For the past three years or so, my home WiFi network has been powered by a pair of Apple AirPort Express units, one master and one satellite connected in bridge mode. It seemed like the best solution at the time, but in a larger, multi-level home, it’s just not provided the right coverage. Frustrated, this past summer I decided I’d start shopping around for mesh WiFi solutions. The “solutions” on the market today seem to leave a lot to be desired. You can pick between:
- Feature-rich solutions that aren’t actually even mesh.
- Mesh solutions that over-simplify and dumb-down things to an unsatisfactory level.
What’s a technology geek to do? Compromise.
After reading reviews in all the usual places, including PC World and Wirecutter, among others, I came to the conclusion that the Neatgear Orbi was the right solution for me. Feature-rich, for a geek like me, albeit not with true mesh technology, I decided to give it a go, buying a three-unit version (one master, two satellites) from Costco.com. Now that I’ve been living with it for a couple of months, I think I’m in a better position than the reviewers to judge the Orbi solution in real-world use.
The bottom line? It’s just not that great. The reviews I just linked to above will give you more detail on various elements, but here’s where I have bones to pick:
- The software is buggy. This is a subjective opinion, but I think it’s demonstrably true when you use an Orbi system for any length of time. Slowness (see below) and connections to devices just seem to stop working for periods, are two examples. On the latter point, it doesn’t matter if it’s a MacBook or an iPad or a Nintendo Switch, the WiFi connection is perfect one minute, or even perfect all day on any given device, and then suddenly stops working for several minutes before mysteriously starting again on its own — or after you reboot the device. This would seem to suggest some sort of issue with DHCP leases, but that’s not even clear. Regardless, when you have “full bars” signal-wise, and everything’s perfect, then suddenly crawls in a hole, and it doesn’t matter what device you’re using when it happens? That’s the Orbi — not the device. This never happened prior to the “upgrade” to the Orbi, either. Like never, ever. Now? It’s a daily occurrence if you use a device for any length of time.
- The software is poorly designed. I could come-up with any number of examples, but among them… The OpenVPN support is basically a security hole, with no authentication of any kind; it’s a static set-up. Once you have a device in the wild configured to connect back to your home network, and if that device falls into someone else’s hands for any reason, your only fix is turn-off VPN support for good. This is stupid. You can’t turn-off automatic software updates, so if Netgear decides to roll-out a buggy release of firmware, you get it. Automatically. Wanted or validated or not. Great for people who never update things; stupid for people who do. The guest network uses the same IP address space as the primary WiFi network, depending solely on the Orbi itself to separate-out the traffic, and leaving a potential hole for sniffing or buggy firmware (see above) to allow cross-population of network traffic — which one of Netgear’s firmware updates fixed an instance of, actually. This is stupid.
- There’s still no wired backhaul. I prewired my home for Ethernet, so the infrastructure is in-place for the Orbi to use those wires for its inter-node traffic, like competing solutions (e.g., Linksys Velop) can, and like my old Apple AirPort solution did. The Orbi? Nope. Rumor has it that a firmware update will enable wired backhaul at some future point, and I hope that’s correct, but I wouldn’t make a buying decision based on a future maybe if wired backhaul is important to you. I will say that the Orbi at least dedicates channels and radios specifically to backhaul, which is why reviewers like Orbi better than some other solutions; that separation boosts overall performance. But nothing’s going to beat a decent wired backhaul, and Orbi still doesn’t have it, and who knows if it ever will.
- The WiFi may be speedy, but the devices are slow. If you ever need to reboot the Orbi system, let’s hope you’re not in a hurry to have Internet connectivity, because it takes most of forever to initialize. The main unit comes-up relatively slowly, and connecting to the satellites to restore full operation has taken as much as 15 minutes in my Orbi system. Applying changes to primary settings often triggers a restart, so be careful if you decide to tinker much with the configuration after initial set-up. That initial set-up, incidentally, took most of an afternoon and evening between updates, restarts, getting the units to talk to each other, and various configuration changes.
- It’s not a magic solution to WiFi dead zones. The main reason most people would go to a solution like Orbi, or mesh WiFi in general, is better WiFi coverage. With three floors of living space in my home, and a sizable footprint, there were a lot of dead areas. Did Orbi solve them? Sort of. If you have devices with poor WiFi implementations — and the Nintendo Switch comes to-mind — you’ll find that the improvement is marginal. Most devices have full or strong signal throughout the house, but that doesn’t mean the experience of using wireless Internet has magically improved. If the WiFi in my house was a 6 on the 10 scale before this change, it’s perhaps an 8 now. Did that justify the expense? Not really.
Bottom line? If you’re shopping for a multi-unit WiFi solution to resolve dead zones and still offers a good set of functionality, the Netgear Orbi might be worth considering. But if this is truly the best experience that networking companies like Netgear, Linksys, D-Link, etc. can currently deliver, I think I’d save my money and suffer through whatever solution you currently have. In retrospect, I sort of wish I had.