If you're considering a Netgear Orbi mesh Wi-Fi router system, but have been put off by the $400 price tag, you're in luck.
Netgear has just announced two less expensive Orbi sets that should be almost as powerful as their pricier sibling.
Each of the two new Orbi sets uses a smaller router unit than in the original model, but keeps the "tri-band" system that sets aside a high-speed radio band exclusively for communications among the Orbi units themselves.
The low-end RBK30 set, $300, pairs the smaller router with a satellite dongle that plugs directly into a wall socket, and covers up to 3,500 square feet. The mid-range RBK40 system, $350, has a satellite that matches the smaller router's size and shape and covers 4,000 square feet.
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The original Orbi set, the RBK50, which I guess we'll now consider the high end, costs $400 and covers 5,000 square feet. (You can get a three-unit original Orbi set at Costco for $450.)
The small router has four Ethernet ports (one for the modem connection), and the matching satellite on the mid-range system has four Ethernet ports as well. However, neither has a USB port, which means you won't be able to plug in a local printer or storage drive the way you should soon be able to with the high-end Orbi system (as soon as Netgear turns that USB port on).
We found the original Orbi set to be breathtakingly fast and very easy to set up. It's rated for AC3000 speed, meaning that it has a theoretical maximum throughput of 3,000 megabits per second (Mbps) on both the 2.4-GHz and 5-Ghz bands, although 1,733 Mbps of that is set aside for the "backhaul" communication between Orbi units.
The two new Orbi sets ratchet that speed down a bit, halving the backhaul to 866 Mbps while leaving the front-end communications unchanged. As a result, each is rated for AC2200 throughout, although as with all such ratings, real-life throughput will be much less.
That dedicated backhaul is important because most mesh-router systems use the same channels to communicate with each other as they do with the endpoint devices — laptops, smartphones, tablets, game consoles and smart TVs. Many systems dynamically switch between bands according to demand, but the result is often that the strength of the signal decreases with every "hop" away from the main router.
The Orbi and the rival Linksys Velop get around this by dividing the 5-GHz space into two bands, and setting one of them aside for backhaul only. The Orbi's backhaul channel is fixed, whereas the Velop switches between the two 5-GHz bands according to demand; in our lab tests, the two systems' speed results were similar.
All of the Orbi units are compatible with each other, and you can expand an existing Orbi system by adding satellite units. The plug-in dongle satellite adds an extra 1,500 square feet of coverage and costs $150 by itself; the small-tower satellite covers 2,000 square feet and costs $200 alone; and the large satellite that came with the original Orbi unit goes for $250 by itself and covers 2,500 square feet. Like the original Orbi system, and many other mesh-router systems, the Orbis can interact with Amazon Alexa smart-home voice-control systems.
Both the two new sets, as well as all the stand-alone satellites, are available for sale online beginning today (March 28).