The Netgear Orbi RBK is a compact, fun-sized mesh Wi-Fi system that delivers impressive wireless speed
Pros Excellent download speedsEasy to set upAll the technical features you could ask forCons Uncompetitive priceUneven performanceRestricted reach
In 2017 there was a boom in whole-home mesh Wi-Fi systems – multi-node kits designed to deliver a wireless signal to all corners of your home.
This year, the focus is on making that technology smaller and cheaper. We’ve recently seen cut-down mesh systems from Linksys and Tenda, and now Netgear has got in on the act with this dinky version of its Orbi mesh system. But in an increasingly crowded marketplace, can these little units make a big splash?
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: What you need to know
The standard Orbi RBK20 kit comprises two wireless nodes. You can buy additional satellites if you need them, or pay an extra £55 up-front for the three-node RBK23 package.
The units are much more compact than the bulky RBK40 and RBK50 Orbi models, standing 168cm tall with an oval-shaped 142 × 24mm footprint. Predictably, therefore, they don’t have the range of their larger cousins. Netgear claims 3,000 square feet (around 280m2) of wireless coverage, while the larger models promise around 370m2 and 460m2 respectively.
The good news is that nothing else has been sacrificed. Like their upmarket cousins, the RBK20 units contain three 2×2 MIMO radios, one of which serves as a dedicated 5GHz backhaul channel, though it’s rated at 867Mbits/sec, rather than the 1,733Mbits/sec of the top-tier RBK50. There’s also an impressively broad feature set, including lots of advanced network configuration features and Disney-branded parental controls. Make no mistake, the only thing that’s modest about this mesh router is its physical dimensions.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: Price and competition
Here’s the awkward part: right now, the Orbi RBK20 will set you back £230, which is a lot to pay for a two-node mesh system. In fact, it’s £33 more than the larger Netgear Orbi RBK40. At £285, the three-node kit isn’t exactly competitive either.
Cheaper alternatives include the excellent TP-Link Deco M5, which comes with three nodes for £200, and the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi kit, which can be had for a mere £190 – although that’s an extender rather than a router in its own right. Both are rated for a much larger area of 4,500 square feet, or around 420m2.
In short, the RBK20 is expensive for what you get. There are plenty of other systems, including ones from Netgear itself, that promise better coverage for a lower price.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: Setting up
Like most mesh systems, the RBK20 is designed to replace your existing router, although if you prefer you can keep your old router in place, switch the two Orbi units into AP mode and use them as simple Wi-Fi extenders.
Setup is straightforward. The box contains two similar Orbi nodes, wrapped in big removable collars labelled “ROUTER” and “SATELLITE”, so there’s no ambiguity as to which node goes where. The router has a QR code printed on the base, which you can scan using the Orbi app (available on Android and iOS) for more or less instant setup. The app then walks you through plugging in your modem, checks the internet connection and gives you the option to customise your Wi-Fi settings, after which you’re up and running.
You don’t need to do any configuration of the Satellite at all, which is great, but you also don’t get any guidance as to where to locate it, which mesh neophytes might have welcomed.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: Connections and features
Obviously, the Orbi is primarily a wireless system but at the rear of each unit you’ll find two Gigabit Ethernet ports. For our money that’s not enough for a home network, especially since one of the ports on the router unit is taken up by the modem connection, but it’s the norm in the world of compact mesh systems. If you need more wired connectors, you can buy a standalone Ethernet switch quite cheaply, or your old router may be able to do the job.
There are no other ports; just Power and Reset buttons, plus a Sync button, which is used for both connecting new clients via WPS and adding extra satellites to the system. There’s no display as such but the rings around the top of the Orbi units glow in various colours to let you see at a glance that all is well or that something’s gone wrong.
So far, so minimal and if you use your smartphone to manage your Orbi system then there’s very little more to discover. You can check your network status from the app, view connected clients, adjust your Wi-Fi settings, update the firmware and test your connection speed but that’s pretty much it. And. to be fair, that’s all that most users will need.
Those who want to get more hands-on, however, can turn to the Orbi’s comprehensive web-based administrative interface. From here you can set up a guest network, configure the DHCP range and enter VPN settings. It’s also possible to reserve IP addresses for individual clients, enable port forwarding and register a dynamic DNS service for external access.
A final strength of the Orbi is the inclusion of the “Circle with Disney” parental control system, which provides a flexible category-based web filtering service, plus per-device access scheduling. An optional $5-per-month subscription adds advanced features such as detailed usage monitoring, time limits and Alexa support, but even the free service is a step above what most routers offer.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: Performance
I’ve mentioned that the RBK20 doesn’t skimp on the wireless hardware, and so I wasn’t surprised to see it deliver decent network speeds. With the router unit installed in my living room, my 802.11ac-equipped Windows 10 laptop achieved close-range download speeds of 22MB/sec, which is actually rather better than the 17MB/sec I’d previously obtained from the larger (and more expensive) RBK50 kit.
The real test, of course, is how well coverage extends to the more remote areas of the house, and happily, the Orbi fared well here too. As I moved to the upstairs bedroom, my connection switched seamlessly onto the satellite unit (which I’d located in the kitchen, a room away from the router node), and I continued to enjoy download speeds of 21MB/sec.
Even in the upstairs bathroom at the rear of the house, where my router alone had been unable to provide a stable connection, the Orbi gave me a solid and speedy 14MB/sec – enough bandwidth to fully enjoy my 100Mbits/sec fibre broadband line.
While those figures are all very positive, I should mention that uploads were consistently much slower than downloads. In the living room and bedroom, I recorded upload speeds of 10MB/sec, falling to 6MB/sec in the bathroom.
It’s also worth noting that, while the two Orbi nodes were sufficient to fill my medium-sized home with Wi-Fi, if I’d wanted to stretch the coverage much further, I’d have been out of luck. When I took my laptop out onto the rear patio, I found it couldn’t reliably reach the node in the kitchen – and when I moved that node nearer to the back door, its connection to the router became flaky. If you need to extend your wireless signal over a long lateral distance, a three-node system will almost certainly serve you better, even if average connection speeds aren’t quite so swift.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 review: Verdict
Taken on its own terms, the Orbi RBK20 is a superb little mesh system. It’s effortless to set up, yet offers a first-class set of techie options and parental controls for those who want them. And, while the units are nice and compact, they deliver download speeds on par with much more heavyweight systems.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to recommend paying this much for a two-node mesh networking system. Hopefully, the price will fall once it’s been out a few months; if it does, the Orbi RBK20 might be the ideal choice for families living in an average-sized apartment. Right now, though, it simply can’t compete with the likes of BT and TP-Link, which will serve a wider area for a lot less money.