Many locations, be it a multi-storey house, a loft office or an outdoor patio, present challenges in getting decent wireless coverage. And with the record number of us working and learning from home, a solid Wi-Fi signal has moved from “nice to have” to the “must have” category. Between streaming media services and Zoom gatherings for every occasion, from business transactions to birthday parties, dead zones are much less unbearable than they used to be.
There’s no shortage of wireless accessories to solve dead spots, including wireless extenders and powerline networks with wireless access points to get the signal where it needs to go. But instead of going crazy trying to get all this stuff to play nicely together, which can be a time-consuming task even for a networking expert and a major challenge for beginners, today there’s an easier solution (although often far from cheap) mesh network kit. With a mesh kit, the manufacturer has done the heavy lifting by packing multiple wireless units into one beautiful box that are all compatible and designed to work together right out of the box, with a single set of instructions to get it all up and running.
That’s what we’re looking at with the Netgear Nighthawk Mesh Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (MK83) system. It consists of three parts: a router and two satellites, technically making it a ‘Hub and spoke’ system rather than the ‘True mesh’ that has all identical wireless nodes. But purist considerations aside, this setup promises to cover 6,750 square feet of wireless goodness with Wi-Fi 6 speeds.
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 more space. Each is composed of glossy black plastic sides with a textured top (reminds me of the classic 1980s arcade game Q*bert), measuring 5.51 x 5.51 x 3.62 inches, with the router and the identical satellites weigh 1.4 pounds for each of the three units. The glossy plastic tends to pick up fingerprints and smudges easily, so we’d strongly prefer textured plastic here.
The router (center in the image above) has three Gigabit Ethernet ports and a single WAN port. The simple way to distinguish the router from the satellite boxes is that the satellite (top left) has no WAN and only two LAN ports. The latter is a useful feature for connecting wired equipment (such as set-top boxes or consoles) to the satellite access point.
Although there are no external antennas, each unit has five internal antennas. There is a single LED that glows blue when plugged in, blinks white during boot, and orange when ready to sync. Unfortunately, the light cannot be turned off, making this less than ideal for a bedroom application (unless you want to put a piece of black electrical tape over the LED).
Both the router and satellite units use a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, and the router has 256MB of flash memory for storage and 512MB of RAM. The wireless connection is tri-band, ie Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (5 GHz 1800 Mbps + 5 GHz 1200 Mbps + 2.4 GHz 600 Mbps). This corresponds to a theoretical bandwidth of 3600 Mbps, hence the name of this kit, but it seems strange to us to have two different bandwidths for the 5 GHz radios. It’s also unclear if any of these are the backhaul between the router and a satellite, which would then be a bottleneck for the higher 5GHz speed unless connected directly to the router.
On paper, at least the AX3600 has all the wireless features you’d expect from a more expensive home networking device — the three-piece kit we tested currently retails for just under $400. The list is long and includes MU-MIMO for simultaneous data streaming, explicit beamforming on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, OFDMA for both uplink and downlink, and seven-stream Wi-Fi for 4K video streaming.
The AX3600 does have QoS (Quality of Service) that can be enabled along with a ‘performance optimization database’. We also went through the SpeedTest to identify the available bandwidth and then have it optimized by this mesh kit. That said, there’s absolutely no control over the QoS, either by the type of traffic (such as prioritizing video streaming or gaming), or by being able to prioritize a specific device, such as a gaming rig. We think this lack of granular monitoring at least partly explains the poor QoS performance below. But first, let’s boot and route the system.
Mesh systems can often be a chore to set up, but the AX3600 performed well in this area. While it can also be done with a smartphone app, we went through the web interface and it was quite painless.
As part of the installation, the system’s firmware was upgraded to the latest available. This is an important step to ensure that the latest patches have been applied and any known vulnerabilities have been fixed.
With the router plugged in and gasping and puffing, the next step is to add the satellites to the system. This was easier than most mesh systems as we just had to plug in the satellite, wait for the blinking white LED to turn orange and then press the ‘Sync’ button on the satellite followed by the ‘Sync’ button in the software, and then the satellite was fully configured.
The AX3600 supports WPA-3, the latest encryption standard, which is becoming increasingly important as all previous standards have been cracked at this point.
The AX3600 supports network-level anti-malware protection, here referred to as “Netgear Armor”. But while there is a free trial, it is limited to 30 days even on this high-quality mesh kit. You’re also looking at an annual subscription for an additional $69.99 (though it’s currently on sale for less). Buyers should factor this into the cost of the AX3600, as some competing products have a network-level antivirus program for the life of the product at no additional cost.
We immediately encountered connection problems. An Acer Aspire laptop we had with a Wi-Fi 6 card (AX201, driver version 126.96.36.199) was unable to connect to the router at all. We found that this was not the latest Intel driver for this card, which was then upgraded to 188.8.131.52, but this did not resolve the issue. Our testing was done with our stock Asus gaming laptop, model G512L, which also uses the same AX201 card, although there were no connectivity issues.
|2.4GHz close up||2.4GHz version||5GHz close by||5 GHz version|
|Bandwidth (Mbps)||not being able to||not being able to||315.2||286.7|
The AX3600 transmits a single SSID and we were unable to separate it into separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals. Therefore, we have not been able 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 decent, but nothing exceptional among Wi-Fi 6 equipment.
|Test configuration||QoS||FRAPS average||min||max||8k lost frames||Pingplotter spikes||Latency (Overwatch MS)|
|Ethernet + 10 8k videos||new ones||36||0||82||16.20%||6||189|
|Ethernet + 10 8k videos||Yes||20.2||2||42||34.80%||13||124|
|Router only 5GHz||new ones||126.2||103||152||N/A||0||67|
|Router only 5GHz||new ones||13.4||0||51||3.40%||1||151|
|5GHz + 10 8k videos||Yes||16.1||0||59||50.80%||1||118|
|Satellite (5GHz)||new ones||136.1||107||163||N/A||1||68|
|Satellite + 10 8k Videos||new ones||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 proved to be a disappointment, with an almost non-existent QoS resulting in low frame rates in our game of overwatch, and a high percentage of lost frames. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It started pretty well. When connected via the Ethernet cable, the frame rate of 119.8 was solid, with a low in-game latency of 69 ms. However, when we added the ten 8K streaming videos, we saw the frame rate drop to 36.0 FPS and at certain points the game froze at a zero frame rate. We also had a latency increase to 189 ms, with a reduced frame rate on our streaming videos of 16.2%, plus six PingPlotter peaks. Enabling the QoS did nothing for us – the FPS went even lower to 20.2 and the lost frames on the video stream went even higher to 34.8%, for an overall worse performance.
In short, the AX3600 mesh kit performed poorly in a crowded environment and the QoS did not manage congestion effectively. This was then replicated when we connected directly to the router over 5GHz, and additionally when we connected to the satellite unit.
In terms of looks and features advertised, the Netgear Nighthawk Mesh Wi-Fi 6 AX3600 (MK83) sounds promising. But factor in the price, plus our experience with it on a crowded network, and the AX3600 becomes pretty poor value, with a suggested retail price of $499 and a current street price of $396. At that price, this gear is clearly in the high-end. end. of routers and mesh kits, and performance on both throughput and overloaded tests is lacking.
Apart from the price, the AX3600 has some advantages such as ease of installation, automatic firmware upgrade upon installation, support for WPA-3 security and compact size of the units. But combine the high price with the lack of effective QoS, the unobtrusive throughput and the added cost of anti-malware protection, and it becomes clear that there are better options. Hopefully Netgear can take what works from the AX3600 and build on this experience in the future.