Beneath the marketing message of a hotspot capable of reaching gigabit speeds on Telstra's 4G network is a surprisingly robust portable router with a hell of a battery life.
Outright Cost: $360
What Is It?
Netgear's Nighthawk M1 - exclusively available through Telstra - is the first portable wireless hotspot able to achieve speeds of 1Gbps over a 4G network. It's able to reach these speeds by simultaneously connecting to four of the five bands Telstra's network operates on (700MHz, 900Mhz, 1800Mhz, 2100MHz, and 2600MHz). Actual download speeds will however vary depending on congestion, your location, and whether Telstra's rolled out gigabit LTE in your area.
At present, gigabit capable LTE is only available in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane central business districts.
The Nighthawk M1 is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon X16 LTE chipset, can upload at 150Mbps, supports up 20 simultaneous devices, and will run for 24 hours on a single charge. It's able to stream media to connected devices from a microSD card, flash drive, or external hard drive, and there's also an Ethernet port in case you need to physically connect the Nighthawk M1 to a device or to a network switch.
Theoretical download speeds of up to a gigabit per second are clearly the M1's standout specification, but what's more impressive is just how full-featured it is. In fact, calling the M1 a hotspot undersells it. You've got options for port forwarding, port filtering, parental controls, blacklisting, and scheduling; settings you don't often see included on consumer-grade portable hardware.
Interestingly, the M1's Ethernet port works both ways. You can connect the M1 to a switch if you're in the need of a 4G-powered wired network, or you can wire another internet connection into the M1, and use it as access point (complete with 4G fallback) in a pinch. It's quite versatile.
There's a companion app too (which is also used for streaming media to your phone or tablet from the M1) , but you'll need to use the web interface to change most settings.
While the M1's circular display might look like a touchscreen, it's most certainly not a touchscreen. It doesn't even have tap to wake. Instead, you'll use the router's power button to fire up the display, and cycle through the three main display options. The first shows your remaining data, days left in your billing cycle, and the number of devices connected to the M1, whereas the other two give you the passwords for your 2.4GHz and 5GHz network. You can't actually interact with the M1 through the device itself.
The M1 is capable of achieving speeds up 1Gbps per second, but there's a very slim chance you'll actually ever get anything close. The best I was able to attain was around 123Mbps down and 40Mbps up on an afternoon in Sydney's CBD. These speeds are far from terrible - in fact, they're faster a top-tier National Broadband Network connection - but far off what Telstra and Netgear promises. Congestion and location obviously plays a factor, but don't go into an M1 purchase expecting gigabit speeds, or anything close - even if you spend most of your time in one of the three Australian CBDs with gigabit support.
Telstra says the M1's multi-band support means its able to get faster speeds than a conventional hotspot - even in areas without gigabit 4G - and our testing seems to support that. In Crows Nest, the humble home of WhistleOut Australia, speeds topped up out at 60Mbps down and 21Mbps. While these don't really sound impressive, they still managed to edge out the speeds I got on an iPhone 7 with a Telstra SIM: 43Mbps down, and 10Mbps up. These might not look like a huge difference, but double the upload is nothing to scoff at.
Thanks to a hefty 5,040mAh battery, you're able to get as much as 24 hours of active usage out of the M1, and as much as 500 hours of standby. Notably, the M1 can also double as a battery pack in a pinch and be used to top up other devices, such as your smartphone, through the full-size USB port on the back.
While the M1 is a little larger than most hotspots, it's still small enough to easily fit into a bag. It weighs 240g.
What's Not So Good?
Even if you can't reach gigabit speeds, 100Mbps is more than fast enough to chew through a mobile data allowance pretty quickly. It's not like you need to be download constantly to make the most of the high speeds the M1 is capable of, but it's a shame to have that kind of potential available yet not be able to use it as freely as you'd like, especially when Telstra is also pitching it as an alternative to fixed broadband.
$150 per month for 80GB isn't terrible when alongside Telstra's standard mobile broadband plans, but is still quite pricey compared to Optus' home wireless solution, which is $80 per month with 200GB of data. At the same time, Optus limits home wireless broadband to 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up, whereas Telstra doesn't cap your speeds.
Given the small form-factor, the M1's Wi-Fi signal strength isn't quite as strong as you'd get from a non-portable solution. I've noticed a drop off in connection strength when six or seven metres away from the router in our open plan office, so if you've got a larger home, you might have trouble covering all of it with just the M1.
At $360 outright, the Nighthawk M1 itself is also on the pricier end of the portable hotspot spectrum. For comparison, Vodafone's 4G Pocket Wi-Fi hotspot will set you back $59 outright, with 4GB of data. While the Vodafone hotspot isn't bleeding edge like M1 and has a much shorter battery life (6 hours versus 24), the Nighthawk M1 will seem like overkill for many.
Who's It For?
The Nighthawk M1 is a robust but niche hotspot that escapes the trappings typically associated with portable networking devices. Battery life is solid, features are almost on par with what you'd get in a consumer grade at-home router, and it's capable of achieving pretty impressive download speeds.
The question ends up being whether you're the kind of person who can justify both the comparatively high cost of the M1, as well as the cost of data on Telstra's 4G network.
While it feels a tad too futureproof for most, if you want a fast, fully featured portable router, the M1 is a compelling option.