Netgear Orbi Review: The Mesh Router to Beat


The Netgear Orbi mesh-router system is out of this world, able to fill a large home with high-speed Wi-Fi. It's a snap to set up and has more range and power than almost any other router. The Orbi's dedicated channel for router-to-extension data traffic helps the system squeeze the maximum throughput for your family's online wants and needs.

Starting at $400 for a two-pack kit (or $250 for the base router alone), this is among the most expensive home Wi-Fi kits. But if you have a lot of ground to cover, the premium is well worth it. That's why we're adding the Orbi to our list of Best Wi-Fi Routers.

Costs and What's Covered

The two-pack kit starts at $400 and is rated to cover 5,000 square feet. An extra satellite costs $250 and adds another 2,000 square feet of coverage; the router by itself also goes for $250 and covers 2,000 square feet. (As of this writing, Costco has an exclusive $450 deal on an Orbi three-pack.)

Credit: NetgearCredit: Netgear

None of the other mesh-router systems on the market cost quite as much. Google Wifi costs $299 for three units, while Eero and Luma three packs each cost $400. The Linksys Velop system, possibly the closest match to the Orbi, runs $500 for a three-pack, but you can get two units for $350. However, the Orbi claims greater per-unit area coverage than any of these.

Two other mesh-router systems, the $300 two-piece Amped Wireless Ally Plus and the $350 three-piece Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD, claim coverage areas of a whopping 15,000 square feet and 20,000 square feet, respectively. We're working to confirm those numbers in our lab tests.

Design

Instead of tiny easy-to-stash devices, which you get with the Luma and Google Wifi, the oval-cross-sectioned Netgear Orbi host and extensions are big towers, measuring 8.9 inches x 6.7 inches x 3.1 inches. You can put one in a bookshelf and use it as a bookend, but each Orbi unit is too huge to easily hide.

Credit: NetgearCredit: Netgear

Like Google Wifi, the Orbi units have color-coded LEDs. When an Orbi device glows white around the oval on top, it's starting up. When it's blue, everything is OK. But if it glows amber, your internet connection is weak; if it's magenta, your connection is gone.

MORE: Best Wi-Fi Routers

The Orbi transmits Wi-Fi data on three radio-frequency bands. The primary 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz radios provide a theoretical peak throughput of 1.2Gbps of data flow to user devices.

There's a twist, though: Netgear adds a second 5-GHz, 1.7Gbps radio that's exclusively dedicated to the backhaul, the data being transmitted from the router Orbi unit to the satellite Orbis and back again. Because of this side channel, the main links between the Orbi units and your devices stay strong and fast.

To support this configuration, each Orbi device has six high-performance amplified antennas around its perimeter. There's also a Bluetooth radio and antenna, but they're dormant for now.

Although they look the same, the Orbi's router unit and satellite units are not interchangeable. You can't randomly decide which unit should be the router and which should be the repeater.

The router can handle up to three satellites, but each satellite communicates directly with the host router in a hub-and-spoke arrangement, rather than in a true mesh topology that would let data pass from one satellite to another. (A Netgear representative told us the company was working on a firmware update that would enable satellite-to-satellite communication.)

Credit: NetgearCredit: Netgear

Each Orbi's backside has a power input, an on/off button and four gigabit Ethernet ports. On the router, one port is yellow and connects to your broadband modem. You can use the other LAN ports to connect to printers, network-attached storage drives and stationary PCs.

There are also buttons to reset a device and to synchronize the router with extra satellites. (Orbi units sold in packs come out of the box synchronized.) Each Orbi sports a USB 2.0 port as well, but, like the Bluetooth radios, they're awaiting activation by a future software update.

Performance

Like Google Wifi, the Orbi is a 2x2 router, and can handle two simultaneous streams of data to properly configured devices, per frequency band. (The dedicated backhaul channel uses 4x4 radios.) But the Orbi adds the latest MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input and multiple output) Wi-Fi technology for sending focused data streams to several devices at the same time.

With the Orbi router 30 feet and two walls away, the Orbi extension projected 429.1 Mbps to a laptop one floor above it — more than double Google Wifi's performance.

Each Orbi device has Qualcomm's IPQ4019 Wi-Fi control chip and radio as well as a 710-MHz quad-core ARM-based processor with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of solid-state storage space. A QCA9984 chip controls the backhaul data channel.

MORE: Best Wi-Fi Extenders

Make no mistake about it: All of this makes the Orbi a powerful beast. Using IxChariot software, Purch Labs' real-world testing showed that a single Orbi router could deliver a combined average throughput of 552.1 megabits per second (Mbps) at 5 feet. It was 19 percent faster at this distance than Google Wifi, 34 percent faster than the Linksys Velop and 50 percent faster than the Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD.

Router Performance Compared (in Mbps)*

 AmpliFi HDEeroGoogle WifiLinksys VelopNetgear Orbi
5 feet368.17573.65464.36412.34552.11
15 feet377.73
+2.6%

450.96
-21.4%

440.90
-5.1%
527.10
+30%
510.90
-7.5%
50 feet350.83
-4.7%
449.87
-21.6%
389.74
-16%
459.35
+11%
447.13
-19%
100 feet293.82
-20%
250.27
-56.4%
227.22
-51%
330.06
-20%
371.42
-33%
150 feet230.86
-37%
229.85
-59.9%
33.79
-93%
288.42
-30%
229.07
-58%

* Line-of-sight testing with a single router point. Percentages indicate change from 5-foot measurement on same device.

The Orbi's performance dropped off with distance, but not as rapidly as the Google Wifi's. The throughput averaged 510.9 Mbps at 15 feet, 447.1 Mbps at 50 feet and 371.4 Mbps at 100 feet.

To put this in perspective, the Orbi's 100-foot throughput was about the same as the Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD's 15-foot speed. The Linksys Velop averaged more power at long range, but its test results were less consistent than the Orbi's. (These distance tests were conducted along a line of sight.)

Netgear Orbi Distance Falloff*

Credit: Purch LabsCredit: Purch Labs

* Decrease in throughput (vertical axis, in Mbps) per distance (horizontal axis, in feet). The Orbi has a smooth falloff, and its results over five test runs (thinner lines) were very consistent.

At 150 feet, the Orbi router still delivered 229.1 Mbps of throughput, nearly seven times Google Wifi's 33.8 Mbps. (To be fair, the AmpliFi HD had very similar throughput at 150 feet, and the Velop had 26 percent more.) With such results, the Orbi's claim of 2,000 square feet of coverage per unit might be an underestimation.

In the Purch Labs material-penetration tests, the Orbi router's transmissions were powerful enough to punch through a metal-frame wall, a ceiling and a soundboarded wall with little drop-off. (The soundboard figure actually improved throughput by about 8 percent; we're not including regular drywall because it has little effect.)

Google Wifi and the AmpliFi HD had losses of even smaller percentages when penetrating walls and ceilings, but the Orbi's better starting point put it ahead overall.

Data Penetration Compared (in Mbps)*

 AmpliFi HDEeroGoogle WifiLinksys VelopNetgear Orbi
Metal343.45
-9.1%
448.58
-0.5%
396.39
-10%
559.95
+6.2%
455.70
-11%
Soundboard369.51
-2.2%
457.17
+1.4%
402.55
-8.7%
381.66
-28%
549.99
+7.7%
Ceiling390.21
+3.3%
471.79
+4.6%
425.2
-3.6%
67.80
-87%
424.12
-17%

*Throughput from a single router point passing through ceiling and walls of different compositions. Percentages indicate change from 15-foot line-of-sight measurement.

In a 100-foot, single-line test, placing the Orbi extension halfway between the router and the Purch Labs laptop boosted throughput by 28 percent. By contrast, the Velop's throughput stayed about the same, while the AmpliFi HD's and Google Wifi's throughputs dropped about 25 percent each. Again, in absolute terms, the Orbi's overall speed advantage blew away the competition.

Single-Line Extension Hop Test (in Mbps)*

 AmpliFi HDEeroGoogle WifiLinksys VelopNetgear Orbi
Single Hop
(100 feet)
219.93
-25%
128.99
-48.5%
175.57
-23%
331.62
+0.5%
475.87
+28%
Double Hop
(150 feet)
n/a103.52
-55.0%
128.90
+282%
223.22
-23%
n/a

*Extensions placed every 50 feet between router and endpoint. Percentages indicate change from line-of-sight tests at same distances without extensions.

The Orbi also did well in complicated, 3D tests, with results very similar to the Linksys Velop's. With the router 30 feet and two walls away, the Orbi extension projected 429.1 Mbps to a laptop one floor above it — more than double Google Wifi's average, and two and a half times more than with the Orbi router alone. Moving the laptop further away decreased the throughput, but the Orbi extension helped greatly.

3D Extension Hop Tests (in Mbps)*

 AmpliFi HDEeroGoogle WifiLinksys VelopNetgear Orbi
30 feet thru 2 walls (A to B)393.32445.33251.09371.03333.64
33 feet thru wall, ceiling (A to C)192.47136.4636.75121.81119.99
48 feet thru 2 walls, ceiling (A to D)99.7210.624.4240.2947.35
One hop, 45 feet thru ceiling, 2 walls (A to B to C)202.08
+5.0%
117.63
-13.8%
189.92
+417%
427.00
+250
429.13
+258%
One hop, 68 feet thru ceiling, 4 walls (A to B to D)158.01
+58%
99.81
+839.8%
73.23
+1,557%
332.79
+726%
245.66
+419%
Two hops, 80 feet thru ceiling, 4 walls (A to B to C to D)n/a30.71
+189.2%
56.63
+1,181%
145.41
+261%
n/a

*First three tests involve direct router-to-client communication, with client laptop moving to new rooms and floors. Second three tests add extensions to same configurations. Percentages indicate change in data throughput between two sets.

In a three-story home with lots of thick walls, the Orbi stayed connected with client devices as far as 125 feet from the router. That's the best score we've seen among recent routers, and was 20 feet and 35 feet farther than the Google Wifi and AmpliFi HD routers managed, respectively.

Signal Strength, Router Only

Orbi router (star) placed in corner of Purch Labs floor. Red is strongest, blue is weakest. Credit: Purch LabsOrbi router (star) placed in corner of Purch Labs floor. Red is strongest, blue is weakest. Credit: Purch Labs

The Orbi network easily covered a 3,500-square foot home; with the router placed in the basement and the extension on the main floor, the signal easily reached to the top floor. The Speedtest.net broadband test pegged the Orbi as delivering between 50 Mbps and 95 Mbps of download speed from a 100-Mbps broadband connection.

Signal Strength, Router and Extension

Orbi extension (circle) added. Red is strongest, blue weakest. Credit: Purch LabsOrbi extension (circle) added. Red is strongest, blue weakest. Credit: Purch Labs

With its MU-MIMO technology, the Orbi served several devices simultaneously. It stood up well to our informal saturation test, in which we played videos on Surface Pro 3 and iPad Pro tablets as a Samsung Tab Pro S moved data on and off a network-attached storage system and a MacBook Air played an online radio station. The video and audio came through on all devices without a skip, stutter or drop-out.

Setup, Warranty and Support

Netgear has taken the lead in the race to create a home Wi-Fi network system that all but sets itself up. The devices come pre-paired, and the installation doesn't require knowledge of IP addresses, Ethernet or encryption. You don't even need to install a mobile app.

Setup can be done using a PC or Mac connected via Ethernet to the Orbi router, or via a smartphone or tablet connected via Wi-Fi. Just type orbilogin.com into a computer web browser, or download the Orbi app for iOS or Android. You can also use the Netgear Genie app, which is available for Windows and Mac as well as Android and iOS.

Netgear has taken the lead in the race to create a home Wi-Fi network system that all but sets itself up.

After Orbi's software does a network check, the router will be set up. Power up the Orbi satellite in the place where you want it to stay, and let the router scan for it. You may have to move the satellite closer to the router.

Credit: Brian Nadel/Tom's GuideCredit: Brian Nadel/Tom's Guide

Then change the network name, access the password and administrative passwords (you'll absolutely want to do this for security's sake), and restart the devices. It took us 10 minutes to create a fully operating network that filled a suburban house with Wi-Fi.

MORE: What Is a Mesh Router, and Do You Need One?

Netgear includes a one-year warranty for the Orbi system, but only three months of tech support. The Orbi support section on Netgear's website includes not only startup tips and videos, but also  a downloadable manual that explains everything you can do with the Orbi. Netgear has technicians standing by 24 hours a day to help with a phone call, online chat or email. You can also connect with the help desk through the mobile app.

Customization

All the Orbi mobile-app screens use portrait mode, and the app's functions are limited to the basics, without even a network-speed monitor. (Netgear told us that it will soon add more capabilities to the Orbi app.) For more fine-grained control and diagnostic information, you'll have to use the desktop browser local interface or the Netgear Genie software, which applies to many Netgear routers but has many more features than the embryonic Orbi app.

The Orbi app Dashboard shows the network name and password, but you can obscure the password. The Device Info screen shows the router's firmware version, but to update the firmware, you'll need to go to the bottom of the main Dashboard page.

By contrast, the browser interface is more detailed, with a network speed and usage monitor. It also lets you set up a guest network so that visitors can access the internet from their laptops or smartphones without using your main network's access password. (Some security experts recommend putting smart-home devices on the guest network as well.)

Credit: Brian Nadel/Tom's GuideCredit: Brian Nadel/Tom's Guide

You can also do more-technical things, such as adjust the router's maximum transmission unit, perform port forwarding and configure IPV6 addressing, but you can't adjust the Orbi's transmission strength or channel width. Nor can you assign static IP addresses, although the Orbi supports DHCP IP address reservations.

Smart-Home Integration

Since the Orbi first shipped early in 2017, a firmware update has added Amazon Alexa compatibility. To use Alexa, you'll need to create a Netgear account and install the Netgear Genie mobile app on a smartphone or tablet. For now, Alexa commands are limited to turning the guest network on and off, rebooting the router, and reading out the Wi-Fi settings. (Alexa does not yet work with Netgear's line of Arlo security cameras.)

Security and Parental Controls

The Orbi ships with a semi-random network name and a unique alphanumeric administrative passcode that should be safe enough to use during the short setup routine. Still, you should change both the name and code to something more personal as soon as possible.

While the Orbi apps don't let you quickly pause the internet connection for dinner or family time, you can do so with the browser interface or the Genie app. (Netgear engineers are working on adding this ability to the Orbi apps.)

Credit: Brian Nadel/Tom's GuideCredit: Brian Nadel/Tom's GuideTo make the most of Orbi's parental controls, you should use the Netgear Genie app for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and create an OpenDNS account. That way, you can choose to block specific websites or let Netgear take care of the details by adjusting the overall filtering level between none and high.

The Orbi uses the WPA2 security standard to encrypt Wi-Fi transmissions and protect your data and network, and supports the somewhat weaker WPA standard. (The old WEP standard is not supported, so you won't be able to connect some PCs that were made before 2005.)

MORE: Your Router's Security Stinks. Here's How to Fix It

We aren't thrilled that the Orbi supports the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) configuration protocol, which is anything but protected. But WPS does let people uncomfortable with mobile apps and passwords set up and use an Orbi system just by pressing a few buttons.

Like most mesh-router systems, the Orbi automatically updates its own firmware. (Netgear told us that the updates are encrypted and verified.) Few standard routers do this, which leaves them vulnerable to attackers, so it's good to see this trend.

Bottom Line

Netgear's Orbi blasts off with not only the best-performing Wi-Fi router-extenders kit, but also the easiest setup. The Orbi's dedicated mobile apps are rudimentary, but both the browser-based interface and Netgear's generic Genie app have more options. It's expensive, and its security could use some improvement, but for now, the Orbi is the mesh router to beat.

Specs

Wi-Fi Spec: 802.11ac/Tri Band Router-Extender Kit
Number of Antennas/Removable: 6/No
Ports: Four 1Gbps LAN, USB 2.0, power

Processor: Quad-core ARM 710MHz
Memory/Storage: 512MB/4GB

WiFi Chip: Qualcomm IPQ4019 and QCA9984 for backhaul control
Peak 802.11ac Performance: 552.1Mbps

Range: At least 150 feet, router only
Size: 8.9- x 6.7- x 3.1-inches

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2 comments
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  • pete_y_testing
    just fyi , its not actually a mesh device at all
    0
  • Jan Henk
    Yeah Pete is right, why do you call it Mesh? That is just wrong and misleading
    0