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Netgear Orbi review: set up, security and performance

Mesh what?

Netgear’s Orbi is one of several new Wi-Fi systems competing in the emerging residential “mesh wireless” market. Mesh systems intend to solve wireless coverage issues in large and multi-level homes. Until recently, the only option to ensure good wireless coverage in such homes was to utilize Wi-Fi extenders/repeaters. However, these were often challenging to set up without some knowledge of networking, and many forced users to switch between wireless networks when moving throughout the house. Mesh systems, on the other hand, promise simple setup, easy future expansion, and the convenience of a single wireless network covering the entire house.

Mesh systems consist of a router unit and one or more “satellites.” Where Orbi differentiates itself from the competition is with Netgear’s patented Tri-Band technology. Most mesh systems use two radio bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and utilize both for client traffic as well as communication between the router and the satellites. Orbi likewise has 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for client traffic, but then adds a third, dedicated 5GHz band for communication between the router and the satellites. This theoretically should free up network bandwidth for things like video streaming.

Mesh technology does not come cheap. A two-unit Orbi AC-3000 system currently retails for around $350 US. However, a mesh wireless setup is not for everyone. If you live in a single-level home or studio apartment, a system like Orbi would likely be an overkill, and you could get great results with a quality wireless router for half the price. However, if you live in a larger, multi-level home with many wireless devices, a system like Orbi may be worth the cost.

For this review, we are evaluating a two-unit Orbi AC3000 system that comes with one router and one satellite, promising coverage up to 5,000 square feet.

Placement and Setup

We chose to set up the router on the main level of the house and the satellite on the second level. If your modem is in the basement you can set up the router there, and, if necessary, add a second satellite to provide additional coverage.

When it comes to setup, an Orbi network is just as simple to set up as with a regular wireless router. The router unit has a yellow Ethernet port for connecting to the cable modem and three Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices.  (The satellite unit has four Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices)

Once the Orbi router is connected to the modem and finishes booting up, the satellite unit can be powered on.  The rest of the setup is handled through the Orbi web portal app, where the users get to name the network, set up security and select other options.

In our experience, it took less than 10 minutes from the time we powered on the router to the time our devices were connected to the internet over the new network.

Security

Admininstrator account

Orbi ships with default administrator logon “admin” and password “password.” These are clearly not secure and not intended for permanent use. However, users may inadvertently miss the cue to change the password during setup.  When first logging into the Orbi portal, the setup program advises the user to change the password, but this directive is somewhat “buried” in other small text. Unless the user is paying attention, it is all too easy to simply enter the default login provided in the instructions, rather than a new unique password.

Your wireless router is the front door to your entire home network. Because of this, we recommend setting a strong new password for the administrator account, making it more difficult for someone to “crack” your home network. Pick a password with numbers, letters (both capital and small-case) and special characters. Using a password manager makes it easy to create (and remember) very strong passwords.

Wi-Fi security

Orbi provides WPA2-PSK [AES] and WPA-PSK [TKIP] + WPA2-PSK [AES].  Our suggestion is to go with WPA2, as it is the most current and most secure protocol (although even it is not immune to vulnerabilities). WPA is older and less secure than WPA2, so choose WPA-PSK [TKIP] + WPA2-PSK [AES] combo only if you absolutely have to support older devices not compatible with WPA2.

Noticeably absent from the list of options is the WEP security protocol, which is now over 20 years old and is effectively considered to be no longer secure.

Guest Wi-Fi

Guest Wi-Fi is a feature included with most modern wireless routers. There are many benefits to setting up an isolated Guest wireless network (read more here).  The biggest reason is to keep your visitors and less-secure smart devices off the network to which you connect your computers, phones, and other devices that carry sensitive information.

Orbi makes setting up a guest network simple, providing options to not broadcast the SSID (network name), and to include or not include wireless security (you guessed it — we recommend enabling WPA2 security on the Guest wireless as well).

 

Performance

We saw a clear improvement in wireless signal in areas away from the router.  We’ll provide a more detailed coverage test soon, but  here is the initial speed comparison on CenturyLink Fiber internet service:

Wired connection to the router:

Wireless connection at furthest distance from the router:

Wired connection to the satellite (curiously, wired connection to the satellite was slower than wireless)

Conclusion

Netgear Orbi is simple to set up, provides good security features, and can improve wireless network quality in larger, multi-level homes.

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