Netgear Orbi Mesh WiFi System AC3000 Review

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Netgear Orbi Mesh WiFi System AC3000 Review


Whole-house coverage with few hassles.

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Editor’s Note: Garrett Van Winkle contributed significant testing and research for this evaluation. 

Got a big home – say, over 1,500 square feet? Then you probably have two problems when it comes to Wi-Fi reception. First, with distance and obstacles such as walls and floors come dead zones where Wi-Fi signals are severely degraded. This particular author has a 2,650 square foot two-story in the Oregon suburbs, and with an older 3×3 802.11n router in the upstairs corner office. This means a 2.4GHz signal will barely survive its trip to the kitchen in the opposite downstairs corner, and a 5.0 GHz signal won’t reach at all. And anything from a 2×2 router? Ha! That’s rich.

The second issue with big homes (aside from the mortgage), is they often contain several people, each with their own online entertainment needs. You might be enjoying a multiplayer game one moment, then your ping spikes through the roof because someone down the hall turned on Netflix. Your Internet feed might be fast enough to accommodate two or three incoming video streams, but can your Wi-Fi router handle the traffic sharing without dropping frames or (the horror!) forcing a stream buffer? Historically, the way to solve these problems was by gaming at 3:00am, or by adding Wi-Fi extenders. You could even daisy chain them, with Router A connecting to Extender B, which in turn passed the connection to Extender C and so on. The problem was that with each wireless hop, your throughput was halved. A 100Mbps connection at Router A would only be 25 Mbps at Router C. That’s no way to live.

Orbi fronts

Enter mesh Wi-Fi systems, which started to hit their stride in the consumer world recently. Mesh Wi-Fi products typically replace your router. Each mesh satellite acts much like a router, and the entire mesh network, including its setup, can be controlled from an Android or iOS app. You can also access the main mesh unit’s via a Web browser, as with any conventional router.

As its name implies, mesh networks do not work in a daisy chain fashion. If any node on the mesh goes down, the rest of the network will independently adapt and reroute traffic to stay up and running. Thus, a mesh network is more resilient than one based on repeaters/extenders. Moreover, most mesh Wi-Fi products use multiple radio bands and channels, one of which can be dedicated to inter-node (as opposed to node-client) communications. This connection serves as a backhaul free from the overhead of client traffic and is part of why mesh performance via satellites generally outperforms that from extenders.

Each mesh satellite acts much like a router, and the entire mesh network, including its setup, can be controlled from an Android or iOS app.

As noted earlier, mesh Wi-Fi is still relatively new to the consumer market, and we’re at the stage where networking startups are battling established industry titans. IGN would eventually like to accumulate enough mesh reviews under its belt to make apples-to-apples comparisons, but unfortunately, we have to start somewhere, and today that somewhere is Netgear’s flagship mesh kit, the Orbi WiFi System AC3000 (RBK50) (See it on Amazon), which leaves us in the awkward position of comparing apples to oranges (the oranges being stand-alone routers). Still, there’s a lot to observe and learn from the Orbi, so let’s dig in.

Netgear Orbi – Design and Features

Performance-oriented routers tend to be blinky boxes edged with antennas that, like so many wedding presents, impress on first sight but are destined to be hidden in a closet. Neatgear’s Orbi aims for mainstream presentability with a neat, white, tower-like design. An LED ring crowns the router, with specific ring colors indicating the device’s state. For example, a white glow indicates starting up, blue shows a good connection, amber means your connection is weak, and magenta conveys that you have no connection. If everything runs smoothly for long enough, the LED shuts off.

satellite ring

The back of the Orbi router (RBR50) back hosts a sync button, three Ethernet ports, a WAN/Internet (modem) port, and a USB 2.0 port. The Orbi satellite (RBS50) is very similar in appearance to the main tower, minus the WAN/Internet port. (It offers four LAN ports instead.) Internally, each unit contains six Tx/Rx antennas. The Orbi also contains a sizable aluminum heatsink that’s able to keep it cool without requiring a noisy fan.

Orbio backs

As a tri-band AC3000 router, the Orbi supports both 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, with a combined speed of 3000 Mbps. It runs a Quad-Core 710 MHz processor, which is decent for its price range. As an “wave 2” router it also supports MU-MIMO for supplying equitable bandwidth streams to multiple clients, and it also employs beamforming, so it can dynamically adapt how it sends packets to clients in the face of multiple signals in complex environments.

One thing that should be pointed out is how Orbi units use its six antennas. Each router/satellite has a 2×2 400Mbps 2.4 GHz channel and a 2×2 866Mbps 5GHz channel. That’s only two antennas at work. So, in a way, the Orbi serves as a 2×2 802.11ac product, which is why we’re going to see throughput speeds substantially lower than what we’ve found with 3×3 and higher routers. However! The four remaining antennas serve as a 4×4 1733Mbps 5GHz backhaul channel. When you add the backhaul bandwidth with the 2×2 client links, you arrive at the publicized 3Gbps aggregate bandwidth. In short: Expect lower peak speeds under optimal conditions but higher speeds in tough areas away from the router.

Netgear Orbi – Admin Software

As mentioned, Orbi’s setup requires Netgear’s Android or iOS mobile app. I have mixed feelings about this, in part because I had to run the Orbi kit in a home that uses a Frontier/Verizon Fios connection. Fios uses a combination router/modem that conflicts with the Orbi router out of the box and left me with this:

Needless to say, the Orbi did not work at that address. Instead, I had to Google for a bit until I found a page that described the problem and how to remedy it by putting the Orbi into bridge/AP mode:

router vs AP mode

During installation, expect the software to prompt you about installing Disney’s Circle application.

Normally, I don’t get excited about third-party add-ons, and I blew right past this notification, but parents might be advised to give it a look. You can find details about the various Circle subscription levels on Netgear’s site. Note that the Basic plan, which includes filtering and history logging, is free. Five bucks a month gives you profile-based scheduling options, and ten bucks a month (Circle Go) lets you monitor children’s devices, including their 4G phones.

However, like several other Orbi integrated features, Circle functionality is disabled if you run Orbi in AP node. Given that there are over six million Fios subscribers in the U.S., the need to run as an AP and lose this amount of functionality without providing so much as a warning slip in the box did not make this one of our better setup experiences. Once everything was up and running, though, I was welcomed by the home screen:

The main screen displays the status of your Internet (online or offline) and how many satellites you have connected. Below this are several buttons that take you to various settings menus. The “Wi-Fi Settings” module houses very few actual settings. You can change the SSID, change the Network Key, share Wi-Fi with a QR code, change the security method, and so forth. The Guest Wi-Fi Settings screen looks identical to the Wi-Fi Settings screen, only with an option to enable guest Wi-Fi at the top of the screen.

The Device List screen is a bit more in-depth than the settings screen. You are shown the currently connected devices, whether their connection is wired or wireless, and you have the choice to block them, just in case the kids are staying up too late on their tablets. You can sort the devices by IP address, device name, and connection type. You also have the option to filter by wired, 5 GHz, and 2.4 GHz connections.

The Internet Speed (a skinned version of Ookla’s SPEEDTEST) and Network Map areas offer few surprises. If you’re a traditionalist, you can still access all of this data and more (including guest network setup, scheduling, DDNS, and Wi-Fi advanced settings) via the router’s integrated control screens.

That said, parts of Orbi’s software remain a bit half-baked. For instance, consider the QoS page.

QOS speed test

As many enthusiasts know, quality of service (QoS) settings exist to help prioritize certain types of network traffic, such as video or VoIP, to help preserve stream quality. The only thing offered on this page is Ookla’s SpeedTest, which I would argue has little or nothing to do with QoS settings. Overall, Netgear has designed the Orbi so that you can easily control it via mobile app instead of the conventional “admin through a browser” approach, and the reason is pretty obvious. Because the Orbi is designed to be user-friendly, and, to the average consumer, an easy mobile app is going to be preferable to the mysterious black box of browser-based management.

Overall, I found the Orbi app to be easier to use than a traditional router setup in some ways, but as a control/management interface, the app felt more limiting. I give it points for convenience, but $300+ for a mesh system should also make the underlying power and versatility (if the product has such qualities) easy to access. I would have liked to have advanced features in a separate section of the mobile app, but I understand why Netgear wanted to avoid confusing people.

Netgear Orbi – Performance

To find out how the Orbi stacks up to other routers, I tested with Netperf. In my home environment, Netperf created a client/server setup with my wired desktop hosting the TCP traffic server and a laptop connecting to it from two locations: 15 feet from the router with line-of-sight, and at the downstairs corner of my house farthest from both the router and satellite. To get my “final” numbers I let Netperf cycle through five test repetitions and used the mean of these values. When done, I reverted back to my prior Frontier/Actiontec FIOS router for  comparison.

Just for fun I tested signal strength once I got everything set up, and at the distant location with Orbi I measured a 76 percent connection strength using my Samsung phone’s Wi-Fi signal analyzer. In comparison, my Fios router could only manage a 56 percent signal strength at the furthest reaches of my abode. Practically everywhere else in my house the signal strength measured 100% with Orbi, while my Fios router could only manage 70 percent, so the Orbi had a pretty clear advantage going into the testing phase.

Practically everywhere else in my house the signal strength measured 100% with Orbi…

Also, one last caveat before I get to the numbers. In past reviews we have tested the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands separately by just connecting to each one and running the tests, but there’s no way to setup separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks on the Orbi. In order to make it easy for anyone to use, Netgear made it so that the system dynamically selects whichever band is best at the time for the client’s conditions. Again, this is done by design for maximum ease of use, and not even Netgear’s engineers could supply me with a work-around. It should be noted however that a lot of dual-band routers give you the options, so you can choose to run separate SSIDs for each band, or join them into a single SSID (usually called Smart Connect). It would be great if Netgear at least offered this as an “advanced option” or something.

Ok, so how did the Orbi do compared to my existing Fios router? The short answer is I saw a pretty significant improvement in coverage all over my house, with the Orbi seemingly delivering on its promise of “whole house” coverage and eliminating the dead zones that have been annoying my family since the service was installed.

I started testing at 15 feet, with a straight-line test. This is the equivalent of a quarter-mile run for a car, as it should give me the “best case scenario.” After completing the number of requisite tests, the Netgear Orbi averaged 453.6Mb/s, or 56MB/s. Now, compared to the scores IGN achieved in its normal testing environment with high-end routers at 5GHz, the Orbi only achieved half of its competitors’ 5GHz throughput. As an example, the Netgear R7800 was able to average 901Mb/s at the same distance, though admittedly it was in a different environment, with a different ISP, different editor and so forth, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, it is two AC routers being compared at the same distance, so it does appear that Orbi does appear to be slower than a high-end AC router in straight-line speed.

Though that seems less than awesome, next I ran the same test with the router I was using previously, which is a Actiontec MI424WR Fios router (2.4 GHz 802.11n only, two external antennas). The Actiontec limped across the finish line with an average of just 60.8Mbps in the line-of-sight test, so the Orbi was 7.5 times faster.

Next I moved on to the “worst case scenario” tests, where I took readings from my laptop while downstairs and as far away from the router as I could get. Overall I measured an average Netperf transmission rate of 95.0Mb/s with the Orbi, and 26.5Mbps from Actiontec Fios router.  So, again the Orbi was much faster, especially in a far-away location.

My final thoughts are as follows; After living with the Orbi for a month, I have found it to be very stable and reliable. Every client device connects seamlessly, and nobody in my family has reported bandwidth issues from anywhere in our home. In short, the Orbi has performed quite well. It may not be the fastest option for close-range file transfers, but its coverage is excellent, and its performance is dependable.

Purchasing Guide

The Netgear Orbi WiFi AC3000 has an MSRP of $369.99, but is usually a bit less expensive on Amazon:

The Verdict

While the Netgear Orbi can’t keep pace with modern, gaming-oriented 802.11ac routers, this mesh Wi-Fi kit offers reliable speed, excellent coverage, and eliminated dead zones in my testing. Its pricing runs a bit on the high side. but if you’re not an avid gamer and just want to cover the Wi-Fi needs of a large house, the Orbi is an easy-to-use option.

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