Since I moved out of my home in Athens, Georgia in 2017 and into an RV (later a country farmhouse), I’ve been totally dependent Mobile device broadband is my connection. I started with a Verizon MiFi hotspot, but quickly realized that wasn’t enough. I bought an MVNO plan with unlimited data on AT&T, and I later added a similar – albeit with a data cap – plan on T-Mobile.
All MVNO plans I use, except Verizon devices, require you to bring your own device. (An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a carrier that doesn’t have its own wireless network.) Technically, you can use a cell phone for this. I have and still use Google Fi, but my internet experience got better when I got the Netgear Nighthawk M1 router. I was able to squeeze more out of the limited network speeds in rural America with improved reception via third-party antennas via the Ethernet port and the MIMO antenna port.
I still use M1. In fact, I will be uploading this story using the M1. But after dropping it and breaking the case, I can no longer use the ethernet port. While I love the Gl.inet Spitz (7/10, recommended by WIRED), I have it on hand, but it doesn’t have a built-in battery, which is handy when you’re traveling.
Enter the Nighthawk M5, the latest model in the Netgear 4/5G router series. It’s essentially an M1, but with a touchscreen and 5G support. Unfortunately, its price has also gone up — it’s now $800. Still, if you rely on mobile broadband to get online, it might be a worthwhile investment.
Rural broadband requires a hotspot
If you have good cable, DSL or fiber internet in your home, there is no reason to get a mobile hotspot . However, if you live in a rural area where mobile broadband is the only option, a mobile hotspot like the Nighthawk M5 can give you better wireless range around your home (or RV), longer battery life, and allow More devices are on the web than using cell phones. You don’t need need a mobile hotspot, but it’s really nice to have.
As with all mobile devices, we recommend purchasing the Netgear Nighthawk M5 unlocked so you can use it on any network you prefer. Most M5 listings I’ve seen are unlocked, but I expect AT&T will eventually offer a locked version. (This is true of all previous Nighthawk M-series routers.) I tested the M5 using an AT&T chip provided by Netgear and a T-Mobile chip I paid for. The M5 is certified to work with AT&T, but it also supports T-Mobile.
The biggest feature of Nighthawk M5 is that it supports C-band 5G, giving you a better experience of 5G reception (if your carrier supports C-band). What you don’t get is mmWave 5G. This will be a negative for people who want to use the M5 in mmWave-enabled cities. But for rural areas, I think the lack of mmWave support is a good thing. To use it, the M5 needs to support different radio frequencies, which means MIMO antennas are not supported. Since mmWave is almost non-existent outside of cities, I’m happy to swap it out for better antenna support for frequencies that are actually available in my area.
M5 in the wild
Nighthawk M5 is about the size of a slice of American cheese and an inch thick. It’s slightly larger and thicker than the M1, but unless they’re side by side, you’ll notice that it’s not quite enough. Like its predecessor, the M5 is a square black plastic puck with an Ethernet port, a USB 3.1 Gen-2 port for charging and tethering, and a TS-9 antenna port on the back of the device.
On top of the M5 is a small 2.5-inch touchscreen display that controls most of the settings you use regularly, including setting up your network and controlling connected devices. For advanced settings, you can connect to Netgear’s configuration panel in your browser.
Setting up the M5 via the touch screen is very easy, I am connecting and personalizing my network information without any problems. Once set up, I can connect any device without issue. I turned to the web-based interface for more complex tasks, such as changing a device’s IP range or using a custom DHCP server. There are also mobile apps for iOS and Android.