A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Netgear to come and have a look at their new Orbi WiFi System in the flesh. I left full of optimism and with a test unit tucked under my arm. If you want to skip the whole part where I explain what Orbi is and how it works, you can go straight to where I plug the thing in and set it up by clicking here.
Orbi and home WiFi networking 101
A while a go I borrowed a Netgear Nighthawk R8500 router for a month. For the uninitiated, the Nighthawk is roughly the same size as a small desktop computer and is a beast in terms of performance. It also has a manual that harks back to the halcyon days of computer games on the Amiga or Atari ST- it was the size of a brick. It was a bit of a revelation as far as speed and WiFi penetration went, something that is becoming more and more relevant as we connect more and more devices to our internet connection.
At last count, we had almost 30 connected devices, with the vast majority being over WiFi rather than Ethernet- hard wiring up large sections of your house tends to make a mess and require some serious hardware in the first instance (SDS drill, a drill bit the size of your forearm and, if you’re going to do it properly, a crimping device).
Like me you probably don’t have an enormous amount of say where your router is placed. Our lovely 200Mbps Virgin Media cable connection comes in at the front of our house and the router is placed pretty much where the label in the photo shows it to be. This is great if you’re downstairs in the sitting room, dining room, or in the boys bedroom which is directly above it but not so hot if you’re in our bedroom, which is on the other side of the house at the back, or even in the playroom (our garage conversion).
Prior to the Orbi WiFi system, we’ve done exactly what a lot of people have done, we’ve used a WiFi extender to get WiFi into the places where WiFi wasn’t. There is an inherent problem with with WiFi extenders though, and the more devices you have connected to them or the faster your internet connection is, the more noticeable this problem becomes. Fundamentally a WiFi extender massively reduces the speed of your WiFi. Why? WiFi extenders work by connecting to your existing WiFi router and broadcasting their own WiFi network (usually a clone of your existing one that tricks devices in to thinking they’re on the same network). But by connecting to your existing WiFi network, the extender is using a chunk of the connection to ferry traffic back and forth to the original router. The more devices you have connected, the more congested this makes your WiFi network.
PC Advisor put it better than me:
A repeater uses half its internal antennae to receive a wireless signal and the other half to transmit a new signal – effectively halving the potential speed of the device’s network connection.7 Jan 2015
Netgear’s Orbi WiFi System does something very clever to completely avoid this issue. In amongst the blurb for Orbi, you will notice that it’s Tri-Band. This refers to the frequencies that the Orbi WiFi System broadcasts on. Wireless routers broadcast on one of two frequencies, the 2.4ghz band (quite fast, great range) and the 5ghz band (very fast, not so great range). That gives us dual band. For the last couple of years, high end routers have split the 5ghz band into two, the high end and low end of that band. This gives us Tri-Band.
Netgear have been exceptionally clever with their Orbi WiFi System and have decided to use one of the two 5ghz bands as a dedicated backbone between the router and it’s satellite. This means the actual network that all your devices are connected to isn’t congested by the router and satellite talking to each other.
What’s a satellite? Netgear are adamant a satellite is not a range extender and in strict technical terms they’re right. A range extender basically creates an additional WiFi network. You can trick your devices in to thinking it’s the same one by cloning your SSID (ie giving the extender’s network the same name and password that the existing one has), and some extenders even automatically sort out their channels so there isn’t interference but ultimately it’s still a different WiFi network.
Orbi does it differently, forming what’s known as a “mesh network“- simply speaking it creates one unified WiFi network out of a mesh of two devices (the router and access point). If you live in a mansion, you can add (an) additional satellite(s) until your whole property is covered.
Mesh networks aren’t new in terms of their WiFi application but Netgear’s Orbi WiFi System is the first large scale use of mesh networking in consumer level networking gear.
So that’s the theory, if you’re interested in the implementation, this is how I’ve found my first two weeks with Netgear’s Orbi WiFi System.
First off I had a nightmare. This nightmare was Virgin Media’s fault though. It just so happens that my first attempt to install Orbi coincided with one of the incredibly rare internet outages we’ve suffered over 10 years with Virgin Media. I have enough fingers to count the times we’ve lost our internet connection for anything longer than a reboot of our SuperHub 2, so we were massively unlucky that I just so happened to try installing the Orbi WiFi System at exactly the point the internet went down. The lack of internet meant I couldn’t complete the set up, so I gave up until the following day.
Day two, attempt two, was so very different. As you can see from the image above, there are two very similar looking devices in each Orbi pack. Firstly there is the router (you can spot this as it has a yellow Ethernet port alongside 3 normal ports on the back) and secondly there is the satellite. The satellite also has 4 Ethernet ports, and once you’ve set it up, it’ll glow a pleasing but different colour to the router part.
Netgear have gone for ease of use with Orbi. If you want to get up to your elbows configuring stuff manually, grab a Nighthawk and book a couple of days off work, if you want something that epitomises “it just works” even more than the Apple aesthetic it apes, grab an Orbi.
The Orbi router and Satellite come pre-paired, so it’s simply a case of plugging each in and waiting for them to sync. The top of the satellite glows one of three colours to indicate the signal strength between the two Orbi devices- good, okay, no signal. And this is where I made my first and only mistake. I assumed that since the Orbi WiFi System connected together over one of the 5ghz frequencies, I would need to ensure that the satellite wasn’t too far away from the router. I initially popped it upstairs but on the same side of the house as our router. Half an hour of playing around later, I’d moved it all the way to our bedroom:
Even at pretty much the furthest distance possible in our house- my Pythagoras reckons it’s 10m from the bottom of the front to 3m above ground in the diagonally opposite first floor bedroom- the Orbi satellite gets a full connection. Not an okay/weak connection, but a good connection.
Being suspicious, I wanted to check that Orbi wasn’t just giving me soothing colours to make me feel better, so I fired up Ookla’s Speedtest app on my Huawei P9 smartphone and had a look at the connection speed via WiFi:
I ran it a couple of times to make sure the results were stable. We’re on VM’s 200Mbps connection and often get around that or more- my main PC often manages to completely max out the connection while downloading games from Steam over a wired connection.
At a range of ten meters, across two floors with lots of internal walls, a couple of RSJs and a lot of copper piping in the way, the speed was nothing short of astonishing. What was even more impressive was the speed didn’t drop significantly when I hooked up our 4K telly in our bedroom (yes I know!) to the Orbi network and started streaming Luke Cage on Netflix in Ultra HD. Ultra HD over WiFi is my current saturation test of choice- if I can watch something on Netflix in 4K over WiFi but still actually use the WiFi for other stuff, I’m happy.
I was happy.
Even the Nighthawk R8500 didn’t have a WiFi range that reached our bedroom satisfactorily on the 5ghz band, Orbi really is a piece of work.
There are plenty of devices in our house that are permanently connected to the WiFi, regardless of end user activity. These include our Nest products (alarm and thermostat), 4 wireless security cameras, and a Panasonic smart alarm. These are always connected before any TVs, consoles, tablets, Fire TV sticks, phones or computers are fired up. In two weeks of use I’ve not noticed any issues whatsoever.
Orbi is simple to set up but it does a lot of the clever work behind the scenes. Unlike a lot of routers, you don’t set up separate 2ghz and 5ghz networks, Orbi simply has one unified network visible. Orbi’s load balancing algorithms dynamically assign devices to both frequencies to ensure that any potential congestion or signal weakness is ameliorated.
Although Orbi is effectively about as plug and play as you can get, there are a lot of settings you can tinker with under the hood if you wish. If you have a pre-existing network with a lot of reserved IP addresses (for example, our wireless security cameras are fixed IP so the monitoring software can always find them), you can run the Orbi WiFi System in AP (Access Point) mode. In AP mode Orbi simply acts as a wireless network, allowing your existing router to still run the network. You will lose out on all the QoS (quality of service) magic that Orbi can provide in terms of traffic management if you do this but it does make it quicker to set up.
Aesthetically Orbi is a good product. It sits in my living room next to my Nest thermostat, just along from one of my SONOS Play:3s. It’s not an eyesore but Netgear have also managed to pull off a pretty major coup in still maintaining excellent performance in a living room friendly package.
In terms of performance, Netgear’s Orbi WiFi System exceeded my expectations. The use of a dedicated band for router/satellite communication and fast AC3000 connectivity, coupled with eyewatering range make a really potent system. For the first time in ten years of living in our house, we have WiFi in every nook and cranny without the need for repeaters or wireless access points.
Are there any downsides? I don’t think the price is an issue. Orbi WiFi System retails for £349.99 for the router and satellite. A decent router and extender won’t cost much less, and you will want to spend a lot because going the budget route means you won’t be able to compete on performance. Likewise if you’re looking at some Gigabit poweline adapters with WiFi, a pair of those will cost you over £100 on top of the price of the router you’ll want as an upgrade from the basic box you have as part of your broadband contract. The Nighthawk R8500 itself has an RRP in excess of the Orbi and whilst they’re aimed at different segments of the market, it really is a case of getting what you pay for. What’s the point of spending money on smart TVs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, PSN, Xbox Live Gold, and so on, if you don’t actually have the infrastructure to use them properly?
If you want to add an additional satellite, they are a little pricey at £199, I think they should be £150 tops but as I’ve said, unless you live in a house significantly bigger than our 4 bed linked detached, I don’t think you’ll need an additional satellite. It’s worth noting too that our internal walls are brick throughout rather than stud partition, so that obviously hampers the range too.
I think I’d like a PSU that isn’t integrated into the plug, it makes it easier plugging devices into a powerstrip but other than that, I’m struggling to really think of any downsides.
The fact that two weeks in Netgear’s Orbi WiFi System is pretty much invisible really speaks volumes about how well it is doing it’s job.
It just works and I’m happy.