Hardware Review: NetGear Orbi Mesh WiFi System Covers Lots of Space, at a Cost UPDATED

UPDATE: It’s been four years since I wrote this, and it’s worth adding some new information. First, the Netgear Orbi has been the most reliable wi-fi system I have ever owned. I’m still very happy with it. However, I’m surprised that the price hasn’t dropped much, especially for additional satellites.

Late last year, I moved my base station and satellite in my home, and found that I need an additional satellite to cover a sitting room, but also to get coverage in my garden. At the time, it cost around £200 for a satellite; that’s ridiculous, since the package of one base station and a satellite has dropped to around £229. I eventually got a satellite when Amazon had a deal on it, for around £130, and, at the time, was torn between upgrading to a newer Orbi system or continuing with this one.

Netgear now sells two wi-fi 6 systems, which offer a number of new technologies from faster speeds, to the ability to handle more devices. While you may not see much of a difference in speed on a wi-fi 6 system, you will when you have a lot of devices on your network. However, only those devices that support wi-fi 6 will be affected by those speeds. This article explains what wi-fi 6 offers.

Netgear has two wi-fi 6 Orbi systems. This one, which is on an Amazon deal as I write this, costs around £195, and offers speeds of up to 1.8 Gbps. The more expensive model, offering speeds of up to 4.2 Gbps, is around £450. The more expensive system is really overkill, and since I don’t have enough wi-fi 6 devices – only my iPhone and MacBook Air have wi-fi 6 – it’s not worth upgrading, for now. Also, the speeds I get are more than sufficient: I get around 500-800 Mbps in my office, and 200-300 Mbps in other parts of the house. While I do now have gigabit fiber, the only computer that needs the highest speed transfers is my iMac, which is wired via Ethernet. As long as my Orbi is still working, I’ll keep it.

In June 2016, I moved into a large, old farmhouse just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. In my previous home – an old barn conversion – I used an Apple AirPort Extreme, which covered the house sufficiently. That house had thick stone walls, and was on three floors, and it seemed that the router, well placed at the center of the ground floor, spread perfectly in the space, providing excellent coverage of the entire house. However, it didn’t cover the back garden much; not even a table just next to the conservatory at the back.

The new house is a challenge. It doesn’t have the same thick stone walls, but it’s quite large; about 3,200 sq. ft. In addition, there’s no easy location to place my router to get optimal coverage. My internet comes in to one of the ground floor rooms in the corner, and leaving the router there meant that much of the house was dark. Running a flat Ethernet cable out into the hall worked a lot better, but it still didn’t cover all the rooms on the top floor sufficiently, and coverage on the patio outside wasn’t very good.

There are lots of wifi extenders, and other systems you can use to cover a large space, but they’re a bit complex to set up, and their throughput isn’t great. So I thought I’d try out the NetGear Orbi, which was released a few months ago. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

With the main router in the same location as before, and the satellite toward the back of the house upstairs, every room in the house is covered, and even the patio and much of the large garden now have coverage as well. It took a bit of testing to find the ideal location for the satellite. The main router is placed at the bottom of the stairs, about 1/3 of the way from the front door, and the satellite is on the first floor about 2/3 of the way from the front door. (If that makes sense…) This results in a good connection between the two devices, full coverage upstairs, and, since the satellite is near the door to a room that looks out on the garden, coverage outdoors as well.

The Orbi offers two networks; a standard network plus a guest network. So you can activate and deactivate the guest network whenever you want, setting a less secure password for your guests, but they won’t be on the same network as your devices. The main router has four ethernet ports and a USB port; I have my Philips Hue controller connected to it, and you can connect a hard drive if you want. And the satellite has four ethernet ports as well.

The Orbi is available in two versions, each with a router and satellite, and a third version which includes the router and a small wall-plug satellite. You can add another satellite using their app or setup system, if you need more coverage. (Satellites were not available individually when the device was released, and I see that, while you can buy them in the US, they’re not yet for sale in the UK.)

This is what’s called a mesh wifi system; the tri-band router and satellite don’t lose bandwidth extending the network, which is the case if you use a standard network extension system. Devices automatically connect to the more powerful router, generally the one closest, and multiple devices connected don’t slow down throughput. There are several mesh wifi systems available now, and expect this technology to become more common (and hopefully less expensive).

Some reviewers have noted that the Orbi has slowed down their internet connection. I don’t connect to the internet with the Orbi; I have this connected to my ISP’s router via ethernet. I’ve always found that solution to be better; the ISP’s routers tend to connect more reliably.

The Orbi is pricey; at nearly $400 or £400, it’s quite an investment. But if you have a large home, or a small business, it’s a brain-dead simple way of getting good coverage. The wifi is fast and reliable, and drop-outs are rare. If you’re tired of trying to get a single router to work in a large home, it’s worth trying out the Orbi.