“Whole home WiFi” are the new buzzwords in consumer networking. For a few years now, we have been able to warm up WiFi cold spots in the home with a plug-in wireless extender, but it’s fair to say that results are variable with these devices. In some situations, extenders provide little benefit and where they do work, you can find the resulting speeds to be poor.
This dissatisfaction has led to a number of new approaches to home WiFi, incorporating mesh networking. We reviewed the eero system a few weeks ago (read the review), while companies like Luma, Ubiquiti Networks and Google are also selling mesh WiFi systems featuring small white access points. The traditional, large, angular black routers are nowhere to be seen, replaced with compact systems with multiple devices that look more modern and suited to being on display in the home.
Netgear has taken a slightly different approach. The two pack Netgear Orbi system we’re reviewing today ships with a main router and a satellite access point. You can add further satellites if you have a particularly large house but one should be enough for most. These devices appear almost identical and look rather like a large air freshener. Billed as a “tri-band” networking system, Orbi in fact offers two bands (one 2.4 GHz, one 5 GHz) for client connections. That’s actually a good move as the third 5 GHz band is reserved for the satellites, which connect to each other via a dedicated 5 GHz 1733 Mbps 4×4 wireless link back to the main router.
With most of the competing mesh networking systems, you are limited to AC1200 speeds and the mesh uses up a significant proportion of the bandwidth. If you are connected directly to the base unit then this isn’t a problem, but roam to one of the other mesh units and your speed will drop significantly. This is one of the major issues we encountered with eero (which shares its two bands for both client access and backhaul, using complex algortihms to select a band for backhaul duties in realtime).
On the surface, you might think that the Orbi is simply an expensive router-extender setup, but it offers simplicity and stability that is hard to find elsewhere. The dedicated wireless link with a separate radio is designed to keep things speedy and client devices connect to the network using AC1200 WiFi. The network also benefits from seamless roaming between the router and satellites that presents just a single network to all your devices.
Netgear also brings it’s networking know-how to the Orbi, integrating advanced networking features such as VPN, parental controls and dynamic DNS. Many of these features are lacking on the rival mesh networking systems.
The Orbi is priced at £349.99/$399.99 for a router/satellite combo, or £219.99/$249.99 for just the router or satellite (so you can expand later if you need to). This is not a cheap solution, but you may well get better coverage than spending that amount on a super-router.
What’s in the Box?
The Orbi is a completely new direction for Netgear, and I’m pleased to see that they have put the time and effort into designing the packaging to match the overall experience. The packaging design is very premium with lots of white space and a simple diagram showing how the system works.
Open up the box and you find the router on top. Lifting it out using the colour-matched ribbon reveals the almost identical satellite unit. Netgear helpfully added a removable label to the units to distinguish them.
When everything is unpacked you have a very simple “Quick Start Guide”, two fairly large AC adapters and a nice flat Ethernet cable (at last – no more cheap blue cables).
The Orbi devices are fairly inoffensive looking units, with little to give away the technology that hides inside. I’m unsure if Netgear’s designers were trying to make Orbi look like an air-freshener but they have certainly succeeded in being unobtrusive – fitting in with most home decor. They are slightly larger than I would have liked, being slightly shorter than the Amazon Echo. While the units aren’t entirely discrete, you (or more importantly, the wife) won’t be embarrassed to have them on display.