Netgear Nighthawk Mesh Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (MK83) review: smooth, but insufficient

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Many places, whether it’s a multi-story home, an attic office, or an outdoor patio, present challenges in getting decent wireless coverage. And with the record number of us working and learning at home, a strong Wi-Fi signal has gone from “nice to have” to “must have”. Between streaming media services and Zoom meetings for all occasions, from business transactions to birthdays, dead zones are much less intolerable than before.

There’s no shortage of wireless accessories to fix dead spots, including wireless extension cords and Powerline networks with wireless access points to get the signal where it needs to go. But rather than going crazy trying to get all this gear to work well together, which can be a waste of time even for a networking expert and a big challenge for novices, a simpler solution these days ( although it is often far from cheap) is a mesh networking kit. With a mesh kit, the manufacturer has done the heavy lifting, putting multiple wireless units in a pretty box that are all compatible and designed to work together right out of the box, with just one set of instructions for everything. is operational.

This is what we are looking for with the Netgear Nighthawk Mesh Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (MK83) system. It is made up of three elements: a router and two satellites, which technically makes it a “hub and spoke” system rather than the “true mesh” which all have identical wireless nodes. But purist considerations aside, this setup promises to cover 6,750 square feet of wireless goodness with Wi-Fi 6 speeds.

Design

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

The AX3600 comes as a three- or four-piece system (we tested the first, MK83), with the option to add additional satellites if you need to cover more space. Each is made of shiny black plastic sides with a textured top (reminds me of the classic 80s arcade game Q * bert), measuring 5.51 x 5.51 x 3.62 inches, with the router and satellites having identical dimensions and weighing 1.4 pounds for each of the three units. Glossy plastic tends to take fingerprints and smudges easily, so we would highly prefer the textured plastic here.

The router (in the center of the image above) has three Gigabit Ethernet ports and a single WAN port. The easy way to tell the router apart from satellite boxes is that the satellite (top left) has no WAN and only two LAN ports. The latter is a nifty feature of having to connect wired equipment (like set-top boxes or consoles) to the satellite access point.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Although there are no external antennas, each unit has five internal antennas. There is a single LED that glows blue when connected, flashes white when booting, and orange when ready to sync. Unfortunately, the light cannot be turned off, which is less than ideal for a bedroom application (unless you want to put a piece of black electrical tape over the LED).

Characteristics

The router and satellite units both use a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, and the router has 256 MB of flash memory for storage and 512 MB of RAM. Wireless is tri-band, i.e. Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (5 GHz 1800 Mbps + 5 GHz 1200 Mbps + 2.4 GHz 600 Mbps). This is 3600 Mbps of theoretical bandwidth, hence the name of this kit, however it seems strange to us to have two different bandwidths for 5 GHz radios. Also, it is not clear if any of these are the backhaul between the router and a satellite, which would then be a bottleneck for the faster 5 GHz speed, unless it is directly connected to the router.

At least on paper, the AX3600 has all the wireless features you would expect from high-end home networking gear – the three-piece kit we tested currently sells for just under $ 400. The list is long and covers MU-MIMO for simultaneous data streaming, explicit beamforming on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, OFDMA for uplinks and downlinks, and seven-stream WiFi for 4K video streaming. .

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

The AX3600 has a QoS (Quality of Service) that can be activated, as well as a “performance optimization database”. We also went through the SpeedTest to identify the available bandwidth, to then get this mesh kit to optimize it. That said, there is absolutely no control over QoS, either by the type of traffic (like prioritizing video streaming or gaming), or being able to prioritize a specific device, like a plate. -game shape. We believe this granular control deficit at least partly explains the poor QoS performance below. But first, let’s get the system set up and the routing.

To install

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Mesh systems can often be a chore to set up, but the AX3600 has done well in this area. While this can also be done with a smartphone app, we did it through the web interface, and it was pretty painless.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

As part of the setup, the system firmware was upgraded to the latest available version. This is an important step in ensuring that the latest patches have been applied and that all known security vulnerabilities have been fixed.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

With the router connected and running, the next step is to add the satellites to the system. It was easier than most mesh systems, as we just had to plug in the satellite, wait for the flashing white LED to turn orange, then press the “Sync” button on the satellite, followed by the “Sync” button in the software. , then the satellite was all configured.

Security

The AX3600 supports WPA-3, the latest encryption standard, which is becoming increasingly important as all previous standards have been cracked at this point.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

The AX3600 supports network-level anti-malware security, referred to herein as “Netgear Armor”. But while there is a free trial, it’s limited to 30 days even on this premium mesh kit. Beyond that, you’re considering an annual subscription for an additional cost of $ 69.99 (although it’s currently on sale for less). Buyers should factor this into the cost of the AX3600, as some competing products have network-level antivirus for the life of the product at no additional cost.

Performance

From the start, we encountered connection issues. An Acer Aspire laptop we had with a Wi-Fi 6 card (AX201, driver version 22.40.0.7) was completely unable to connect to the router. We found out that this was not the latest Intel driver for this card, which was later upgraded to 22.60.0.6, but that did not resolve the issue. Our testing was done with our standard Asus gaming laptop, the G512L model, which also uses the same AX201 card, although it didn’t have any connection issues.

2.4 GHz near 2.4 GHz away 5 GHz near 5 GHz away
Bandwidth (Mbps) unable unable 315.2 286.7

The AX3600 sends a single SSID, and we were unable to separate it into separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals. Therefore, we were unable to test the throughput on the 2.4 GHz frequency. The 5 GHz speeds we got of 315.2 Mbps on the near test and 286.7 Mbps on the far test are okay, but nothing exceptional among Wi-Fi 6 equipment.

Test setup

Test setup QoS Medium hits min max 8k lost frames Pingplotter tips Latency (Overwatch ms)
Ethernet no 119.8 100 142 n / A 0 69
Ethernet + 10 8k videos no 36 0 82 16.20% 6 189
Ethernet + 10 8k videos Yes 20.2 2 42 34.80% 13 124
Router only 5 GHz no 126.2 103 152 n / A 0 67
Router only 5 GHz no 13.4 0 51 3.40% 1 151
5 GHz + 10 videos 8k Yes 16.1 0 59 50.80% 1 118
Satellite (5 GHz) no 136.1 107 163 n / A 1 68
Satellite + 10 8k videos no 24.9 0 50 9.20% 0 100
Satellite + 10 8k videos Yes 37.6 0 90 17.80% 3 87

Stress testing the AX3600 mesh kit turned out to be a bummer exercise, with almost no QoS resulting in low frame rates on our set of Monitoring, and a high percentage of lost frames. But let’s not anticipate on ourselves.

Things started off pretty well. When connected via the Ethernet cable, the frame rate of 119.8 was solid, with low in-game latency of 69ms. However, when we added the ten 8K streaming videos, we saw the frame rate drop to 36.0 FPS and at times the game froze with a frame rate of zero. Latency also increased to 189ms, with the frame rate on our streaming videos dropping 16.2%, plus six PingPlotter spikes. Enabling QoS didn’t do anything for us – in fact, the FPS is even lower at 20.2 and the frames lost on the video stream are even higher at 34.8%, for worse overall performance. .

In short, the AX3600 mesh kit performed poorly in a congested environment and QoS did not handle congestion effectively. This was then replicated when connecting via 5 GHz directly to the router, and additionally when we connected to the satellite unit.

Final result

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

In terms of looks and advertised features, the Netgear Nighthawk Mesh Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (MK83) looks promising. But factor in the price, as well as our experience with it on a crowded network, and the AX3600 becomes pretty mediocre value, with an MSRP of $ 499 and a current retail price of $ 396. At this price, this equipment is clearly in the high end of routers and mesh kits, and performance on both throughput and congested testing is lacking.

Aside from the price, the AX3600 has some advantages, such as ease of installation, automatic firmware upgrade during setup, support for WPA-3 security, and compact size of the units. But combine the high price tag with the lack of efficient QoS, sluggish throughput, and the added expense of malware protection, and it becomes clear that there are better options. Hopefully Netgear can take what works from the AX3600 and build on that experience in the future.


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