The router is probably the most underutilised IT product in the average home, if you think about it. Sure, it works 24/7, but how do most people use it? They plug it in and leave it. Every now and then one of the green lights might turn orange, so the router gets switched off, and then switched back on again.
Yet the average router can be configured in deep and subtle ways. Band assignment, channel restrictions, various weird packet management settings no one really understands, and the mystic “QoS” that haunts the dreams of so many network administrators.
Netgear’s Orbi “home Wi-Fi system” offers almost none of that. It is designed to be simple. Plug in both units, let them sync, attach the Router to a WAN of some kind (be it an existing modem-router, cable modem, or NBN gubbins) and you’re away. The familiar browser-accessed configuration page eschews baffling drop-down menus, and just has a handful of options to change SSID and password.
Orbi also eschews the flat-box-with-prongs design language of most routers, and instead takes the form of two flattened vase-like cylinders. Both require power, and both are equipped with four Ethernet ports. The Router unit sacrifices one LAN port to its WAN connection, while the Satellite unit can provide a connection to four Ethernet devices (and more via switches, of course).
There’s also a USB port, which for now is inactive. Netgear has mentioned possible external hard drive support in a future firmware update. There are physical power buttons too – helpful if you have the kind of ADSL connection that requires semi-regular reboots for no apparent reason.
That the Orbi comes in two parts is important. Like a few other networking products coming to market in 2017, Orbi is a “mesh” Wi-Fi system. The Satellite unit picks up and boosts the Wi-Fi signal of the main Router.
You can already do this with dozens of extenders, of course, but these usually require basically hijacking half the bandwidth of the signal to extend the network. In other words, a 300Mbps network becomes a 150Mbps network once the extender is connected. Annoying!
Orbi uses a 1.7Gbps 5GHz quad-stream band to talk exclusively to itself, Router to a max of three Satellite units (standalone extras available soon, price TBC but probably $250+). This leaves the standard 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands free for your increasing collection of Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
In a world that now includes the 4K-capable Google Chromecast Ultra, and various models of NAS capable of serving it over 802.11ac, Orbi’s full-bandwidth extension capability is actually a big deal.
One aspect of the system that may annoy more experienced Wi-Fi-tinkerers is the way it will dynamically assign devices to the 2.4GHz band or 5GHz based on what Orbi decides is best.
What the Orbi DOES best though is fill all but the most excessively large or labyrinthine of homes with a stable Wi-Fi signal. In our case, a study that could only get three bars even with an extender, gained a full signal. Bedrooms that were hit-and-miss became Netflix havens. And Spotify could now be relied upon to get the ENTIRE back lawn mowed.
This is the point that needs to be emphasised with mesh systems like Orbi. The good ones just work. Plug them in, switch them on, watch coloured lights flash, check the colours in the getting started guide, and react accordingly. For instance, if the Orbi Satellite flashes magenta, move it a bit closer to the Router.
Some users report issues with re-syncing should either unit lose power. So we tested a number of scenarios, from hitting the power button to pulling the plug, to shutting off the juice at the fuse box. The trick is patience: let the system do its thing and both units will eventually show a green light. And by eventually we mean, within two minutes.
The Orbi might look simple on the outside, and might not have the most flexible configuration options. But it does have powerful amplified antennas and considerable under-the-hood smarts. And this means the bandwidth numbers that networking brands keep boasting about – anything from 866Mbps and up, really – are actually achievable with this system.
A final note: while new notebook and smartphone users are set, anyone with an older PC might want to upgrade their Wi-Fi adapter. What’s the point of buying a sophisticated beamforming super-router, if you can only squirt data at 54Mbps?
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