Mesh Wi-Fi networks have been all the rage ever since Eero introduced its first router system last February. These Wi-Fi systems are designed for large houses or offices that would typically need to be served by multiple routers or Wi-Fi range extenders. Simply put, they use multiple "nodes" that can communicate with each other, saving you the hassle of running wires or setting up and maintaining multiple devices, while ensuring a seamless end-user experience when you move from one part of the building to another.
Another important distinction with mesh networks is that all nodes powering the network can talk to each other directly, which means you can extend your network in any direction. Rather than a "hub and spoke" model in which every satellite needs to be within the range of the "main" router, you can daisy-chain nodes to each other. This is especially helpful if you need to cover large areas indoors and outdoors or deal with walls and floors that typically block Wi-Fi signals. Of course, you still need to have a base unit that will have your Internet line connected to it so you can connect to the outside world.
If your Internet connection is in one corner of the house and you don't get the Wi-Fi signal at the other end, mesh networks can potentially solve this problem. They are also great for seamlessly extending your network in the future – just add a node to serve an extra floor or the patio that you just added, and you are good to go.
Today, we'll be taking a closer look at the Netgear Orbi, which is the company's answer to mesh routers like Eero and Google Wifi. Interestingly, this product wouldn't have been considered a pure mesh Wi-Fi solution till recently, as the extender nodes (called satellites, more on them shortly) couldn't talk to each other directly. A recent firmware update added a feature called ‘support for daisy-chain topology', which makes it possible for Orbi satellites to connect to other satellites as well as the base unit (which Netgear calls the ‘router').
The model we've been testing is the Netgear Orbi (RBK50) AC3000, which is a kit consisting of one base router (model number RBR50) and one satellite (model number RBS50). Netgear's website claims a range of 5000 square feet for the entire setup, though the retail box we got promised a more modest range of 350 sq. m. (roughly 3767 sq. ft). This is the top-end model of the Orbi lineup, the one with the biggest range, but remember that these stated figures usually have ideal conditions and buildings with wooden partitions in mind. If you are reading this in India, you know that our concrete walls have killed many a tall claim when it comes to signal strength and range. Let's see how Netgear's flagship mesh Wi-Fi router performs in the real world.
Gone are the days when routers were ugly and needed multiple antennas sticking out to deliver any kind of decent performance. Okay, those routers haven't entirely vanished from the face of the earth, but thankfully, the likes of Eero, Google, and even Netgear have realised that networking equipment cannot always be hidden away (especially when you are talking about multi-room setups). With the Orbi devices, Netgear has made an effort to make them blend into their surroundings.
Major rivals such as Google Wifi and Eero are not officially available in India, so we don't have any real-world experiences to use for comparison, but a simple look at the dimensions of all these products confirms that the Orbi units are bigger than the others. At 8.9-inches high, 6.7-inches wide, and 3.1-inches thick, the units won't exactly be invisible where you put them, which made us appreciate their aesthetics even more. Unlike most routers, we didn't mind putting the Orbi in our living room. Design is obviously a very personal subject, though, so your opinion may differ.
Setting up your Orbi is simple enough, even if you are not technically savvy. As we stated earlier, the Orbi RBK50 consists of two units - one is called the router, and the other is the satellite. You need to connect the router to your existing Internet line, while the satellite goes in the “middle of your house” for the best Wi-Fi coverage. For most people, getting started should be as simple as replacing an existing Wi-Fi router with the Orbi base unit. Bear in mind that (like most routers), the Orbi does not have a built-in ADSL modem, so you will need to hang on to your existing modem if that's already part of your setup.
Follow the steps laid out in the Quick Start Guide, and when you see the Orbi router's LED light up in white, it's time to turn on the satellite. Give it about three minutes, and if the light on the satellite turns blue, it means that it has established a healthy connection with the router. If it turns amber, the connection is only “fair”. A magenta colour indicates there is no connection, so you'll have to move the satellite closer to the router.
The next steps involve setting up the Wi-Fi network, and you can do this via a PC or by downloading the Orbi app on your iOS or Android device. Apart from our review unit, we configured a couple of retail Orbi units for our friends and family, and we found the process to be pretty painless every time.
Netgear says that each Orbi unit has “six high-performance antennas with high-powered amplifiers”. The company also states that this router is capable of speeds of up to 3Gbps, but that's the total amount of data that can be flowing through the entire system at any given time, and the speeds you experience on each individual device will, of course, be much lower.
Out of the total available bandwidth, 1733Mbps is reserved for the backend communication between the Orbi units. The consumer-facing 5GHz channel is capable of reaching speeds of up to 866Mbps using the 802.11ac standard, while the 2.4GHz channel has a peak speed of 400Mbps using 802.11n. This means that while Netgear's claim that this is a “tri-band” router is technically true, from your perspective, the Netgear Orbi is really just dual-band.
In terms of peak speeds in the real world, obviously, you will need 802.11ac compliant devices to get the most out of this router. The Netgear Orbi supports both beam-forming and Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) standards, though they are disabled out of the box, probably because some users have reported reliability issues with these settings enabled. However, we didn't face any issues when using the router with the two options enabled, and in fact, performance in terms of download and upload speeds improved significantly.
The Orbi creates both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks with the same name, and if your device supports the latter, it should default to that frequency by default. Presently, there seems to be no way to force the networks to use different names.
We set up the Netgear Orbi in a 1750 sq. ft. duplex apartment for the duration of our review. We had the router placed in a room on one side of the house on the ground floor, with the satellite in a room on the other side of the house on the first floor. With this arrangement, the entire house was blanketed in Wi-Fi and there wasn't a single corner where we saw less than full Wi-Fi bars on our mobile devices. This was a welcome change from our earlier setup consisting of an aging Apple AirPort Extreme working in conjunction with an Airport Express, wherein connectivity in certain parts of the house was a bit hit-or-miss. Indeed, the best part of using the Orbi was the seamless and reliable blanket Wi-Fi coverage through the entire house.
We enjoyed our 100Mbps broadband line to the fullest on multiple devices, with plenty of room for future upgrades before the router's speed begins to be a bottleneck, as you might have experienced if you have an ageing router on a fast Internet line. At any given time, we had anywhere between ten and 20 devices connected to the network, and the Orbi hardly broke a sweat. Simple operations such as copying large files from one machine to another were much faster when compared to our previous setup, but we didn't come close to the speeds that Netgear claims.
Using the Wi-Fi mapping utility NetSpot, we confirmed that our Orbi network was capable of wireless transmission at around 600Mbps over distances with a clear line of sight to the router, which is a lot closer to the theoretical limit of the 5GHz channel. In terms of everyday use, the router never felt like a bottleneck, and we were able to stream video in 4K over Wi-Fi without any issues, even with multiple devices connected to the network.
In terms of features, the Orbi packs pretty much everything regular users would expect - guest network support; the ability to block certain sites and services (with scheduling); access control to blacklist/ whitelist devices; event logging and the ability to email logs; the ability to back up and restore settings; port forwarding/ triggering; dynamic DNS support; UPnP and IPv6 support; and a built-in VPN server.
All this can be controlled via a Web-based interface, and some of this functionality is also exposed via the Orbi app for Android and iOS. You can see a list of connected devices in the app and through a browser, and the former even lets you ‘pause' Internet connectivity of a specific device – great for when it's time to make everyone look up from their devices and have an actual conversation at dinner.
Other than that, the Orbi app is pretty barebones at the moment, and you will need to reach out for your browser if you want to tweak anything other name and password of your main and guest Wi-Fi networks or check for a software update. Checking for firmware updates and installing them is pretty simple, and at times we noticed updates had been installed automatically, but on other occasions, we found new updates waiting to be installed. We would've liked to see a bandwidth consumption metre for each connected device in a router of this class, given the FUP-ed up world we live in. Remote management is available via the browser, but the option is turned off by default, as it should be. However, we couldn't find a way of prioritising certain type of Internet traffic over others using the settings.
Each Netgear Orbi router has one WAN port and three Gigabit LAN ports, while each satellite has four Gigabit LAN ports. This means you can place the satellite unit close to a set-top box, desktop, or a game console and enjoy Ethernet connectivity without running wires throughout the house. Both also have a USB port that can be used to share devices on the network. Though the router's Web interface indicates the USB port can only be used for sharing printers using Netgear's ReadySHARE software, we connected a hard disk to the router and were able to view its contents using Windows file sharing and via the Netgear Genie app. The Genie app also offers some extra features like traffic meter that can report your overall Internet usage and supposedly even gives iOS users the ability to print to any attached printer using AirPrint.
Many users on Netgear forums have complained about frequent connection drops with their Orbi units, but we didn't face that issue. At first, our smartphone would drop its Wi-Fi signal once every few days for a couple of seconds and then reconnect automatically, but recent software updates seem to have fixed that annoyance as well.
Overall, the Netgear Orbi is the quickest, easiest, and most reliable way to cover a large area with consistently fast Wi-Fi that we've ever come across, though the exact speeds and range will vary a lot depending on the size of your area and how it's built. Despite featuring state-of-the-art technology, it's pretty easy to get started with the Orbi, and it packs nearly all the features that most users would need in a router.
All this, of course, comes at a price. The Netgear Orbi (RBK50) AC3000 has an MRP of Rs. 35,990, though it's usually available at Rs. 26,999 on Amazon India. That's a lot of money to pay, especially when you can get basic routers for under Rs. 1,000. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. Most people won't need this kind of a router, but if you have a large home, you cannot go wrong with the Netgear Orbi RBK50. If you are on a budget, Netgear India recently launched two more routers in the Orbi range that are designed for slightly smaller homes and will go on sale at marginally lower prices later this month.
Ratings (Out of 5)