It’s good to see Netgear offering a more affordable dual-band version of its Orbi mesh systems, and this AC1200 model doesn’t disappoint on speed. However, Netgear needs to improve the parental controls in the Orbi app – rather than relying on Disney’s Circle subscription service.
Affordable dual-band mesh Wi-Fi system
Easy to set up and use
Free parental controls are limited
Few Ethernet ports for wired connections
Security features require subscription
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Two minute review
Netgear’s Orbi range is a popular choice for many people who need a mesh networking system that can provide wider and more reliable Wi-Fi coverage than you can get from a single router on its own. They are some of the best mesh routers in the world right now.
However, the Orbi products are all pretty expensive and generally aimed at very large homes, so Netgear has finally released a more affordable model called the Orbi AC1200 (RBK13) for those of us that don’t live in Downton Abbey country mansions.
The model we test here (model RBK13) consists of a primary router and two satellite routers. This three-piece kit is suitable for homes up to 3,250sq.ft and costs $229.99/£169.00 (around AU$350).
People in the UK obviously live in more humble abodes than their US and Australian counterparts, as they also get a less expensive two-piece kit (RBK12) that includes just the primary router and a single satellite for £129, although that model isn’t currently on sale in other territories.
Most Orbi kits use tri-band Wi-Fi, transmitting data via the 2.4GHz band and two separate 5GHz bands. However, this AC1200 model opts for a more affordable dual-band system, with just one 2.4GHz and one 5GHz band offering a maximum theoretical speed of 1.2Gbps.
It also saves a few pennies by cutting back on additional features, such as Ethernet ports that can provide a wired connection. The primary router has just two Gigabit Ethernet ports, with one being used to connect the Orbi to your existing broadband router or modem (in order to use its Internet connection), while the second port can provide a wired connection for a single device.
There are no Ethernet ports on the secondary satellite units at all – whereas more expensive Orbi models tend to have four Ethernet ports for wired devices. However, the compact little cubes a neatly designed and will sit easily on a shelf or desk, so it’ll be easy to find a convenient location for each device in rooms throughout your home.
Wireless Connectivity: IEEE 802.11ac, dual-band with 1x 2.4GHz (400Mbps) and 1x 5GHz (866Mbps)
Beamforming: Implicit and explicit for 2.4GHz/5GHz bands
Ports: Primary router - 2x Gigabit Ethernet; Satellites - N/A
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 2.7 x 4.1 x 4.1 inches (69x 104 x 104mm)
Weight: 0.54lb/0.24kg (each)
The initial set-up process is fairly straightforward, as the Orbi app can simply scan a QR code and then automatically connect the primary router and satellites for you. But while the Orbi app is quick and easy to use, it doesn’t offer a particularly impressive range of additional features.
As we’ve seen before with even tri-band Orbi models, the Orbi app creates just a single, combined network using the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, with no option to choose separate networks for those two bands. And while Netgear’s web site boasts about its parental control features, clicking the Parental Control button in the Orbi app simply prompts you to download a separate app – called Circle – that is supplied by the mighty Disney corporation.
Unfortunately, this only provides basic parental controls for free, such as a 'Pause' option that temporarily suspends internet use. Its more advanced controls – such as setting time limits for your kids’ Internet access – require an additional subscription of $4.99 (around per £4, AU$7) month (or $49.99 annually – which translates to around £40 and AU$75).
The Armour security features sound good too, offering anti-virus and malware protection for all your devices, including PCs, Macs, iOS and Android. Unfortunately, you only get a 30-day free trial with Armour and then need to pay $69.99 (around £50, AU$100) a year to keep using it.
There are many rival routers and mesh systems that provide better parental controls and other features at no extra cost, so Orbi systems aren’t the best option for parents who want to monitor and protect their kids online.
Here is how the Netgear Orbi AC1200 (RBK13) fared in our brief suite of tests (conducted on a 50Mbps service):
Ookla Speed Test 5GHz (Download | Upload)
Within 5ft/1.5m, no obstructions: 58.5 | 6.1 Mbps
Within 30ft/9.1m, two plaster walls: 58.4 | 5.9Mbps
1.5GB Steam download 5GHz (peak speed)
Within 5ft/1.5m, no obstructions: 6.1MB/s
Within 30ft/9.1m, two plaster walls: 5.8MB/s
But if the Orbi app is rather limited, we weren’t disappointed by the speed of this affordable mesh Wi-Fi system. Admittedly, a dual-band system such as this can’t match the performance of its more expensive tri-band rivals, but a maximum speed of 1.2Gbps is still more than fast enough for the Internet connections available in most homes.
Our devices in the same room as the Orbi’s primary router recorded download speeds of 58.5Mbps, which were similar to the normal router that we use for our internet connection.
However, the weak spot for Wi-Fi in our building is the back office where the download speed drops to around 45Mbps. That’s where the Orbi proved its worth, boosting the download speed to 58.4Mbps once more.
That’s about as good as it gets for the 50Mbps Internet connection we have, so the Orbi AC1200 will be a really good option for smaller and medium size homes that need to improve their Wi-Fi coverage.
Buy it if…
You need better Wi-Fi
You don’t need to live in a huge mansion to buy the Orbi AC1200. Many homes have thick walls, or rooms on upper floors where the Wi-Fi signal is weak, and an affordable mesh networking system such as this can really boost your Wi-Fi speeds.
You're on a tight budget
Mesh networking systems can be pretty expensive, but this dual-band system provides an affordable three-piece kit that can cover homes up to 3,250sq.ft for just $229.99/£169.
You’re a networking novice
Netgear’s Orbi app is a bit basic, but it’s really easy to use, so people who aren’t too familiar with networking technology can get their new mesh Wi-Fi network up and running in no time at all.
Don’t buy it if…
You need high-end performance
This affordable mesh system only offers dual-band Wi-Fi with a top speed of 1.2Gbps. If you live in a really big house that is full of computers, smartphones and other smart devices then it’s probably worth investing in a more advanced tri-band mesh system – and maybe even Wi-Fi 6.
You want parental controls
Netgear’s decision to farm out its parental controls to Disney’s subscription-based Circle app is disappointing, and there are a number of rival mesh systems that provide stronger parental controls completely free of charge.
You're a power user
The Orbi app is quick and easy to use, but it doesn’t give more experienced users much freedom to tweak Wi-Fi settings. The app defaults to a single, combined 2.4GHz/5GHz network, and provides few options for modifying the network set-up.
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Cliff Joseph is a former Editor of MacUser magazine, and a freelance technology writer with 30 year’s experience in the industry (and old enough to remember when Apple was close to going bust…).
His first job involved using Macs for magazine sub-editing and typesetting, which led to the realisation that these computer-thingies might actually turn out to be useful after all. After a few years specialising in the Mac side of the market, he went freelance and embraced the wide world of digital technology, including Windows PCs, digital audio and hi-fi, and networking. Somewhere along the line he also developed a bit of a gaming habit and has stubbornly waved the flag for Mac gaming for far too many years.