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Netgear Orbi vs Nighthawk: comparing mesh WiFi and single router system

During our recent review of Netgear Orbi mesh Wi-Fi system, we decided to test it in a real-life setting against a high-performance Netgear Nighthawk single router system.

Mesh vs traditional Wi-Fi

Mesh systems are designed to solve wireless coverage issues in large and multi-level homes. While the traditional WiFi systems rely on a single router to provide signal coverage, mesh WiFi systems supplement the router with one or more “satellite” units to extend range and signal strength.

Mesh systems like Orbi have several advantages. First, they provide a simple path for future expansion — as you add more devices or decide to improve signal in new areas, you can simply add more satellite units. Mesh systems are also easier to set up and more functional than the range extenders/repeaters. Netgear’s Orbi has an additional advantage over other mesh systems with its Tri-Band technology. While 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 dedicates these two bands exclusively to client traffic and adds a third 5GHz band reserved for communication between the router and the satellites.

Although Mesh WiFi is a new and exciting consumer technology, traditional WiFi routers have also dramatically improved over the last few years. Single WiFi routers like Netgear Nighthawk sport advanced security features, capability to handle numerous connections and simultaneous streams, and technologies like Beamforming that provide stronger, faster and more reliable wireless connections.

Models tested

We tested an Orbi AC3000 system that came with one router and one satellite unit against the Nighthawk AC1900 router. There are certainly newer and faster single wireless routers available today, like Nighthawk X6 AC3200 with a price tag approaching $300, but we felt that it would be useful to compare Orbi against a 2-3 year old router most people would currently have in their homes.

Placement

Both units were tested in a 3-level home, with approximately 3,000 sq ft area.  The Nighthawk was placed on the main (middle) level, about 8 feet East of the center. After the Nighthawk data was collected, we replaced it with the Orbi router, and placed the Orbi satellite in a 2nd-level room in the Southwest (SW) corner of the home. There were no units placed in the basement (B) of the home.

Test results

We tested WiFi signal strength and speeds using VREM Software’s WiFi Analyzer app. WiFi radio signal strength is measured as a negative number in dBm (decibel milliwatts), with values closer to 0 indicating stronger signal. Generally, anyhting above -50 dBm is considered excellent WiFi signal, and anything below -70 dBm is considered poor.  WiFi speed is measured in Mbps (Megabits per second).

The Nighthawk broadcast over two different bands — 2.4GHz and 5GHz, giving the user a choice to pick the one with the best signal strength for the location. Orbi also broadcast over these bands, but auto-selected the best band for the user based on location.

    Nighthawk Orbi
Level & Location Distance from AP router (ft)

2.4 GHz

Signal (dBm) / Speed (Mbps)

5 GHz

Signal (dBm) / Speed (Mbps)

Auto-select band

Signal (dBm) / Speed (Mbps) @ band

Main – Center 11 -52/130 -54/117 -52/468 @ 5GHz
Main – NW 39 -70/39 -66/234 -53/526 @ 5GHz
Main – NE 27 -59/117 -55/351 -59/351 @ 5GHz
Main – SW 29 -65/78 -67/117 -57/351 @ 5GHz
Main – SE 18 -38/78 -42/234 -39/585 @ 5GHz
2nd – Center 14 -53/117 -47/175 -56/585 @ 5GHz
2nd – NW 43 -73/39 -73/58 -47/526 @ 5GHz
2nd – NE 30 -61/78 -54/87 -63/234 @ 5GHz
2nd – SW 33 -57/58 -78/40 -36/866 @ 5GHz
2nd – SE 20 -53/26 -47/351 -52/585 @ 5GHz
B – Center 15 -64/104 -66/117 -60/78 @ 5GHz
B – NW 40 -73/78 -79/58 -59/234 @ 5GHz
B – NE 29 -58/104 -65/175 -68/87 @ 2.4GHz
B – SW 91 -58/104 -60/27 -61/117 @ 2.4GHz
B – SE 21 -53/104 -54/27 -45/156 @ 2.4GHz

Conclusion

Orbi’s system shows a clear advantage in the areas covered by the router and the satellite unit. However, there were clearly a couple of areas in basement where Orbi was at a disadvantage. This could be possibly be remedied by trying a different placement or adding a satellite unit in the basement.

Single-router systems are still a viable and often more economical choice for many consumers. We tested a Nighthawk model that was several years old. Newer models like like Nighthawk X6 AC3200 can likely deliver performance similar to Orbi, but also cost almost as much. If you need the additional coverage, spending just a bit more can get you an Orbi system that can be expanded down the road, as your needs and wireless devices change. You can read our more detailed review of Orbi here.

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