The new Netgear Orbi RBKE960 series -- currently available as a 3-pack Orbi RBKE963 -- is a nice and large Wi-Fi 6E mesh 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 that 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. (You can pick the traditional white color, or, for the first time, the black version, model RBKE963B.)
Eventually, my take is you'll be able to find a 2-pack (RBKE962) or a single router (RBRE960) to standard with, but, for now, the only other hardware option is an add-on satellite (RBSE960) that costs over $600.
So a 4-pack will cost you over $2k, and a 2-pack, when available, will likely be around $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.
Netgear Orbi RBKE960 series: 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 two satellites (RBSE960).
You use the router unit to hook up to your Internet source, and 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 year have 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.
Orbi RBKE963: 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 4x4, 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 adding 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, at least within the Wi-Fi 6E standard.
In 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 permanent backhaul role. This band is never available to clients, even when you use network cables to link the mesh's hardware units.
The ups and downs of Orbi's dedicated backhaul
To understand the Orbi's permanent backhaul concept, which Netgear calls "patented dedicated backhaul," you can liken the mesh system's router unit to a special 4WD pickup truck with a separate engine for the rear wheels dedicated solely to the job of pulling a trailer.
This engine makes sense and is great when the truck has a trailer attached (a mesh system) but becomes dead weight when it works just by itself (standalone router) -- it's now a full-time front-wheel-drive vehicle.
It's probably not a good idea to consider such a truck unless you intend to use it to pull a trailer most, if not all, of the time.
The point is Netgear's Orbi only makes sense when you need a fully wireless mesh Wi-Fi system and never when you need a standalone router, where the second 5GHz band is a big waste in terms of hardware cost and energy consumption.
Hardware specifications: Orbi RBKE963 vs Orbi RBK852
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)
|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 (1.36 kg)||2.86 lbs (1.3kg)|
|Wi-Fi Specs||Quad-band AXE11000||Tri-band AX6000|
|5GHz-1 4x4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps|
| 5GHz-1 4x4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps|
| 5GHz-2 4x4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps|
| 5GHz-2 4x4 AX: Up to 2.4Gbps|
|2.4GHz 4x4 AX: Up to 1200Mbps|
| 2.4GHz 4x4 AX: Up to 1200Mbps|
|6GHz AXE: Up to 4.8Gbps|
|Processing Power|| Quad-core 2.2GHz CPU,|
512MB Flash, 1GB RAM
|Quad-core 2.2GHz CPU,|
512MB Flash, 1GB RAM
|Power Adapter||Input: 100 - 120V ~50/60Hz|
Output: 19V 3.16A
|Input: 100 - 240V ~50/60Hz|
Output: 12V 3.5A
(per 24 hours)
|≈ 420 Wh|
(measured at the router unit)
|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)
(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)
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.
Right off the bat, this is great. It can handle a super-fast Internet connection and uses 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 is there 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.
Extra: What to expect in the RBKE963’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 4x4 specs on all bands, only the 6GHz supports the 160MHz channel width, which is required to deliver top Wi-Fi 6 performance.
(While the lack of 160MHz on the 5GHz band is a downer, that's the only sure way to avoid intermittent disconnections due to the use of DFS 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 4x4 clients, which don't exist yet.
In reality, since we only have 2x2 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.
Also, note that the upper part of the 5GHz spectrum (the 5GHz-2 band) is never available to clients.
The 6GHz: 2.4Gbps at best
The 6GHz band supports 160MHz and can deliver up to 4800Mbps (or 2400Mbps with 2x2 clients). But that's only the case when you connect directly to the router.
In a wireless mesh, the backhaul speed of the 5GHz-2 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 if you have 4x4 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, which is the case with all Wi-Fi 6/E canned mesh systems.
Netgear Orbi RBKE963: Detail photos
Familiar app and setup process, pre-synced 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 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.
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.
Here are what 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 tried using the system for video and voice calling, which proved to be worse than those with QoS. Keep that in mind.
- Parental Controls: 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 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
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 the ultimate move to force users into using the mobile app, and all that implies.
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 extras.
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 the option to create a separate 6GHz-only SSID and an extra "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.
Still, the two extra SSIDs are useful and welcome additions. They give users more options to segment their network.
By the way, you must use the web interface to manage these extra SSIDs ("IoT" and 6GHz-only). The Orbi mobile app, for now, only has access to the main SSID.
Netgear Orbi RBKE963: 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.
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 system.
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 ft2 (186 m2) more.
Of course, the coverage varies depending on how you place the unit in a wireless setup and 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, possibly even longer, and update this review if anything arises.
Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Series' Rating
Powerful hardware with Quad-band Wi-Fi and Multi-Gig wired backhaul support
Excellent Wi-Fi coverage, fast performance
Multiple Multi-Gig ports
More Wi-Fi networks than previous Orbis, including two additional virtual SSIDs
Easy to use
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 unavailable to clients even with wired backhaul; no 160MHz channel width on 5GHz
Limited Wi-Fi customization, bulky design
You will likely hear a lot of superlatives used to describe the Orbi RBKE960 Series, by Netgear and tech "reviewers" around the web.
As a result, some of you might come here to "challenge" my analysis, at times even without reading this review in its entirety.
And that's OK. But before you get all defensive, here are a few bullet points to keep in mind about the RBKE960 series for those with a short attention span:
- In a fully wireless setup: It's basically the same as the RBK850 Series, plus a top-tier 6GHz band which you need Wi-Fi 6E clients to use. In this case, its backhaul speed caps at 2.4Gbps (2400Mbps) on paper -- the real-world rate will be significantly lower.
- In a wired backhaul setup: You have the option to use Multi-Gig backhaul -- a switch is needed if you want to wire both satellites that way. Note that the 5GHz-2 band is still not available to clients. Now, its real-world backhaul speed is close to 2.5Gbps.
- In any case, this mesh system's weakest point is its 5GHz band, of which only half of the spectrum is available to clients; the other half is permanently reserved for backhaul, even when that's not needed or used. Also note that this band doesn't support 160MHz channel width, so on the fronthaul, currently, you'd that at best 1200Mbps (on paper) out of it -- real-world speeds in the performance section above.
That said, while being the most powerful Orbi yet, this new mesh system -- similar to the case of most Tri-band Orbi -- is not the best for those with lots of 5GHz clients, which are the most common.
Again, I had mixed feelings while reviewing the Orbi RBKE963 Quad-band Mesh Wi-Fi 6E system. I loved it at first for what it had, then got frustrated for what I'd assumed it should have.
The new Wi-Fi solution has excellent hardware and excellent performance among all Orbi sets I've tested. 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, collectively, despite being the most expensive by far. That's unless you're willing to pay subscription fees for add-ons.
So, with it, it seems Netgear has decided to turn a new page in its business model. And whatever the new approach is, it can be a slippery slope.
That said if you want fast performance and ease of use above all else -- a big if that implies 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.
Or you can wait a bit for the price to go down or keep looking. There will soon be plenty of other options, and Wi-Fi 6E is still in a very early stage anyway.