Netgear Orbi review: The answer to Wi-Fi deadspots
Weak Wi-Fi is the bane of many a home. Dead spots, unreliable connections and slow speeds are common problems. Possible solutions can range from running Ethernet cables around your home 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: Wi-Fi Mesh networking technology. The Orbi system comprises one router that you plug into your broadband (via its Ethernet WAN port), and a second “Satellite” router that you, ideally, place in the middle of your home to extend the coverage.
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 clients connect to whichver 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.
Netgear Orbi review: Getting set up
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, the 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.[gallery:0]
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.
Netgear Orbi review: Performance
To test the Orbi, we placed the router where our internet connection comes into the house, 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 of the house. We then tried moving the Satellite to the kitchen, to see if it could improve reception at the end of the kitchen and into the garden.
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 garden. With the Satellite, we got 288Mbits/sec just outside the window and 253Mbits/sec at the bottom of the garden. Naturally, these speeds varied according to the Satellite’s positioning: we got the best results with it located in the middle of the kitchen.[gallery:2]
Netgear Orbi review: Features
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. There’s currently no support for BT IGMP proxying, however, which means that streamed YouView channels will not work. These are the channels that appear in your TV guide, such as BT Sport, but are broadcast via the internet; Netgear plans to release an update for the router soon, but if you’re watching streamed YouView channels you might want to hold off switching for now.
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.
Netgear Orbi review: Verdict
In all, the Orbi is a smart system: we found it delivered rock-solid and stable Wi-Fi to our entire house. 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: if you can physically relocate your router, so it’s closer to the middle of the home, you may be able to get similar performance without needing to invest in clever mesh systems.