Netgear with their Nighthawk brand have become a mainstay in the computer networking field for years now, especially for the PC consumer. Often the standard that other competing products are checked against, their routers in particular have proven to be among the most stable and at the same time offering features few others do. Part of their Nighthawk series includes network switches for when you simply do not have enough Ethernet ports on your router and WiFi is not good enough. These situations are getting rarer by the day with even half-decent routers having 4 Ethernet outlink ports minimum, so a "dumb" network switch is finding itself redundant more and more. What about a "smart" network switch then? While we are at it, what about a gaming network switch? At this point you would have either let out an audible groan reading the gaming adjective or curiosity has gotten the better of you and have decided to carry on. Perhaps Netgear has anticipated this as such and named the Nighthawk S8000 as a "Gaming and Streaming" switch. For those curious, here is the technical datasheet with specifications tabulated. So let us begin our look at the product beginning with an unboxing now.
Unboxing and Accessories
More oft than not, the packaging tends to give away the nature of the product inside and also hint at the potential price point. Netgear has a very fancy packaging here for a network switch, with a see-through plastic on the front and sides and the rest being adorned with specs and marketing features. On the bottom is a printed render of the switch from the front showing also the 8 Ethernet ports present here. I do appreciate that the product would have a fairly aggressive design scheme, and catching the eye of the potential customer at a brick and mortar store is a must. This packaging ends up doing that, and more. There is a seal on either side to keep the contents inside in check.
The packaging is a 2-piece box with a top that slides over the bottom piece which in turn contains the product and accessories. The top has some glued-on pieces of soft foam to help protect the switch from the top whereas the bottom piece has a cutout in the shape of the switch to protect it from the sides and the bottom. Good start so far! Underneath is a small pull-out envelope with an installation guide inside (online version here), and below in the large container is.. just a power adapter. We have approximately 4-5x the free space here all occupied by a simple power adapter, and this is extremely poor use of packaging space here. It really feels as if Netgear is trying to make the switch packaging look substantial here, and it is also disappointing that they have chosen to not include a single male-male Ethernet cable either. The power adapter also has the prongs facing such that the long dimension of the adapter will face along the power plug, and thus you will have to make sure you dedicate enough space to this- a potential issue if using a crowded UPS or surge protector. It is rated for 0.3 A at 110 V average on the intake side and outputs a max of 1 A at 12 VDC (12 W, thus) although the device itself is rated to consume a max of 3.8 W. With 4 ports connected, I read an average max power consumption of 1.88 W in use and less than 0.5 W at standby. The product as a whole, thanks to the metal casing, is rated for a heat dissipation of 3.83 W so it will be sufficient to keep it cool during operation even at the worst case power draw scenarios.
Closer Look: Nighthawk S8000
The first thing I thought of after seeing this, and one I still do, is the House of El coat of arms from Superman (DC comics). Perhaps Netgear intended as such, or perhaps it is an extravagant diamond in shape, or perhaps I am simply mistaken but what I am not mistaken about is that the Nighthawk S8000 has quite unique looks. Measuring in at 195 x 149 x 40 mm and weighing 750 g (1.6 lbs), it is a large and imposing device by itself and especially so when considered it is just a network switch at the end of the day. Those aggressive lines lead to a gap in the front- or so you think. What would any gaming product in 2017 be without LEDs? When powered on there is a blue undertone peeping out the front as seen above, and there is also one blue LED per port on the back to denote a connection- this is functional and appropriate here. Taking a look at the back we see a button to toggle LEDs on/off which is nice to see, and then the eight RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet ports themselves (one being an uplink from the modem/router and marked as such) and finally the power connector port itself. On the bottom is a reset pinhole, as well as several rubber pads to help keep the switch in one place, but I dare say the mass does that already and all this does is prevent scratches on the metal surface that makes up the bulk majority of the switch exterior. Make no mistake here- Netgear is targeting the gaming market of PC DIY enthusiasts which has exploded in the past few years, and part of this involves an impression of good build quality (which they did definitely achieve), aggressive aesthetics for a network switch (checkbox ticked again), and LEDs (strike 3).
Controlling the Nighthawk S8000
Netgear recommends connecting the switch to your router rather than the modem to it and then the router to the switch. This way you will still have the router manage WiFi to all devices and the switch only handles Ethernet-connected devices. On the flip side, this means the router gets to control the max speed to the switch in the first place. Once connected, you will see the switch's IP address and navigating to it leads you to the control page (After having logged in using the default credentials mention in the user manual). Oh, and this is the important part- the switch does not and can not identify that a streaming service is running or a game is running, and relies on you to do so. Ports 7 through 3 are for standard devices, port 2 is where you connect the main streaming device (Plex server or a NAS perhaps), and port 1 is for the main gaming device (PC, console). If you do not do this, the preset control modes will be more or less useless.
The main page of the web access control is fairly straightforward wherein you can get system information, turn on/off the port LEDs as well as the front power LEDs on the switch, configure IP address and choose/configure preset modes. You can set up a fixed IP address for the switch (as opposed to the devices connected) here. By default, the IP address provided by the DHCP server will show up here. If you wish to change it, play around with the last three digits until you get an available, assignable address.
The available three preset modes are Gaming, Media (streaming) and Standard. These simply have the various ports be assigned Low-High preference based on the mode, and enable flow of traffic accordingly. As mentioned before, this relies just on the physical connections to the ports so you can have two different streaming devices there instead of 1 gaming and 1 streaming device, and simply use them as such.
You can also set up QoS (Quality of Service), and also create a custom mode as part of QoS with individual port priority to choose from between Low, Medium and High. More importantly, you can assign per port rate limits from a given range of 1/2/5/8/16/32/64/256/512 Mbps. I recommend setting this up for the ports for best control, and this also provides a way to monitor and limit flow of traffic to devices you do not want to have (parents with a child's PC, for example?). You can also name and rename the ports so it will help in quick identification of what is connected to which device.
There are a couple of other neat features here. Netgear has a cable test which allows you to check whether or not the actual Ethernet cable is the cause of a bad internet connection, and I found this handy already during my testing. The second is what they call Link Aggregation Group (LAG, which is a bit ironic given the purpose). LAG allows you to set up to 4 ports per linked device on the switch as a single linked group. The way it works is you connect up to 4 ports to a single device (ports 1-4, say), and then the other 4 ports (5-8) to the second device. Then you will find Link Aggregation as an option under Advanced Settings, and this allows the switch to theoretically combine up to 4x the speed of traffic between the two devices as they would otherwise via a single Ethernet cable. While great in theory, in practice it is not practical for the desired market where even high end motherboards have a max of 2 Gigabit/10 Gig Ethernet ports only. You can select only two ports per device as well, and you will still get some added benefit here, but this is a feature I feel was taken over from the server market and shoe-horned in here.
I was just done with doing a GTX 1080 water block roundup, so I decided to spend some time playing some Battlefield 1 at 4K, Ultra settings. In order to replicate the test, I loaded an Argonne Forest map and measured ping latency and average FPS when I was the only participant and recreated the same set of action- running forward for 15 seconds, turning left and firing from the rifle for 5 seconds, crawling back for 10 seconds, and repeat two more times. The test system was my Intel x99 setup with an i7-5960X on an Asus x99 ROG Rampage V Extreme connected to Port 1 (gaming device), and I also had my Samsung smart TV connected to Port 2 (streaming device) which was running a Netflix video at the same time. Task manager and router traffic was monitored to see if there was any change to the two devices' traffic. Each test was repeated twice and averaged for statistical accuracy.
Notice that as a control I did also directly connect to my router, a D-Link DIR-880L, but had no QoS or port limitation set up there. Nonetheless, there is some difference in favor of Gaming preset mode for the gaming device, but not far off error margins and definitely not so noticeable. To be fair, I have a fairly good Internet connection at ~240/14 Mbps so traffic congestion was only going to be an issue with a lot of uploads and the 4K streaming going on was not enough to influence the gaming. No outward spikes in latency were observed in either case.
On the other hand, the Media preset in prioritizing the streaming device did help with faster download speeds to the TV and that is an appreciable difference- enough to go from 1080p to 4K. Another thing to note is that the control test in each segment showed that the switch does not add any tangible loss in performance either.
The Netgear Nighthawk S8000 has an MSRP of $99.99, and a street price of $79.99 from retailers including Amazon.com in the USA as of the date of this article. That is a steep, steep price for a network switch no matter what you say and one can find decent routers with QoS control at these price points. There is a niche application for this, however, and that is with the rising mesh network router options coming up wherein many do not have any form of QoS functionality. To help sweeten the deal, Netgear offers a 3-year warranty and a 90-day dedicated technical support line for this. But I fear Netgear is their own worst enemy here. Take a look at their ProSafe GS108T network switch, for example. It offers the same 8-ports, near identical functionality including the "smart" control, comes with a lifetime hardware warranty, lifetime next business day replacement, and lifetime technical support, and costs $55.99. I do not have any experience with that device, but even without relative comparisons it is hard to justify the absolute pricing and value for the Nighthawk S8000 unless you absolutely need a network switch that is also a showpiece. Good luck managing all those cables though!
The Nighthawk S8000 needs a price cut to be taken more seriously, and the quick 20% discount on street pricing was evident of that. It does handle the promised features well, so it gets the 2.5/5 score right off the bat. I will award it another 0.5 for the LAG and cable test features that do prove useful to those who would use it. But overall I do not see this worth the money as a PC DIY enthusiast.
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