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Zyxel NWA90AX review: Wi-Fi 6 at a bargain price

Despite modest performance, this low-cost Wi-Fi 6 AP offers plenty of business-class features

IT Pro Recommended
A photograph of the Zyxel NWA90AX
Price
£79 exc VAT
  • Highly affordable
  • Strong cloud management features
  • Compact dimensions
  • NCC subscription not included in price

There’s never been a better time to upgrade your network to the latest Wi-Fi standard. Prices for business-grade Wi-Fi 6 access points (APs) have been falling steadily, and Zyxel has taken this to the next level with its NWA90AX unit, which costs just £79. As you’d expect at this low price, it’s only an AX1775-rated AP, but the NWA90AX can be managed in standalone mode or remotely using its Nebula Control Center (NCC) cloud platform.

It’s also the smallest Wi-Fi 6 AP we’ve yet seen; this palm-sized plastic slab measures a mere 140 x 140 x 38mm (WDH) and weighs only 290g. Its Gigabit port supports PoE+, but worry not if you don’t have a suitable source, as the price does include a power adapter.

The NWA90AX is simple to deploy in standalone mode, with its web console wizard guiding you through setting the country of operation and changing the default admin password. One SSID on each radio is also enabled, but you should change the encryption key immediately, as the default one is very easy to guess.

Profiles and objects are used to configure further wireless settings, and both radios can broadcast up to eight SSIDs. Each can be assigned their own profile with options for strong WPA3 encryption, upload and download rate limits and quality of service (QoS) for prioritising voice or video traffic.

You’ll need to move to cloud management if you want to use captive portals to authenticate guest users, but this is easy to do; we logged into our cloud account using the NCC app on an iPad, selected our site and scanned in the QR code on the AP’s label. The app instantly picked up its MAC address and model name, added it to the site and, five minutes later, the AP started broadcasting our cloud-managed SSIDs.

The basic NCC cloud service is free, but logging is restricted to a rolling 24 hours with features such as email alerting and scheduled firmware updates disabled. These features and more are available in the NCC Plus and Pro packs but, unlike Zyxel’s higher-end APs, the price of the NWA90AX doesn’t include a trial subscription.

A photograph of the Zyxel NWA90AX

It’s worth noting that Zyxel offers a NWA50AX model that only costs £61 and, to the casual observer, looks identical. However, it doesn’t support Layer 2 isolation, WPA Enterprise encryption or any of NCC’s captive portal features.

There are no such issues with the NWA90AX, as we could create up to eight SSIDs per site in the NCC portal, each with its own encryption scheme, and enable captive portals on selected SSIDs. These can be customised with company logos and set to present walled gardens, while guest authentication methods comprise NCC-managed usernames and passwords or click-through acceptable use policies (AUPs).

Performance initially looks underwhelming. Large file copies between a Windows 10 Pro workstation sporting a TP-Link Archer TX3000E Wi-Fi 6 PCI-E adapter and a server on our 10GbE LAN returned close-range speeds of only 56.4MB/sec, dropping slightly to 53.9MB/sec at ten metres.

The reason for this is all Zyxel Wi-Fi 6 APs see the copy test as a single stream and assign one CPU core to this activity. To keep costs down and reduce heat output, the NWA90AX uses a cheaper MediaTek quad-core CPU, which isn’t as powerful as the Qualcomm models in Zyxel’s higher-end APs.

When the AP is handling multiple streams, it assigns them to different CPU cores so cumulative performance will be higher. We confirmed this by running iPerf across the workstation and server with ten streams returning a total of 86MB/sec, while an SSH session to the AP confirmed that the workload was being spread evenly across all four CPU cores.

Small businesses looking to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 will be very tempted by the low price of the NWA90AX. It packs plenty of features into its minuscule shell, including cloud management, and although performance isn’t as good as more expensive Wi-Fi 6 APs, it will be enough for small offices servicing multiple clients. 

Zyxel NWA90AX specifications

Band support

AX1775 dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz Wi-Fi 6

Radios

2 x 2 MU-MIMO

Ports

Gigabit LAN/802.3at PoE+

Additional features

Ceiling/wall-mounting kits, external PSU included, limited lifetime warranty

Dimensions (WDH)

140 x 140 x 38mm

Weight

290g 

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