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July 12, 2017

Netgear Orbi RBK40 review

by John_A

Research Center:
Netgear Orbi RBK40

The networking market is taking a detour from the traditional one-unit-provides-it-all setup. Mobile devices are increasing in number within the home and office environment, meaning these spaces need to provide coverage no matter where they reside locally. Routers are no longer feasible as the sole wireless solution, and extenders do nothing but repeat weakened signals. Our Netgear Orbi review reveals one way hardware providers are dealing with that reality: networking kits meant to salve your aching Wi-Fi.

The Orbi system doesn’t use the traditional router/repeater setup, but instead consists of identical units with one serving as the hub/router and the second as a remote satellite. Both units include a third wireless connection that’s solely used for Orbi-to-Orbi communication. In theory, this is better than recent mesh networking tech because the Orbi and client devices aren’t sharing the same 5GHz connection. But how does it fare during our testing?

A different way for whole-home coverage

Each Orbi unit resembles a desktop-sized nuclear power plant, only not as circular. They include four gigabit Ethernet ports on the back although for the router unit one port is assigned to the modem. The back panel also plays host to a sync button for reconfiguring the network, a paper clip-sized reset button, a power connector, and a power button. A ring of LEDs resides on the “roof” of each unit to provide a visual status of the network.

On the inside, each Orbi unit includes 512MB of system memory, 4GB of storage dedicated to the operating system (firmware), and four high-performance antennas capable of coverage up to 2,000 square feet. Each unit measures 6.57 × 3.27 × 8.03 inches and weighs 1.65 pounds, making them smaller and lighter than the original RBS50 kit.

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

When we previously took the larger RBS50 kit for a test drive, we mistakenly placed it in the mesh-networking group along with Luma Surround, Eero, and Google WiFi. Technically, that’s inaccurate given that Orbi doesn’t create a blanket of coverage in the same way. Netgear’s kit uses a dedicated “highway” for Orbi-to-Orbi communication whereas mesh-based kits talk to each other on the same congested highway as all the connected client devices.

Even more, Orbi doesn’t require a mobile device with Bluetooth to install the kit. We’ve seen several instances where Bluetooth can cause problems and even prevent users from installing mesh-based kits. Adding to that, these mesh kits don’t provide an alternate setup method, driving customers to technical support. Netgear’s Orbi system sticks to the reliable Ethernet-based setup OR lets you use a wireless device’s web browser, whichever is easier.

Leave your Bluetooth in the blue cheese, please

Setting up the Netgear Orbi network was super simple. First, we attached the unit labeled “router” to the modem, and then connected a smartphone to the unit wirelessly by using the password plastered on the router’s disposable label. Once the smartphone connected, the web browser automatically loaded to start the setup process.

Customers should definitely consider Netgear’s new Orbi RBK40 kit if they’re looking for solid, whole-home connectivity.

Note: if the browser doesn’t automatically launch, users can open the app and type “orbilogin.net” to continue setup. Also, Netgear does offer the “Orbi” app for installing the kit, adding Orbi satellites, and getting very limited info. We didn’t use this app given the setup process automatically pulled up the internet browser.

In the first stage, the router connected and verified its connection to the internet. We then powered up the satellite unit (located in the living room) and waited for its LED ring to turn blue, indicating a good Orbi-to-Orbi connection (magenta means the connection sucks – go move your satellite). The web browser on the phone then indicated that the satellite was good to go, and pushed on in the setup process for creating login credentials, changing the network name, changing the password, and updating the firmware. Did we forget to mention that no Bluetooth was involved in the setup process?

With everything up and running, we could log into the Orbi web interface from any local wireless device. This interface is visually clean and split into two tabs, Basic and Advanced. The Basic home screen is the default panel, providing five tiles to quickly glance at the internet connection, the wireless name and password, the number of attached devices, the status of parental controls, and the status of the guest network.

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

In addition to the Home page, the Basic tab serves up additional details and settings for those five tiles along with an option to add another Orbi satellite. The big deal here is that owners can fully customize their wireless network, which is not something you’ll find with the hockey puck-sized mesh networking kits. Orbi is the full router experience.

This isn’t another plug-and-play solution

On the Advanced side, users will see a more robust library of settings for tweaking the network. Here you can establish port forwarding, port triggering, allow or block access to the network, block specific keywords and websites, change wireless channels, and even change what kind of network traffic gets priority over other streams (such as online games preferred over web browsing), and more.

Orbi sticks to the reliable Ethernet-based setup OR a wireless device’s web browser, whichever is easier on the user.

One Advanced feature we’d like to note is the ability to remotely manage the network. Orbi doesn’t solely rely on a cloud-based interface and settings; from the router’s web interface you can enable PC-based access from another external location. It’s found on the Advanced tab under the Advanced Setup section. You can choose to lock remote access to one specific device or add a range of addresses.

Orbi owners can manage the network using the Genie app, too (iPhone or Android). During the setup process, you create a Netgear account to register the product, which can also be used for managing the network outside the Orbi network, and thus doesn’t require you to manually turn remote management on within the router’s control panel.

But don’t get too excited: the app isn’t quite as robust as the web interface. With Genie, local and remote administrators can change the Wi-Fi channels, create a guest network, modify the parental controls, and even reboot the router. The app also includes a network map to see all connected client devices, “turbo” transfer files from a connected device, and even turn a wireless device into a media server.

A third connection your device will never directly use

The big selling point with Orbi is that it has a third 5GHz connection dedicated to the communication between Orbi devices. Consider it a “private” 5GHz backroad specifically used for all Orbi units to send data to each other and the ISP’s modem. Meanwhile, all wireless client devices connect to the Orbi units through the “general” 5GHz broadcast, and are not allowed to use that private backroad.

Kevin Parrish/Digital Trends

Thus, according to Netgear, each Orbi RBK40 unit includes two “private” Orbi-to-Orbi streams of up to 433Mbps each on the 5GHz band (867Mbps combined). They also provide two 5GHz streams at 433Mbps each for client use, and two 2.4GHz streams at 200Mbps each (400Mbps combined) for client use. In theory, that means if a Wireless N device is only transmitting up to 400Mbps, its data will get on the express train to the internet once it leaves the Orbi unit.

In reality, users will need an interference-free environment to get even close to those theoretical speeds. Getting actual numbers to test throughput speeds on Android is somewhat difficult, but we can find out just how speedy that backend is using Jperf and two Windows 10 devices: one wired to the router (server) and one wired to the satellite (client). In out testing, both had wired gigabit Ethernet connections. But before we do, we need a disclaimer.

Don’t buy into those advertised big numbers

Before we get into the numbers, there needs to be some clarification about theoretical speeds, device reporting speeds, and real-world speeds. Theoretical is what you see advertised: 876Mbps max and 400Mbps max. This is a possible limit but not necessarily something you will ever experience. Meanwhile, device operating systems will report a speed based on the hardware and software conditions at the time of the connection (and refreshes thereafter).

The actual speed of moving data through the air is rarely close to those numbers, however. Actual real throughput speeds on Wireless N resides between 40Mbps and 50Mbps, while Wireless AC generally hits between 70Mbps to somewhere just over 100Mbps. A Windows 10 device sitting next to the signal source (router, hub) may even see speeds just past 200Mbps in perfect, sterile conditions.

With that out of the way, this is what we saw using the default out-of-the-box settings in the router. Note that the router resided in one room (office) and the satellite resided in the next room over (the living room), so at most there were two walls blocking the dedicated 5GHz stream:

0.0 – 1.0 sec
199Mbps
1.0 – 2.0 sec
179Mbps
2.0 – 3.0 sec
125Mbps
3.0 – 4.0 sec
187Mbps
4.0- 5.0 sec
187Mbps
5.0 – 6.0 sec
170Mbps
6.0 – 7.0 sec
197Mbps
7.0 – 8.0 sec
205Mbps
8.0 – 9.0 sec
200Mbps
9.0 -10.0 sec
200Mbps

After that, we disconnected the client PC from the wired port on the satellite unit and accessed the network through its Wireless AC component (2×2) that’s capable of 867Mbps. Keep in mind that in this test, we were seated next to the satellite unit for the best possible connection. We also didn’t have any additional wireless devices connected to the Orbi network:

0.0 – 1.0 sec
98.4Mbps
1.0 – 2.0 sec
101Mbps
2.0 – 3.0 sec
98.9Mbps
3.0 – 4.0 sec
104Mbps
4.0- 5.0 sec
96.4Mbps
5.0 – 6.0 sec
101Mbps
6.0 – 7.0 sec
98.1Mbps
7.0 – 8.0 sec
101Mbps
8.0 – 9.0 sec
94.1Mbps
9.0 -10.0 sec
90.8Mbps

These numbers may stem from how data actually traveled to and from the server. The client PC connected wirelessly to the satellite, which in turn connected wirelessly to the router at up to 205Mbps. The server was connected to the router via a gigabit Ethernet connection, which sent data back to the client via one wired and two wireless connections. Given the path, the numbers shown above aren’t too shabby at all.

For clarification, this is the path: Client PC > Orbi satellite > Orbi Router > Server PC < Orbi Router < Orbi Satellite < Client PC

Next, we moved the client PC next to the router itself to see if the numbers would improve. Again, we’re still using a Wireless AC connection:

0.0 – 1.0 sec
162Mbps
1.0 – 2.0 sec
173Mbps
2.0 – 3.0 sec
161Mbps
3.0 – 4.0 sec
167Mbps
4.0- 5.0 sec
165Mbps
5.0 – 6.0 sec
180Mbps
6.0 – 7.0 sec
184Mbps
7.0 – 8.0 sec
176Mbps
8.0 – 9.0 sec
154Mbps
9.0 -10.0 sec
173Mbps

With that, we decided to grab the client PC and sit down in a position between the router and satellite unit. We didn’t move the satellite unit from the living room area given that the typical scenario will see the router and satellite sitting in separate locations in a house. So, for this test, two walls resided between the router and satellite units. We suspect the client PC connected to the satellite instead of the router, but there was no way to confirm the actual Orbi-to-client connection.

0.0 – 1.0 sec
94.4Mbps
1.0 – 2.0 sec
90.3Mbps
2.0 – 3.0 sec
92.1Mbps
3.0 – 4.0 sec
99.0Mbps
4.0- 5.0 sec
99.7Mbps
5.0 – 6.0 sec
104Mbps
6.0 – 7.0 sec
101Mbps
7.0 – 8.0 sec
99.4Mbps
8.0 – 9.0 sec
97.3Mbps
9.0 -10.0 sec
99.2Mbps

Ultimately, users can walk away from this information knowing that while the dedicated Orbi-to-Orbi communication isn’t 867Mbps, all data passed to and from the router does speed along at a reasonable rate. Even more, because no additional wireless devices have access to this private backroad, there should be no additional obstacles preventing dataflow outside the typical physical obstructions and general interference.

Still, big numbers look pretty

Next, we decided to see what Android had to tell us. Typically we use the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge smartphone, which has a Wireless AC component (2×2) capable of 867Mbps. We also use Netgear’s WiFi Analytics app for signal strength numbers, and the potential throughput speeds based on signal strength and the hardware communication between phone and router/satellite.

Just like our Windows 10 experiment, we sat directly between the Orbi router and satellite units, which is in the living room. Then we moved to sit next to the router unit in the office, the bedroom adjacent to the office, and the kitchen residing between the office and living room. After all of that, we sat down next to the satellite unit in the living room to see how it performs up close.

Living Room
Office
Bedroom
Kitchen
Satellite
Possible Speed:
526Mbps
866Mbps
234Mbps
351Mbps
866Mbps
Strength:
-60 dBm
-33 dBm
-60 dBm
-59 dBm
-33 dBm

Based on our Android numbers, the router and satellite units appear to provide the same broadcast strength and throughout speeds, but our Windows 10 test showed a definite distinction between the two on the throughput front. That could be the result of anything, really, such as interference sneaking in through the nearby window, a mounted base station for the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, and so on. Then again, the Android test doesn’t send packs of data between server and client, but seemingly measures the environment based on signal strength.

Warranty

Netgear provides a limited hardware warranty for products that ship in their original packaging. It protects against “defects in material and workmanship when the products are used normally for their intended purposes.” There’s no indication of how long this warranty lasts, as the product page links to an FAQ that links to a generic warranty disclaimer that says the warranty duration is based on the product.

Our Take

While some solutions rely on a single router and smaller stand-alone extenders to blanket the whole home with coverage, Orbi takes a different approach that should spark a new trend in the wireless networking market. And it provides a great connection when you’re within reasonable range of the two Orbi units. Seated next to the router, data moves at up to 184Mbps, which is great. Speeds are on the higher end of true Wireless AC systems, meaning the Orbi really performs as a multi-unit wireless networking kit.

Is there a better alternative?

For a higher price, there may be several single-router products that outperform the Orbi kit. One possible candidate is Netgear’s own $450 Nighthawk X10, which packs six gigabit Ethernet ports and a 5GHz band that moves along at up to 1,733Mbps (4×4). But those products are more expensive, and Orbi is more flexible.

How long will it last?

Netgear is taking a unique multi-unit approach to wireless networking by blanketing the home with coverage without the use of wireless repeaters. The problem Orbi faces is the 866Mbps cap, and emergence of faster Wireless AD technology. Newer wireless devices with more than two internal antennas and/or support for Wireless AD connectivity will see the Orbi system as somewhat obsolete. Until that time comes, the Orbi kit should be a solid performer for the next few years.

Should you buy it?

Customers should definitely consider the Orbi RBK40 kit if they’re looking for solid, whole-home connectivity. While we liked the RBK50 kit released late last year, that two-unit kit was rather pricey at the time costing a hefty $400 (it’s $350 now). The newer RBK40 kit is slightly smaller in size and in price, retailing for $300 for the two units (was $350).

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