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Review: Orbi Voice mesh network with smart speaker

Image credit: netgear

With the Orbi Voice, Netgear is firmly positioning its mesh network solution as a foundation for smart home devices.

Like a typical mesh network, it combines a router with satellites that are designed to extend WiFi to areas of a home that suffer from a dearth of signal. But unlike other mesh networks, the satellites double up as Alexa-powered smart speakers that can rival Amazon’s own Echo devices.

This may be a hard sell for users who already own enough Echos to kit out their home with full smart functionality. But by combining the two, the Orbi Voice helps to tackle the exponential proliferation of smart devices that increase clutter on surfaces and shelves.

orbi voice

Image credit: netgear

Netgear has designed the devices to be simple to set up for even the most technologically illiterate user. After downloading an app, you are guided through the setup process, including setting passwords and an SSID if needed, before connecting the satellites to the primary router. I found that the satellite itself needed to be near the router during setup, but once attached could be moved further away while still providing strong coverage. Other networking companies should take note of the simplicity of Netgear’s app and browser interface, as they allow users fine control over their network without getting bogged down in MAC addresses and IP configurations.

The routers provided by ISPs as part of a broadband contract are typically poor quality, suffering from crashes and failing to adequately provide for more advanced network configurations. I personally struggled with routers provided by two separate ISPs. Back in 2014, my Virgin SuperHub was a frequent point of irritation before I opted for an Apple Time Capsule. As well as being more stable, this immediately solved many of my networking woes (such as inconsistent wireless music and video playback), but it has started to show its age in the intervening years. As someone living in a well populated area of South London, even the best routers must compete with neighbouring networks, often causing sluggish performance at the edge of a router’s range, such as in the garden.

Orbi_voice_internals

Image credit: netgear

These signal woes were eliminated once the Orbi was installed. The escalating arms race with my neighbours over who can produce the strongest signal has been won, for now. A dedicated 5-GHz 4 x 4 backhaul between the router and the satellite also ensures low ping, an important metric for gamers in particular (such as myself).

As for the satellite, its microphone seems about as responsive to voice commands as the official Echo, although it doesn’t look as sleek or feature the familiar ring of LEDs that light up in the direction of a user’s voice. It does have its own LEDs on the top that denote how well it is functioning and how strong the connection is with the base unit. As someone now embedded into Google’s smart home ecosystem for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, it’s a shame that the Orbi Voice doesn’t offer the option to choose between multiple platforms. The speaker itself is acceptable if not mind blowing, somewhat undermining the collaboration with Harmon Kardon on the sound design. It can reach a decent volume with good bass, although high ranges tend to sound muddy. Its volume controls are actually superior to the two-button system on the Amazon Echo: a touch sensitive bar lights up as the volume is adjusted, offering more granular control.

For consumers who are simultaneously eyeing up a mesh network solution and looking at getting an Echo, the Orbi Voice is virtually a no-brainer, reducing smart home clutter and offering a solid network solution. Others might be better off opting for Netgear’s standard Orbi package, which doesn’t offer smart speaker functionality on the satellites. Ultimately though, unification of devices is generally a good thing and I would expect to see more dual-functionality smart home devices cropping up as these platforms grow in popularity.

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