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There's a lot to like about multipoint mesh router systems -- namely, the clever way that they use range extending satellite units to sling a speedy Wi-Fi signal to all corners of your home. The problem has always been the price. Big names like Eero and Google Wifi garnered positive reviews for their mesh systems, but buying in would set you back at least $300. Make that $400 for one of Netgear's original Orbi two-piece mesh systems.
Well, things are different in 2019. For starters, Amazon bought Eero and released a new version of that system that costs half as much as before. Meanwhile, Google released a second-gen mesh router of its own called the Nest Wifi -- that one's a better value than before, too. And Netgear? It released a new version of the Orbi that brings the price of a two-piece mesh setup with the router and one extender all the way down to $129.
That's easily the best price we've ever seen for a mesh router, but know that this isn't quite the same Orbi as last time around. The devices are smaller than before, and -- as you might expect given the price cut -- the hardware inside is less sophisticated, too. You don't get built-in smart speakers like you do with the Nest Wifi or Netgear Orbi Voice; more notably, you no longer get a dedicated wireless channel, called the backhaul, that's designed specifically to pass data between the router and the range extenders. And don't even think about getting support for brand-new, next-gen Wi-Fi 6 speeds at this price.
Read more: The best mesh Wi-Fi routers of 2019
The good news is that you almost certainly won't notice any of that. In our performance tests, the Netgear Orbi proved just as speedy as the Nest and Eero on a reasonably fast internet connection of 300 megabits per second. And in our range tests, the new Orbi beat the Nest and Eero outright with demonstrably better signal strength, particularly for multistory homes. It didn't route my signal quite as well as the Nest or Eero as I moved about my house, and the sparse app isn't as helpful or easy to use, but it still tested well overall.
Most importantly, the new Netgear Orbi represents true value in the router aisle. It's far from the fanciest system you can buy, but it delivers the benefits of mesh networking at the most reasonable price currently available. If you just need something that'll get the job done (and perhaps tide you over until you're ready to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 in a year or two), then give the new Netgear Orbi some strong consideration.
The new Orbi doesn't look anything like the last ones. Gone are the tall, fin-like obelisks of the original Orbi and the built-in Harman Kardon Alexa speakers of the Orbi Voice. Instead, you get little white plastic boxes with rounded edges and a woven array of heat vents on the top.
All of it gives both the router and the range extender a distinct yet unassuming appearance. They're definitely not ugly -- and that matters because you'll get much better performance out of them if they're sitting out in the open and not stashed away because you can't bear the sight of the things.
This isn't just a cosmetic refresh -- along with the size of the devices, the new Orbi also downsized the hardware inside to help bring costs down. It's still a dual-band system that can automatically steer you between connections on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands as you move about your home, but there isn't a second 5GHz band reserved for the router to send data back and forth to the range extenders anymore. Bye bye, backhaul.
Turn the things around, and you'll also notice that most of the extra Ethernet jacks are gone, too. There's only one to spare on the router, and none on the extenders. That means that you can't wire the extender back to the router for faster performance, and if you have devices like smart home hubs, gaming consoles or media streamers that you'd like to wire to the router itself, there's only room for one of them.
Also gone: USB ports. The new Orbi has none whatsoever. That's OK. The previous model had them, but limited users to the types of printers they could use with them, and even more so with regards to external storage.
Getting started with the Netgear Orbi is pretty simple. Just plug the router in and wire it to your modem via Ethernet cable, then download the Orbi app to your phone and follow the instructions to get everything up and running. I had some initial difficulty paring the range extender to the router, but after restarting the app and trying again I had everything up and running within a few minutes.
Once everything is set up, you'll be able to use the app to check the status of your network, track the devices that are connected to it or adjust its settings. The controls cover basics like guest networks and speed tests, but folks interested in fine-tuning the way their network operates with advanced features like device prioritization will want something more robust.
Between that, the lack of extra Ethernet jacks, and the loss of that dedicated backhaul band, I think Netgear might have been wise to brand this system as "Orbi Lite" or something similar. The smaller system also includes just a pair of antennas, which means it can only support the most basic of simultaneous-antenna MU-MIMO connections (2x2). My upgrade pick, the Nest Wifi, includes four antennas and support for 4x4 MU-MIMO connections, which means it can aggregate faster combined speeds for devices like the MacBook Pro that support such connections.
The Nest Wifi also supports the new WPA3 security protocol. The Orbi does not, though it does come with a 30-day trial of Netgear Armor, which provides antivirus protection for the devices on your network and other additional security-minded features. After the trial, that service costs $70 per year.
Still, I think that most will be perfectly fine with this simplified, stripped down version of the Netgear Orbi since it nets them a mesh network at less than a third the cost it did before. The question is, can it keep up with other mesh systems as far as speeds are concerned?
The dual-band Netgear Orbi system offers a 2.4GHz band with a stated top speed of 400Mbps and a 5GHz band with a stated top speed of 866Mbps. Those are the same top speeds as the earlier, more expensive version of the Netgear Orbi -- the difference being that the old Orbi is a tri-band system that adds in a second 5GHz band that acts as a dedicated backhaul connection between the router and the satellite, with top speeds of up to 1,733Mbps.
That backhaul doesn't impact top speeds from the router itself -- when we took a look at those by wiring the router to a local server and then wirelessly downloading files from it, Orbi clocked in with a top transfer speed of 661.9Mbps at a distance of 5 feet. The speed fell to 228.2Mbps when we tested again at a distance of 75 feet. Both numbers are faster than we saw from the original Netgear Orbi in similar tests back in 2016.
I haven't tested that system for myself, but I have looked at the similar Netgear Orbi Voice, which takes the original Orbi design and adds built-in Alexa speakers. I tested that system along with the new Netgear Orbi and several other mesh routers in my smallish, 1,300-square-foot home in Louisville, Kentucky, where I have a 300Mbps fiber internet connection.
I ran a battery of speed tests for each system from various spots throughout my home, then averaged the data to get a comparative look at overall speeds, both throughout the house and from room to room. The graph above shows the overall average download and upload speeds for each system I tested. The new Netgear Orbi returned the slowest average download speeds throughout my house, but it wasn't very far behind its competitors, all of which cost a lot more.
In other words, you really won't notice much of a difference between top speeds between these systems unless your internet connection is a lot faster than mine is. That said, I'll note that the Orbi did drop my connection a few times as I moved about the house conducting my tests, likely due to a botched handoff between bands, or confusion about whether to route my signal to the extender or to the router itself. I didn't have any problems like that with the Nest or Eero.
Our last set of tests concerns signal strength, and takes place at the CNET Smart Home. At 5,800 square feet, it's a much larger environment than my tiny shotgun house, and much better suited for putting each system's range claims to the test.
Specifically, we set each mesh system up with the router and a satellite on the house's main floor, then we use NetSpot to measure the signal strength across dozens of spots across both the main floor and the basement. The result is a nifty-looking heat map that shows how strong the signal is across the entire space (yellow is great, green is good enough, and blue is bad).
The new Netgear Orbi did a great job in this test, with signal strength in the basement that was notably stronger than what we saw from two-piece Nest and Eero setups. Stronger signals don't necessarily mean faster speeds, mind you, but they do mean that you'll have an easier time taking full advantage of whatever top speeds are available regardless of where you are in your home. And hey -- that's the whole point of mesh systems like these.
If you want some extra signal strength throughout your home, know that Netgear also offers a three-piece Orbi setup for $230. That's just $20 less than the three-piece Eero setup, which offers comparable speeds, but a better app and steadier performance in our mesh tests. In that case, I think the Eero is worth the extra cash, but if you live in a smaller-sized home and only need one satellite, the two-piece Orbi kit drops to $70 less than the Eero, and becomes the much better value.
Put bluntly, the new Netgear Orbi is one hell of a good bargain in the mesh category -- especially given that the original two-piece system debuted at an asking price of $400. Now, just a few years later, you can buy in for less than a third as much.
You won't get the same dedicated backhaul band as before, and you won't find support for next-gen Wi-Fi 6 speeds -- but none of that mattered very much in our tests, where the Orbi kept up with pricier competitors at just about every turn. Alternatives like the Eero and Nest Wifi are worth looking at as potential upgrade picks (and each provided a steadier connection than Netgear in my tests), but the Orbi still got the job done. If mesh makes sense in your home and you just want something simple and inexpensive, it's a perfectly fine choice.
Read more: The best mesh Wi-Fi systems of 2019