As the demands of multimedia streaming drive home users to search for better wireless performance, we are seeing more and more 450Mbps routers appear. These use a three-stream, (3 x 3) implementation of 802.11n. Each stream is capable of up to 72Mbps, using 20MHz-wide channels, or 150Mbps with 40MHz channels - a 3 x 3 configuration (in theory) allows speeds of up to 450Mbps.
Netgear's flagship N900 is one of the few models that allows concurrent 3 x 3 operation, on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, courtesy of two radios and six internal antennas. However, as with all 3 x 3 routers, a 3 x 3 client adapter is needed to achieve 450Mbps link speeds - standard 2 x 2 or 3 x 2 models will be limited to 300Mbps tops. The N900 is a cable-only model, with no ADSL2+ version available, at the moment.
Cutting edge technology, appears to be quite high on Netgear's list of priorities - but industrial design doesn't appear to be another one. N900 is best described as a glossy black slab, inelegantly screwed to a transparent plastic stand.
It can only stand vertically, with no desktop or wall-mount option, making it a rather ungainly beast. There are small status lights for the two wireless radios; four Gigabit LAN ports; two USB ports; WPS feature; plus power and WAN connection. The latter of which is only really visible, when viewing the router head-on. The USB ports are rear mounted, and support storage devices, scanners or printers, but not 3G dongles.
Setup can be performed via a wireless or wired connection (there are pre-configured SSIDs and passphrases) - where on first launch, a wizard takes you through the setup process. In our case this failed miserably, as our connection required a cloned MAC address, but fixing this manually was easy enough via the excellent new Genie web interface. This is a marked improvement over Netgear's old interface, with graphical elements such as a scrolling wireless status display, alongside text-based menus.
There is an enormous amount of help and support information within the interface, such as links to documentation, FAQs and online support. Additionally, the free Netgear Genie tool can be installed on PCs, Macs and iOS devices. This is a dashboard, which shows status and allows the main router settings to be changed without opening up the web interface. The iOS app also contains a DLNA-compatible media server and player. It's a system that works really well and Netgear deserves a pat on the back, for simplifying router management in this way.
On the downside, a separate utility is needed to control USB printers and yet another tool, maps shared USB storage to a Windows drive letter. The N900 doesn't support Netgear's ReadyShare Cloud feature, although standard HTTP/S and FTP shares can be setup. The printer utility works well, automatically handling requests from PCs with the utility installed. Other features include OpenDNS-powered parental controls (free sign-up required), and there's a handy traffic meter, for those on capped packages.
Enthusiasts will find plenty of advanced settings to keep them happy, such as a DLNA media server, quality of service settings, a WDS repeater function, dynamic DNS support and guest wireless networks - on both radio bands.
The N900 is Wi-Fi Certified, so by default, the 2.4GHz radio uses 20MHz channels, giving 217Mbps, while the 5GHz band uses 40MHz channels for the full 450Mbps. This is the ‘neighbour-friendly' option, but anti-social types can wind the 2.4GHz radio up to 450Mbps. Our Passmark 7 network throughput tests (using an Intel 5300AGN 3 x 3 adapter) returned very similar results for both 20Mhz and 40Mhz channels in the 2.4GHz band, at around 45Mbps throughput at 1m range, and 25Mbps at 25m. On the 5Hz band, this jumped to 56Mbps at 1m and around 17Mbps at 25m.
This shows that with the right adapter, the range can be excellent for 3 x 3 devices; we normally struggle to get more than 10-15Mbps at 25m. We tested in a real-world domestic environment, so our results can be affected by interference from neighbouring routers. It is a credit, to the co-existence features in modern 11n routers that throughput was commendably stable, even under noisy conditions. And just to emphasise how Wifi performance can be affected by equipment at both ends of the link, we re-ran the tests with a Fritz WLAN USB Stick N (300Mbps, 2 x 2) adapter. This gave us an impressive 71Mbps, at 1m and 17Mbps at 25m on the 5GHz band, and 48Mbps at 1m and 17Mbps at 25m - even though it would only link at 130Mbps on the 2.4GHz band.
The near-field results are unremarkable, but the long-range performance is excellent, as we've seen with other 450Mbps models recently (such as the TP-Link TL-WR2543ND). As with any wireless device, location is everything. If you're in an area saturated with wireless networks, you are unlikely to see the maximum throughput, and might get better value from a cheaper 300Mbps model. If you need an excellent range, then the N900 is definitely a contender if you have compatible client devices.
The N900 has excellent range when used with suitable client devices, and has decent real-world performance but - as with any of the new breed of 450Mbps routers - don't expect it to work miracles, in areas with heavy interference. The feature set, interface and apps are excellent, and although it lacks one or two features found in its siblings; it is an impressive, albeit rather ungainly, beast.
Pros: Excellent interface and software utilities; plenty of advanced features; concurrent 450MBps networks; good performance at long range.
Cons: Large and ungainly; no 3G USB dongle support; doesn't support ReadyShare Cloud; no ADSL version; needs compatible client adapters for maximum performance; pricey.
Price: £146.94 inc. VAT