An impressively powerful router, though not as superlative as you might hope for the price
- Twin 5GHz radios
- Accessible management portal
- Built-in VPN
- Connection speeds aren’t quite top-tier
- No parental controls
Netgear’s tri-band AX12 is a high-end wireless router with support for next-generation 802.11ax – also known as Wi-Fi 6. It looks a lot like Netgear’s original dual-band AX12, and its capabilities are very similar too. However, in addition to the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz transceivers, it adds a second 5GHz radio, increasing the wireless bandwidth available when multiple clients are connected.
The tri-band AX12’s other distinction is that it’s one of the most expensive routers we’ve ever tested, costing £50 more than the already pricey dual-band version. Is it worth the money? Let’s find out.
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 tri-band router review: What you need to know
The tri-band AX12 brings a big bandwidth boost over the dual-band version. It claims a total wireless throughput of 11Gbits/sec versus the regular model’s 6Gbits/sec, made up of two 5GHz radios rated at 4.8Gbits/sec, plus a 1.2Gbits/sec 2.4GHz transceiver. Note, however, that since each client only connects to one radio, the maximum theoretical speed of any individual connection remains at 4.8Gbits/sec.
The benefit of the extra radio is that it allows two wireless clients to communicate simultaneously with the router at top speed. Each device gets a bigger slice of wireless bandwidth than with the dual-band model, and the effects of interference and band congestion are also lessened since the two 5GHz radios broadcast at slightly different frequencies.
While this is undeniably a fast router, bear in mind that manufacturers’ advertised data rates are never achievable in the real world, and to get the best speeds you’ll need an 802.11ax-capable laptop, tablet or phone. Older devices are fully supported too, but they won’t get the full performance this router is capable of.
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 tri-band router review: Price and competition
We’ve reviewed one other tri-band 802.11ax router in the past, namely the gamer-oriented Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000. At £380 it’s a little cheaper than the Nighthawk but it’s still a very powerful router. It has built-in network security and a versatile traffic management tool that lets you prioritise games, video streaming, VoIP or other specific applications.
Otherwise, the 802.11ax alternatives are all dual-band models. Netgear itself offers three other Wi-Fi 6 routers, namely the lightweight Nighthawk AX4 – now available for a tempting £180 – the £280 Nighthawk AX8 and, of course, the dual-band version of the AX12, currently selling for £360.
Then there’s the Asus RT-AX88U, a no-nonsense router offering plenty of advanced features and excellent speeds at £300, and the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which is slightly slower but more user-friendly, and a little cheaper at £275.
Here’s a list of those alternatives and where to buy them:
- Netgear Nighthawk AX4 – £180 – Amazon
- Netgear Nighthawk AX8 – £280 – Amazon
- Netgear Nighthawk AX12 dual band – £360 – Amazon
- Asus RT-AX88U – £300 – Amazon
- TP-Link Archer AX6000 – £275 – Amazon
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 tri-band router review: Features and design
The tri-band AX12 looks all but identical to the dual-band version, with the same striking winged design and two low-profile buttons on the sloping top, which let you turn the LEDs and Wi-Fi services on and off with a press. The only visible distinction is that the tri-band has a glossy, slightly sparkly finish, while the dual-band adopts a plain matte look.
The connections at the rear are very similar, too. You get four regular Gigabit Ethernet sockets, a separate WAN port for your internet connection and one multi-gig LAN socket supporting 1GbE, 2.5GbE and 5GbE connections. Two of the regular Ethernet ports can be combined to create a single 2Gbits/sec connection, and this model – unlike the dual-band one – also supports WAN aggregation, so you can team up two sockets for a 2Gbits/sec internet connection.
There are two USB 3 sockets too, accepting external flash drives or hard disks. Files and folders can be easily shared over your local network (or over the internet, using Netgear’s ReadyCLOUD service), and the router can act as a DLNA media streamer, too. It’s disappointing that a router this expensive won’t support a printer, however, nor a 4G adapter in case your main internet connection goes down.
Basic network management can be carried out from the Nighthawk smartphone app, which conveniently lets you authenticate with a fingerprint and includes a helpful Wi-Fi analytics module that can check the coverage around your home and scan for interference from other nearby networks.
For more advanced settings, you’ll need to drop into Netgear’s familiar web portal. We’re fans of this interface. It’s logically laid out, pretty responsive and quite visually clean, although the black and white colour scheme is a bit stark.
One option we’re particularly pleased to see is band-splitting: you can choose to operate all three networks under a single SSID, allowing the router to automatically distribute clients between its three radios, or give them separate names so you can choose how each client connects. You can also operate three separate guest networks, one on each radio, each with its own isolation settings.
As usual with Netgear’s high-end products, there’s also a built-in OpenVPN server with dynamic DNS support that lets you access your home network from anywhere on the internet.
There’s not much else to note on the feature list, however. You can block specific sites and ports, but there are no per-device parental controls, and while the QoS module lets you assign priority levels to individual clients, you can’t customise the predefined template which places online gaming and streaming ahead of BitTorrent, FTP and other protocols. Compared with the Asus GT-AX11000’s extensive traffic-management features it feels a little basic.
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 tri-band router review: Performance
The radios in the tri-band AX12 are the same as the ones found in the dual-band model, with both 5GHz transmitters rated at 4.8Gbits/sec and supporting 4×4 MU-MIMO. All other things being equal, therefore, you’d expect to see identical performance.
I tested this in my usual way, taking a Dell Latitude 5490 laptop (equipped with a 2×2 MIMO Intel AX200 802.11ax adapter) to various areas around my home and copying files to and from a NAS appliance connected to the router by Gigabit Ethernet. Here are the transfer speeds I saw, along with results from Asus’ competing 802.11ax routers for comparison:
As you can see, download speeds were very similar to the dual-band AX12’s, to the extent that the variance can mostly be put down to environmental factors. However, while both Netgear models delivered strong performance, the Asus rivals were generally a cut above in the download stakes, and the RT-AX88U proved significantly faster for uploads too.
I had expected to see the same story play out when I repeated the tests using an 802.11ac client, but here a notable performance gap emerged between the two AX12 routers:
As I moved around the house I found the tri-band’s download speeds repeatedly lagged more than 20% behind the dual-band. That’s a bigger and more consistent margin than can be simply put down to the randomness of wireless networking. My suspicion is that this is because the tri-band’s upturned wings contain only the same eight antennae as the dual-band model, which here need to be shared with an additional 5GHz radio.
Still, if you have a large number of clients then the extra bandwidth provided by the additional 5GHz radio might more than make up for the loss of headline speed – and even despite the shortfall, both AX12 models turned the tables on the Asus models in these tests, with markedly faster downloads over 802.11ac.
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 tri-band router review: Verdict
The tri-band AX12 shares the strengths of the dual-band version. It provides excellent performance over 802.11ac, and as 802.11ax clients percolate into your home it’ll be ready to serve them with even higher speeds.
Predictably, though, it also shares its cousin’s weaknesses: over 802.11ac it’s not as fast as the dual-band edition, while over 802.11ax it can’t keep up with competing routers from Asus.
Still, if your home is packed with wireless devices then the tri-band design should keep things moving smoothly when the going gets tough – and right now the AX12’s only competition in this arena is the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000.
While the Asus has a more comprehensive feature set, the AX12 is undeniably a solid piece of hardware, with all the core features you’re likely to need plus user-friendly management.