A mesh router uses additional satellite devices to spread a speedy Wi-Fi signal throughout your whole house. It's a great upgrade if you're sick of dealing with dead zones where you can't get a fast enough connection, and with a surge of new systems hitting the market in 2020, you've got plenty of options to choose from.
I've been testing these systems for months now, and the two that have impressed me the most are the Nest Wifi and Netgear Orbi 6. Both offer a two-piece system that you set up and control from an app, and -- with nearly identical CNET review scores -- both performed well in our tests, too.
That was particularly true with the Orbi 6, which finished as the fastest and most capable mesh router I've ever tested. That's largely thanks to its dedicated backhaul band for transmissions between the router and the satellite, something the Nest Wifi lacks. It also supports Wi-Fi 6, the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi. The Nest Wifi doesn't.
Then again, the Nest Wifi costs less than half as much as the Orbi 6, which sells for a whopping $700, though at time of writing was down to $630 on Amazon. (In the UK they're £239 and £710 respectively. The Netgear is not widely available in Australia, but the Nest costs AU$399.) Does that make Nest the better bargain, or is Orbi 6 worth the splurge for the extra horsepower?
At about 10 inches tall, the fin-like Orbi 6 router and its matching satellite are each more conspicuous than the stout, marshmallowy Nest Wifi hardware. And while the router is only available in white, the Nest Wifi satellites (parent company Google calls them "Points") come in your choice of white, coral or blue. The futuristic-looking Orbi 6 commands more attention, but the Nest Wifi is the one that's better designed to blend in with your home.
The Netgear Orbi 6 features a multigig WAN port and four spare Ethernet jacks on both the router and the satellite. Meanwhile, the WAN port on the Nest Wifi router only supports incoming speeds of up to 1Gbps and only includes one spare Ethernet jack. The Nest Wifi Point doesn't include any Ethernet jacks at all.
As far as capabilities are concerned, each system features design touches that the other lacks. Most obvious is the fact that the range-extending Nest Wifi Points double as smart speakers. Spread a speedy Wi-Fi signal throughout your home, and you'll spread the Google Assistant's voice-activated footprint with it.
The Orbi 6 router, meanwhile, features a WAN port capable of accepting incoming speeds of up to 2.5Gbps. Along with the support for Wi-Fi 6, that's a welcome piece of future-proofing over the Nest Wifi, where incoming speeds are capped at 1Gbps.
The Orbi router and satellite each also feature four gigabit Ethernet jacks -- Nest only includes one spare jack on its router, and none on the satellite at all. That means you can't daisy-chain the satellite back to the router with a wired connection for faster speeds at distance. And again, Nest Wifi doesn't have an additional band dedicated to backhaul transmissions between the router and the satellite -- instead, those transmissions will commingle with your regular network traffic. That means that your speeds will dip when you're using the satellite to connect from afar.
The Netgear Orbi 6 router is among the fastest of all the mesh systems we've tested. The Nest Wifi can't keep up with the Wi-Fi 6 systems in this test, but it beats out every other mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 5.
As the speed rating (and the price tag) suggests, the Netgear Orbi 6 is a more powerful piece of hardware than the Nest Wifi. Netgear pegs the top speed of both the regular 5GHz band and the 5GHz backhaul band at 2,400 megabits per second, with the 2.4GHz band coming in at 1,200Mbps. Nest doesn't list its top-measured speeds for each band, but the overall AC2200 rating indicates that those top speeds add up to a combined total of 2,200Mbps. Take that for what it's worth.
In our own top speed tests, each system registered speeds that were a lot lower than the specs on the box, which is typical. For those tests, we wired each system's router to a MacBook Pro that acts as a local server, then used a second laptop with a Wi-Fi 6 radio to connect to the router and measure the transfer speeds as we downloaded files from the server at various distances.
At a range of five feet, the Netgear Orbi 6 router netted a top speed of 871Mbps. The number only dropped to 666Mbps at a range of 75 feet, which is a strong result. Both of those numbers are lower than you'd expect from a system that advertises top 5GHz speeds of 2,400Mbps, but they're on par with what we've seen from other high-end, triband mesh routers that support Wi-Fi 6, such as the Arris Surfboard Max Pro and the Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien.
As for the Nest, it wasn't able to score as high as $700 mesh routers like that, but it still notched speeds of 612Mbps at five feet and 431Mbps at 75 feet. That means that Nest's speeds dropped by about 30% at a far distance in this test, compared with a drop of about 25% for Netgear Orbi 6. And remember, that's just the router, with no range-extending satellite in play.
In my smallish, 1,300 square-foot home, the Netgear Orbi 6 was able to hit near-maximum speeds in every room. The Nest Wifi's average download speeds dipped down as I moved farther from the living room's router.
Our next test adds that satellite back into the action to measure real-world speeds in a real-world setting -- specifically, my 1,300-square-foot shotgun-style house in Louisville, Kentucky, where I've got an AT&T fiber internet plan of 300Mbps. It's admittedly a bit of a small environment for a mesh test, but it still lets me test average speeds from room to room with the router and the extender in controlled locations to get a sense of how these things perform once you take them home.
That includes a look at band-steering, since most mesh systems like these put out a single network that automatically hands your connection off between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands depending on your location. Some systems do it a lot better than others.
Netgear flat-out crushed this test. After dozens of speed tests across multiple days, my average speed in the living room, where the router sits, was a perfect 300Mbps. That number didn't drop any lower than 277 in any other spot in the house, and my connection remained stable as I moved from room to room. With an average speed of 288Mbps throughout the entire house, that's the best performance I've seen from any of the mesh routers I've tested in my home. It isn't particularly close, either. Next best in this test was the Wi-Fi 6 version of the Linksys Velop, which clocked in with a whole-home average of 243Mbps.
The Netgear Orbi 6 puts out a notably stronger signal than the Nest Wifi -- and note that both the router and the range-extending satellite appear equally capable. With Nest, the satellite is visibly weaker than the router.
As for the Nest Wifi, the overall average throughout my house was 222Mbps. My connection was rock-solid as I moved from room to room (Google's band-steering algorithm seems to be a strong point), but I wasn't able to hit top speeds at range like I was with the Netgear Orbi 6. With the Nest, my average close-range, living room speed of 283Mbps fell to 165Mbps in my back bathroom, the farthest point from the router. That's plenty fast to stream a podcast during a shower without buffering, but still, advantage Orbi.
That brings us to my last test, where I install each system at the CNET Smart Home to test its strength of signal. With the router and the extender again in a fixed location, I use NetSpot software to log that signal strength across dozens of locations on both the main floor of the house, where I sit the router and its extender, and also the basement level below.
Doing so provides a set of neat-looking heat maps that show how strong the signal is from room to room. At 5,800 square feet, the space is larger than either system promises to cover, so it's a bit of a stress test -- and both systems did well. Each was able to blanket the majority of the house in green (good) or yellow (great). But note that the Netgear Orbi 6 was able to do even better, with orange-level signal strength in the immediate vicinity of both the router and the extender. That's an outstanding result.
Signal strength isn't the same as speed, mind you, but a stronger signal means that you'll have an easier time hitting those faster speeds. Again, advantage Orbi.
It isn't as fully featured as a gaming router, but the Nest Wifi offers a good deal of easy-to-use system controls in the Google Home app, including the ability to prioritize traffic to specific devices for limited periods of time.
Like most routers these days, both Nest and Netgear let you set your system up using an app on your Android or iOS device. The process is relatively quick and painless with each system, but there are things to note.
First is that you'll setup and manage your Nest Wifi system via the Google Home app. That's the same app that you use to control Google Assistant smart speakers and the third-party devices that you connect with them, so if you've already bought into that ecosystem, then adding a Nest Wifi into the mix might make a lot of sense. Then again, if you're an Alexa user (or just averse to the idea of smart assistants to begin with), then the Nest Wifi approach might seem like more than you want from your router.
That said, the Google Home app is more polished than the Netgear Orbi app, which feels a little sparse by comparison. With Orbi, you'll be able to check the status of your system, pause the Wi-Fi to any of the devices on your network or run a quick speed test like you can with Nest, but there aren't many other features worth noting beyond that.
The Netgear Orbi 6 uses the same app as other Orbi devices. It gets the job done, but if you want lots of advanced extras to play with, you might want something else.
In the end, you're sort of splitting hairs here, because neither of these routers will offer the same depth of features that you'll get with something like a gaming router. For something closer to that ballpark, you might consider taking a look at the Ubiquiti AmpliFi Alien, a Wi-Fi 6 mesh gaming router that's easy to use while also offering lots of extra features and controls over the way your network will perform.
One last point of consideration is security. Both systems offer support for WPA3, which is Wi-Fi's latest encryption standard. That's a good thing -- WPA2 is still a reliable and widely used security standard, but it has a history of hacks that have needed to be patched over the years. That includes offline dictionary-based attacks, in which hackers use software to make endless guesses at your network's password. WPA3 is better suited to protect your network against threats like that.
As for privacy, you should know that Google says that it doesn't track the websites you visit, nor does it monitor the content of your traffic. It does, however, track the performance of your network and the devices that connect to it, which you can opt out of. Google says that it only shares that Wi-Fi network performance data with third-party apps and services that you've approved, and that it won't use that data to personalize the ads that you see online.
When the Nest Wifi arrived late in 2019 without support for Wi-Fi 6, I wondered how long it would be able to keep up. Sure enough, in the months that followed, we saw a huge influx of new Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems with faster top speeds, including some that don't cost much more than Nest's (if at all).
I'm still testing those systems out (and several noteworthy new ones won't be out until later this year), but thus far, the Nest Wifi has done a surprisingly good job of holding its own. It isn't as fast or as powerful as a triband system like the Orbi 6, particularly as you get far from the router, but it still offers excellent ease of use and a reliably steady connection. And, at $269 for a two-piece setup, the price is a lot easier to stomach. (And regularly even lower than that.)
192.168.169..1 Wireless Router
Still, it's hard not to be impressed with the Orbi's performance, particularly in those real-world speed tests I run out of my own home. Nothing else I've tested came close to Orbi 6 in that test. And, thanks to that multigig WAN port, it's a more future-proofed option than Nest, too. I wouldn't begrudge anyone for splurging on it, but that's the thing -- it's a splurge. Unless you already have a gigabit internet plan capable of taking advantage of Wi-Fi 6, or if you have a need to transfer mass amounts of data between different computers on your network at the fastest speeds possible, it's probably more than you need. That makes the Nest Wifi much easier for me to recommend.
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