Review – NETGEAR Orbi Wi-Fi System & NETGEAR 16-Port SOHO Gigabit Ethernet Switch (Part two of a two-part story)

In the beginning of Wi-Fi there was 802.11B, 802.11G, 802.11N, and finally our current 802.11 AC, Wi-Fi standards. Each iteration featured increases in speed, security, coverage, and number of users. So, you get the picture, if technology is always moving, Wi-Fi is a bit more like quicksand, with something newer and faster always in sight, and ready to replace what you are doing. Apple really planted the idea of easy reliable Wi-Fi with their introduction of what they termed “Airport” into their product line in 1999.

Hence backwards compatibility is key to Wi-Fi use, and luckily most devices will work with most routers. 802.11N was championed to provide better coverage so that the user experienced less dead spots. But as any user knows, that was more promise then reality. The marketplace responded with Wi-Fi Extenders, a class of routers whose sole purpose was to hitch a ride on an existing Wi-Fi signal and rebroadcast it for increased coverage. For the most part this worked pretty well, but they were add on units to standalone routers. I’ve spent hours tweaking an extender to get it working properly, but once running they can really make a difference. 

The NETGEAR Orbi Wi-Fi System has quickly become one of the most popular choices for a robust Wi-Fi environment for homes. As previously mentioned in Part-one of this article, most people integrate Wi-Fi into their lives starting with the ISP provided Modem/Router, generally with Wi-Fi built in.

We have Verizon FIOS, so we were supplied with a Verizon Fios Gateway AC1750 Wi-Fi (G1100) Modem, which has proven to be stable and consistent, and supports the 802.11 b/g/n/ac standards, so a solid model. However its Wi-Fi coverage hasn’t really worked that well in our home, which was solidly built in 1957, with a steel I-Beam supporting the center of the house from a full basement that impacts coverage. It’s two stories, with brick and mortar construction, so while not large it’s a challenge for a single Wi-Fi router to manage, lots of dense materials for a radio signal to punch through.

Enter the NETGEAR Orbi Wi-Fi System, which promises to provide a fast robust throughout the house from the basement to the attic. The Orbi system comes in several varieties, with the major differences due to the number of satellite’s you decide you need. Our test system included one base station and two satellites. We placed the base station on our main floor of the house, next to the Verizon router, and the other satellites were placed in our 2nd story bedroom, and basement, where we test bench gear among other duties. As a 1950’s era home, it’s not McMansion construction so the solidness of the construction is an impediment to Wi-Fi penetration and coverage.

Using what Netgear has termed “Orbi Home Tri-band Wi-Fi” it resembles a MESH network but isn’t really a MESH network. Netgear states that, “Orbi by NETGEAR has a unique, industry-first Tri-band architecture with a dedicated 5GHz wireless connection between the router and satellite, which provides both reliable Wi-Fi coverage and maximum internet speed throughout your home with a single network name.” It supports Wi-Fi security with automated updates, WPS-protected setup, 64/128 bit WEP; WPA/WPA-2 PSK, WPA/WPA-2 Enterprise, so pretty much in line with any new router. One feature we liked was the inclusion of 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports on the Orbi router and on the satellites, and in our tests they were speedy, averaging around 130mbps with internet traffic.

We found a full set of bars no matter where we were, and venturing outside, into our garage, we still maintained full coverage. In fact, pulling up to the house in our vehicle, I could logon to the network with almost full coverage. This was impressive, and not only did we maintain full bars, the data throughput was consistent. These are not small hidden units, and at the size of a medium-sized vase, not invisible, but with their soft white design with gently rounded swells and surfaces, they were easily among the more elegant tech components. When you compare them to other high-performance routers, like the D-Link AC3150, which looks like a Cylon warship. Cool, geeky, but elegant isn’t a word I’d use to describe it. The Orbi components are the opposite; cool, understated, and quiet in appearance. The top of the Orbi units glow with different colors to indicate their operational status, so it’s easy at a glance to know if they are working as expected. Hint, Blue is the routers happy place color.

We received our models not longer after their launch, and as you might expect we had a share of setup hiccups. Following the Quick Start guide, I installed the Netgear App on my Samsung S7 phone, and started the installation. All went well until I tried to connect to the Internet, and the Orbi wasn’t having any of that. So, I discovered that to really control the Orbi, logging on with your computer was an easier, more powerful choice. A long call to Tech Support helped me to understand the system, as well as get the unit up and running. We created a primary user account, and a guest account as well. Both worked fine with a variety of devices including iOS devices, Android devices, Mac and Windows computers, and Audio-Visual devices. The app offers some features you might never use, and wasn’t all that reliable, at least in the beginning. Netgear told me to expect a stream of improvements, and firmware updates, and true to their word, over the first several weeks; there were at least 3 firmware updates, and several updates to the app. Each update improved the performance, and usability.

The specs for the Orbi are as follows:

Orbi AC3000 Router and AC3000 Satellite (1733+866+400Mbps)

• Simultaneous Tri-band Wi-Fi

- Radio 1: IEEE® 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz– 256QAM support

- Radio 2: IEEE® 802.11a/n/ac 5GHz– 256QAM support

- Radio 3: IEEE® 802.11a/n/ac 5GHz– 256QAM support

• Memory: 4GB flash and 512MB RAM

• Six (6) high-performance antennas with high-power amplifiers

• Implicit/Explicit Beamforming for 2.4 & 5GHz bands (1733+866+400Mbps)

• MU-MIMO capable for simultaneous data streaming on multiple devices

• Four (4) 10/100/1000Mbps Gigabit Ethernet ports - 1 WAN & 3 LAN for Router - 4 LAN for Satellite

• One (1) USB 2.0 port each • Security - WPA/WPA2-PSK support - Guest Wi-Fi

Physical Specifications

• Dimensions: 6.7 x 3.1 x 8.89 in (170.3 x 78.9 x 225.8 mm) each

• Weight: 1.96lb (890.5g) each

Having lived with the Orbi for several months, with lots of devices logging onto the network, courtesy our own gear, review units, and our two son’s friends each with their own phones, the initial startup problems have vanished. The Orbi has maintained a solid signal and has become one of those devices you can forget about. We used the Gigabit Ethernet ports for some devices, and with most extender type systems, ports are usually USB, and while advertised as USB Hard Drive capable, we have found the speed to be lackluster, so that plugging in a USB printer was fine, but expecting decent performance for data streaming, well they just didn’t perform. The Orbi by comparison rocks this, and those ports aren’t just for looks. The performance was fast enough that we think that some folks will simply use them instead of a switch. Installing the satellites was painless, we just plugged them in, and in a few minutes all was well.

There are several competing units to the Orbi, from Google, Eero, Luma, and Plume to name a few, and compared to them the Orbi has the largest form factor, and while not inexpensive, it’s not as costly as say the Eero. Netgear claims a 100% speed increase over Google’s system. With the app’s improvement, and Netgear’s enviable reputation as an industry standard at all levels of networking from Enterprise to SOHO to the home, this is a robust system. Drawing on years of experience, the Orbi also represents a renewed energy for the company, who in the last few years have introduced consumer friendly, well designed hardware, that maintains Netgear's reputation for solid IT staff friendly gear, into cutting-edge beautifully designed products with impressive industrial design, build-quality, and performance. The Orbi Wi-Fi System comes highly recommended for anyone who needs a solidly performing Wi-Fi system with extended range, free from dropouts with impressive speed.

Harris Fogel, with editorial input from Ken Kramar. Posted 11/12/2017

For more information on the NETGEAR ORBI Wi-Fi System visit: