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Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Review: Top Performer, Big Caveats

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The new Netgear Orbi RBKE960 series is a nice and large box of mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it’s excellent, delivering seemingly everything a home user would ask for in a home mesh system.

On the other, it has a deliberately neutered web interface and rings in potentially upsetting surprises. And that’s on top of the fact it’s also the most expensive Orbi, costing $1500 for a 3-pack — model RBKE963 (white) or RBKE963B (black).

Eventually, my take is you’ll be able to find a 2-pack, but, for now, the only other hardware option is an add-on satellite (SBKE960) that costs over $600.

So a 4-pack will cost you over $2k, and chances are a 2-pack, when available, will be over $1k.

In all fairness, the price might seem reasonable once you’ve gotten your hands on the hardware — it’s substantial. And, naturally, you have to pay for the latest and greatest. The RBKE960 is the only canned mesh system, for now, that has both top Wi-Fi specs and matching performance.

So, here’s the bottom line: the Orbi RBKE960 has enough to be the best Orbi mesh set to date. It’ll work well for large homes — wired or wireless. It’s as good as an Orbi set can be regarding Wi-Fi coverage.

Whether that’s worth the cost depends on how much of an Orbi fan you are.

One thing is for sure: if you have wired your home, there are other options, and likely even more so starting next year, that can deliver similar performance, more features, and most importantly, better control and less of a privacy risk for (significantly) less.

Dong’s note: I first published this post on October 12, 2021, as a preview, and updated it on December 21 to a full review after thorough hands-on testing.

“The Orbis go marching three by three.”
The Netgear RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System includes one router and two satellites. All three looks mostly the same.
Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad band Mesh Wi Fi 6E System Box

Pros

Powerful hardware with Quad-band Wi-Fi and Multi-Gig wired backhaul support

Excellent Wi-Fi coverage, fast performance

Cons

No web-based Remote Management, few free features, Mobile app (with a login account and even subscriptions) is required to be useful

Rigid Multi-Gig ports’ roles, few Multi-Gig ports

The 2nd 5GHz-band is never available to clients, no 160MHz channel width on 5GHz

Limited Wi-Fi customization, bulky design

Netgear Orbi RBKE960: Wi-Fi 6E mesh done right, at first glance

At its core, the Netgear RBKE960 is like any other Orbi set. It includes two types of hardware. Each system has a router (model RBRE960) and satellites (RBSE960).

You use the router unit to hook up to your Internet source, set up the Wi-Fi network, and the satellite will expand the Wi-Fi coverage. After that, you can add even more satellites, if need be, to scale up the range.

In the Orbi family, the RBKE960 is the first that supports Wi-Fi 6E. But on the market, it’s not the Wi-Fi 6E mesh system I’ve tested. I’ve reviewed all others, namely, the Asus ZenWiFi ET8 and the Linksys Velop AXE8400.

(None of those that TP-Link flaunted at the beginning of the have year materialized yet.)

I wrote a long piece on Wi-Fi 6E, but the gist is that it brings in a new type of Tri-band that includes three distinctive bands, including 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz, where the 6GHz band has the shortest range. As a result, by default, there’s no good band to work as the backhaul in a wireless mesh setup.

The Orbi RBKE960 solves this problem by having an additional 5GHz band which works as the dedicated backhaul. And with that alone, it’s a different beast. It has a couple of firsts.

The Netgear Orbi RBSE960 Next To an XBOX Controller
Here’s the new Netgear Orbi RBKE960’s satellite unit (RBSE960) next to an Xbox One controller. The hardware is huge but has a design that blends in most homes well.

First Quad-band mesh system

Orbi RBK960 has four Wi-Fi bands, including one 6GHz, two 5GHz, and one 2.4GHz. Most importantly, these bands are all top-tier 4×4, with 16 streams and up to 11Gbps (rounded) of bandwidth in total.

(Like all Wi-Fi 6 Orbi sets, the RBK960’s 5GHz bands do not support the 160MHz channel width and therefore cap at 2.4Gbps — more in the hardware specification table below.)

What’s the point of having four bands, you might wonder?

Other than the extra bandwidth, the Orbi Wi-Fi 6E uses one of the 5GHz bands as the dedicated backhaul in a fully wireless setup. On this note, in more ways than one, the RBKE960 is like you take the RBK850 and add the 6GHz band to it.

More bands also mean you have more options to segment your network. For example, you can use the 2.4GHz for low-bandwidth IoT devices and the 6GHz for your top-notch clients, such as the Samsung Galaxy S21, Google’s Pixel 6/Pro, or any computer that has the Intel AX210 Wi-Fi chip.

Why not get an additional 6GHz band instead, you might wonder? That’s because there’s no point in doing so.

As its nature, the 6GHz band is clean but short in range — it’s excellent for nearby clients but terrible for those farther away or behind a wall. This band has the same bandwidth as the 5GHz, just without interference and regulation constraints — it doesn’t need to use DFS channels at all.

The point is, the 6GHz generally doesn’t work well as the backhaul, but it doesn’t have issues with bandwidth or stability, either. Consequently, there’s no need to get an additional band for it.

In wireless mesh, so far, the 5GHz has remained the best band for the job of linking hardware units together, thanks to the balanced combo of high bandwidth and long range.

And that’s especially true in the Orbi family, where the additional 5GHz Band is engineered proprietarily to work solely in the dedicated backhaul role — it’s never available to clients.

Hardware specifications: Orbi RBKE960 vs Orbi RBK850

So to speak, if you take the RBK850, enlarge it, then add a 6GHz band and a couple of Multi-Gig ports, and you get yourself the Orbi RBKE960.

And all that makes a huge difference.

Hardware Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Series Netgear Orbi RBK850 Series
Model RBKE963: 3-pack (white)
RBKE963B: 3-pack (black)
Router: RBRE960
Satellite: RBSE960
RBK853: 2-pack
RBK852: 2-pack
Router: RBR850
Satellite: RBS850
Dimensions 11 x 7.5 x 3.3 in
(27.94 x 19.05 x 8.38 cm)
10 x 7.5 x 2.8 in
(24.5 x 19.05 x 7.11 cm)
Weight (each unit) 3 lbs 2.86 lbs (1.3kg)
Wi-Fi Specs Quad-band AXE11000 Tri-band AX6000
1st Band
(Channel Width)
5GHz-1 4×4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps
(20/40/80MHz)
5GHz-1 4×4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps
(20/40/80MHz)
2nd Band
(Channel Width)
5GHz-2 4×4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps
(20/40/80MHz)
5GHz-1 4×4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps
(20/40/80MHz)
3rd Band
(Channel Width)
2.4GHz 4×4 AX: Up to 1200Mbps
(20/40MHz)
2.4GHz 4×4 AX: Up to 1200Mbps
(20/40MHz)
4th Band
(Channel Width)
6GHz AXE: Up to 4.8Gbps
(20/40/80/160MHz)
None
Processing Power Quad-core 2.2GHz CPU,
512MB Flash, 1GB RAM
Quad-core 2.2GHz CPU,
512MB Flash, 1GB RAM
MU-MIMO Support Yes Yes
MIMO Yes Yes
AP (bridge mode) Support Yes Yes
Dedicated Wireless Backhaul 5GHz-2 5GHz-2
Wired Backhaul Multi-Gig or Gigabit
(5GHz backhaul band unavailable to clients)
Gigabit
(5GHz backhaul band unavailable to clients)
Ports (router) 1x 10Gbps WAN,
1x 2.5Gbps LAN,
3x Gigabit LAN
1x 2.5Gbps WAN,
4x Gigabit LAN
Ports (satellite) 1x 2.5Gbps LAN, 3x Gigabit LAN 4x Gigabit LAN
Release Date October 12, 2021 December 12, 2019
US Price (at launch) $1,499.99 (3-pack)
$599 (add-on Satellite)
$699 (2-pack)
Netgear Orbi RBKE960 vs Orbi RBK850: Hardware specifications

First mesh hardware with Multi-Gig backhaul

As mentioned in the table above, the RBRE960 router unit has two Multi-Gig ports — the first among purpose-built mesh systems. One is a 10Gbps WAN port, and the other is a 2.5Gbps LAN port.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad band Mesh Wi Fi 6E System
The Netgear Orbi RBSE960 router unit comes with two Multi-Gig ports. The 10Gbps port works solely as the WAN. By itself, it can only host just one Multi-Gig satellite via the other 2.5Gbps LAN port as wired backhaul.

Right off the bat, this is great. It can handle a super-fast Internet connection and uses the 2.5Gbps to host a fast server, a Multi-Gig switch, or an RBSE960 satellite that also has a 2.5Gbps port.

Looking deeper, though, you’ll note that the mesh’s Mult-Gig ports are a bit rigid and limited in their usability. Specifically:

  • On the RBRE960 router unit, the 10Gbps can only work as the WAN port. There’s no way to make it work as a LAN port.
  • Also, on the router, the 2.5Gbps works as a LAN port. There’s no way to make it work as a WAN port.
  • The router can combine the 10Gbps WAN port and the 2.5Gbps LAN port to form an LACP-IEEE802.3ad Link Aggregation connection. This application will likely never be used since no broadband connection requires this type of bandwidth, nor any way to deliver that to end clients.
  • The RBRE960 router and the RBSE960 satellite each has just one 2.5Gbps LAN port. As a result, you can’t use the 3-pack with Multi-Gig wired backhauls out of the box. You need a Multi-Gig switch — the Zyxel MG108 would fit in well, by the way.

That said, the Orbi RBKE960 would be much better if it had one of the following in terms of Multi-Gig support:

  • Extra Multi-Gig port(s) on the RBRE960 router. Among other things, this will allow it to host both satellites via 2.5Gbps wired backhaul without a switch.
  • The ability to use both of its Multi-Gig ports as LANs by turning one of its Gigabit LAN ports into a WAN. This will make better use of the 10Gbps since most homes have sub-Gigabit broadband anyway.
  • Extra Multi-Gig port(s) on the RBSE960 satellite.
  • Skip the 2.5Gbps and go all 10Gbps ports.

But let’s face it. As is, the RBKE960 has more Multi-Gig support than any other canned system on the market, and that’s an excellent start.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad band Mesh Wi Fi 6E System
Here are the ports of the Orbi RBSE960 satellite unit. There’s only one 2.5Gbps — you can’t add another Mult-Gig satellite unit to it.

Extra: What to expect in the RBKE960’s performance

Considering hardware specs, you can expect the Orbi RBKE960 to deliver fast performance, especially in a Multi-Gig wired backhaul setup.

But how fast exactly? Plenty fast, but probably not as speedy as you’d imagine.

Indeed, while the Orbi RBKE960’s hardware features 4×4 specs on all bands, but only the 6GHz supports the 160MHz channel width.

(While this sure is a downer, it’s the only way to make sure there’s no intermittent disconnection due to the use of DSF channels. So it can be a good thing.)

That said, here are the top performances you can expect from its 5GHz and 6GHz bands. (The 2.4GHz Band will remain slow, don’t expect much from it.)

The 5GHz: 1.2Gbps at best

Without the 160MHz channel width support, the top speed of the 5GHz band will cap at 2400Mbps (2.4Gbps) instead of 4800Mbps (4.8Gbps), and only if we use 4×4 clients, which don’t exist yet.

In reality, since we only have 2×2 clients, the connected Wi-Fi speed cap at 1200Mbps (1.2Gbps) — expects the sustained speeds to be lower.

That is the mesh’s best-case scenario 5GHz Wi-Fi performance, no matter how you use it, wired or wireless.

The 6GHz: 2.4Gbps at best

The 6GHz band supports 160MHz and can deliver up to 4800Mbps (or 2400Mbps with 2×2 clients). But that’s only the case when you connect directly to the router.

In a wireless mesh, the backhaul speed of the 2nd 5GHz band (2400Mbps) limits the rate of a satellite’s front-haul 6GHz band. So you’ll get 2400Mbps at most out of it — that’s even if you have 4×4 clients which don’t exist yet.

Again, the actual speed will be much lower most of the time since you can’t count on the backhaul to work reliably at its top speed at all times.

In a wired setup, the 2.5Gbbps or 1Gbps port used for the backhaul will limit the output of the satellite’s Wi-Fi Band. So, at best, you’ll get the full 2.4Gbps.

The point is: this mesh is fast. It’s just not as fast as it’s cracked up to be.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960: Detail photos

Overall, the RBKE960 shares the same design as the RBK850 and the RBK750, but it’s significantly larger. But, for the most part, that’s a good thing since in Wi-Fi broadcasting, size matters.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
The Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System’s retail box

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
Each hardware unit comes with a standard power adapter out of the box.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
The Netgear Orbi RBKE960’s hardware is huge. Here’s the RBRE960 router unit. It’s the only one that comes with a label.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
The underside of the Orbi RBSE960 router

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
Here’s the back of the Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System’s three hardware units. Note the ports of the router (top) and the satellites.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
The underside of the Netgear Orbi RBSE960 satellite unit

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E System
Here’s the top of the hardware. You can’t tell them apart from this angle.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 vs Asus ZenWiFi ET8
The Quad-band Netgear Orbi RBRE960 router is next to the Tri-band Asus ZenWiFi ET8 counterpart. Note the difference in physical size.

Fimiliar app and setup process, presynced hardware

The Netgear Orbi RBKE960 series shares the same mobile app as the existing Wi-Fi 6 Orbi sets.

Out of the box, you can set it up using the mobile app (recommended by Netgear) or the local web user interface, which I prefer.

(In the latter case, the process is the same as that of any standard router, but you’ll first need to avoid the mobile app coercion, as I mentioned in this post.)

Specifically, from a connected computer, navigate to the router’s default IP address, 192.168.1.1, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Netgear App Coercion
Netgear really wants you to use the Orbi mobile app. Here’s what you’ll see when going to the RBRE960’s web interface.

You will need to sign up and log in with a Netgear account to use the app. As a result, there are potential privacy risks. (Here’s Netgear’s privacy policy, make sure you read it thoroughly.) In return, you can use the app to manage your network when you’re out and about.

But of the box, the hardware units are pre-synced. As a result, all you need to do is plug the satellites into power and place them near the router, and they are part of the mesh system.

If for some reason, yours are not pre-synced, or if you get additional add-on satellites, both the app and the web interface come with an easy and self-explanatory way to add more to the system.

Overall, it took me less than 15 minutes to get the system up and running.

Fewer features, web-based remote management is no more

While Netgear tries to make you use the mobile app, the web interface is required to customize most of the router’s network settings.

In other words, to make full use of the system, you must use both even though the RBKE960 now has less to offer than previous models.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Wi Fi Settings
The Netgear Orbi RBKE960 has more Wi-Fi settings than previous models. Note the “IoT” network and the lack of the Remote Management feature under the Advanced section.

Here are you can expect from the new Orbi via its web interface:

  • Wi-Fi settings including Guest networks.
  • A standard set of network settings and features include DHCP, DNS, IP reservation, Dynamic DNS, port forwarding, and so on.
  • An Access Control section that allows you to block/allow access based on a device’s MAC address. There’s also a function where you can block sites based on keywords or domains — like facebook.com — but that didn’t work in my trial.
  • A standalone Open VPN server.
  • Traffic meter where you can manage a monthly data cap and control data flow based on a schedule. You can also view data usage statistics.

But in terms of features, the RBRE960 has fewer than the previous Orbis collectively, including the RBR850 and the RBR750. Specifically, two noticeable commonly expected features that are not included:

  • QoS: I wrote about QoS in this post but it’s a useful feature that helps prioritize the traffic for different needs. During my testing, I actually tried using the system for video and voice calling and it proved to be worse than those with QoS. Keep that in mind.
  • Parental Control: This feature has been moved to the mobile app with a few basic settings. To fully use it, you have to get a paid add-on version.

And that brings us to something that’s genuinely disappointing: The removal of the web-based Remote Management.

All previous Orbi (and Nighthawk) routers have web-based remote management built-in. The feature is turned off by default, but you can turn it on and customize it via the web interface.

However, this feature is not available in the RBKE960, and Netgear told me that it’s phasing it out even in the existing routers that initially have it for “security” reasons.

(That’s a bit of a stretch since this feature is turned off by default, and there are simple ways to keep it secure, as I mentioned in this post about Dynamic DNS.)

While this approach might make no difference for most home users, it sure is upsetting to advanced users.

Netgear’s statement on the Remote Management’s removal

As of late 2021, Netgear has been quietly removing web-based remote management from its home routers. Here’s the company’s statement on the matter:

“For any existing Orbi and Nighthawk product where the Remote Management feature is currently disabled, we will remove the ability to enable the feature. If an existing user previously enabled Remote Management, we will leave the support as enabled.

By turning on the Remote Management feature, a user will expose their router’s Web interface to the entire outside internet. Although Netgear attempts to make our web interface as secure as possible, there is always the possibility of new security vulnerabilities being discovered.

If a vulnerability related to the web interface is found, the level of risk to a customer with Remote Management enabled is much higher as that vulnerability can now potentially be exploited from anywhere on the outside internet, rather than from just within their local LAN.

Netgear now offers remote management capabilities via our Orbi and Nighthawk mobile apps, which use a much more secure mechanism of accessing the devices and does not require opening a port to the external internet.”

In other words, in the future, the only way you can manage your home network, powered by a Netgear router/mesh, is via either the Orbi or Nighthawk mobile app, which requires a Netgear login account.

Other than that, the RBKE960, like the previous Orbis, has a few add-on premium features, including NETGEAR Armor. There will likely be even more paid options in the future.

All of these add-ons require the mobile app to work. So if you put two and two together, the removal of web-based Remote Management is an ultimate move to force users into using the mobile app and all that implies.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Mobile App
The Orbi app is easy to use, but you can’t do as much and as conveniently with it as with the web user interface — apart from subscribing for Netgear add-on products. Among other things, it can’t even manage the extra SSIDs the RBRE960 has to offer.

Slightly more Wi-Fi settings, now with “IoT” SSID

Like previous Orbi sets, the RBKE960 has limited Wi-Fi settings. But it does have some extra gimmicks.

First off, you have a single main SSID (Wi-Fi network) that combines all three bands (2.4Ghz, 5GHz, and 6GHz). There’s not much you can do about this network other than:

  • Changing its name and password.
  • Picking the type of encryption.
  • Selecting the channel for each band. (Only the 2.4GHz has the “Auto” option.)

There’s no way to separate these into different SSID or change their channel width.

On top of that, now you also have an option to create a separate 6GHz-only SSID and an “IoT” SSID that, per Netgear, “optimizes overall performance” for smart home devices.

There’s nothing special about this extra SSID other than the fact it can work in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or both. And that’s it. It’s somewhat of a solution to the fact the Orbi hardware generally has little Wi-Fi customization.

In other words, just because you put “IoT” in the SSID doesn’t make it automatically suitable for IoT devices — and you can name this network however you like. It’s just an additional virtual SSID.

By the way, you must use the web interface to manage these extra SSIDs (“IoT” and 6GHz-only). The Orbi mobile app only has access to the main SSID.

Netgear Orbi RBKE960: Excellent performance

The Netgear Orbi RBKE960 did well in my testing, proving to be the fastest Orbi set to date — as you can see in the sustained real-world throughput speeds in the charts below — thanks to the support for the 6GHz band and Multi-Gig.

If you only have 5GHz Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 clients, expect the performance to be similar to previous Wi-Fi 6 Orbis.

Netgear Orbi RBRE960 Router Performance
Netgear Orbi RBRE960 Router’s Performance

I tested the new mesh — using the best-case-scenario methods — both as a router (the RBRE960) and as a mesh system (RBRE960 + two RBSE960s).

In the latter case, I tried it first as in a fully wireless mesh, and then one with Multi-Gig wired backhaul, with the help of the Zyxel XS1930-12HP Multi-Gig switch.

It didn’t disappoint, compared to any other canned mesh systems.

Netgear Orbi RBSE960 Satellite Performance
Netgear Orbi RBSE960 Satellite’s Performance
<6BH>: 6GHz band as backhaul (when applicable).
<WBH>: Multi-Gig (2.5Gbps) wired backhaul, the case of the RBSE960.

The mesh had excellent coverage, too. The router unit could easily cover some 2500 ft2 (232 m2) — its large size did mean some advantages — and each satellite will add some 2000 ft more.

Of course, the coverage varies depending on how you place the unit in a wireless setup, which depends on the environment. So your mileage will vary, maybe even by a great deal one way or the other.

In a wired backhaul configuration, you’ll have the option of putting them farther out and can extend the coverage significantly.

When I published this review, the mesh had passed my 3-day stress test with no issues at all. It proved to be reliable. I will keep using it for at least another week and update this review if anything arises.

Conclusion

Again, I had mixed feelings while reviewing the Orbi RBKE960 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E system. I loved it at first for what it had, then got frustrated for what it didn’t.

The new Wi-Fi solution has excellent hardware and great performance. Unfortunately, the lack of Remote Management, a feature experienced Netgear users would presume to be available, made it very hard for me to use it as a personal device.

I’m aware that I’m not a typical home user, but that’s precisely why my networking needs separate an excellent device from those that are just mundane.

And speaking of mundane, the RBKE960 also has the least to offer in features among all Orbi sets I’ve tested, despite being the most expensive by far. That’s unless you’re willing to pay subscription fees.

So, with it, it seems Netgear has decided to turn a new page in its business model. And whatever the new model is, it can be a slippery slope.

That said if you want fast performance and ease of use above all else. And that means you’d ignore the high initial cost, the potential privacy risks, the likely chance of having to pay more down the line, or simply the fact you might not be able to use the product the way you’d generally assume you can; the Orbi RBKE960 will make an excellent buy. Get it!

Or you can wait a bit and get something else. There will be plenty of options comes 2022, and Wi-Fi 6E is still in a very early stage anyway.

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