Netgear's twin-router network system solves the weak Wi-Fi problem plaguing many businesses and homes.
Dead spots, unreliable connections and slow speeds are common wireless network problems in many businesses and homes. Possible solutions can range from running Ethernet cables around your premises to installing Wi-Fi range extenders. However, these options tend to be complicated to configure, or they deliver improved range at the expense of speed.
With its Orbi system, Netgear believes that it has a better answer: “the world’s first tri-band mesh home WiFi system”. And while it may be promoted for homes, it could be an ideal solution for many offices.
A mesh wireless network essentially involves adding Wi-Fi ‘nodes’ to spread the signal. The Orbi system does this by including a router that you plug into your broadband (via its Ethernet WAN port) plus a second ‘satellite’ router that extends the coverage.
In the original AC3000 version of the Orbi, the router and satellite communicate via a dedicated 1,733Mbits/sec, 802.11ac 5GHz network (the network backbone, to use the technical term). To serve connected devices, each Orbi component additionally has an 866Mbits/sec 802.11ac 5GHz network and a 400Mbits/sec 2.4GHz network.
The idea is that your devices connect to whichever node is nearest them, and if that's the Satellite, the high-speed backbone should ensure that there's no slowdown in Wi-Fi speeds. The backbone also means that there's room for expansion: you can simply buy additional Satellite devices to expand your network further around your home.
Setting up the pack couldn't be easier. The router and Satellite come pre-paired, so all you have to do is connect the router to your internet connection, then position your Satellite and power it on. Usefully, the Satellite has a coloured LED that glows for ten seconds to show you network strength: blue means the connection is good, amber means fair, and pulsing magenta means there's no connection.
After that, a web-based wizard takes you through configuring a new admin password and giving your Orbi system a new wireless network name and password. Settings are synchronised between the router and satellite automatically, so you only have a single network in your home. This is an improvement on the way many Wi-Fi extenders work, which creates separate network in addition to the one operated by your router.
Once you're set up, the Orbi's settings can be managed through a standard web interface. Those who've had a Netgear router before will recognise the Orbi's web interface, although they may notice that there are fewer settings. For example, it's impossible to split the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. Instead, the Orbi uses band steering, which detects the capabilities of the connecting device, looks at current load and network strength, and then automatically connects the client to what it considers the best network. This does mean that you can't control whether your devices use 5GHz or 2.4GHz networking, but the result should be better stability and overall speed.
To test the Orbi, we placed the router where our internet connection comes into the premises, and put the Satellite on the first floor. At a range of five metres we saw a throughput of 384Mbits/sec; on the first floor, throughput of 318Mbits/sec; and on the second floor, 191Mbits/sec. In other words, while close range speeds are excellent, rivals such as the high-end Netgear Nighthawk X8 can do better at range.
Unplugging the Satellite didn't make much difference to these results, as the router's location already gives good coverage around the premises. We then tried moving the Satellite to another room (the kitchen), to see if it could improve reception at the end of the kitchen and into the back yard.
The results were clearer this time. Without the Satellite, we saw throughput of 30Mbits/sec just outside of the kitchen window, and no connection at all at the bottom of the back yard. With the Satellite, we got 288Mbits/sec just outside the window and 253Mbits/sec at the bottom of the back yard. Naturally, these speeds varied according to the Satellite's positioning: we got the best results with it located in the middle of the kitchen.
The Orbi has pretty much all of the features you'd expect in a modern router, including port forwarding, dynamic DNS settings and Netgear's excellent web-filtering. The router also offers three Gigabit Ethernet ports for wired devices, and the Satellite adds another four.
This could make the Satellite a useful addition to an office, or at the back of a TV, where you may have a collection of wired devices.
In all, the Orbi is a smart system: we found it delivered rock-solid and stable Wi-Fi to our entire premises. If you've struggled with poor Wi-Fi performance in the past, then this router could well be the answer.
It's certainly not cheap, though: before forking out $749, you should try relocating your router to closer to the middle of the premises. But if you that doesn’t improve your Wi-Fi, or isn’t possible, a clever system like the Orbi may be just what you need.
If your coverage needs aren’t quite so demanding, Netgear has released the new $599 Orbi RBS40, which is a AC2200 system with a slower (867Mbps) dedicated connection between the two routers.