The cheapest next-gen Orbi system yet, but does the performance justify the price?
- Neat and functional design
- Same features as much pricier systems
- Delivers a strong signal all through the house
- No parental controls
- Dual-band design limits performance
- More expensive than a standard router
The Orbi RBK352 is Netgear’s new, low-cost Wi-Fi 6 mesh system. At least, it’s low-cost compared to the company’s previous Wi-Fi 6-enabled offerings. The high-end Orbi RBK852 system costs £659 for a two-node kit, while the mid-range RBK752 will set you back £450. The RBK352, by contrast, starts at £195, making it a viable competitor to many Wi-Fi 5 mesh systems.
Inevitably, though, the price cut comes with a trade-off. The RBK352 hardware isn’t as powerful as its premium brethren, and that has an impact on real-world performance. It’s time to put the RBK352 through its paces to see how it measures up.
Netgear Orbi RBK352 review: What you need to know
The Orbi RBK352 is a dual-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh system. It’s designed to completely replace your existing router, although if your internet connection requires you to keep your ISP router in place, you can still use the Orbi in access point mode or in a double-NAT configuration.
Internally, the Orbi units each have a 2.4GHz radio rated at 600Mbits/sec and a 5GHz radio with a theoretical maximum transfer rate of 1,200Mbits/sec. That’s a decent chunk of bandwidth but, since there’s no third radio, this has to be shared between client and backhaul traffic.
As with all Wi-Fi 6 gear, the Orbi RBK352 is backward-compatible with Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) clients but it won’t interoperate with Wi-Fi 5 Orbi units. It is technically possible to mix and match RBK352 nodes with satellites from an RBK752 or RBK852 kit, but the performance limitations of the RBK352 will still apply to client devices connected to it.
Netgear Orbi RBK352 review: Price and competition
If you want an affordable Wi-Fi 6 mesh, there aren’t a lot to choose from. The Orbi’s most direct competitor is the TP-Link Deco X20, which comes as a three-node kit for £280 – around the same price as the Orbi RBK353 (the final digit indicates the number of satellite nodes provided in the box). The hardware specification is very similar, too, although there are some differences in design and features, which I’ll discuss below.
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If that doesn’t satisfy, you can move up to the Asus ZenWiFi AX. This packs a tri-band design with an ultrafast maximum speed of 4,800Mbits/sec, boosting performance but pushing the price up to around £460.
In that price range, you’re also looking at Netgear’s own Orbi RBK752. For £450 this matches the RBK352’s 1,200Mbits/sec 5GHz radio but adds a dedicated backhaul radio rated at double the speed. For £645, the Orbi RBK852 further ups the ante with 4×4 MU-MIMO, versus the 2×2 provision of the less expensive models.
Meanwhile, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) mesh systems won’t match the top speeds of Wi-Fi 6, but can still provide great performance for a much lower price. For example, the three-node BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system offers excellent performance and costs just £198 for a three-node pack.
In a medium-sized home, you might even find that a single Wi-Fi 6 router delivers the long-range performance you need. Since you’re only paying for a single unit, instead of two or three, there are huge cost savings to be enjoyed: the Honor Router 3 delivers the Wi-Fi 6 experience for just £50.
Netgear Orbi RBK352 review: Physical design
With their curved, off-white design, the RBK352 units are unmistakably of the Orbi clan. They’re the babies of the family, though, standing only 178mm tall with a footprint of 145 x 61mm. I don’t mind this at all. It means you can situate them inconspicuously, wherever you like, which can’t necessarily be said of the looming RBK852 units.
I’m also pleased to see that wired connectivity hasn’t been cut down too far. Orbi systems never support USB, but the primary unit has three Gigabit Ethernet sockets next to the WAN connector, with each satellite sporting a further two. That’s a definite advantage over the TP-Link Deco X20, whose main router unit only has a single spare Ethernet port, once you’ve hooked up the other one to your internet connection.
The one thing we miss from other Orbi designs is the status light. With the RBK352, there’s no visual indication when a node is booting up or in an error state.
Netgear Orbi RBK352 review: Setup and software features
We used the Orbi Android app to set up the RBK352 system, and found the experience fairly foolproof. There’s a clunky moment when you have to jump into your phone’s Wi-Fi settings to manually connect to the Orbi network then find your way back into the Orbi app to continue the setup process, but there’s not much Netgear can do about that. At any rate, it’s a process you’ll probably only go through once.
From then on you can use either the smartphone app or the web portal to manage your mesh. If you’ve ever used an Orbi system before, you’ll be right at home here, as whichever route you choose, the RBK352 presents the exact same interface as every other Orbi model. That’s not a bad thing, as it’s quite clear and responsive.
It also exposes a very familiar set of features, including Netgear’s distinctive inbound VPN service, which makes it easy to access your home servers and clients over the internet. As usual, integration with Alexa and the Google Assistant allows you to control the guest network and reboot the router with your voice, and you can enable Netgear’s Armor network security module too, which adds vulnerability scans and malicious site blocking. The $70 per year subscription feels a bit steep, considering TP-Link’s equivalent HomeCare service is free, but Netgear’s offering additionally includes Bitdefender Security software for all the clients in your household.
There are just a few key things missing. No USB sockets means no file or printer sharing and, as usual with Orbi systems, there’s no band-splitting option, so your 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks appear under a single combined SSID.
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For some reason, Netgear also doesn’t currently offer its Circle parental controls on Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems. These could be added in a future firmware update, but for now, you’ll have to make do with the quite sophisticated website filtering feature, which lets you block specific keywords and domain names for specific clients according to a custom schedule. You can’t filter sites by category, however, as you can on the TP-Link Deco X20.
Still, while there are a few boxes left unticked, you get exactly the same feature set as on the premium RBK852, so it’s hard to feel too hard done by.
Netgear Orbi RBK352 review: Performance
Only having a single 5GHz radio is normally bad news for a mesh system. However, the RBK352’s rating of 1,200Mbits/sec is pretty speedy: theoretically, that’s fast enough to download a full gigabyte of data in under seven seconds. So it all comes down to real-world performance.
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I tested this in my own home, with the primary Orbi unit located in my study at the front of the house. The secondary node was placed at the opposite end of the adjacent bedroom, while the third was positioned in the living room below. I then carried a 2020 HP Elite Dragonfly laptop, equipped with an internal Wi-Fi 6 network card, to various rooms of the house and measured upload and download speeds to a NAS appliance connected to the primary Orbi node via Gigabit Ethernet.
Here are the results I saw, along with the speeds achieved by some other mesh systems in the same tests:
Even with the benefit of an additional satellite, the dual-band Orbi RBK352 couldn’t keep up with the tri-band Orbi systems. It isn’t as fast as the Asus ZenWiFi AX either; while the Netgear system was faster in the rooms closest to the primary router, the Asus’ performance held up better as we moved further away, which is of course the whole point of a mesh.
Within its own price category, however, the RBK352 holds up well. It dropped a smidge behind the TP-Link Deco X20 in the living room but proved notably quicker in the bedroom. Everywhere in the house, the test laptop switched seamlessly between nodes to keep the connection fast and stable, and with download speeds never falling below 20MB/sec, the RBK352 gave us no reason to complain.
These performance figures do come with a few caveats, however. If you have clients dotted around the house all exchanging data over the Orbi network, that may mean that a lot of backhaul data has to be passed back and forth between nodes, reducing the amount of bandwidth available for your streams and downloads.
And things get worse if you’re still using Wi-Fi 5. The last-generation standard quickly gets bogged down when multiple clients want to talk at once, causing performance to drop off further. This affects all Wi-Fi 5 routers and meshes, but the RBK352 with its dual-band design is likely to suffer particularly acutely.
Netgear Orbi RBK352: Verdict
The Orbi RBK352 does what it promises. The units are unobtrusive but offer decent connectivity, and the software is as good as you’ll get from any Orbi system. Compared with Netgear’s previous forays into the Wi-Fi 6 mesh market, the price is tempting, too.
However, if you’re drawn in by the RBK352’s comparatively low price, it’s worth exploring whether an even cheaper solution will do what you need: I found the Honor Router 3 served up at least 16MB/sec all around my three-bedroom, two-storey home for just £50. Conversely, if you’re keen to enjoy the full performance of Wi-Fi 6, this budget-conscious system won’t get you all the way there.
Even within the very narrow arena of affordable dual-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems, the RBK352 isn’t the only candidate to consider. The TP-Link Deco X20 is short on network ports and has no equivalent to the Orbi’s VPN server, but it does come with proper parental controls, and the free network security module is a significant bonus.
Ultimately, the decision must come down to your personal priorities and budget. But while we can’t say the RBK352 is right for everyone, we can tell you that what you see is what you get – that being a likeable and user-friendly mesh system. If that inspires you to get your wallet out, you won’t be disappointed.