The average household now has around seven devices connected to its Wi-Fi network daily, and a lot of us have many more than that – families with teenagers, in particular, put a lot of strain on their wireless networks. Getting fast, reliable internet to all corners of the house has never been more of a priority, and that's not a trend that shows any sign of reversing.
If you've got a big house to deal with, that means you probably need to put some money down on a really powerful router. And even then, you're at the mercy of the location of your physical connection point. You might find you've got certain nooks and crannies, or even whole floors, where the signal just can't penetrate.
Range extenders are an option, but not a very good one. They set up their own separate network to rebroadcast the signal, but they're typically very slow, and your devices awkwardly switch in between them at inconvenient times. I've tried one, and found it so frustrating I ended up binning it.
Thankfully, now there's a new range of home Wi-Fi systems now coming onto the market specifically designed to expand your network coverage without losing speed or having to switch between networks. Notably, the Google Wifi, Eero, and Netgear Orbi systems, the latter of which I've been using for the past couple of weeks.
The Orbi arrives as a pair of units, the base router and a satellite unit. Both are physically quite big, although they're tastefully shaped to blend in with your decor, particularly if everything else in your house is an adult toy or an Apple device.
Setup is extremely quick and intuitive, either through a browser on your PC or a very simple Orbi app on your smartphone. You hook the main router up to your internet connection with an Ethernet cable, switch it on, and choose your network name and password. Then, you plug in your satellite unit in a different room and give it about two minutes to sync up with the router – it comes pre-paired, so there's nothing to it.
These are multi-band MU-MIMO routers, putting out both short range, high-speed, 866 Gbps 5 GHz signals and longer-range, slow-speed, 400 Mbps 2.4 GHz ones. Many routers will set up separate networks for these different bands, but the Orbi system uses a single network, and makes the choice between bands for you in the background, giving you the best speed it can at a given time.
But the ace up the Orbi's sleeve is a third, hidden, high bandwidth 1,733 Mbps channel that it uses exclusively to communicate between the router and the satellite. That's a huge data pipe back to the main connection, and it means the satellite can handle several devices sucking down big bandwidth on the 5 GHz band simultaneously.
In practice, placing the satellite carefully can blanket an impressively large area with very, very fast internet. The Orbi system we tested was the RBK50, the biggest of the lot, and between two laptops, a PC, a tablet, two phones and a PlayStation 4, I ran out of devices to stream HD video on throughout the house without seeing any buffering.
It's unfair to compare the Orbi to the kind of standard router that comes included with a home internet connection, but we'll do it anyway, to give you an idea of the performance gain. For reference, my house block pictured here is around 15 m (49 ft) wide by 50 m (164 ft) long.
In each case, x marks the location of the router or satellite. Combine those bottom two images, and you'll get some idea of just how saturated this largish block now is with high-speed 5 GHz Wi-Fi. Coverage on the 2.4 GHz band would extend significantly further.
The Orbi system is designed to automatically update itself as security patches and firmware upgrades become available. So you never have to think about it, just like the vast majority of people have never bothered thinking about it with their current router. Mind you, Netgear's product End of Life (EOL) policy appears to suggest that the minute they stop manufacturing a product, they stop making patches for it. Something to consider if security is a very high priority for you.
The Netgear Orbi RBK50 is the Rolls Royce of router systems. At this time, there's nothing on the market that cranks out such a strong signal or puts such an emphasis on speed at the satellite end. The Google Wifi system, for example, drops speeds at the "satellite" end by up to 50 percent.
Naturally, there's a price to pay for that kind of performance. The Orbi RBK50 comes in at a fairly steep AU$749 in Australia and RRP in the US is around US$620, but they're showing up a lot cheaper if you keep your eye out.
If your home is smaller, there's an AU$599 (US$350) RBK40 system with slightly less reach, and an AU$499 (US$299) RBK30 system in which the satellite is small enough to plug into a wall socket.
If you're like most people, you'll take five minutes to set it up, be blown away by the performance for maybe a week, and then you'll settle in to the new speed of normal and forget about it completely until a visitor asks what that weird vase thing is. And that's exactly as it should be.
Product page: Netgear Orbi
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