Computers / Hands-on Review

Orbi: In the Field with the Newest Netgear Mesh Networking Router

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By now, most consumers have heard of mesh networking (or as it is alternately known, whole home Wi-Fi systems). In the last couple of months, mesh networking for the home market has taken off (although it has been widely used in enterprise solutions for years). Understanding mesh means understanding the need for mesh, and how mesh works, so here’s a quick primer.

Mesh networking was developed to extend a Wi-Fi signal in a large work area without adding bridges or additional access points. Why? Because every time you extend a signal using an AP or extender, you degrade the signal and reduce your bandwidth. Wi-Fi using a traditional router and extender use a single wireless radio to send and receive data (thus the signal degradation) while mesh networks like the Orbi and eero use dedicated Wi-Fi bands to transmit the signal between router and satellite (or hubs), so that data can “hop” from point to point and doesn’t rely on a single transmission line.

Netgear Orbi Wireless Router AC3000 Tri-Band Wi-Fi System

All great in theory, as with the previous mesh network systems like the eero and Luma, which we covered, but how does it work in practice? Quite well actually, with a few caveats and, with the Orbi, it seems to work better and more reliably than the competition.

But first the big caveat—this in no way makes your Wi-Fi faster. Too many people equate better coverage with better speed, and that’s just not true. The speed of your Internet when piped through your provider is the speed you get, period. If you’re rated for 100 Mbps upload speed, then you’re not getting any better than that with any router. What you will get with mesh systems like the Orbi is enhanced coverage over a large space so, in a way, it may improve the signal but it does not boost the speed.

The first thing you’ll notice when opening up the Orbi box is that the typical setup just comes with two units, unlike the threesomes we’ve received and reviewed for both the eero and Luma  (even Google jumped into the ring with the Google WiFi 3-Pack this season). The two units represent a different approach to mesh; one is a dedicated router and the other is the satellite or “hub.” The router itself is different—the first consumer tri-band AC3000 router to use mesh—and although you may think you’re getting less coverage with only one satellite, you’re not. The Orbi router and satellite extended the Wi-Fi signal through the test home (5 levels, 3,000 square feet, with drywall, wood, brick, and concrete surfaces) cleanly and clearly, with much less signal drop-off than I experienced with the eero or the Luma.

Luma Home Wi-Fi System

The unit uses six Wi-Fi antennas with high-powered amplifiers, and transmits AC3000 connectivity (1733Mbps + 866Mbps + 400Mbps across two 5.0 GHz and one 2.4 GHz band) and is MU-MIMO capable for simultaneous data streaming on multiple devices. It also contains 4GB of Flash storage and 512MB of RAM. If you’ve read my previous posts on networking, you know that I always have a minimum of 17 devices connected on any given day, including tablets, laptops, Roku and Fire sticks, and console systems, which I demand have the best lag-free connections available for multiplayer games. With the eero and the Luma, I saw my game play suffer various lags and dips (and in one case, a wholesale stoppage), along with various other brownouts on other devices, but in three weeks with the Orbi, I have not seen one bit of slowdown. I maintain a continuous and consistent upload and download rate across all devices.

Another additional plus for the Orbi is its sheer amount of connectivity. Each unit has four 10/100/1000 Mbps Gigabit Ethernet ports to hardwire your devices (1 WAN and 3 LAN for the main unit, and 4 LAN for the satellite), and one USB 2.0 port. This is convenient and, in my opinion, an essential and necessary addition to any router. This allowed me to reduce the Wi-Fi reliance for certain critical devices (like my printer and gaming systems) while allowing flexibility in my connection options.

But the Orbi may not be for everyone. It’s a little more expensive than other mesh routers, with two pieces, and additional satellites will run you about $250 apiece (although you probably won’t need more than the single hub). The setup was not as simple as the eero and Luma, and connection was not as immediate. It took a couple of tries to connect the satellite, and Orbi functionality relies on a color-coded ring to inform you of the status, so there were lots of shouts like, “What color is it now?” and “Did it turn purple yet?”and “No it’s magenta!” “Magenta is purple!” and so on.

The placement of the satellite is also critical. To enjoy the full range (Netgear claims the Orbi with one satellite should cover 4,000 square feet), you have to make sure that the satellite and the main router are at an optimal distance from each other. That distance will vary from environment to environment, but getting that sweet spot is sometimes frustrating. In my first test, I was getting a strong signal from the main, and a weaker one from the satellite when trying to browse outside. After some relocation, I found that the signal was slightly weaker in certain rooms, including the one where my gaming unit was setup. The third time was the charm, where I got a strong consistent signal throughout the house, and no lag in my online multiplayer games.

But the pros still outweigh the cons. One of the best features of the Orbi was a more substantial interface to handle more dedicated functions. For instance, you can go into the browser interface for Orbi and change name and password (I did not like the fact that the unit comes with a predetermined password—too much of a security issue in this day and age, and many people will not change it even though repeatedly warned to do so), change port forwarding, Dynamic DNS, and more. It has very similar access and parental control functions when compared to the eero and Luma, but if you want something a little more customized, the Orbi is definitely it.

Additionally, the Orbii had fewer problems negotiating the “handshake”—connecting devices as you roam from room to room. With the eero and Luma, there were some glitches in that system, and connecting was not always flawless. With the Orbi, I saw none of that. Roaming from room to room with my Kindle Fire, I didn’t see any dropouts or lag spots. Color me impressed.

From what I’ve seen so far, the Orbi is impressive, and although it may be cost prohibitive (especially if you add satellites, which you may not need unless you’re living in an airplane hangar), a good router (like the Nighthawk AC5300) will cost about the same, and you won’t get the same range of coverage. If you have a residence where Wi-Fi coverage is your main issue, then the Orbi will solve it.

Netgear AC5300 Nighthawk X8 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Router

What do you think about the new lineup of mesh networking routers? Let us know in the Comments section, and stay tuned for reviews of other great networking products from B&H.

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