There continues to be lots of new products in the home Wi-Fi space. Vendors like eero, Ubiquiti Labs, Luma and Securifi have jumped into the wireless mesh space, taking on the notion of a traditional router and instead using smaller devices that can go into each room to provide better coverage.
Netgear, one of the leaders in the home Wi-Fi router market, has come out with a line of routers that aims to provide similar functionality, but does it in a more traditional sense. The Orbi system provides users with two devices – one that acts as a ‘router’ and one ‘satellite’ that then provides additional coverage within your house. The company sent me a two-pack to try out and review.
The first thing I noticed was that Netgear clearly labels which device is which. While both units look the same, one is marked “Router” and one is marked “Satellite”, so you know which unit to connect to your broadband modem and which one goes somewhere else. With the mesh systems I’ve tried, it doesn’t matter which unit connects to the modem – pick one and it becomes the ‘router’. These units are also larger than traditional mesh units – the router and satellite units were slightly smaller than my Brita water pitcher, but about the same shape. If you are hoping to have units that blend in with the décor of your home, the size of these units may be surprising. In my case, I don’t really care – I’ve lived with giant Wi-Fi routers in my home for the past 20 years, including ones with all of the antennas shooting out from each side.
Connecting the Orbi router to the broadband modem begins the setup process – Lights on the top of the unit blink for a few minutes, then the instructions tell you when it’s OK to connect the satellite. Same thing there – plug in the satellite somewhere else in the house (it suggests somewhere in the center, but a lot depends on where you’re modem and router unit are located) and wait for a signal from the satellite. If the satellite lights up blue, you’re good; if it’s amber or magenta, then you have to move it closer to the router.
Once the two units are installed, you connect to the pre-determined Wi-Fi network with your browser on a notebook, PC or mobile device. You can connect directly to Ethernet if you want, but I chose the wireless route. The browser then goes through more setup options, such as letting you rename the network and password. After that, the system then goes through a firmware update check (my system needed one) and then it confirms that there’s an Internet connection. Both the router and satellite units have additional LAN ports (three on the router, four on the satellite), so adding additional devices to the network, such as a storage device, printer, or device that uses Ethernet, shouldn’t be a problem.
One weird thing about this system – there’s no dedicated Orbi mobile app. Instead, you need to download the Netgear Genie app, an existing mobile app for Netgear’s other Wi-Fi routers. With Genie, you can then change things like the wireless settings, see a network map, monitor traffic and access parental controls (which requires an OpenDNS account).
This and the two-device setup makes the Orbi system feel more like a router/range extender option rather than a true wireless mesh. It was unclear whether you could buy an additional satellite unit to connect to the system. In theory, you wouldn’t need one, since Netgear claims that its two-device system can cover homes up to 4,000 square feet (other mesh systems I tried needed their three units to cover up to 2,600 feet).
On the other hand, being able to access advanced network features is handled much better through browser-based access or the Netgear Genie app than with wireless mesh apps that often hide these features (if they have them at all). If you’ve been installing Wi-Fi routers on your own home network for years, you’ll likely appreciate the ability to modify settings to your liking. Probably 95% of users won’t touch these features, but it’s still nice to have these options for network-heads who love tweaking this stuff.
Another big difference - Netgear’s “Tri-band” system utilizes one of the two 5GHz frequency bands to create a dedicated channel between the router and satellite units. Netgear says this method gives you higher bandwidth (it uses about 1.7Gbps of that frequency band). Once you start adding more client devices to the system, this extra bandwidth will become extremely important, Netgear argues. In my tests, I didn’t notice any Internet performance degradation (via the Ookla Speedtest app) when throwing a lot of traffic onto the network (multiple streaming video streams and other clients attempting to access the Internet), but I suspect that you’d need to generate a lot more Internet traffic in order to start seeing some issues (for most homes, the bottleneck is still at the broadband router, not the LAN).
When I did do some LAN tests (file transfer from a wireless notebook to a NAS box connected to the router), I did notice speed improvements with the Orbi compared to my existing wireless mesh network (The AmpliFI wireless mesh system from Ubiquiti Labs). I did file transfers from three different locations – right next to the router, right next to the satellite (or one of the AmpliFi nodes, relatively in the same area) and then in a neutral location (about one room away from the router, with some walls and other obstructions). In all cases, the Orbi was able to transfer files (A folder of multiple video files, about 2.42GB total) to the NAS faster:
To be fair to AmpliFi, there was some additional traffic on this network (some Netflix traffic and general Internet browsing from my kids’ devices), but it wasn’t enough to cause that much of a slowdown when compared to the Orbi. In general, if you’re doing some large file transfers, the general rule to follow is a) transfer directly via Ethernet if possible or b) transfer in the same room as the router).
One other thing to note – Netgear has been around for many, many years. This isn’t a dig against the other companies, which include many startups in this space – in my dealing with most of them, I’ve had fine customer service. But some people prefer to do business with companies with a long track record, and Netgear certainly qualifies here (your opinion may differ, of course).
Bottom line: If you have a complicated network setup that requires access to lots of advanced features that you’re accustomed too, or if you’re looking for some LAN speed boosts within your Wi-Fi space, Orbi is worth a look.
Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five)
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