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Best Wi-Fi Systems

By: Carl Laron on January 31, 2017

Spread wireless signals to every corner of your house with a Wi-Fi system

It's a common problem: Due to either house size, layout, or construction (and sometimes all three), getting a usable Wi-Fi signal to all parts of your home can be difficult, if not downright impossible. The easiest workaround is relocating your router, but that's not always possible, and not always effective. A Wi-Fi extender is another option, but most will sap a good deal of the bandwidth from your Internet connection and/or be difficult to configure for best performance. Powerline networking -- using your home's electrical wiring to distribute wireless signals -- can work wonderfully in some settings, and not at all in others, especially in homes with older wiring.

All of that has given rise to a new category of wireless routers -- mesh-based Wi-Fi systems. One unit, the parent node, connects in place of a standard router, with other, child, nodes located in strategic locations around the home to provide a usable Wi-Fi signal throughout.

Wi-Fi systems have downsides as well -- they are somewhat pricey, and don't always provide substantially better performance than using a wireless extender. On the plus side, they are easy to set up and use.

There are several Wi-Fi systems now on the market, and nearly all of them get kudos in at least some quarters. However, we see a consensus of opinion forming around the Netgear Orbi (Est. $380) as the best option. It's an Editors' choice selection at PCMag.com and HotHardware.com, and the recommended Wi-Fi system for most people at TheWirecutter.com. It also impresses the hard-to-impress testers at SmallNetBuilder.com. "But while it may look like a pumped-up air freshener, Orbi is simply the best solution available right now for your best shot at getting high-bandwidth Wi-Fi that will cover most homes and apartments," Tim Higgins says. Users are impressed, too, and the Orbi gets a rating of 4.5 stars based on feedback from more than 600 users at Amazon.com, and 4.6 stars based on more than 430 reviews at BestBuy.com

The "high-bandwidth" part of Higgins' praise is the key to the Orbi's advantage. Most Wi-Fi systems are dual-channel affairs, using the same 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands that are used by client devices (laptops, tablets, phones and the like) to communicate between themselves. The Orbi, on the other hand, is a three-channel system, with one channel dedicated solely to communications between Orbi units. That leaves the full bandwidth of the other two channels free for the kinds of things you want to use Wi-Fi for -- heavy duty video streaming, competitive gaming, and more. "Thanks to its use of a dedicated backhaul band, throughput on the Orbi satellite module was nearly identical to that on the router," notes PCMag.com's John R. Delaney. "With the other Wi-Fi systems, satellite throughput was significantly less than router throughput," he adds.

That, in itself, is a fairly big deal, but the Orbi is also one of the most feature-laden Wi-Fi systems you can buy. It, like all modern Wi-Fi systems, is wireless-AC. It also supports MU-MIMO and beamforming technology to improve range. The base unit has 3 Gigabit LAN ports, plus one WAN port, and each satellite has an additional 4 Gigabit LAN ports. There's a USB port as well on each unit, but it's 2.0 only and reviews say that those are still waiting for a firmware update to be activated. One firmware fix that has already come down the pike is the ability to host guest networks.

But performance and ease of use are why you will want to opt for the Orbi. The most popular configuration comes with one base (parent) unit and one satellite (child) unit and can cover up to 4,000 square feet. If you need more coverage, you can add an Orbi Satellite (Est. $250); each will cover around an additional 2,000 square feet.

The fact that the Orbi comes standard with two units rather than the more typical three concerned Jim Salter at TheWirecutter.com, briefly, until testing revealed that "the Orbi kit actually does more with its two units than other systems can muster with three." It also made set up super simple. "The fact that the Orbi kit has just two units instead of three, with dead-simple instructions to put the satellite in the middle of the house, will ease the technical anxiety of people who simply want to plug it in and get on with their lives," Salter says.

In testing, the Orbi isn't quite as fast as the fastest high-performance routers, but it more than holds its own. "While it's not the fastest Wi-Fi system on the market, it's faster than many -- and more than fast enough to deliver even the fastest internet speed," says CNET's Doug Ngo. In testing there, it delivered speeds of 416.2 Mbps (close range) and 229.6 Mbps (long range) at the base unit, with the satellite unit showing nearly no drop off, and speeds of 415.83 Mbps (close range) and 229.3 Mbps (long range). Those kind of results are similar to what all other testers discovered.

If cost is a concern, and you don't need to eke out every Mb of throughput from your Wi-Fi system, a new offering from Google could make for an interesting alternative. Doug Ngo at CNET actually likes Google WiFi (Est. $130 and up) better than the Orbi, though only by the tiniest of margins. Still, that's enough for him to declare that "Google Wifi is the best Wi-Fi system on the market." Other reviewers give the system excellent feedback as well, though their praise is a little more restrained. PCMag.com gives it a rating of Excellent for being a "super-simple way to get Wi-Fi to every corner of your home." Users agree, so far, and it earns a 4.4 star rating at Amazon.com based on more than 250 reviews.

Performance, while good, isn't in the same class as the Orbi overall. Testing by multiple reviewers finds Google WiFi to actually be faster than the Orbi at close distances to the base unit, but performance falls off notably at long distances, and precipitously at the satellites -- though it's still fast enough to handle even most high-demand tasks. That's not unexpected; without a dedicated communications channel as found in the Orbi, speed drops of up to 50 percent are typical at mesh satellites, and all types of wireless extenders for that matter.

As long as you don't mind Google's ubiquitous presence, set up and use is easy. However, either an Android or iOS mobile device is required for set up as there's no PC interface, and you'll need a Google account (free) as the system stays connected to Google at all times. Ngo notes that the app doesn't log user activity, only hardware, app and network-related info, and those that are privacy sensitive can even turn that off in settings.

There are a few benefits from doing things Google's way. For one, Ngo says, the system is updated regularly, and that should improve performance and keep things secure from hacking. Set up is easy -- "It took me about 15 minutes to set up all three units using an Android phone," Ngo says, adding that "The whole process was self-explanatory, and dare I say, fun."

As easy as setting up the network is, controlling it after the fact is, perhaps, easier still, at least compared to standard routers. That's thanks to what Delaney calls "Google's thoughtfully designed free Android or iOS mobile app." From it, you can visually monitor the status of the network, set up guest networking, designate device priority, control access for clients or groups of clients (for example, turning off Internet access for your children's laptops and tablets when its bed time), and more.

Finally, there's the value. At $130 per unit, the price is not quite disruptive, but does set a low bar for those who want to see if setting up a Wi-Fi mesh network will work for them. SmallNetBuilder.com says that those that "Are looking to see what this whole mesh Wi-Fi thing is about, but are on a budget" might find just what they are looking for if they "Give Google Wi-Fi a try." You can also opt for a three unit whole house bundle, the Google Wifi System (Est. $300), which offers a bit of savings compared to the price of individual units, and makes this one of the least expensive whole-house Wi-Fi systems currently available.

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