For as long as there have been Wi-Fi routers, setting up Wi-Fi has been pretty much the same. You buy a router at the store, plug it into your modem, and that's it. Wi-Fi may even be built into your modem in the first place.
But increasingly, it's looking like the future of Wi-Fi involves not one, but two or more routers scattered around your home as a way to provide a better signal. The idea has been catching on over the past year, and today, one of the biggest names in home routers is jumping into the game.
That's Netgear, which is introducing a multi-unit router called Orbi. Netgear likes to call Orbi a "Wi-Fi system," rather than a router, because it's technically a combination of router, range extender, and some software that makes it all work seamlessly together. Whatever you call it, the end result is a single Wi-Fi network that's supposed to be capable of blanketing 4,000 square feet of space and providing a strong and fast Wi-Fi signal to every corner of it.
Orbi consists of two units. There's the main router, which, as always, gets plugged into your modem. And then there's the secondary unit, which Netgear asks you to place somewhere "central" in your home. It even hopes that you'll leave it out in the open on a table or a shelf, since that's likely to provide better signal than if you stash it in a corner or a closet. It's this second unit that's supposed to let your Wi-Fi signal get to the far corners of your house that it's never been able to reach before. Netgear says it even expects people to get Wi-Fi out in the yard.
The two Orbi routers are almost identical, both looking like strange white pottery. At the end of the day, though, they still look like weird technical equipment, and I'm skeptical that people will want to place the secondary unit quite as prominently within their home as Netgear is hoping. That could hurt performance, even if it still manages to extend Wi-Fi farther than a single router could have gone.
If Orbi does one thing right, it's not having a single eternally blinking light
A solution to this might have been making a smaller unit, like Netgear's competitors do. Eero and Luma, both of which already have multi-unit routers on the market, both only ask you to place a pair of small boxes around your home. They're supposed to be placed in the open as well, but they're at lot less noticeable.
Netgear says that Orbi is bigger because, well, it's better. Both Eero and Luma are three-piece systems, whereas Netgear claims it can accomplish just as much or more with its two units. It also claims to be faster due to the inclusion of a third radio, which is dedicated to letting Orbi units communicate. (If you want the technical details: it supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi over a pair of 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios; it then has an additional 5GHz radio that uses MU-MIMO to let Orbi units relay information at high speed.)
Though it declined to name names, Netgear claims that Orbi is much faster than competing multiunit Wi-Fi systems. It's supposed to perform at twice the speed of competing systems when only one device is on the network; and that advantage supposedly grows as more devices are added, with Orbi performing three times faster when three devices are on the network, according to Netgear.
The Orbi will go on sale this month, with a two-pack selling for $399.99. Netgear will eventually sell single add-on units for $249.99 a piece, each adding an additional 2,000 square feet of range, though it doesn't expect most people to need one.
That can all sound pretty expensive, but Netgear says expensive is what customers are looking for. "Today we can't sell a Wi-Fi router less than $99 because the products less then $99 are no better than what you have in your home," says David Henry, Netgear's vice president of home networking. "Everyone's an upgrade customer now."
Henry says that half of today's router market is products $150 and up. That makes the idea of a $400 multiunit router sound a lot less ridiculous and a lot more like something people could conceivably want to put in their homes. You'll have to be pretty frustrated with those dead spots, but given how many mobile devices we use around the home — and how many products are likely to be added in the coming years — it's a problem that may well grow more and more frustrating.