Hands on with the Netgear Orbi

In which my house is now smarter than me. Should I start calling it HAL?

Ecobee (left) and the Netgear Orbi Router (right).

Hey y'all, you may not know this but we bought a house! And naturally leading up to buying the house I set aside a tech budget with the priorities being a smart thermostat and a good wifi system. I started by basically just asking around to see what people recommended, and the Ecobee was a clear winner in the smart thermostat category (more on that later). The wifi system, however, was a bit more contentious.

For some context, over the last 5+ years I've relied on an Airport Express to provide our wifi. It was fine for the most part. I mean I know I sacrificed some speed but I lived in small apartments and loved AirPlay. Fast forward to today, where I work in IT professionally and occasionally work from home. I need a decent connection for uploading and downloading software packages, video conference, and all that other junk.

But now I live in a two-story, 2800 sq. ft. house. It's awesome. But that poor AirPort Express didn't stand a chance. When the SuddenLink installation person showed up we were still moving in and our lunch had just been delivered. He asked me where to set up the connection and I pointed to the first connection I saw, which was downstairs on the eastern wall in the Living Room.

House floorplan with main wifi router (Airport Express) on first floor in the living room.

The first time I sat down in my office upstairs and tried to use my computer the connection dropped about every minute. It just didn't have enough power to get upstairs to my office on the western side of the house. Then I remembered I still had my old Airport Express (first gen) and could use it as an extender for the main one downstairs. So I gave it a shot.

House floorplan with both Airport Express connected, one on each floor.

Hot damn, I could stay connected upstairs! The latency was awful, but at least I could listen to a Spotify playlist without the connection dropped and having to toggle my laptop's wifi on/off. Minor success. But I knew it was slow, and I knew it wasn't going to cut it when I couldn't stay connected to a Lifesize meeting for work for more than five minutes without dropping and reconnecting. Not good.

So me being me, I sat down and spent a ton of time researching wifi mesh systems online. Maybe people recommend Eero, but not many of them actually had an Eero. They just wanted one. +1 to their marketing and social media teams. But something about mesh systems just made me uneasy. Could they really be that good? I stumbled upon two reviews that really swayed my opinion: Macworld's review of the Netgear Orbi and The Wirecutter's Best Wifi Mesh System comparison. Both pretty emphatically stated that the Orbi was pretty much the best option, especially for the size I was looking to cover. Amazon Prime had one-day delivery and a late night order on a Friday ended up with a brand new Orbi at my door by noon the next day.

Orbi, new in the box.
Before I unboxed everything I took some speed tests with my Airport Express setup. It was not great.

I used my phone to take some speed tests. The latency in particular was disappointing. Embarrassing, even. Upstairs it was awful; I could only imagine how much worse it was when I just had the one Airport Express powering our wifi signal.

Then it was time to unbox the Orbi.

Orbi in hand. It is giant and ugly.
The stupid thing is hilariously huge and ugly. I mean, are you kidding me? Rearranging of shelves and furniture were required to make this thing work. (I'll leave that part out of this story.)

Orbi components, unboxed.

It was really easy to put together, which was great. Pretty much plug and play with my ARRIS SURFboard modem, which was great as while I'm relatively tech-savvy but I'm definitely not a networking expert (barely a novice if we're honest). I grabbed the app and did the walkthrough. The temporary password was fuzzybanana824, which was pretty cute. Nice touch. The lack of feedback during the setup process was a bit disconcerting, especially during the satellite setup, but overall it was a straightforward setup that just about anyone could figure out I'd think. I decided to put them somewhat close to what my Airport Express setup was, though I did end up moving both at least once; the router was moved from within a shelf to the top of the shelf, and the satellite was moved from an outlet next to the stairs to our upstairs loft TV stand.

House floorplan with Orbi Router downstairs, Satellite upstairs.

The speed tests after it was running were very impressive, especially after the low bar my Airport Express configuration set.

It cut latency in half and nearly quintupled the download speeds across the house. Considering I'm paying for a 200 Mb download / 20 Mb upload plan from SuddenLink, these numbers were pretty impressive. I'm nearly getting my plan's speed on the Wifi alone. I'd imagine a LAN test would show similar numbers.

I've found the hub-and-spoke Orbi system to be worth the cost so far, and I finally feel like I'm guessing what I am paying for from my internet plan. I even get great up/down in my garage sitting in my parked car, great for when I find myself randomly sitting in my car looking at Instagram when I get home from work. I recommend getting a really solid modem to use with it, like the ARRIS SURFboard I mentioned above. And now I must prepare for the incoming machine invasion as every single thing I own becomes connected through my rock-solid wifi.

* This post includes affiliate links. If you use an affiliate link above to purchase one of the items I mentioned I'll get a little kickback that will go to supporting the cost of maintaining this blog. *

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