Netgear takes on startups with new whole-home router system

Orbi is the World’s First Tri-band WiFi System. From your front yard to your home office to your pool, Orbi gives you reliable, secure, and crazy fast WiFi to every inch of your home.
Orbi is the World’s First Tri-band WiFi System. From your front yard to your home office to your pool, Orbi gives you reliable, secure, and crazy fast WiFi to every inch of your home. TNS

The big trend in Wi-Fi lately has been devices that promise better whole-home coverage. Netgear wants to take that trend a step further, offering both better coverage and fast speeds throughout.

Recently, the company unveiled a new Wi-Fi router system called the Orbi. Like products from startups eero, Plume and Luma, Orbi relies on multiple devices to ensure coverage throughout a house. Unlike those systems, Netgear’s Orbi devices communicate with each other on a dedicated channel that isn’t used for other Wi-Fi traffic. According to Netgear, that allows its devices to avoid interference so they can communicate with each other and deliver Wi-Fi access to phones and computers at super-fast speeds.

“Netgear has applied lessons learned from two decades of home Wi-Fi innovation to address the current network challenges of architectural design, dense building materials and large square footage,” David Henry, the San Jose company’s senior vice president of home networking devices, said in a statement.

Consumers have a growing number of devices in their homes that are connecting to their Wi-Fi networks. The Wi-Fi industry has traditionally tried to accommodate those devices by boosting the speed of their routers, allowing them to deliver faster speeds to each connected device.

But as connected devices have become more portable and as users have started to adopt smart home devices that are placed throughout their homes, many consumers have discovered areas in their homes that don’t get particularly strong Wi-Fi signals.

Older routers could be connected together wirelessly to extend their range. But it was difficult for most consumers to do.

Eero and the other startups developed their router systems to make it easy for consumers to eliminate dead zones within their houses. Their systems typically come pre-programmed to talk to one another, so consumers don’t have to go through the difficult process of connecting them.

With any multi-device router system, the satellite devices have to access the internet by connecting to the main router either directly or through another satellite device. Each of the router systems from Netgear’s startup rivals has a different way of connecting the main router and its satellites. But the signals used to connect them are all transmitted over the same frequency bands that are used for regular Wi-Fi traffic sent to smartphones, PCs or other connected devices.

Mixing the two sets of signals – those among the routing system and those sent to consumers’ devices – can lead to interference and slow data rates for all the connected gadgets, Netgear argues. Because it uses a separate, dedicated band for communication among the router and the satellite, the Orbi system won’t run into interference among the two sets of signals and can promise both coverage and speed, Netgear says.

Orbi differs in another way. Its competitors’ systems are built around smaller devices, each about the size of a hockey puck. By contrast, the Orbi router and satellite are about the size of a traditional router, although with their white plastic shells and lack of blinking lights, they don’t really look like one. Netgear intentionally made Orbi larger than its rivals to offer stronger and more capable antennas, company officials said.

Netgear will start selling the Orbi in September. It will sell a kit that includes one router and one satellite device, which it says will offer coverage for a home of up to 4,000 square feet, for $400. That’s pricey compared with most routers on the market, but it’s in line with the products from Netgear’s startup competitors. Luma’s system costs $400, while eero’s costs $500. Plume’s, which will go on sale this fall, start at around $240.

The Orbi system will support more than one satellite device for consumers with homes bigger than 4,000 square feet, and Netgear plans to sell those devices separately. It also plans to offer the Orbi router as a standalone product for consumers with smaller dwellings.