If you’re a heavy bandwidth user who’s struggled with disappointing wireless networking performance, you’ve probably considered a high end router. Picture this scenario:
You research every detail, and select the right model. After removing it from its packaging and getting every setting just the way you want it, you boot your computer and start a file transfer. You were expecting upwards of 250 Mbps, but instead you can barely hit the triple digits.
What gives? Did you just waste your money on a router that can’t meet the demands it’s specified for?
This is a question that has many consumers scratching their head after buying a high end router. Generally, it’s not the router that’s the problem. Your network is only as fast as the slowest piece of hardware in your transmission path. In many cases, it’s your networking card that’s to blame.
On a desktop, changing your network card is fairly straightforward. But what if you’re on a laptop? And what if you want to get a single card and share it between the two?
In this scenario, a USB network adapter could be the solution. You need something that’s compatible with all of the high end features your new router supports, and you need something that’s compatible with a variety of different hardware configurations. One such device is the Netgear Nighthawk A7000. Not only does this compact adapter have the same branding as many of Netgear’s enthusiast grade routers, but it’s got the chipset to match. Can a USB adapter really help you unlock the potential of your network, or is this a job best left to PCIe? To answer this question, we tried it out for ourselves.
The photos don’t do it justice – this thing is large! At roughly 7 x 5 x 2.6 inches, it’s about twice the width and thickness of your standard USB drive. But all this space is put to good use. You get a flip-up antenna that allows you to get a high quality directional connection, and it supports features like MIMO and 802.11ac wave 1. With a 1.9 GHZ maximum theoretical throughput, you’re going to need a pretty serious internet connection if you want to take full advantage of what this adapter has to offer.
From the specifications alone, we can tell that this is nothing like the budget-priced USB network adapters we’re used to. This premium feature set is underscored by the accessories. It features a long range USB extension dock with a magnetic bottom. This allows you to place it anywhere on your desk, wall, fridge, or anywhere else you’ve got some metal to stick it to.
There are a few key reasons you’d upgrade your router. One of them is speed, but range is just as important. Typically, USB adapters aren’t suitable for long range communication. They tend to have low quality antennas, and their omnidirectional design reduces their maximum range.
This adapter is one of the few directional USB adapters available on the market. This means that your reception will change depending on where you point it. You can change the direction of the antenna by flipping up the plastic piece, just like using an old flip phone. But this will only adjust your reception along one axis. If you really want flexibility, you’ll want to use the included dock. This gives you the ability to adjust the signal by up to 30% simply by rotating the adapter.
Behind the scenes, there is another powerful tool helping you to improve your range. Explicit beamforming helps the router adjust the signal specifically to suit your network connection.
Beamforming works like this: a router has a number of antennas pointed in all directions. When all of these antenna are powered equally, the signal is broadcast across an even radius. But when you’ve got a single device pointed in one direction, it can reduce the power to unused antenna and improve the signal pointed in another direction. This technology works best when paired with an adapter that supports explicit beamforming. This card measures the signal from all antenna equally, and tells the router which one it’s closest to. Users can see up to 30% improvement over standard beamforming hardware. If you’re struggling to get a good connection over a long range, this adapter may help you get that extra little push you need.
Purely from a numbers perspective, AC1900 might not seem like the fastest network adapter on the market. But in the real world, it’s unlikely that you’ll need more. On this adapter, you get a total of 1.9 Gbit/s maximum throughput. 600 Mbps is provided through the 2.4 Ghz channel, while 1300 Mbps is provided on the 5 Ghz channel. On most modern PCs, this bandwidth is combined into one. In the real world, we were able to get download speeds exceeding 337 Mb/s over close range, although your router will be the main bottleneck here.
The main speed advantage you get with this router is the 3×4 MIMO. This means that you can have four separate download streams, and three upload streams. Even if you’re transferring a large file over your local network, you’ll still have full use of your internet connection.
On routers, MIMO is useful for having many clients on a single node. From an adapters perspective, the advantage is that you can have a lot of simultaneous file transfers. This makes this adapter ideal for heavy users who like to have a ton of operations running in the background, but who don’t want to experience slowdowns just from these background operations.
As a standard USB device, you can use this adapter with pretty much any computer you have laying around. However, there are limitations. It’s essential that you use a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port. USB 3.1 type A and C will be fine, provided you have an adapter for the latter. However, if you connect it to a USB 2.0 port, your speeds are going to be pretty abysmal.
The adapter can be used straight out of the box with no driver installation, provided you’re running Windows 10 or above. You also get a driver CD which can be used to install the drivers on older versions of Windows, or on OSX.
One consideration with the driver CD is that Netgear will replace Windows built in wireless network management software with its own. For power users, this is advantageous. You do get some features that give you better control over the beamforming technology, and help you configure advanced settings. If you’re using a Nighthawk branded router as well, you can control some router config settings from the application.
The main disadvantage of the USB platform is that you’re fairly limited in terms of portability. When you’re using an expresscard adapter or internal adapter on a desktop, you don’t have to worry about it taking up any space. But with a portable computer, you’re going to have a little adapter sticking out the side of your computer, or sitting on your desk. This won’t be a disadvantage to people who are working at a fixed work station, but mobile systems may be an issue.
If you’re upgraded to a high end router, the Netgear Nighthawk A7000 is the network card that can help you unlock it’s potential. Although it uses USB, you still get to take full advantage of the speed.
However, this isn’t a guaranteed way to increase your internet speed. Your router should support the same basic technologies as this adapter. You’re going to want to have a router rated for at least AC1900 for high speed downloads, but having MIMO is also essential.
Do you need a router that supports explicit beamforming? Well, that depends on your circumstance. If you’re located close to your router, there really is no key advantage to having this feature. But if you’re having trouble getting a solid network connection over a long range, this is a very handy feature to have.
Unsure of what router to choose? This adapter is fully compatible with all modern standards. No matter what brand you choose, you’re not going to run into any incompatibility issues. We recently took a look at the Nighthawk X6S AC4000. This is the perfect router for use with this adapter. It’s got enough bandwidth to provide the full capacity this adapter provides, but still have plenty left over for your other devices.
We’d recommend this adapter primarily for people who have a high speed internet connection at home, but what to use the integrated network adapter while they’re out and about. You could place the adapter on your desk, using it only when connected to your external display and keyboard. If you’re just looking to access the wireless network at your university or coffee shop, you won’t see much of an advantage from this hardware. But paired with the right router, the difference is night and day.