Sunday 16 July 2017

Netgear Orbi: A Review

As it was Amazon Prime Day this week, I finally gave in and bought a Netgear Orbi RBK40 "whole home wifi" kit. This is the newer, but slightly less powerful version of the RBK50.

I've been coveting the Orbi for a while - or something like it. Since I got VDSL, the number of dropouts between my powerline networking units seems to have increased. Maybe that's confirmation bias (I expected them to cope less well), but it was enough to put the powerline units on my hit list for removal. We're in a 3 story house, so the wifi needs to be roughly central. The TV cabinet is a good choice: we need bandwidth here for the Roku box, and the living room is on the first floor, so it's ideal. As usual, the phone master socket is just inside our front door.

My other choices were:

  • Run a cable from the hall to the living room: could have gone via the coat cupboard, but would have still been a ballache going through the floor. 
  • A 3rd different brand of Powerline - the Netgear ones are better than the TP-link I had - could I find some better? No. Not without burning money brute forcing the problem!
  • Eero - not available in the UK
  • Ubiquiti 
    • professional gear - too expensive & ugly, needs a controller
    • Amplifi - no ethernet ports on satellite which i'd like to have
  • Google Wifi - wants to double NAT
  • BT Whole home - All a bit BT. Also, apparently not very configurable
  • Linksys Velop - a bit expensive, and, according to my wife, also a bit ugly

So - why did I go for the Orbi? Well, I liked that it had 4 network ports on each unit. This means I can keep the TV unit all wired (Roku, TV, Soundbar, Playstation, Hue Bridge all live here). Some of these will go wireless, others like the Hue bridge are wired only. I could probably do away with the switch if I let a few things go wireless... 

I also liked that it didn't force me to re NAT my network. I hate double NAT - its probably OK for my parents' network (in fact I'll probably take them down the google route as Holly Brockwell seems to like it, and she's not often too far off the mark), but I won't put up with it. Double NAT can cause issues with VPN (my likely use), and other less-than standard protocols. Only thing worse is trying to put a consumer router in bridge mode. Don't get me started.

Anyway, I got it up and running fairly quickly with no recourse to the instruction manual. Went straight in by the fairly basic web UI (over wifi), dismissed every wizard in sight, clicked "advanced" and disabled router mode. You lose parental controls in Access Point mode - but (a) I don't care, and (b) it's only OpenDNS and you can set that up yourself. It was nice to have an access point admitting to being just an AP for once. The UI got a bit salty about not being connected to the Internet, but it got over it.

I then attached the router node to my existing network, after renaming the SSID to my existing choice, and pulling the cord on the old AP. The Orbi is one of those devices where it reboots to save almost every major setup item - disappointing, but it meant that I could be fairly confident changing the SSID even though I was connected over Wifi. I didn't have to fetch the Mac's ethernet dongle.

As soon as the Orbi had connectivity it detected new firmware and installed it. Good. That's what I like to see Netgear - no grubbing around on your website looking for new firmware. I hope it's downloaded over HTTPS, and I will be putting a network tap in to find out later!

Adding in the satellite unit was fairly painless - though it's hard to see the LED lights, so I guessed about the timings. It said it had failed, but then seemed to be working fine. Bit fruity. The satellite unit needed a prod to update its firmware, but after that I slotted it in its designated place net to the TV (the previous AP, a repurposed home hub, had been deemed too ugly by Amy, and had to sit in the cupboard).

I've now got to think of some way to add in the printer, which was hanging off a powerline unit: maybe an AP in client mode. If the Orbi "plug in" version had a single ethernet port, that'd be perfect :(

So far - 3 days in - it's been a solid set up no complaints.

Overall: Whole home wifi is an expensive proposition. That's a given. It's probably better than powerline though, and it does have the huge benefit of extending your wifi's usable range. 

In particular the Orbi is neat, has plenty of ethernet ports, and can be configured through the web, without recourse to an app - I don't really like stuff that demands you use an app. Setup was painless.

The level of functionality in terms of bells and whistles is low. I've not tried the bandwidth management, but it looks like it's been done all wrong. The reporting functionality is minimal (you can look at realtime-ish bandwidth figures per interface) - nothing graphical. The access control to the router is basic http auth - difficult for password managers to paste into and kind of clunky. 

I'd give it 6/10 - but I still think it's the right choice for me. I'm not into bells & whistles.

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