i5 CPU and a 3x3 Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 Wi-Fi adapter), and when I connected a 2x2 Asus USB-AC56 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter.
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