I’ve seen the mesh wifi routers becoming more popular, there big selling point is that everything is seamless to install and configure, you don’t have to mess with setting up multiple routers in bridge mode or anything else, you just plug them in and they all work together to form a big wifi mesh network. I started looking at the 2 that had been out for a while, Eero and Luma and they seemed fairly decent but had mixed reviews. Then I saw that NetGear had come out with their own, the Orbi. I had intended to just upgrade to another big honkin router, the Nighthawk X6 AC3200 but the Orbi caught my eye and was getting very good reviews so I thought I would give it a try instead.
One thing that stood out with the Orbi is it’s dedicated backhaul, which is the connection between the main router and the satellite routers, other mesh wifi systems use the same radios that is used for user traffic for the connections between devices as well. The Orbi has a dedicated radio for that to separate that traffic and not use up user bandwidth which allows for better performance. So after reading up on everything I could find about the Orbi and seeing good things I ordered the 2 unit model (router + satellite).
When it arrived I opened it and it was very nicely packaged, the router and satellite units are the same size and fairly big (also a bit slippery). I followed the quick install instructions, removed my old router, unplugged my cable modem, plugged it back in, turned on the main Orbi router, plugged it into the cable modem, placed the satellite upstairs and plugged in the power and finally plugged my desktop PC into the wired Ethernet port on the main Orbi router. On the Satellite unit, when I plugged it in it was supposed to glow amber and then change to blue once it connected to the main Orbi router, no luck there, it just kept flashing white despite it being only about 15-20 feet away from it. I gave up on that and went back to getting the main router configured.
I then went to http://orbilogin.com and that’s when my problems started. The first thing it does is check for an internet connection, it kept timing out saying it couldn’t connect to the internet. I checked the cable between it and the cable modem, I turned the Orbi router on and off and still no luck, finally I had to power cycle the cable modem again and it worked. It went through the setup process, then asked me to register it, I put my serial number and info in, it said it would send me a confirmation email and waited for me to acknowledge that email before it could proceed. I never got the email so I just closed the window and went back to the main Orbi admin page.
Both the satellite and main router had pretty old firmware versions so I went to the firmware update page, it detected new firmware for the router but was stuck on “Please wait” while checking for new firmware on the satellite, because of this the update buttons wouldn’t work either. I waited about 10 minutes and it was still stuck, I tried again and the same thing happened, finally I gave up and called Netgear’s support.
Trying to navigate to NetGear’s support was another fun challenge, they seem to hide any way to contact phone support on their main website. They also want you to take a picture of your receipt that you bought the unit to get to support. I wasn’t having any of that, I was already getting fed up that this supposedly super easy Orbi was already giving me problems. I finally google’d Netgear support phone number and found the number to call them.
The first guy I talked to was your typical, read from a script, I know very little type of support guy, I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere fast with him. He kept making useless suggestions and asking non-relevant questions, he also wanted me to move the satellite closer to the router. I told him I wasn’t going to do that, if those 2 units can’t communicate well enough from 15-20 feet away moving them closer wasn’t going to do anything. Finally I got fed up and asked to talk to a supervisor.
The supervisor didn’t seem any more skilled then the first guy, he said he could have someone from advanced support call me back, I finally was about to hang up and told him to forget it I’m just going to return this. This got me an immediate “I’ll transfer you to someone who actually knows what they are talking about” response. In a few minutes I was talking to their advanced support who did a remote session to my desktop.
They went through the process of downloading and manually updating the satellite firmware. Apparently there is a bug in the earlier firmware version where you can’t automatically update firmware through the admin console. Once that was manually applied the satellite unit re-started and then it looked like the main router unit updated it’s firmware automatically and re-started as well. From that point they were both at the latest firmware versions and everything was working. You can only make a first impression once and with the issues I experienced while setting Orbi up my initial excitement at getting a new wireless router quickly turned to frustration and aggravation.
I checked my signal strength upstairs and at the opposite side of the house (see above) and it was very strong, much stronger then with the single Asus router. Also note that I pretty much get 5Ghz coverage anywhere in the house now both upstairs and downstairs where I only was able to get it downstairs in the man cave and just outside before.
So after an hour or so of aggravation everything was finally working. I’m only on my first day with the Orbi, it seems to be working well now but only time will tell. The hardware seems solid, the admin UI seems laggy and is a bit plain and basic but it has a fairly decent amount of advanced networking features. There is also no cloud management connection required like some of the other mesh systems require were if you lose internet connectivity your whole LAN is down as well. The Orbi does have 3 wired Ethernet ports which is a big plus, I do have a NetGear 24-port smart switch that I use for a home lab but it’s nice to not have to use that if needed.
One thing I had wanted to know was the status of the backhaul connection between the router and the satellite to see if they were optimally positioned. The Orbi admin UI just simply says “1 Satellite connected” but tell’s you nothing about the status and strength of that connection. The LED ring on top of the satellite only works when you initially plug it in and then goes dark. I’d like to know that the satellite is working and how well it’s working, it would be nice if that LED ring would stay on or could be turned on if desired to tell you how the satellite is doing. I also hate looking at the main router and having no visible indication of what the hell it’s doing, it could be off for all I know. NetGear put that LED to work and make it configurable in the admin UI. How about different colors for certain states and pulsing speed based on how busy it is. It would also be nice if the admin UI could show you more detail on the router-satellite connection.
There are really two big components to a wireless router, it’s hardware and it’s software, you need the combination of both of these to be good to have a great product. I won’t dispute NetGear has always had great hardware and that looks to still be the case with the Orbi, but quite frankly there software has always been pretty crappy. My past few routers have been Asus and if it’s one thing that Asus has nailed it’s their software which totally kicks ass, there admin UI is feature rich, very nicely laid out and easy to use and they update it constantly. You can even get the Merlin builds which are based on the stock software which take it to the next level. Coming from Asus, looking at NetGear’s UI is a big let down, it’s plain, basic, lacking and it looks like a 10 year old designed it. You also have to download a separate Windows NetGear Genie app to do certain things, why can’t I do it all in the web based UI? Also how about being able to show a network map and maybe some basic device usage reporting? NetGear if you would just give your admin UI an overhaul you would have a killer product.
Now let’s talk Parental Controls which is one area that NetGear has always sucked at which is one of the major reasons I always chose Asus over them in the past. I would of thought by now NetGear would have been able to figure out this important feature to any parent and implement it correctly. Instead they have a half-assed & weak Parental Controls in their admin UI and then they punt and say go use Open DNS if you want more which would work great until your kid figures out how to change their DNS server. On my Asus router, I had full Parental Controls built-in including the most important one to me, time of day access control by MAC address so I can shut my kids internet off at night at a specific time. While NetGear has time controls built-in it impacts every device connected to the router not just specific ones. Is it really that hard NetGear to implement time of day controls by MAC address?
All in all if I would say I’m satisfied with the Orbi so far and will likely keep it, what any wireless router has to do really well is perform and that is what counts the most as you are using it day in and day out. Things like the admin UI you do not frequently use so as long as my wifi is fast and gives me good coverage across my entire house I’m all good. It would be nice if they improved the admin UI, parental controls, LED light functionality and other things. The Orbi is still pretty new so hopefully the software improves over time which would make me even happier.
After living with Orbi for a few days now, all I can say is: damn this thing kicks ass. I get awesome coverage all throughout the house and I can get 5Ghz anywhere. From one of the farthest points from the main router and satellite my iPad speed test is around 170Mbps, crazy fast. My PC that is wired to one of Orbi’s Ethernet ports does a speed test at 232 Mbps. Also in that same room were I would regularly get the flashing wifi signal in Clash of Clans meaning I’m about to get disconnected (CoC tends to be latency sensitive), I have not been disconnected once with Orbi. I’m very happy with how well Orbi performs and would recommend it to anyone looking for whole home wifi, NetGear please just work on your admin UI and I’ll be even happier!
UPDATE 2 (12/13/16):
NetGear yesterday released a new Orbi firmware version (184.108.40.206) it was mostly minor but contained support for a new IOS/Android app that was released yesterday for management. My initial thoughts were, great now I have to go through another painful firmware upgrade process, and also cool an app that might make device management easier. The firmware upgrade went OK without issue this time around, I upgraded it through the admin UI and it was pushed out to both the main router and satellite. I downloaded the admin app to my iPad hoping for new management goodness and when I launched it found it to be a bit of a joke, you can do almost nothing in the app and it’s got to be the most basic app I’ve seen looking like someone wrote it less than an hour.
When you launch the app you’re greeted to their dashboard which is nothing more than a screen with a giant picture of an Orbi with the only information shown being your Wifi network and password. If you browse the limited menu they have stuck in the corner all you can do is show device info (nothing more than the model, MAC address and the firmware version only for the router) and connected devices and that’s about it. My excitement of having an iPad management app quickly went to this royally sucks, app deleted. Again NetGear looks to not have a clue at designing a useful and nice management UI/app, they are lucky their hardware is keeping me a customer because their administration interfaces are trying real hard to push me away.
3 wired Ethernet ports
Fast and strong wifi signal
Nice looking hardware
Dedicated backhaul channel between router & satellite
Router is pre-paired with satellite unit
No cloud management required
Has a decent amount of advanced networking features
LED light rings on top are fairly useless
Crappy admin UI is fairly bland and a bit laggy
No way to see details of router-satellite connection
No time scheduling parental controls by MAC
Firmware upgrade is buggy
IOS app is terrible
Support isn’t great unless you tell them you are returning it
Despite an initial rough start with the NetGear Orbi Home Wifi System I’ve been a big fan of it up until today. The reason I bought the Orbi was because I kept having wifi drops in some areas of my house with my Asus RT-AC87U router. I play a lot of online games like Clash of Clans and if you know CoC the dreaded wifi symbol while you are playing is not something you want to see. That symbol means your connection sucks and you are about to get dropped, I would get that frequently with my Asus router. Once I had Orbi up and running my wifi problems were completely gone for 7 months, until today.
Netgear pushed out a 220.127.116.11 update to my router and satellite last night and today I awoke to constant and frequent disconnects on both my iPad Air 2 and Galaxy S7 Edge. I could literally not go a minute without a disconnect. I called their support who was basically useless, they said to enable Implicit Beamforming which has been disabled by default many updates ago because of issues it caused with some devices. I tried that anyway and it seemed to help a little with the iPad but not the Galaxy S7.
Ironically Netgear had a big focus on fixing wifi disconnects with this update which has apparently plagued them from the beginning, read the Netgear forums and there are lots of threads on this issue like this one and this one. They also have problems with the Orbi losing connection to your internet device (i.e. cable modem), I also experience this frequently as well, the only fix is to reboot the cable modem. Most of the updates up until now have not really done all that much, this one had a lot of big fixes as seen below:
Fixes the iOS disconnection issue.
Fixes the Dropcam disconnection issue.
Fixes the convergence issue when an Ethernet connected device moves from one Orbi to another.
Fixes the issue where the Orbi app can’t find the Orbi router if the router is using IPv6 and is in AP mode.
Fixes the issue where the Orbi app can’t display more than 20 connected devices.
Fixes the issue where the installation assistant might not display if the device is connected to the Orbi network wirelessly.
Fixes the issue where the 2.4 GHz backhaul setting is disabled if the fronthaul MU-MIMO and TxBF is disabled.
Fixes the issue where IPv6 devices on the guest network can access the Orbi router’s web GUI.
Includes security fixes for the following security vulnerabilities:PSV-2016-0133, PSV-2017-0607, PSV-2017-0615, PSV-2017-0736, PSV-2017-2190
So an update that supposedly fixes disconnect issues (which I never experienced) does the opposite and starts causing them instead. Thank you Netgear for breaking my perfectly wonderful wifi system. Apparently their engineering team has been spending most of their time introducing new Orbi devices and not spending much time refining their current firmware.
I ended up downgrading both my router and satellite to the prior version which is 18.104.22.168 which has been working perfectly. In fact I have never had an issue with an Orbi update until now, I’m beginning to suspect the reason why is that they haven’t really done much with any of their 11 updates up until this one. Look at their typical release notes for the last 3 updates:
22.214.171.124 – Fixed few bugs
126.96.36.199 – Fixes bugs and security issues. – Improves the firmware upgrade process. – Continuous improvement in wireless connection stability
188.8.131.52 – Fixes bugs and security issues. – Supports Korea wireless region
Now that they have finally starting to pay attention to some of the serious issues that Orbi has had they have apparently tried to fix some things and broke other things. At this stage with this new update I’m not going to update past 184.108.40.206 until Netgear gets their act together which is a shame as I will be missing out on potentially other fixes and enhancements. I loved my Orbi up until today and just yesterday was recommending it to people. However after this update dropped I will not recommend it anymore and may just end up migrating to one of the competing systems from Ubiquiti, Google and Eero which is a shame as Netgear had a good thing going with Orbi. Ultimately it comes down to what works best for me and if Orbi can no longer deliver that anymore than it’s adios amigo.