Today's Best Tech Deals
Picked by Macworld's Editors
Top Deals On Great Products
Picked by Techconnect's Editors
Netgear Orbi Home WiFi System (RBK50)
Note: This review discusses the Orbi's performance in a Mac environment. There's a very similar version of this story that discusses this router's performance in a Windows environment on our sister site TechHive.com.
Ignore Netgear’s advertising: Its Orbi Wi-Fi router is not a mesh network system. Orbi satellites don’t communicate with each other, they send and receive data to and from the Orbi router only. In networking parlance, that is a hub-and-spoke system, not a mesh. But mesh networking is what has everyone so excited this year, so that’s how Netgear is billing the Orbi. The company is doing itself a disservice: The Orbi might be the best interior-decorator-approved router on the market.
About that industrial design: The Orbi is not nearly as small or unobtrusive as the Eero, Google Wi-Fi, or Linksys Velop. Those first two products strike a very low profile, and the Velop looks like a bud vase. A hollowed-out Orbi is big enough hold a bouquet of flowers, measuring 8.89 inches tall and 6.67 inches wide. It’s not ugly, if you’re into modern aesthetics, but it’s not going to disappear into the background as easily as those other routers do. And that’s okay, because Netgear is the only router company that hasn’t taken away the ethernet switch and USB port in order to make its product smaller and more stylish.
The competition puts just two ethernet ports on their routers and satellites, which means you’ll need to buy an ethernet switch if you want to hardwire more than one device to them. And many new-school routers don’t have USB ports at all (the Securifi Almond 3 is an exception on both counts, it has three ethernet ports and a USB port). But before you get too excited about the presence of a USB port on the Orbi, know that it is currently dormant. You can’t use it to connect a USB hard drive or a USB printer that you want to share over your network.
But it’s there—as is an equally dormant Bluetooth radio—so Netgear must have plans for it. My guess: Netgear will either release a firmware update that enables it for storage, or they’ll come out with a ZigBee or Z-Wave radio dongle and make a play in the Internet of Things/smart-home space. But if USB support is on your must-have list, don’t buy an Orbi until you know for sure what it will support. And if you need network storage, buy a NAS box—you’ll be much happier. We recently reviewed seven and found some genuine bargains.
The Netgear Orbi is a tri-band router with six internal antennas, making the Linksys Velop its closest competitor. But the Orbi’s three networks are very different from the Velop: The Orbi operates one network on the 2.4GHz band (with a 2x2 radio—two spatial streams up and two spatial streams down—offering speeds up to 400Mbps), one network on the 5GHz band (with a 2x2 radio offering maximum speed of 866Mbps), and a second 5GHz network with a 4x4 radio offering maximum speed of 1733Mbps. You’ll never see real-world speeds that high—as distance, protocol overhead, and other factors eat away at those theoretical maximums—but you can use them for the sake of comparison.
The Velop’s two 5GHz networks, in contrast, each offer the same max theoretical speed: 866Mbps. And a Velop network will automatically steer clients to one or the other network, choosing on the fly which 5GHz network will be used for data backhaul (i.e., sending packets back to the node that’s configured as a router). The Orbi dedicates its higher-bandwidth 4x4 radio to backhaul, even if you operate it without a satellite. The backhaul network uses the higher 5GHz channels (149 and up), leaving the lower channels (36 and up) to the router.
Netgear says an Orbi router without a satellite will blanket a 2000-square-foot home with Wi-Fi, and that each satellite will add another 2000-square feet of coverage. My home is about 2800 square feet, so the company sent me a two-pack for this review. You can also purchase the Orbi in a three-pack (one router and two satellites), and Netgear will soon offer the satellite on its own for pairing with an existing Orbi router.
Since the Orbi isn’t a mesh network router, each satellite connects to the router and not to another satellite. Netgear tells me they’ll eventually enable a daisy-chain mode that will provide satellite-to-satellite communication, but not until it’s possible for the network to automatically steer clients between the router and the satellite(s) as clients move about the house.
Netgear offers a setup app, or you can install and configure the Orbi the old-fashioned way, via a web browser. I much prefer the latter because I can use a larger screen (my eyesight has never been great, and it gets worse the older I get). Orbi is not currently compatible with Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, but Netgear tells me they’re just waiting for that certification to come through.
At close range—with the client in the same room as the router, separated by nine feet of air—the Orbi’s TCP throughput of 592.4Mbps absolutely crushed the five mesh routers I compared it to. The Luma Surround WiFi came closest, but it was nearly 100Mbps slower. The Google Wifi came in third with throughput of 490.3Mbps and the Linksys Velop delivered 475.3Mbps.
When I moved the client to my great room, 33 feet from the router with an insulated wall, some plywood cabinets, and a number of kitchen appliances in the signal path, the Orbi dropped to third place behind the Securifi Almond 3 and the Linksys Velop.
Adding an Orbi satellite to the equation slightly reduced throughput at close range, dropping it to second place behind the Google Wifi. But throughput significantly increased at the other three test locations, as you’d expect after placing the satellite so much closer to where the client MacBook Pro was located.
Still, the Linksys Velop with two nodes was considerably faster when the client was in the great room and in the home theater (in the chart below, look at the green and red bars respectively). The Orbi regained the advantage in my long-distance test, with the client 65 feet from the router with three insulated interior walls and two fireplaces in the signal path, finishing in first place (see the blue bars in the chart below).
And if you examine the chart below, you’ll see that the Orbi with one satellite was considerably faster at close range than all of the mesh network routers operating a router and two nodes. The Linksys Velop was faster in the great room (green bars) and the home theater (red bars), but the Orbi was significantly faster than everything else at long range.
The conventional routers I used for baselines—the Linksys EA9500 and the Apple Airport Time Capsule—were much faster at close range, but the Time Capsule couldn’t reach the client in the sun room at all.
My final performance chart shows how each router performs under pressure. For this test, I run wireless TCP-throughput benchmarks on three pairs of computers (four Windows machines and two MacOS computers) placed 33 feet from the router while simultaneously streaming 4K video from a Roku Ultra streaming box that’s wirelessly connected to the network.
The Linksys Velop won that competition with the MacBook Pro, delivering much faster TCP throughput. The MacBook Pro, it should be noted, is one of the few laptops on the market to come from the factory with a 3x3 802.11ac adapter on board. The fact that the Velop was operating with three nodes, compared to the Orbi having a single satellite, should not have factored into the performance equation because the client computers can associate with only one node at a time. I presume they would have connected to the closest node, which was placed in the same spot where I put the Orbi satellite. The performance delta among the Windows clients wasn’t nearly as significant.
The bottom line
Don’t get hung up on the fact that the Netgear Orbi operates on a hub-and-spoke topology versus mesh; the bottom line is that this is an outstanding Wi-Fi router. By including a three-port switch on the router and a four-port switch on the satellite, it strikes a better balance between unobtrusive industrial design and conventional router features than any of the mesh routers I’ve tested so far.
If you live in a small apartment, on the other hand, the incredibly cheap Google Wifi might be the better choice—if you can find one. It’s priced at just $129, but seems to be out of stock everywhere. A single Linksys Velop ($200 street) or a single Eero ($180 street) would be my next recommendations. Or if you don’t mind the look, you’ll find plenty of conventional routers with external antennas that deliver terrific performance.
Netgear Orbi Home WiFi System (RBK50)
Whether deployed solo or with a satellite, the Netgear Orbi delivers exceptional home-networking performance.
- Strong Wi-Fi performance
- Three-port gigabit ethernet switch on the router; four-port switch on the satellite
- Dedicated 4x4 radio for backhaul
- Not nearly as fast as the competition when operating solo
- Physically larger and more visually obtrusive than the competition
- USB port is currently dormant