Netgear Orbi Voice review: A mesh Wi-Fi system with Alexa built in

Netgear’s Orbi platform is one of the more upmarket mesh Wi-Fi systems out there, offering strong performance and a decent feature set. The original two-node, tri-band system has been knocking around for around two years now, but the latest update adds something novel: the Alexa voice assistant, which transforms the secondary node from a dull bit of networking infrastructure into an interactive hub for music, information and home automation.

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Netgear Orbi Voice review: What you need to know

The Orbi Voice pack contains two units: a regular RBR50 router, as found in the standard Orbi mesh kit, and an RBS40V satellite, which serves as both a Wi-Fi extender and an Alexa smart speaker. The latter comes wrapped in a tasteful grey fabric, behind which there’s a Harman Kardon-branded speaker with a rated peak power output of 35W.

If you want to extend the mesh network, you can simply buy more Orbi nodes and pair them with the router; if you can’t get enough of Alexa, you can buy additional voice satellites individually too.

Netgear Orbi Voice review: Price and competition

The Orbi Voice is the first combined Wi-Fi mesh and voice assistant system we’ve seen. We’re sure it won’t be the last, but right now it has no direct competition.

Even so, at its current price of £434 it’s a tough sell. For comparison, the standard Orbi RBK50 twin-pack, sans Alexa, costs £294, while Zyxel’s excellent two-node Multy X system can be had online for £237 – and BT’s Whole Home Wi-Fi kit gives you three units for just £170. If top performance isn’t a priority, you can get dual-band mesh kits even more cheaply.

However, while you can certainly save money by buying a simpler mesh system and a separate smart speaker, the Orbi Voice is a more convenient and elegant solution – and audio quality is a step up from a standard Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker.

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Netgear Orbi Voice review: Setup and connectivity

The Orbi units are pretty chunky things. The router stands 22.6cm tall, with an oval footprint of 17 × 7.9cm; the voice satellite is shorter and wider, with the Orbi logo printed on the top rather than on the front. The inconsistency feels niggly, but since they’re intended to be placed in different rooms, it’s not something that’ll bother you on a daily basis.

The two nodes come pre-paired, so getting started is, in principle, as simple as plugging both nodes into the power, hooking up an internet connection to the router and stepping through the initial setup procedure – which you can do using a web browser, or via the Orbi smartphone app for Android and iOS.

In practice, though, I found it took a frustrating half-hour to make the two units talk to each other, involving repeatedly resetting the satellite, waiting several minutes for it to boot up, then waiting several more minutes for the scanning procedure. Happily, it was eventually detected, after which the connection remained solid.

With everything up and running, I took the opportunity to plug in my various wired clients. The router has three Gigabit Ethernet ports, while the satellite has two – not exactly a generous compliment, but enough for most homes. There’s also a USB 2 port, but this only supports printer sharing; you can’t use the Orbi to share external media over the network.

Netgear Orbi Voice review: Performance

The Orbi router and satellite both use tri-band Wi-Fi, with 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands for user traffic plus a second dedicated 5GHz radio for passing backhaul traffic between the two stations. If you want to, you can extend the system using cheaper dual-band Orbi satellites, but for the best performance, tri-band is where it’s at. The 2.4GHz radio connection is rated at 400Mbits/sec, while the 5GHz bands quote a maximum speed of 867Mbits/sec.

So much for the numbers; how does it fare in practice? To find out, I set up the router in my living room, with the voice satellite in the adjacent kitchen, from where the app reported a good connection. I then carried out my usual tests, taking a Microsoft Surface Laptop to various rooms around the house and measuring file transfer speeds to and from a local NAS drive connected to the router unit by Ethernet.

Here are the results – and for comparison I’ve also provided the file transfer speeds I was previously getting in the same locations from my standalone Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream router:

Write (MB/sec) Read (MB/sec)
Orbi Voice Linksys EA9500 Orbi Voice Linksys EA9500
Living room 9.1 11.5 10 31.3
Bedroom 9.6 2.9 25.4 5.3
Utility Room 8.7 0.8 24.5 0.5
Terrace 6 0.4 21.7 3.2
Bathroom 4.2 0 17.3 0

I’ve praised the Linksys EA9500 in the past for its wireless performance, and in the living room, it proved quite a bit faster than the Orbi. In other parts of the house though the connection to the Linksys was much weaker, and in the bathroom it dropped out completely.

Replacing it with the Orbi system was transformational. All through the bedroom, utility room and outer terrace, I now found myself enjoying superb download speeds of over 20MB/sec (equivalent to 160 Mbits/sec). Even in the bathroom, where the Linksys hadn’t been able to reach at all, the Orbi system delivered a very strong 17.3MB/sec – fast enough to convey the full bandwidth of my 100Mbits/sec fibre internet connection, with headroom to spare.

Clearly, if you want a mesh system to clear up the not-spots and flood your home with fast Wi-Fi, the Orbi is very hard to fault.

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Netgear Orbi Voice review: Alexa

Third-party Alexa devices are a mixed bag. The audio components aren’t always up to the quality of the official gear, and in some cases you need an awkward separate app to act as a bridge between the hardware and the Alexa platform.

Happily, the Orbi Voice experience is as slick as you could ask for. A few taps within the Orbi app was all it took to connect the unit to my Amazon account; after that it showed up in the Alexa app as a regular Echo unit, and I was able to start issuing commands. The Orbi Voice has only four top-mounted microphones (versus the Echo’s seven), but it had no problems hearing me from across the room, even with a modicum of background noise. An illuminated blue ring around the top lights up on hearing the wake word, just like on a real Amazon Echo, and strobes while a command is being processed.

Audio quality is impressive. The speaker is Harman Kardon-branded, and comprises a 3.5in woofer with a separate 1in tweeter. Obviously, this isn’t up to audiophile standards, but it’s a lot more articulate than a regular Echo, and far more substantial in the bass department as well. In fact, it was too substantial for my kitchen worktop, where an unpleasant rumble initially spoilt the musical experience; thankfully, you can adjust the EQ settings in either the Alexa app or Orbi’s own app, and a little tweaking was all it took to tame the low end and get a nicely balanced sound.

The only physical controls are two small touch buttons at the top, which mute the speaker and microphone respectively – the ring around the top follows the standard Echo behaviour of glowing red when the microphone is switched off – and a nifty volume control strip, which you slide a finger along to set your desired loudness. Tap anywhere on the top and it illuminates to indicate where the volume is currently set. The lighting isn’t very clear, but overall it’s still more intuitive and usable than the push-buttons found on first-party Echo hardware.

In all, the Orbi Voice makes a great Alexa device. It perhaps doesn’t sound quite as solid as the Sonos One, but it’s a big improvement over the standard Echo, and pleasanter to use than either. My only caveat is that you’ll naturally want to situate it somewhere like a kitchen or study – and that won’t necessarily be the place where it’s able to do the best job of distributing Wi-Fi to the further reaches of your home. That’s something to think about before splashing out.

Netgear Orbi Voice review: Network settings

The Orbi smartphone app puts a selection of everyday administrative tools and settings in your pocket. You can check the status of your network, test your internet speed, browse and block connected devices, enable the guest network (with an optional time limit) and configure parental controls, provided under the “Circle by Disney” brand. Here the free service includes age-based web blocking and safe searching, but if you want to set time limits and monitor what your kids are up to online, you’ll need a premium subscription, costing $50 (around £38) a year.

You may also choose to activate the paid-for Netgear Armor service, powered by BitDefender, which delivers protection against malicious websites, dodgy connections and suspicious devices on your network. The router-level approach isn’t a bad idea, as it ensures every device comes under the protection umbrella, but it’s not cheap: after a 90-day free trial it costs $69.99 a year, equivalent to around £54. Still, that does entitle you to install BitDefender software on all compatible devices on your network; whether it’s worth it will depend on the number and type of devices you need to protect.

For more advanced networking options you can turn to the web portal, which exposes the same interface as a regular Netgear router. From here you can configure DHCP, assign IP addresses to particular clients, set up port forwarding, adjust your Wi-Fi settings and so forth. If you’re not paying for Circle, you can also take advantage of a pretty good set of built-in website filtering options. For instance, you can use OpenDNS to blacklist dodgy sites and create your own list of sites and keywords to block, while optionally authorising one specific client to bypass those blocks.

There’s even a VPN service, enabling you to securely connect to your home network from anywhere in the world, and to give it a memorable address, you can use dynamic DNS services from Netgear, no-ip.com and dyn.com. If you want to (or have to) keep using your existing router, you can alternatively switch the system into AP mode, so the Orbi won’t try to manage your network itself. Functions like Circle and Armor won’t work in this mode, but Alexa still does.

In short, the Orbi offers all the features and configurability a home or small office is likely to need. My only grumble is that there’s no wireless band-splitting option; if (like me) you prefer to connect only to the 5GHz network, you’ll have to search the web to find the unofficial hack that lets you give it a different name to the 2.4GHz one.

Netgear Orbi Voice review: Verdict

I like the Orbi Voice very much ­– but two things factor into that. First, in my own home, the room that’s most in need of Alexa also conveniently happens to be a good central location for a Wi-Fi mesh satellite. In a house with a different layout, siting the Voice unit where you want it could mean compromising on wireless performance.

Second, this being a test system, I didn’t have to pay £434 of my own money to try it out. Truthfully, if I were in the market for a mesh kit like this, I very much doubt I’d be willing to pay full price for the Orbi Voice. I’d probably buy a three-node BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system instead, along with a standalone Echo Plus, ­and happily pocket the £124 difference.

If you’ve got the cash to spare, however – and a house with a suitable layout – then there’s no denying that the Orbi Voice is a superb domestic upgrade. It’ll give you a fast internet connection all over your home, and at the same time it’s one of the slickest and best-sounding smart speakers around. Tempting stuff indeed.

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