When it comes to premium gaming kit, only those devices that combine high-performance with leading-edge aesthetics satisfy demanding users. You’ll no doubt be aware of the swathes of RGB-illuminated keyboard, mice, motherboards, GPUs and even RAM that are flooding this sector of the market – they’re attractive, fun and command quite the premium.
On the Networking-side, life’s a little quieter. Sure, you’ll find a couple of gaming motherboards boasting lag-free connections, QoS and even third-party traffic prioritization support. There’s the odd router, such as the upcoming ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AC5300, which will target gamers with game optimization features and the ubiquitous go-faster red stripes that mark such peripherals. But a gaming switch?
The $99 NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 is exactly that. It’s the first networking switch to be handed the prestigious Nighthawk label, that the company reserves for its best-performing consumer kit.
The eight-port Gigabit device supports a number of features designed to support low latency network gameplay and smooth 4K streaming. Like NETGEAR’s more premium consumer and small office switches the Nighthawk S8000 is part managed, with a web GUI (optimized for mobile) allowing access to quality of service (QoS) traffic prioritization and advanced port management.
Pre-configured settings automatically configure ports for gaming, media streaming, or as a standard LAN port for surfing, VoIP or video calls. Meanwhile, link aggregation allows users to combine multiple ports for connections up to 4 Gbps to compatible devices, such as NETGEAR’s ReadyNAS storage devices.
What’s in the Box?
Like the NETGEAR Nighthawk x10 router I recently reviewed, the Nighthawk S8000 is beautifully presented in a foil-enhanced metallic blue box. Life out the switch itself and you can feel that it’s a substantial piece of kit. A zinc alloy housing provides far more heft that you expect to find in a desktop switch and ensures the device shouldn’t slip around in use.
The symmetrical, angular design certainly meets gamer requirements, with a chamfered X-shape carved into the front and top of the device. The rear is panel is more straightforward – power input, eight ports and a small switch to disable network status LEDs, ensuring your concentration isn’t ruined by a host of twinkling lights. Note, however, that this does not disable the top mounted power LED that illuminates the underside of the “X”. If you wish for complete stealth, you can disable this LED via the S8000’s management console (you’ll need the latest firmware on board).
I was expecting to see an Ethernet cable supplied in such a sumptuous package, but no, you’ll only find a short installation leaflet and power adapter accompanying the device.
Getting Up and Running
As you’d expect from a switch – even a fancy model like this one – installation is a quick and easy process. Plug in, connect the switch between your router and wired network clients and you’re good to go.
That said, there are some nuances to be aware of. NETGEAR recommends that you connect devices with specific purposes to specific ports, for optimum throughput – a gaming device to port 1, streaming device to port 2 and other devices to the remaining ports. The router connects to a port labelled Uplink (port 8).
So far, so easy but how do you access the switch’s advanced features? By default, the switch receives an IP address from the router – you’ll need to identify this IP address to access the device’s management console. On Windows, you should see the switch pop up in the Network area of File Explorer. On a Mac, you can try to access the switch using a Bonjour bookmark in Safari. Both of these options have been enabled in the device’s latest firmware (188.8.131.52) – alternatively, head to your router’s management console and look up the switch’s IP address.
The S8000’s console is password protected (although the default password: password isn’t too hard to guess).
Once you’ve logged in, you’ll be presented with a clear and modern dashboard which provides easy access to device settings and monitoring features.
Each port can be managed individually, with settings for port name, link speed, I/O rate limits and flow control.
For an easier ride, you can take advantage of a number of preset modes designed to optimize performance of the switch (or rather, individual ports) for specific scenarios. Gaming and media streaming are available out of the box, but you can also save and install your own settings profiles.
Seasoned networkers can, of course, manage traffic prioritization manually, with port-based and 802.1P/DSCP modes available. Again, input and output rate limits can be set per port, with dropdown menus providing ranges from Unlimited down to 512 Kbps.
If you’re experiencing speed issues, a handy cable test feature sends traffic to specific ports and can identify fault distances in dodgy network cables.
While the management console is relatively easy to operate, you’ll need a little networking knowhow if you wish to delve into the S8000’s more advanced networking features. I also found the console to be a little unstable at times, automatically switching back to the Home tab when I was working in the Prioritization screen, for example. So I’d expect to see one or more future firmware updates before the S8000 can be called bulletproof.
The advanced settings menu includes the aforementioned Link Aggregation feature, alongside power saving support, network discovery options, multicast settings and the usual assortment of reset/reboot/update options. It’s not an exhaustive list, but for those that desire granular control of their network settings, it’s sufficient.
To test the performance of the NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000, I connected it to a new TP-Link Archer C3150 v2 router (review coming soon) and measured network speeds between two wired PCs.
I first tested speeds with the two PCs connected directly to the router, then connected them to the switch. Speeds were measured in default mode (no prioritization), then two more times with the Gaming and Streaming presets enabled. Finally, I repeated the test, swapping the Nighthawk S8000 for a trusty NETGEAR GS108 8-port Gigabit Switch. At just $46, it offers neither the looks or management features of the S8000, but is rated similarly on speeds.
The first thing to say is that introducing the switch into the network created no significant lag. An average speed of 942 Mbps with the Archer C3150 router was equalled when the switch was introduced.
On an uncluttered network, there was also little difference in speeds between the three available preset options, with all averaging around 942 Mbps. Obviously, once you load up the switch with devices, rate limiting options will enable you to maintain (or at least reduce the impact on) speeds going to prioritized ports. So if you were to combine a heavy bout of downloading with simultaneous streaming and gaming, for example, you could decide which task should take priority.
Alongside advanced (albeit niche) features like Link Aggregation, that’s the major benefit of the S8000. Our cheaper switch, the NETGEAR GS108 was able to muster a slightly slower (but still very respectable) 940 Mbps.
With high quality, unmanaged Gigabit network switches now available for under $50, do you really need to spend twice that amount on the NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000? The answer, for most consumers, is no. Stalwarts like the NETGEAR GS108 can do a perfectly decent job in most homes, particularly where you simply need to extend the network to an ever-increasing number of wired devices.
That’s not to say that the Nighthawk S8000 doesn’t offer more advanced benefits that would suit some users. It’s undoubtedly a well-built device that’ll look great on any desktop. On busy home networks that regularly suffer congestion, individual port management features allow easy bandwidth control, ensuring that your gaming, streaming (or any other) devices enjoy smooth, stutter-free networking. If you own a device supporting link aggregation, then you can tick off another niche benefit that will steer you toward the S8000.
But for most homes, a switch such as S8000 would be an indulgence compared to more basic, functional models that offer similar speeds with a reduced feature set. At $99, it’s not a major extravagance, though. As the saying goes, “why have cotton, when you can have silk?”