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Netgear Nighthawk AX12 review: A high-end 802.11ax router with bags of bandwidth

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
360

The Nighthawk AX12 is an exceptional router but at a significant cost

Pros 
One of the fastest routers we’ve ever tested
Enormous 8x8 MU-MIMO capability
WPA3 support built-in
Cons 
One of the most expensive routers we’ve ever tested
Wi-Fi 6 performance only on par with the cheaper AX8
Not overloaded with features
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The Nighthawk AX12 is an exceptional router. It’s one of the first wave of 802.11ax devices (also known as Wi-Fi 6), offering real-world download speeds of 60MB/sec and more when accessed from a compatible client. What’s more, it’s the first router we’ve ever seen with 8x8 MU-MIMO capability. That means it can smoothly handle up to eight simultaneous wireless connections – perfect for a modern household that’s packed with smart devices.

The catch? All 802.11ax routers are expensive and this one is pricier than most. Sure, the specs are impressive, but are they really worth £360?

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 router review: What you need to know

The Nighthawk AX12 is Netgear’s top-of-the-range domestic router, with a maximum throughput of 4.8Gbits/sec on the 5GHz band, plus 1.2Gbits/sec on the 2.4GHz band. That’s over 802.11ax, of course: it’ll also work with older devices using 802.11ac and 802.11n connections, but it won’t be so fast.

The AX12’s distinctive feature is its 12 data streams, delivering 8x8 MU-MIMO over 5GHz plus 4x4 MU-MIMO over 2.4GHz. This means that, although the raw data rate is the same as the less expensive Nighthawk AX8, you can expect a smoother overall experience when multiple clients are connecting. That applies particularly over 802.11ac: 802.11ax devices can benefit too but the newer standard already features new bandwidth-sharing techniques, so contention has less of an impact.

The AX12 also comes with a few high-end features which the AX8 lacks, namely a 5Gbits/sec Ethernet port and out-of-the-box support for the new WPA3 encryption standard.

It’s worth mentioning that, like most 802.11ax routers we’ve seen, the AX12 is a dual-band design. If you need to support a large number of 802.11ac systems, there’s also a tri-band variant coming soon, but this is likely to be very expensive, with preorder pricing currently around the £500 mark.

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 review: Price and competition

As far as Wi-Fi 6 hardware is concerned, we’re still in the early-adopter phase, and the pricing reflects that. The very cheapest 802.11ax router we’ve seen so far is Netgear’s own Nighthawk AX4, which can be had online for £190 but I’d hesitate to recommend it as it doesn’t fully deliver on the performance potential of the new wireless standard. The meatier Nighthawk AX8 is faster, but it costs £283, while the Asus RT-AX88U – currently our favourite of the crop – is currently going for £299.

All this means that the AX12, at £360, is one of the most expensive routers out there. The only pricier option we’ve tested is the gamer-oriented Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000: it’s £19 more but you get a tri-band design and some snazzy traffic-management features.

READ NEXT: Netgear Nighthawk AX4 router review

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 router review: Features and design

The Nighthawk AX12 clearly follows the same design brief as the AX8 but isn’t identical. The body is slimmer and the upturned wings are larger, which is probably to do with the increased antenna count. Overall, though, it’s still an agreeable design; a bit affectedly space-age perhaps, but neat and fairly tasteful.

Slightly disappointingly, your £360 only gets you the same number of Ethernet ports as on the cheaper model. There are five, two of which can be aggregated into a 2Gbits/sec connection. However, the fifth port on the AX12 is a high-speed one, capable of supporting 2.5Gbits/sec and 5Gbits/sec connections. I doubt you’ll find a real-world use for this, but if you’re worried about future-proofing it’s a reassuring option to have.

Similarly, there’s support for the WPA3 encryption standard, which closes off some security holes in WPA2. This again is very much a future-proofing measure, rather than something you can take advantage of today, since it’s a good bet that you don’t have any WPA3-compatible devices right now. It’s also not a killer reason to choose this particular router as Netgear plans a firmware update to bring WPA3 to all of its 802.11ax routers in the near future

Finally, the AX12 one-ups the AX8 by offering not only an access-point mode but wireless bridge capabilities, too. This feels like a bit of a waste of a £360 router, especially since the dual-band design means that a good chunk of bandwidth will be eaten up by backhaul traffic, but it’s a flexible option if you’re not able to replace your main gateway for any reason.

Aside from that, the AX12’s feature set is all but identical to its cheaper cousin’s. A pair of USB 3 ports let you share files over your home network, or over the internet via the Netgear ReadySHARE website. You can also hook up a big external drive via these ports and use the AX12 as a backup station, using Windows File History or Time Machine on the Mac.

You can run a separate guest network on each radio band too and, while there’s no integrated parental control system, a fair set of access controls is on hand, allowing you to blacklist specific websites or block all pages containing certain keywords. You can even close off apps and ports for specific clients, and set an access schedule to stop kids from browsing after bedtime.

Then there’s the built-in OpenVPN server, one of our favourite features, which allows you to access your home network from anywhere in the world. The best bit is how easy it is to set up: client download links for Windows, macOS and smartphones are embedded right into the web portal, along with a visual instruction guide for each platform.

READ NEXT: Best broadband 2019

We’re less impressed by the traffic meter feature, however, which – as with Netgear’s other Wi-Fi 6 routers – only shows total and average data transfer statistics for all clients. The equivalent feature on the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 lets you filter the data to see exactly which devices and services are eating up your bandwidth, which is a lot more informative.

All of this is managed from a functional but rather stark black-and-white web interface. There is a smartphone app for Android and iOS, but it’s quite limited in what it can do: it’s mostly useful just for checking on the status of the router and connected clients. You can also perform a handful of operations by issuing voice commands to Alexa or the Google Assistant, such as turning on the guest network or rebooting the router.

While the Nighthawk AX12 ticks all the important boxes, the overall feature set verges on the conservative side. In reviewing the AX8, I commented that I would have liked to see some more ambitious features, such as built-in internet security capabilities, or support for USB 4G failover, and the same applies here. Next to the feature-packed Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000, or even the cheaper RT-AX88U, the Nighthawk AX12 feels just a bit basic.

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 router review: Performance

Features are important but, if you’re buying an 802.11ax router, it’s a fair bet that you’re chiefly interested in performance. The new standard greatly accelerates your connection by cramming more data into each wireless packet and using a wide 160MHz transmission channel, as opposed to the 40MHz and 80MHz ones that are the norm for 802.11ac.

To find out just how fast the Nighthawk AX12 is, I carried out my usual performance tests, which involve carrying a Dell Latitude 5490 laptop with a 2x2 MIMO Intel AX200 802.11ax adapter to various spots in my home and copying files to and from a NAS appliance connected to the router by Ethernet. Here are the file copy speeds I saw, along with results previously obtained from the Nighthawk AX8 and from our current recommended 802.11ax router, the Asus RT-AX88U:

Speeds over 5GHz 802.11ax (MB/sec)Asus AX88U uploadNetgear AX8 uploadNetgear AX12 uploadAsus AX88U downloadNetgear AX8 downloadNetgear AX12 download
Living room39.734.224.770.56462.7
Rear terrace24.71620.351.639.441.2
Bedroom27.820.819.856.844.546.9
Bathroom16.68.816.632.629.831.8

No doubt about it: these speeds outpace anything you’ll get over 802.11ac, especially in the further reaches of my home, where 802.11ax is typically around twice as fast as the older standard. The Nighthawk AX12 didn’t manage to overtake the Asus RT-88AX in any location, however. This is a fast router but not quite the fastest.

It’s also notable that, in most of my tests, the AX12 performed effectively identically to the AX8, allowing for the minor fluctuations that are part and parcel of wireless connections. That shouldn’t be surprising, because, as I’ve mentioned above, the radios in the two routers are rated at the same speeds (4.8Gbits/sec at 5GHz and 1.2Gbits/sec at 2.4GHz). The only blip was short-range write speed, where the AX12 proved slower than its sibling but it regained the advantage with faster upload speeds on the rear terrace and in the bathroom.

Of course, performance over 802.11ax isn’t the whole story. For now, most of your devices will still be using 802.11ac. So I repeated my speed tests using my Microsoft Surface Laptop, equipped with a 2x2 Marvell Avastar 802.11ac network card and saw the following results:

Speeds over 5GHz 802.11ac (MB/sec)Asus AX88U uploadNetgear AX8 uploadNetgear AX12 uploadAsus AX88U downloadNetgear AX8 downloadNetgear AX12 download
Living room17.813.915.332.237.735.2
Rear terrace4.23.88812.432
Bedroom7.810.79.116.932.734.7
Bathroom58.27.810.826.125

The standout figures here are from the rear terrace: in both directions, the AX12 achieved some of the best transfer speeds I’ve ever seen over 802.11ac. This is the test that requires the signal to travel the greatest distance and penetrate the largest number of walls, so this outstanding result may well be down to that uncommonly large twelve-antenna array.

Otherwise, the AX12’s headline speeds were, once again, within an error-margin of the AX8’s, although its 8x8 MU-MIMO capability means it should hold up better when you have lots of old-school clients all wanting to connect at once. It also proved faster overall than the Asus over an 802.11ac connection, more than doubling the download speed in most locations.

Netgear Nighthawk AX12 router review: Verdict

I haven’t previously seen a router with a dozen antennae but the benefit is evident. In my tests, the Nighthawk AX12 broke all records for long-range 802.11ac performance, and its huge 8x8 MU-MIMO capacity is perfect for homes with lots of devices using the older wireless standard.

There’s just one inconvenient fact to bear in mind: 802.11ac is now officially on its way out. Your next smartphone and laptop will likely support 802.11ax, at which point you’ll care a lot less about contention and performance over 802.11ac. Meanwhile, you’ll have paid through the nose for an 802.11ax connection that’s no faster than you’d get from the cheaper AX8 – and slower than the Asus RT-AX88U.

Indeed, if you’re shopping for one of the first Wi-Fi 6 routers on the market, you probably plan to transition away sooner rather than later. If that’s the case, the Asus might be a better bet, delivering an acceptable 802.11ac experience and excellent 802.11ax performance at a lower price.

But if your priority is to shore up 802.11ac performance right now, while opening the door to faster connections for 802.11ax devices as they filter into your home, the Nighthawk AX12 is an unbeatable, albeit pricey, one-stop solution.