Time To Invest In A Wi-Fi 6 Router?

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Wi-Fi 6 feels like it’s coming of age. Most newly released laptops and smartphones now have Wi-Fi 6 built in, although it’s likely that the majority of devices in your home will be on older, slower Wi-Fi standards for a good while yet. All of which begs the question: is it worth investing in a Wi-Fi 6 mesh router system such as the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 AX4200 (RBK752) now?

The good news – performance

Let’s start with the reasons to get excited. This thing is seriously fast – but only if you’ve got Wi-Fi 6 laptops/phones to take advantage of it.

I call it a thing, but it’s actually two things. A router and a satellite device that you can place in another part of the house, extending the home’s Wi-Fi coverage. The two units are near identical and look elegant, although they’re not small – the size of a hardback novel.

The router (which, note, doesn’t have its own modem) and the satellite have a dedicated 5GHz backhaul link between them, which basically means the speed you get from connecting to the satellite should be almost as good as the speeds from the router itself, something which was borne out in my tests.

With six internal antennas in each of the router/satellite and MU-MIMO technology to handle multiple data streams at once, this device is pitched at households where you’re streaming HD media in different rooms at the same time.

My tests prove it should definitely be able to handle it. I saw actual throughput speeds of just over 400Mbits/sec when using a Wi-Fi 6-enabled laptop in the same room as the router. The speeds dipped by only 10% when connected to the satellite, which was placed two floors away. That is seriously fast.

Even when I moved a room away from the router/satellite, speeds only dropped by another 10%. Unless you’ve got a gigabit-grade internet connection, the AX4200 is going to make sure you’re getting the maximum internet speed possible right around your home.

However, these super-impressive speeds were only achieved when connected with Wi-Fi 6 devices, which are still something of a rarity. When connecting an 802.11ac (or Wi-Fi 5) laptop in the same room as the router, speeds dipped to just below 250Mbits/sec. That’s still screamingly fast for a wireless router, and much more than most people will ever saturate, but it’s a notable drop-off.

Those speeds also degrade more quickly the further you move from the router/satellite. A room away they fell to 145Mbits/sec. A 5m gap between router and my home office, through two external walls, saw speeds drop to just 24Mbits/sec using the Wi-Fi 5 laptop.

In other words, to get the most from the AX4200, you’re going to need Wi-Fi 6 devices to become much more commonplace. With older devices, it’s diminishing returns, if still a cut above most other routers.

The not so good news

We can’t go any further without mentioning the price. $449 (£449) is a lot of money to pay for a router. It’s considerably cheaper than the $699 Orbi AX6000 my colleague Gordon Kelly reviewed earlier this year, but it still a hefty thump to the wallet region.

Then there were the oddities I discovered in testing. The printer in my ground-floor office deciding it would connect to the satellite in the loft bedroom two floors away instead of the router only 5m away. Amazon Echo devices in that loft bedroom connecting to the router, despite being in the same room as the satellite.

It has to be noted that performance to these (largely low bandwidth) devices didn’t suffer in any real-world sense. And as a Netgear spokesperson rightly points out: “The device connections are determined by RF signal strength and not proximity to physical location. It’s possible that even though a device may be closer to an Orbi router or satellite, it may not get the best RF signal from the closest one if there are objects creating any interference such as glass, concrete walls, etc nearby.”

Alas, there’s no way you can use the otherwise excellent Orbi app to force a device to connect to the router or the satellite. Nor is there any band splitting or means assigning a device to a specific wireless band. So, for example, when my laptop connected to the 2.4GHz band (again, for reasons I can’t fathom), the Google Stadia streaming service moaned my connection wasn’t strong enough.

Switching the laptop on and off resulted in it re-connecting to the 5GHz band, where everything was fine, but such random assigning of router/satellite/bands shakes my confidence in the system.

Verdict

Wi-Fi 6 devices are become increasingly common, and when you’ve got only two or three of them in your home, the benefits of a device such as the Orbi WiFi 6 AX4200 will become almost immediately apparent. It is next-generation fast.

If you’re still stuck on Wi-Fi 5 devices – especially key devices such as laptops and consoles, where streaming speed is key – the incentive to make this expensive upgrade is much less compelling.

The AX4200 is great, its lofty price and curious device assignments aside. But unless you’ve already got a handful of Wi-Fi 6 devices, it’s more of a tempting glimpse of what’s to come than a must-have now.

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