Its taken six iterations, but those promoting wireless networking have finally realised that many of the people buying it do not understand, or want to, the differences between IEEE 802.11n and IEEE 802.11ax, or any other designations like that.
Their solution is to rebrand the latest wireless standards to be ‘WiFi 5’ and ‘WiFi 6’ so that the non-technical public has a better understanding of why they might buy the latest equipment.
What this entirely ignores is that some of the wireless networking standards have a specifically different purpose, and it is not about them being a bigger or smaller number at all.
But for those that realise that ‘WiFi 6’ is also known as IEEE 802.11ax, the reason that Netgear might want a new version of its previously launched Orbi Pro networking router will make sense.
Is it just more expensive networking hardware from Netgear, or is this Wi-Fi 6 router worth the investment for those wanting to grow their wireless networks and one of the best mesh Wi-Fi routers right now?
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Netgear likes to make available a basic model and then bundle peripherals with its routers to provide a complete out of the box solution.
The SXK80-100NAS (or SXK80-100EUS in Europe) can be bought for $769.99 in the USA and €869.99 (£799.99) in Europe directly from Netgear.
That SKU includes the router SXR80 router and a single SXS80 satellite, plus mounting plates and power adapters, etc.
Alternatively, the router plus two satellite modules or one router and three satellites cost $1099.99 (€1,189.99, £1,099.99) and $1489.99 (€1,499.99, £1,379.99) respectively. And, additional SXS80 satellites can be purchased for $419.99 (€489.99, £449.99) each.
Design and features
The new Netgear Orbi Pro WiFi 6, or SXK80 as we’ll call it from this point on, has the same objectives mostly as its SRK60 predecessor.
And, like the forerunner, the SXK80 comes as a router-designated module and a single satellite labelled part. As neither element contains a modem, any deployment will invariably require a separate cable or ADSL broadband connection.
There are two ways that these modules can be deployed depending on the wired infrastructure available in the building. If Ethernet is available, the router can connect over that to the Satellite module to provide a high-speed backbone. And if not, the two can establish a wireless corridor for data to flow without interfering with client connections.
The SXK80 router should be wired to the network directly via a dedicated WAN port, and it has a further four ports of gigabit LAN (with link-aggregation) to connect to a server, local computers or branch to other satellites.
These modules aren’t small items, and they come with substantial wall mountings built to place them above the clutter or desks and dividers in a typical office.
Where the older SRK60 could cope with 5,000 square feet of office with one satellite and 7,500 with two, the new SXK80 can handle a much larger office of up to 18,000 square feet with a maximum of six satellites.
But the most significant differences between them are the number of concurrent connections the new hardware can simultaneously manage and the amount of bandwidth available to divide between them.
We’ll be honest and say that we had some minor trouble getting this hardware configured. But these were our issues, not the hardware.
This problem was mostly because having reviewed the Netgear Orbi Pro previously we used the same methodology that began with searching the Google Play Store for ‘Netgear Orbi’.
The app that search leads you to install the one that works so well with the previous generation, but it won’t work with these newer devices.
They only respond to the Netgear Insight app that appears remarkably similar in functionality, but it has a purple colour scheme and not the blue of the other app.
Once over that hurdle, this is easy hardware to get operational even without guidance, and for most IT staff they should be ready to deploy it to users in a matter of hours, if not quicker.
IT staff doing day-to-day system configuration can use the Insight app, Insight Web Portal or a Web UI from a browser on the wired network.
As part of any wireless networking review, we try to do some tests on the quality of the connections, speed of transfers and how range impacts on that performance.
With this equipment, our efforts to test it were frustrated in unique ways. Specifically, the high speeds that we recorded next to the router were duplicated elsewhere in the building.
In testing with a WiFi 6 capable client speeds of over 800Mbps were possible near the router and even with older clients, the performance was outstanding even at 50ft or further away.
Yes, some decline in performance was evident the further away we got, but not to the extent that we’ve seen on older wireless networking technology.
With the satellite added to the router and placed at the other side of the building, the impact of reinforced walls on signal quality is reduced, and mobile devices can move between connecting between the two seamlessly.
How fast this solution can communicate with a single client is useful, but it isn’t the true performance potential of this hardware.
Where we’ve seen many wireless routers with AC5300 specification, suggesting that they have 5,300 Mbps available, those numbers are largely theoretical. Under 802.11n, the number of clients trying to use the same frequencies and talking over each other makes reaching that level of performance practically impossible.
Using 802.11ax technology on this hardware, it's easier to use the collective bandwidth. Each satellite that is added is effectively a ‘force multiplier’ in overlap areas, boosting the number of clients that can achieve their WiFi performance potential significantly.
Putting hard numbers on overall performance for any given situation is nigh impossible. As the exactly what performance you will see depends on the construction of the building, the physical scale of the office, the number of concurrent users, the server infrastructure, the internet connection, interference from other WiFi networks and the exact mix of 802.11 protocols in use, to name a few factors.
But we’d contest that if deploying this type of hardware into a complex WiFi environment doesn’t go some way to addressing the issue, then the likelihood is that it was never exclusively a wireless networking problem.
Therefore, before going mad with the Netgear Orbi Pro WiFi 6 it might be worth analysing the network environment and finding out where most of the clients are ultimately connecting, and if sufficient downstream bandwidth exists there.
In short, the SXK80 is a poster boy for how WiFi 6 on a Mesh solution should work, and the performance it delivers is excellent, but it needs to have the right infrastructure behind it to make the most of what it has to offer.
Our experience with the previous versions of this hardware confirms just how useful it can be, but this is a disturbingly expensive option when compared with consumer WiFi 6 hardware. Please, don’t buy this for home use, it would be complete overkill unless you own a sprawling mansion, zeppelin hangar or live in a castle.
We’d be naturally reticent about the concept of buying technology with the intentions to add more components to it later. Updates in technology can inevitably circumvent that strategic thinking resulting in spending heavily on the first part of a path and never seeing the downstream benefits.
Therefore, if you want to go down this rabbit hole, we’d recommend you start with a router and three or four satellite pack, and not the single router and satellite combination.
That’s a serious chunk of change, but to get the most from these devices requires a holistic approach to deployment and not a piecemeal one.
For those with a lesser requirement, the previous Orbi WiFi 6 hardware can still be found, and it provides many of the advantages of WiFi 6 at a slightly lower price.
But we sympathise with those budgeting for IT services forced to justify these costs for better WiFi and fewer complaining users.
While the performance and quality of the wireless networking this service can deliver are undoubtedly exceptional, we’re not entirely convinced that the cost is proportional to the advantages over cheaper and less ambitious AX class hardware.
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