Why Upgrade Your Free WIFI Router? Netgear Nighthawk D7000 Makes a Case

After water and food, many of us wouldn't last long without WIFI. We expect it and indeed have come to depend on it.

Yet I can imagine new WIFI routers are a bit of a hard sell. To appeal to the mass market, you need a hook that everybody understands and wants enough to bin what they already have in order to upgrade.

With the bigger internet providers giving away neat, compact WIFI routers free with their service, the idea of paying for one won’t come to many. There will need to be a really catchy feature or two.

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Trouble is, there’s not much that is ‘catchy’ about a router. Take this ‘Nighthawk’ router from Netgear. Its features list on the box includes:

  • Customised free URL to set up a personalised FTP server
  • VPN support
  • WPA2-PSK support
  • DoS attack prevention
  • IEEE 802.11 a/n/ac at 5.0Ghz
  • WIFI boost and Readyshare

Whilst some of those might prick the ears of a techie type like me, I can imagine the average family will turn their gadget budget to something easier to understand - but to do so would be to miss a potentially significant upgrade that will solve a few common problems in the 21st century home. Let’s avoid the jargon and take a closer look.

Stealth Gadget

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Out of the box, the Nighthawk makes a bit of a visual statement. Sharp angles, black everything and three chunky looking antenna make this thing look like something you’d shoot at in a computer game, not something that sits in your living room. It’s quite big, but those antenna are there for a reason, as we’ll come to in a bit.

Whilst the looks may worry some that only a tech-wizard will be able to make it do anything, setup was simple. There is an easy to read manual provided and all the ports on the back are colour-coded to the instructions - so you don’t have to know all about what every single one does.

Once you’ve connected up the cables, there is an application for PC/Mac owners to install and mobile apps for tablet and smartphone owners and the interface is nice and easy to follow.

In fact, my only criticism is that the WIFI network name and the network key (or password) are printed on the sticky film that protects the router in the box. Peel this off in a hurry before reading any instructions and you could easily find you’ve thrown away a key piece of info! I took a photo of it first, as it’s also easy to damage when you remove the film.

The (H)App’y Nighthawk

Every piece of modern tech has to have an app, but whilst not everything actually benefits, once-complex routers have become so much more simple and yet even more full-featured!

With the Nighthawk, everything is done via the Netgear Genie app, which you can download for free from your fruit or android based app store or, as shown below be installed easily on your computer.

 A firmware update was required out of the box, but it was a few simple clicks to apply

A firmware update was required out of the box, but it was a few simple clicks to apply

Now, when I first installed NetGear Genie, it told me I wasn’t connected to the internet. In the past, you had to supply routers with all sorts of meaningless information to get them to talk to your particular service provider, but a simple wizard next-next-next step later, I selected VirginMedia as my supplier and the rest was automatic.

Look to the Future, Don’t Forget the Past

Like all technologies, WIFI has not stood still and today’s standards are massively faster than those of only a few years ago. The speed of this WIFI is a key reason to buy one. I have 150MB broadband at home, but WIFI on my current router never gets beyond 30MB. This is generally fine for me, but if you have a family who are all consuming the internet at a rate of digital-knots, then you’ll be feeling the squeeze on bandwidth. Nobody likes buffering video, stuttering audio and web-pages taking an age to load.

The newest standards of WIFI, remove this bottleneck, allowing your whole household to get a better bite of the internet apple and Netgear have included a few of their own tricks, like beam-forming and WIFI boost. The former is great for mobile devices as it’ll triangulate your device's position and focus on it, rather than randomly flinging its radio-waves all over the place and the latter increases power when it’s needed, ensuring the best WIFI coverage.

Unless you only run the very latest and greatest tech, many of your gadgets will be stuck on older standards and it’s important to know that these will continue to work. My own router can broadcast WIFI on the 2.4Ghz radio spectrum (good range, but crowded with devices and competing WIFI networks) and the 5Ghz (potentially better bandwidth, but reduced range) - but not both at the same time. As one of the household Kindle’s and a Dell laptop will only talk on the 2.4Ghz channels, we’re stuck there for now with 12 other WIFI networks visible in the same space. The Netgear will broadcast both at the same time, allowing all your gadgets to achieve their potential including the very latest standard called 802.11ac which has been appearing on devices in the past few months. I couldn’t see one other network on 5Ghz, so it was all mine!

More Speed, Less Smut

So a family full of internet savvy kids and teenagers will very likely benefit from the speed boost that an upgrade to the Nighthawk brings. This may be reason enough to upgrade, but there are some nice bonuses Netgear have bundled to make the deal sweeter.

The heads of the household will likely be very concerned about what exactly their kids are doing on their devices, and whilst there is plenty of debate to be had around spying on your children and censorship of the older ones - Netgear offers a potential technical solution that is a lot easier to sort out than the ethics are.

 21st Century children face a different set of risks growing up. Parents need new tools to protect them.

21st Century children face a different set of risks growing up. Parents need new tools to protect them.

Let’s say for example that you have young children under 13 and the general family consensus is that they shouldn’t be accessing social networks or pornography (either via curiosity or accident). The Netgear Nighthawk lets you set up different levels of parental control and then apply them appropriately to each device connected to your network. So Mum and Dad’s devices can surf freely (although I’d recommend the ‘low’ setting, which protects against phishing scams), but the little one’s tablets will be barred from accessing known smut sites and social networks. Behind it all is the OpenDNS service, which is free, but you’ll need to setup an account with them to use it.

I found it worked very well on tablets and smartphones, but my Windows 10 PC completely ignored the blocks and charged onto sites best not left in one’s internet history. Something to watch out for.

Protect That Data

I can imagine if you’re the only tech savvy person in your family, then a lot of your time will be spent individually backing up myriad devices, or comforting you partner or children when they break one and their precious photos and files are gone forever.

Whilst in most cases, I would recommend a cloud-backup provider so that your data is safely away from your property (house burns down, an external hard drive will be no less melted than your computer), it can be handy to have a local backup available too and the Nighthawk makes it easy to automate backup wirelessly from all your household gadgets.

The USB sockets allow you to extend the functionality beyond router to network services hub

There are two USB-sockets on the side of the router. Connect a USB drive of a suitable capacity to it and install the backup tool via the Netgear Genie app and a continuous backup can be made of the more precious folders on that device. It’s even possible to make a full system backup (ReadyVault), so you can recover easily if you have a total operating system failure (at least on a Windows machine).

Wireless Print

A few years ago, you could buy a USB printer/scanner/copier for as little as £30. Of course if you did that and used it regularly, you’ll be a lot lighter of pocket now due to the terrifying ink prices - but you’ll likely also be wondering if it’s bad to bin a working printer so that you can upgrade to a cheap wireless one that is available now.

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Well, with a Nighthawk, your wired printer can live on in wireless form, as the second USB socket can easily be used to connect up a printer and share it wirelessly over the network. Set up from my Windows 10 PC took only a few minutes and really wasn’t much harder than connecting the USB. Unfortunately the claim that it also makes the printer AirPrint compatible (which means iPads can print) were not substantiated. Despite following the instructions and installing iTunes, I could not get my iPad to see the printer.

Sharing is Caring

If you’re the smug owner of a WIFI printer already, then that spare USB socket has one more trick in its arsenal. Connect up a hard drive or USB memory stick and with ‘ReadyShare’ you can share out the media that is on it. For example, if you’ve got movie files that you don’t want to have to copy to every device in the house, store them here and access the one copy from anywhere. I tested out some 720p HD footage and it was as good as if I were watching it from my computer’s local drive. A really handy feature that is often a lot more complicated to achieve with other gadgets.

Verdict

The Netgear Nighthawk D7000 is a lot less subtle than the more discrete offerings from the likes of BT and Virgin. But, if you and the family really use the internet to its fullest, streaming music and movies, sharing files and backing up data, then the performance boost that you get here will be immediately noticeable. The addition of easy management, parental controls and local file sharing and backup result a device that has to compete with ‘free’ ones making a pretty compelling case for itself. Recommended.
Jp

Credit: Thanks to Netgear for the lend of a sample unit