The chatter is picking up, and there’s little you can (or would want to) do about it. You have speakers talking to your smart appliances, smart cameras and doorbells pushing feeds to your phone, music and videos streaming to every phone and TVs pulling downasli 4K IPL streams in every corner of the home.
It’s never been more important to have dependable home Wi-Fi, and mesh systems are the panacea to the signal degradation and wireless dead zones that are all too common with ISP-provided routers. Now, while all mesh systems work on similar principles, not all mesh systems are created equal, and the latest in thegoing-all-out category is the Netgear Orbi RBK863SB tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh system. Priced at a staggering Rs. 114,999, how much mesh do you get for the money, and who exactly is the target audience for this piece of gear?
Let’s lay it out. The Orbi RBK863SB is a three-pack Wi-Fi mesh system with a base station that connects to the Internet over a future-proofed 10-Gbps port (home internet maxes out at 1-Gbps these days) and two satellite units that expand coverage to a claimed 8000 square feet.
Unlike regular routers with dual band setups with a 2.4-Ghz and a 5-Ghz band for your devices, the Orbi has a third 5-GHz band dedicated towards sending traffic back and forth between the base and the two satellites – a dedicated “backhaul” band such as this helps immensely by reducing congesting and maintaining data transfer speeds (at a claimed 1.2Gbps for the 2.4-Ghz band and 2.4 Gbps for the 5-Ghz) when even more Wi-Fi devices join the network.
As with any mesh network, your devices only see a single network with a single password regardless of the number of satellites/access points, and the mesh system seamlessly connects devices to the best band based on signal quality.
Each of the three units look identical and familiar to anyone who’s seen a Netgear Orbi setup previously, which is to say they’re each tall (10 inches) and large (7.5 inch) and won't quite blend into your home décor quite that easily. To be fair, the Black Edition we tested looks slick, but you’re going to want to install them someplace high on your walls for optimum coverage anyway.
If you’re the sort who was considering a wired backhaul by running network cabling from the base to the four LAN ports on each satellite, bear in mind that unlike the main Internet port, each of the other network ports are limited to single-gigabit speeds. If you own a previous Orbi system, the RBK863SB isn’t compatible with satellites from the older 850-series system.
Setting up the mesh network is simple enough, and the Orbi app guides you through the process by scanning a QR code to begin with, and then instructs you to connect cables, power on the satellites and position them around the house to ensure there are no dead spots. Even if you have a multi-level home, the app even tells you if the units are too close or too far away from each other. Once the network is up and running, the app can be used to check on connected devices, set up a guest network, or even an isolated IoT network exclusively for your smart devices.
Netgear bundles in a year free of the Armor and Smart Parental Controls. The former is a comprehensive security offering which handles anti-phishing, anti-malware, firewall and VPN services at the router level, while the latter allows parents to control access for individual family members.
You can even use the app analytics to measure signal strength in different locations. That 8000 square foot figure is a bit on the optimistic side, given that those claims are based on wood, drywall and bricks used in American homes, not the concrete we use.
We were able to test this over a multi-level nearly-4000 square feet setup including out in the garden, and after a few optimizations around satellite placement, the whole area was awash with a strong, reliable signal. To give you a sense, this area was previously covered by a competing mesh network with two satellites. As one tried copying files from a connected network attached storage or accessing 4K videos off the internet, one could go further to the corners of the property and the garden without a significant drop off in data transfer speeds or go two levels up or into the next unit and still have moderately fast wireless connectivity (where there was none prior). If anything, the range boost is the strongest reason to consider this system.
The RBK863SB also packs in one advantage over many other mesh networks – it uses 4x4 MIMO, not 2x2, which allows it to service multiple devices faster at once, particularly when you have a large number of devices competing for network access. Of course, much of the gains depends on your setup and satellite position, the materials used in construction, but the coverage bump one saw was noticeable and this will undeniably be one of the fastest Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems you can buy.
It could be argued that, for the price, support for the latest Wi-Fi 6E standard would have been ideal, although the speed benefits of the 6 GHz band of the 6E systems are really only exhibited in close range to the router and you get passed onto the regular 5 GHz band if you move some distance into the next room.
Wi-Fi 7 routers are imminent as well, so that’s something to keep in mind, although when mesh systems supporting the new standard will be released is yet to be seen. At this price, Netgear could have well considered bundling in the Armor or Parentals Controls for a longer duration, to reduce the additional expenses atop an already premium priced offering.
All said, the Orbi RBK863 is a strong contender for a Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, with good software support and an excellent combination of range and signal stability, but its pricing restricts its appeal to rather large homes with expansive coverage requirements – the sort of homes that won’t break a sweat dropping a huge amount of money on their home network setup.
Many folks face issues when their home WiFi router can’t reach their favorite spot. Mesh routers tackle this by blanketing the home with the help of one or more satellites (or nodes) placed strategically around the house. Each of these satellites communicate back to the internet-connected base station to create a single, large network, rebroadcasting to devices nearby.
Unlike Wi-Fi range extenders, mesh networks share the same network and don’t require you to switch manually between networks based on where you are. Just remember, you can start your mesh system with just the base station and add more nodes, but unlike with range extenders, you cannot mix and match mesh nodes from different brands – they’ll all have to be the same brand, likely the same model.
Some of the biggest players in the consumer electronics segment, like Google and Amazon, have their own Nest and Eero lineup of Wi-Fi 6/6E mesh systems, which aren’t available commercially in India. Other popular offerings include Linksys’ MX8400 (Rs. 39,528, 1 node) and Ubiquiti’s AmpliFi Alien Router (Rs. 74,857, 1 node). Asus’ ZenWifi AX6600 (Rs. 41,355, 1 node) offers life-time free network security & parental controls. For more affordable mesh networking, the TP-Link Deco X20 (Rs. 16,499, 2 nodes) or the XE75 (Rs. 33,999, 2 nodes) offer good alternatives for Wi-Fi 6 and 6E mesh systems.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.