The first 802.11ax mesh system leaves its rivals in the dust but does anyone really need it?
- Fantastic performance
- Older clients can also benefit
- Good Ethernet provision
- Price is hard to justify
- Uninspiring feature set
There are plenty of mesh networking systems on the market but, until now, they’ve all relied on 802.11ac Wi-Fi, rather than taking advantage of the newer, faster 802.11ax standard (also known as Wi-Fi 6).
To be fair, 802.11ac works perfectly well for most purposes, including 4K video streaming, but 802.11ax is designed to cope better with our ever-increasing numbers of connected clients, and has the performance headroom to handle whatever bandwidth-hungry technologies we’ll be using in a few years’ time. Perhaps, then, it’s time to think about an infrastructure upgrade.
Enter the Orbi WiFi 6, the world’s first 802.11ax mesh system. The idea of serving up ultra-fast, next-generation Wi-Fi to every corner of your home is undeniably seductive but it comes at a steep price. Let’s find out whether the Orbi WiFi 6 is futuristic enough to justify the cost.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: What you need to know
The Orbi WiFi 6 is a tri-band wireless mesh system supporting 802.11ax connections on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, with a separate 5GHz radio dedicated to backhaul traffic. Each unit houses eight antennae and supports 4×4 MU-MIMO; Netgear claims maximum connection speeds of 1,200Mbits/sec on the 2.4GHz band and 2,400Mbits/sec over each of the 5GHz bands. To get the best performance you’ll naturally need to be using an 802.11ax-enabled client but the Orbi also works with older devices using 802.11ac or 802.11n.
The standard pack includes two units – one dedicated router and one satellite – with a claimed total coverage of up to 465m². Since this is a mesh system, you can optionally add extra satellites to extend your wireless reach, although the WiFi 6 units won’t interoperate with nodes from older Orbi kits.
The expectation is that the Orbi will replace your existing router but it can also be switched into access-point mode to provide upgraded wireless services for a separate router.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: Price and competition
Right now, the Orbi WiFi 6 has no direct competition: there simply isn’t another 802.11ax mesh system on the market. It’s available in the UK at a cost of £709 for a router and one satellite. A three-pack is also available for £1,075 and you’ll be able to buy additional satellites on their own for £399 each.
Clearly, this situates the Orbi WiFi 6 in a very different price bracket to Netgear’s older 802.11ac Orbi system, which currently sells for £260. And, for many households, there may be no need to spend the extra: the last-generation system is more than fast enough to handle everyday internet connection and video streaming demands.
Indeed, if you’re happy with 802.11ac it’s possible to spend even less. For example, we’ve found that BT’s Whole Home Wi-Fi system offers easy setup and great performance and costs £120 for a two-node pack. Check out our guide to the best mesh Wi-Fi routers and you’ll find options to suit all sorts of different needs and budgets.
If you feel the need for speed, however, the Orbi WiFi 6 is the only game in town and it looks likely to remain that way, at least for the immediate future, as none of Netgear’s competitors has so far announced a comparable 802.11ax mesh system.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: Physical design
The Orbi units look all but identical to one another but, unlike some mesh systems, they’re not interchangeable; one is permanently designated as the router and the other as a satellite. They’re of a similar size and shape to their 802.11ac forebears, standing 254mm tall with an oval 71 x 191mm footprint, which makes them quite an imposing presence on your shelf or side table.
To distinguish the new models from the old, Netgear has added a black trim with brushed silver edging. To my eyes, this makes them look like something out of the Starship Enterprise, which you might love or hate. A more practical change is the addition of a pair of screw-holes in the bottom of each unit, allowing you to mount the Orbi nodes on a ceiling or wall if you so wish.
As before, there’s no display as such but a downward-facing LED array in the front of each unit occasionally lights up and illuminates whatever surface it’s placed on, glowing white when booting up or moody magenta if there’s a connection problem. A tiny secondary LED at the back shows when the unit’s powered and turns red if there’s a firmware error.
While the Orbi’s focus is obviously on Wi-Fi, we’re pleased to see that, as with the older units, each station has four Gigabit Ethernet sockets at the rear. With the rise of smart home hubs and NAS appliances, wired networking is, if anything, more prevalent than it was five years ago, and it’s frustrating when mesh systems offer only one or two sockets.
The router unit has a fifth Ethernet socket too, for your internet connection. This supports both Gigabit and 2.5GbE speeds, or can be combined with the first LAN socket for an aggregated 2Gbits/sec connection. We doubt many customers will be able to take advantage of these high-speed options, but just knowing they’re there goes some little way towards assuaging the pain of the price.
The only thing that’s notably missing from the Orbi is any sort of USB connectivity: this is normal for mesh systems, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that a high-end system like this would offer an easy way of sharing external storage or a printer over the LAN. Oh well.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: Setup and software features
The Orbi WiFi 6 can be set up using either Netgear’s Orbi mobile app or a web-based wizard. I chose the latter, which automatically detected and set up my internet connection, tested the signal strength between the two nodes, prompted me to set a secure administrative password and installed the latest firmware on both nodes. The whole process took less than five minutes, and just a few clicks.
Once you’re up and running, you can return to the web portal at any time to monitor and manage your Orbi system. If you’ve used a Netgear router before there are no surprises here: the interface is divided conveniently into Basic and Advanced settings, and all the expected options are present, allowing you to tweak your IP and DHCP settings, adjust your wireless configuration, bind IP addresses to specific clients, set up port forwarding and enable the guest network.
One neat feature is a built-in VPN service; you can use this to securely “dial into” your home network from anywhere in the world, using the free OpenVPN client for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS. You can even give your Orbi router an easy-to-remember external address, from a choice of dynamic DNS providers. Sadly, as usual with Netgear, there’s no option to route your domestic internet traffic through a third-party VPN service.
Parental control provisions are very limited too. The original Orbi system integrated with the Disney-branded Circle platform, providing category-based filtering and monitoring for free, plus a range of optional paid-for extras such as device-specific time limits. Here, however, there are just a few manual access settings: you can block websites containing specific keywords, and shut off individual ports and services, but category-based filtering isn’t supported at all. And, while the scheduling feature lets you set start and end times for restrictions, there’s just one global timetable, and you can’t vary it on different days of the week.
We’re not blown away by the Traffic Meter feature either. This tallies up your total internet usage over a specified period, but doesn’t break it down by client, making it more or less useless for working out what’s gobbling up your bandwidth. And, weirdly, the QoS Setup page in the web portal only contains an internet speed test tool: hopefully a future update will add proper traffic prioritisation controls.
If you find the web interface a bit daunting, it’s also possible to manage some settings via the Orbi smartphone app. This is less powerful than the web portal but it does let you configure the guest network, test your internet speed and browse connected clients from your phone – optionally suspending any you don’t recognise. It also includes a useful Wi-Fi Analytics module, which lets you monitor the airwaves to see whether your Wi-Fi network is using the best channel and test the wireless signal as you wander around your home – a big help when it comes to identifying any “not-spots” or areas of poor coverage.
Finally, the Orbi also integrates with both Alexa and the Google Assistant, enabling you to carry out a few specific tasks via voice control. You probably won’t use this every day, but it’s handy to be able to reboot the router and turn the guest network on and off without having to delve into the app.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: Performance
The big draw of the Orbi WiFi 6 is, of course, its speed. As we’ve mentioned, though, it’s currently the only 802.11ax mesh system on the market, so it’s impossible to truly compare like with like. What we can do is see how it measures up it to the other mesh options you can buy today.
I did this in my usual way, by setting up the Orbi WiFi 6 system as recommended, then measuring transfer speeds to and from a NAS appliance (connected directly to the router unit via Ethernet) from various locations in my home. To get an all-round picture, I used two laptops: my trusty first-gen Surface Laptop with its built-in Marvell 802.11ac adapter, and a Dell Latitude 5490 with a whizzy Intel 802.11ax card.
You can see the results in the table below, with equivalent scores from various other mesh systems – namely the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi, Eero, Google Nest Wi-Fi, Linksys Velop and Zyxel Multy X – plus Netgear’s own former flagship Orbi system for comparison. All systems were tested in two-node configurations except for the BT and Eero products, which we reviewed as three-node kits.
Unsurprisingly, when you connect to the Orbi WiFi 6 from an 802.11ax-capable laptop, you get performance that 802.11ac-only mesh systems can’t match. No matter where I wandered, the Orbi’s download speeds proved around 80% faster than the nearest last-generation mesh system.
Perhaps more excitingly, the Orbi WiFi 6 can give you a boost even if you’re connecting from an 802.11ac client. That’s because the nodes use 802.11ax to talk to each other, so you get the benefit of a faster backhaul connection. Thus, the Orbi WiFi 6 outpaced the Linksys, Zyxel and older Orbi systems in every test, and gave me faster downloads than the BT system, too. It couldn’t quite match the Eero and Google Nest Wi-Fi for same-room connections but, as soon as I stepped out of the living room, the positions were reversed and the Orbi WiFi 6 came out decisively on top.
From a performance perspective, then, there’s no doubt – this is the best mesh system on the market. But if you’re making the leap to 802.11ax, it’s worth questioning whether you actually need a mesh system at all. We’ve found that a standalone 802.11ax router can often convey a good signal to places where 802.11ac struggles, which means you might be able to get the coverage you want without the need for a domestic extender.
To contextualise our results, therefore, we also compared the performance of the Orbi WiFi 6 with that of the best next-gen routers we’ve so far tested – the Asus RT-AX88U, the Netgear Nighthawk AX12 and the TP-Link Archer AX6000. Here’s what we saw from our 802.11ax-enabled client:
The conclusion is clear: in our standard test scenarios, the mesh system didn’t deliver a persuasive performance advantage over a self-contained router. The Orbi’s dual-node topology did yield a measurable benefit in the tough-to-reach bathroom, but in all other locations we saw better speeds from the Asus RT-AX88U.
It was a similar story over 802.11ac: here the Orbi WiFi 6 beat the Asus but couldn’t match the download speeds achieved by its own stablemate, the Netgear Nighthawk AX12.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 review: Verdict
The Orbi WiFi 6 delivers exactly what it promises. It’s faster than any 802.11ac extender system, and its mesh design enables it to project a strong signal into places that a standalone router might struggle to reach.
The catch is that it’s overkill for many domestic settings. In the 802.11ac age, we’ve become accustomed to needing an extender to get whole-home wireless coverage – but with 802.11ax that’s no longer a foregone conclusion. For a three-bedroom maisonette like mine, a standard router performs just as well as a mesh system.
And this isn’t merely an academic point, as you’ll pay a huge premium for mesh capabilities. The Asus RT-AX88U currently goes for £294, while the Netgear Nighthawk AX12 will set you back £380; those aren’t exactly pocket-money prices but they’re a lot easier to stomach than handing over £750 for the Orbi WiFi 6.
Still, you might live in a large house that even the best next-generation router can’t cover, or one that’s awkwardly shaped and requires multiple nodes to relay the signal into difficult areas. If that’s your situation then the Orbi WiFi 6 demands a serious look. The most important features are all present and correct and performance is magnificent, with even older 802.11ac clients getting a real boost. It’s certainly not a value option, but if you’re ready to invest in the fastest mesh system around, the Orbi WiFi 6 is it.