Reviews

Netgear Nighthawk M2 review: is this 4G router the best backup for your home broadband?

Netgear Nighthawk M2
Broadband backup: the Nighthawk M2 steps in when home broadband goes down

With millions more of us working from home during this crisis, we’re all much more reliant on a single point of failure: our broadband connection. And with cafes and other public venues still closed, you can’t rely on taking your laptop to the nearest public Wi-Fi hotspot, either. The Netgear Nighthawk M2 might just be the answer.

Slot a SIM card into this portable, battery-powered router and you can be back online within minutes if your main broadband connection goes down. When we are allowed back out in the real world, it’s also a safer, more reliable option than public Wi-Fi in cafes, train stations and airport lounges.

This question is: does it do the job well?

Netgear Nighthawk M2: set up

Setting up the Netgear Nighthawk M2 couldn’t be much easier. You slide a SIM card into the slot inside the device, pop in the battery, put the case on and away you go.

Setting up the device can be performed either via the fiddly, unresponsive touchscreen on the front of the device, or via the Netgear Mobile app for iOS and Android. Unless you want to alarm the neighbours with fits of violent swearing I suggest you use the app, as tapping in passwords using that tiny onscreen keyboard is like trying to thread a rope through a needle.

Once in the app, installation was smooth apart from one problem: the default connection details provided by Netgear for my mobile network, Vodafone, were incorrect. I had to set up a new network profile with the details supplied by Vodafone. It wasn’t a big hassle, but I can see that befuddling people who click on the Vodafone preset and can’t understand why it won’t work.

One quick point here on why that tiny LCD makes the M2 much more useful than screenless 4G routers: mobile networks will often send out text messages to activate data SIMs. That screen allows you to read off the activation codes (and any other SMS text messages) easily.

Netgear Nighthawk M2: features

The M2 certainly isn’t light on features. It supports both 2.4GHz (best for range) and 5GHz (best for outright speed) Wi-Fi bands and you can connect multiple devices – unlike the 4G USB dongles, which only provide a connection to the laptop/PC you’re using.

If you want maximum connection speed and reliability, there’s an Ethernet socket on the side of the device, which is also a lifeline if your home PC doesn’t have Wi-Fi.

The M2 also includes a USB-A port and a USB-C port. You use the USB-C port to charge the device, but the USB-A port (which is what most people mean when they say “USB port”) has a couple of useful functions.

First, it means you can create your own library of music or video on a USB stick and then plug that into the Nighthawk. Using the Netgear app, you can then streamed your media to your phone, which might be handy on your travels.

Talking of your phone, if it runs out of battery while you’re out and about (remember those days?) then you can use the M2 as a power bank. You simply use its battery to top up your phone’s.

The Nighthawk M2 itself is the size of a one-inch thick beer mat (105.5 x 105.5 x 20.35mm for the measurement sticklers). It weighs 240g, so not a great deal heavier than a smartphone, and will be barely noticeable in your bag.

I’m going to come back to that dinky colour touchscreen on the front, too, because it really is super-useful. Not only does it allow you to see at a glance if you’re connected, but it gives you a readout of the login details (network name and password) so you don’t spend ten minutes trying to remember what your password is.

It also acts as a data counter, telling you precisely how much of your data quota you’ve chewed through. It’s a shame that this counter only works on a monthly basis – for example, the 25GB of data I bought from Vodafone lasts 90 days, but Netgear will only allow the counter to last for a maximum of a month.

Netgear Nighthawk M2: performance

So, let’s get down to brass tacks. How well does this mobile router perform? The answer: very well indeed.

The table below shows the average speeds I achieved using a Vodafone 4G SIM in various scenarios:

When connected to a MacBook laptop in same room over 5GHz Wi-Fi network

Ping38ms
Download14.12Mbits/sec
Upload6.12Mbits/sec

When connected to a smartphone one exterior wall away over 5GHz Wi-Fi network

Ping27ms
Download12.2Mbits/sec
Upload6.34Mbits/sec

When connected to a smartphone two exterior walls away over 5GHz Wi-Fi network

Ping28ms
Download11.4Mbits/sec
Upload5.67Mbits/sec

It has to be stated this testing is an inexact science and depends on traffic on the mobile network at the time of testing. But what it clearly demonstrates is that – if you’ve got a good 4G reception – the Netgear Nighthawk M2 is more than capable as a backup if your main broadband line goes down or you need fast internet access while you’re out.

I’ve had three different devices connected to the M2 at the same time and it’s been fine, so I would have no worries about using it as a backup connection for the entire household. With one notable caveat: if you start streaming Netflix over the connection you’re going to chew through your mobile data pretty darn quickly. Unless you’ve got unlimited mobile data, the Nighthawk M2 is very much there for emergencies or for internet access/email while you’re out.

One other massive strength of the device is battery life. I’ve had it connected and in use for the past two hours solid and its battery indicator is still showing 86%. Unless that indicator is a rotten liar – and I’ll report back if continued testing proves it is – then it more than vindicates Netgear’s claim of all-day battery life. You can, of course, use it when it’s plugged in at home, anyway.

Netgear Nighthawk M2: verdict

Now we come to the crunch: how much does this thing cost? The cheapest I could find it online was from AliExpress.com, priced at £248.70, but that looks like it’s shipping from China, which means it could attract import duties.

On more well-known UK-based retailers such as Amazon and Scan, you’re looking at £389.99 and £397.49 respectively. Ouch.

When you add mobile data tariffs on top of that, there’s no question this an expensive safety net. If a day or two offline would be ruinous for your business, you might consider that a price worth paying – I’d certainly be glad to have one of these at hand if my broadband connection collapsed.

Would I pay the thick end of £400 for it? Reluctantly, no, even though my business is internet-dependent. It’s a wonderful insurance policy, but the premiums are just too high.

NOW READ THIS: What is gigabit broadband?

Netgear Nighthawk M2
  • Features
  • Performance
  • Value for money

Summary

A brilliant backup for your home broadband or for fast, secure internet access on the go

Overall
4

Pros

  • Great speeds and range
  • Dead easy to set up
  • LCD screen makes it easy to see/change settings

Cons

  • The price – it’s a hefty investment

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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