Netgear Nighthawk M5 review: A superb 5G hotspot at a steep price
Oct 01, 2023
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You couldn't ask for a more versatile portable router, but the price is hard to justify
The Nighthawk M5 is a pocket-sized wireless router with an internal battery. You can use it like a regular router, with a fixed-line broadband connection, but thanks to an internal 5G SIM slot it can also serve up fast mobile internet access in any location, without even needing a power socket.
This makes it a convenient way for business travellers to stay connected, wherever they may be. It could even work for a whole team on the road – it will officially support up to 32 clients – or perhaps a family holiday. It's very expensive for personal use, though; the price is clearly aimed at corporate budgets.
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The Nighthawk M5 connects to the internet using either its built-in Ethernet socket or the integrated nano-SIM slot. It also broadcasts a dual-band Wi-Fi 6 network, so phones, computers and other devices can connect and get online.
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If you wish, you can use the M5 in your home or office as a regular router and configure the SIM connection as a fallback. If your main internet connection goes down, the M5 will automatically switch to the mobile connection. However, the hardware is clearly designed to be carried about – it measures only 105mm square and weighs a modest 240g, including the internal battery.
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You can create an ad hoc wireless network by enabling hotspot mode on your phone, but the Nighthawk M5 has several advantages. For one, when you’re using a mobile internet connection, the Gigabit Ethernet socket can be used to hook up a wired device, or several of them via a network switch. There are two connectors at the back for a standard TS-9 antenna set, which may help you get a better reception than a phone's internal antennas.
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The Nighthawk M5 is also more user-friendly and fully featured than a smartphone. A touchscreen on the front lets you conveniently check network status, battery charge and so forth; open up the web-based dashboard or the smartphone app and you can configure advanced Wi-Fi and network settings, just like on a full-fat router. You can even apply parental controls, with website filtering and per-device access schedules.
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There's one final advantage to using the M5. It lets you stay online all day without running down the battery on your personal phone. Netgear claims the M5 will provide up to 13 hours of use on a full charge, and you can top up or power the unit from any standard USB-C charger.
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With a 5G-enabled SIM, the M5 can theoretically achieve mobile internet speeds of more than 250Mbits/sec. I didn't quite hit that in my inner London home, but with an O2 SIM I still got an excellent download speed of 117Mbits/sec and an upstream rate of 14.5Mbits/sec. That's faster than most fixed-line connections.
Your mileage may vary, of course. 5G coverage in the UK is still quite limited, and if the M5 can't get a 5G signal, it will fall back on 4G services. These are a lot slower but still usable: the Google Speed Test tool reported a respectable download speed of 35Mbits/sec over a 4G connection in my location.
Plugging in a cheap pair of external antennas didn't make any difference to these speeds, but that's probably because I was already getting strong 4G and 5G signals without it. It might be worthwhile in areas where the reception is more marginal.
The M5's Wi-Fi capabilities are decent, too, with a maximum data rate of 1.2Gbits/sec on the 5GHz network and 600Mbits/sec for 2.4GHz connections. From a laptop in the same room as the M5 I was able to copy files over the network at an average rate of 43MB/sec, which isn't far off what you’d get from a regular router. Performance does quickly fall off at range, however. When I carried my laptop into the next room, download speeds fell to 11.5MB/sec, and at the other end of the house I got just 2.6MB/sec.
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If you’re put off by the price of the M5, you might consider the Nighthawk M2 instead. This is a very similar portable router with the same touchscreen interface and at £390 it's roughly half the price. The catch is that the M2 is limited to 4G internet, and it uses the older Wi-Fi 5 wireless standard. That means slower performance than the M5, and Netgear recommends no more than 20 connections.
Another option is the TP-Link M7650, a much simpler portable 4G hotspot. This has no Ethernet – it works exclusively with mobile internet – and a more basic interface that's controlled with two push-buttons. It's much cheaper than either of the Netgear products, however, coming in at just £139.
I love the idea of a go-anywhere internet hotspot, and with 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and a decent-sized internal battery, the Nighthawk M5 does the job magnificently. Even in the middle of nowhere, it can magic up a network that's as good as you’ll get at home or in the office.
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For sure, not everyone needs these capabilities. For occasional travellers there are much cheaper alternatives that will do a satisfactory job. But if you’re looking for performance and versatility – and you’re willing to pay for them – the Netgear Nighthawk M5 is the best portable hotspot around.
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