Mesh wifi is probably something that everyone has already used before. If you’ve ever connected to wifi on a school campus, convention center, or a mall, then you’ve probably already encountered a mesh network without even realizing it.
Let’s try to explain it with a simple diagram. A traditional wireless network, like one you’d find in your home, is arranged in a hub and spoke model. Your modem connects to your router, and then every other device connects directly with your router. It’s a very simple and effective way at connecting a lot of devices all together.
But as you can see, there’s one very obvious bottleneck: the router. Most routers can only handle one data stream at a time, which creates latency if a lot of devices are connected. Newer routers with fancy things like 4×4 antenna arrays and MU-MIMO help combat this, with multiple data streams at once so the router can communicate between multiple devices at once.
Now that all sounds fine and dandy, and in fact it works great. But that’s only if you’re using a single router. If you’re in a large house, or a small office building, and the wifi signal from your router isn’t strong enough, then that’s where the headaches begin. As we mentioned earlier, devices like wireless repeaters and range boosters sound great on paper but more often than not they cause more problems than they solve.
There are two main problems with these devices: signal repeater devices usually create an additional network SSID based on the original network. This means that if you’re roaming outside your router’s range and into your repeater’s range, then your devices probably won’t be smart enough to automatically switch to the new stronger network. It’ll probably linger on a weak 1 bar connection and not really do anything unless you manually disconnect and reconnect.
Some routers and repeaters let you set the same SSID, but because they’re still technically two separate networks, you’ll still run into the same problem unless you manually disconnect and reconnect.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, most repeaters operate on a single channel. And because of how a repeater works, it uses the same wireless network to receive the signal from your router, process it, then repeat it to your devices, effectively cutting your overall bandwidth in half. Some higher end dual band and tri band routers will function as repeaters with multiple channels, but now you’ll be paying more than $200 just to run into the first problem we mentioned.
This is where mesh networking comes in. This is the Netgear Orbi, a tri-band home wifi system. The main difference between the Orbi and a standard wireless network is that the entire Orbi system acts as a single wireless network. It comes with a base station and an expansion satellite, with support for up to three satellites total. This means that you’ll get the full speed and functionality of your router no matter where you are or whichever satellite you’re connected to.
And because it’s 2017 and we live in the future, the Orbi satellites are simply plug and play. To set up a home wifi network, all you need to do is connect the base station to your modem, run a step by step wizard on a connected computer or smartphone, and you’re good to go. You don’t have to manually assign IP addresses, or rename network SSID’s. To add a satellite, all you need to do is plug in power.
That solves the first problem of repeaters. To solve the second problem, the Netgear Orbi assigns a 5Ghz network that’s dedicated to just communication between the base station and satellites. That means that you won’t lose any bandwidth to your devices, but it also means that the tri-band Orbi functions more like a dual band router with a single 2.4Ghz and a single 5Ghz channel available for use. And because of the way the hybrid mesh networks work, you get the full benefits of MU-MIMO and beamforming on all your satellites as well. Features that a range extender could only dream of.
The Orbi RBK50 that we have here is rated for up to 5000sqft, while there are two other models that are smaller and offer a smaller range. We couldn’t properly test it, since our warehouse is only about 2000sqft, so we referred to Tom’s Guide for their very in depth test using IxChariot software.
Their conclusion? The Netgear Orbi was consistently faster than other home mesh wifi systems, while trading places with the Linksys Velop at the top of the leaderboard based on the various scenarios they tested. And from our numbers in the studio doing internet speed tests and file transfers, the Orbi is just as fast as other high end routers.
So where does that leave us and our conclusion? Well, the Netgear Orbi is one of the best ways we’ve seen to easily add wifi to a large home. The units are very easy to set up, they offer a large range, great speeds, and it’s very easy to expand in the future. The Orbi also supports all of the features that we’ve come to expect on a high end router such as QoS prioritiztion, VPN integration, port forwarding, static IP assignment, guest networks, and even amazon alexa integration.
The Orbi kits range from $299 to $499 depending on the range you need and how many satellites you want, which puts it on the higher side of router prices. However, we think it’s a fair price considering how easy it is to set up and not having to deal with the frustration of traditional range extenders.
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