It may feel as if Wi-Fi 6 is still something of a newcomer, but the next step in wireless evolution is already here. Wi-Fi 6E extends the long-established 2.4GHz and 5GHz standards with a new set of 6GHz channels, promising faster connection speeds than ever before.
As usual, however, early adopters will have to pay a premium for Wi-Fi 6E hardware. That’s certainly the case with Netgear’s latest Orbi mesh. It’s the first Wi-Fi 6E system we’ve seen and also the most expensive consumer mesh we’ve ever tested. Can it really be worth the excruciating price?
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If you’re still in the process of migrating to Wi-Fi 6, you may be irked to learn that 6GHz networking once again requires new hardware on both the router and client sides. You can connect to a 6E router from an older device, but you’ll just get a regular 5GHz service.
Currently, there are only a handful of 6E-compatible laptops and smartphones on the market but the standard is rapidly gaining support, as it brings big benefits. In the UK, the newly licensed 6GHz frequency range is broad enough to support three ultra-wide 160MHz channels with no overlapping frequencies. That means it can deliver huge bandwidth with zero interference from neighbouring networks – something that’s very rarely achievable on the 5GHz band.
As usual, the Orbi system is designed to replace your existing router. If you’re currently using a combined modem/router, you may be able to switch it into modem-only mode to work with the Orbi, or you can use the mesh in AP mode – although this will disable most of its advanced features.
Hardware-wise, the new Orbi is very similar to the original Wi-Fi 6 model, aside from the extra radio band. It delivers 2.4GHz wireless services at speeds up to 1.2Gbits/sec, plus 2.4Gbits/sec on each of the 5GHz and 6GHz bands. The units talk to one another over a separate 5GHz backhaul connection rated at 4.8Gbits/sec, making this the first quad-band mesh system we’ve tested.
To support the extra radio there are now no fewer than 12 antennas inside each unit, supporting 4x4 MU-MIMO connections on every band. Netgear claims the three-node system can theoretically cover a total area of around 830 square metres, and service more than 200 clients at once.
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Orbi systems are rarely cheap, and the 6E variant takes this to a new level: a triple-pack containing a router and two satellites costs a massive £1,500. There’s currently no two-node option, so if you want to be the first kid on the block with a Wi-Fi 6E mesh system, you’ll have to cough up the full whack.See related Best mesh Wi-Fi router 2022: Boost the range, speed and coverage of your home Wi-Fi with our top picksBest wireless router 2022: Get faster Wi-Fi at home, from £58Best Wi-Fi extender 2022: Improve wireless coverage and speed from £35
Other options are on their way, however. Asus has just started shipping its ROG GT-AXE11000, a standalone Wi-Fi 6E router with a comparatively palatable launch price of £480, and we’re sure more 6E hardware will appear in the coming months.
There are also still plenty of 5GHz Wi-Fi 6 systems to choose from, which remain fast enough for almost any home or business. Our top-rated mesh is Netgear’s original Orbi WiFi 6 (RBK852), which costs £699 for a two-unit pack or £900 for three stations.
You could save more by opting for the slightly slower RBK752 variant, yours for a positively affordable £394, while for bargain-hunters the dual-band RBK352 mesh is just £180. For the tightest budgets, consider the Xiaomi Mesh System AX3000; it’s only available as a grey import, but it’s a decent two-unit package for just £93 – meaning you could set up a huge 32-node mesh for the price of one Orbi WiFi 6E kit.
There’s an unmistakable family style to Netgear’s various Orbi models. I’ve commented in the past that the design looks like something out of Star Trek, but the new 6E versions are also available in a black trim that might be more at home on the Death Star. As usual, there’s no display, just a multicoloured LED strip near the base to indicate each station’s status.
The regular light-mode units are distinguished from previous models by a pale bronze surround, and the fact that, in order to make room for an entire extra radio and antenna assembly, they’re the tallest Orbi units yet, looming 280mm tall. They’re also slightly fatter than the standard Wi-Fi 6 units, measuring 84mm deep versus 71mm. The curved organic shape remains fairly pleasing, but it’s getting harder to tuck these things inconspicuously away.
In addition to upgraded wireless connectivity, there’s improved Ethernet support. Where the original Wi-Fi 6 model had a 2.5GbE WAN port and four GbE LAN connectors, the new Orbi router supports 10GbE internet, and each station offers a single 2.5GbE LAN connector alongside three Gigabit ports. You can use this to connect two Orbi units together for ultra-fast wired backhaul, or you might use it to – for example – hook up a 2.5GbE-enabled NAS appliance, so your zippy Wi-Fi 6E connection isn’t bottlenecked by a 1Gbits/sec LAN link.
It’s just a shame that the Orbi doesn’t support client link aggregation, as 2.5GbE is still a fairly niche standard, whereas dual-Gigabit connections are commonplace on even entry-level NAS gear.
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Initial setup is carried out using the Orbi smartphone app. I tried the Android version and found the process very smooth: the app prompted me to use my phone’s camera to scan the QR code on the base of the Orbi router unit, then connect to its network using the default credentials as printed on the packaging. I was then invited to change the SSID and password to something more memorable. After a quick reboot, the whole mesh was up and running, with the remote stations automatically connecting to the base and picking up their settings.
You can then continue to use the app to monitor your network and perform everyday administrative tasks, such as turning the guest network on and off. I like the way it alerts you whenever an unrecognised device connects to your network, and I’m also a big fan of the built-in Wi-Fi analytics feature. This records signal strength as you wander around your home, helping you to ensure your satellite stations are in the best places, and also offers a frequency scanner to help you pick the best channels for your networks.
That change can’t actually be made in the app, mind you. For advanced configuration you need to switch to the Orbi’s fully featured web console. Here you can tweak your DHCP settings, set up port forwarding and activate an incoming VPN to allow secure remote access to your home network, although there’s no option to configure an external VPN to protect outbound traffic.
You can also enable multiple wireless networks. The main Orbi network combines 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz services under a single SSID, but you can choose to broadcast an additional 6GHz-only network with its own name and security settings, to ensure 6E-compatible clients are using the upper frequency band. There’s an isolated “IoT” network too, intended for smart home devices, and let’s not forget the guest network. In all, it’s an impressive degree of network segmentation, to an extent I’ve only previously seen on business-oriented hardware.
Finally, Netgear offers two optional modules. The Armor feature handles network security, blocking dodgy activity and scanning clients for vulnerabilities. It’s not exactly cheap: if you sign up in the Orbi app your first year of coverage is £34, but after that the standard rate is £85 per annum. However, that price includes a licence to install Netgear’s Bitdefender-powered security suite on any number of local clients, so for big deployments it could be good value.
There’s also an integrated parental control system. This lets you set per-device time limits, filter websites by category and track online usage – abilities that could equally be useful in a small office environment. You can try the service free for the first 30 days, after which it’s £7 a month or £30 for the first year, rising to £60 for subsequent renewals.
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The Orbi WiFi 6E’s feature set may be strong, but its real selling point is performance. To test this, I set up the main Orbi router in my study and situated the two satellite nodes around my home as recommended by the app. I then carried a laptop to various parts of the house and measured file transfer speeds to and from a shared folder on an Intel NUC system, which was in turn connected to the Orbi router over a 2.5Gbits/sec Ethernet link.
Since almost all current client hardware will still be using the 5GHz band, I began by measuring performance using my usual HP laptop, equipped with an Intel AX200 2x2 Wi-Fi 6 card. Here are the speeds I saw:
The power of a three-station mesh system with a dedicated backhaul band is plain to see. The Orbi WiFi 6E’s download speeds were overall on a par with Netgear’s previous flagship Orbi, the Wi-Fi 6-equipped RBK852, and a step up from the two-node Asus system and the dual-band eero.
As usual, upload rates were less consistent – I suspect this is a reflection of the client hardware as much as the router. But the Orbi 6E certainly didn’t disgrace itself, delivering a minimum of 13.8MB/sec upstream even in the hardest-to-reach parts of the house.
Of course, 5GHz performance is only part of the story. Testing performance on the 6GHz band meant upgrading my test laptop, but this was surprisingly easy: I was able to order an Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E card online for less than £40, and it took me barely five minutes to open up my laptop, slot in the card, snap on the antenna connectors and screw everything back up. This won’t be possible with every laptop, but even on systems whose RAM and storage are hard-wired the network card is sometimes user-replaceable.
With my new card in place, I repeated my tests. I was initially dubious as to how much benefit I’d see from switching to the 6GHz range, especially since – although Netgear doesn’t openly advertise the fact – Orbi systems use an 80MHz channel width rather than the maximum 160MHz. In the event, I couldn’t have been happier with the results:
It’s clear that 6GHz performance is a game-changer. In every room of the house the Orbi 6E gave me significantly higher download speeds than I’ve ever seen before. In the study and bedroom the connection was literally twice as fast as a typical Wi-Fi 6 router, even vying with a fully wired Gigabit Ethernet (105MB/sec, if you’re interested). While speeds naturally dropped off in tricker locations, the Orbi WiFi 6E remained far out in front of the pack, and upload performance was excellent as well.
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I had high hopes for Wi-Fi 6E, and the Orbi WiFi 6E fully lives up to them. It’s a stunner.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should rush out and spend the money. For a start, there’s the question of what you’d actually do with the extra speed afforded by the new standard. Most internet connections aren’t fast enough to max out a Wi-Fi 6 connection, so upgrading to 6E probably won’t have any effect on your online experience. And while it may let you move data around your internal network at a higher pace, you won’t see the full benefit unless both clients are using either Wi-Fi 6E or multi-gig Ethernet. Right now that’s unlikely, since there are so few 6E-enabled devices available.
Yet if few of us are in a position to take advantage of the Orbi WiFi 6E’s phenomenal performance, that’s hardly a fault of the product. It’s more a reason to hold off for now, especially since the launch price is so high. In six months or a year’s time 6E clients will be much more widely available, and the Orbi itself will hopefully have fallen in price as rival routers and meshes emerge.
Still, Netgear deserves considerable credit for putting together such a powerful, aspirational networking system and ushering in the new wireless standard. You could hardly wish for a better showcase for the coming generation of Wi-Fi.