Orbi vs. eero in a house that’s already (somewhat) wired for ethernet

There’s a million comparisons already out there between Orbi, eero, and the other wireless “mesh” routers for home use (like AmpliFi, Luma, and Google WiFi). But because people are always looking for reviews to match their unique homes, I figure I’d toss this out there, see if it helps anyone still debating what to purchase.

Why am I just comparing Orbi and eero? Because I already had an eero set-up, but wasn’t 100% happy with it, so I thought I’d try out an Orbi. According to tech review sites like The Wircutter (which do much more comprehensive, all-purpose reviews than I can ever do), Orbi and eero tend to duke it for the top two spots.

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The Orbi units quite literally tower over the eeros. That alone, might be a deciding point for many users without much vertical space for a wireless router.

First up: What’s my house’s set-up like?

When we moved in a few years ago, consumer-grade wireless mesh routers weren’t a thing yet, so I converted some phone jacks into ethernet jacks. That way the cable modem could be hooked up to two different wireless routers on both ends of the house.  Both wireless routers would be set up with the same wifi credentials (network name and password).

ONE CABLE MODEM/ROUTER –> TWO WIRELESS ROUTERS (ON OPPOSITE ENDS OF THE HOUSE)

The upside to doing it that way? I could use equipment I already had (two Apple Airport routers) to cover the entire house.

Or so I thought.  There was still a dead spot in my daughter’s room, which lies between two bathrooms (notorious wifi killers).

Also: The hand-off between the two (identical) wifi networks wasn’t always seamless as you moved from end of the house to the other, no matter how much I tweaked the network settings.

The two-router system worked okay overall, but it could be better (especially in my daughter’s room). So when eero came out, I had to give it a try.

I bought a three-pack, spreading them around the house.  I plugged two directly into the wired ethernet ports. The third went in the middle of the house — right on top of the dead zone.

So what was wrong with the eero set-up?

Not much, actually. It really worked great for the most part. Set-up was easy, and I got great coverage with high speeds throughout the entire house, BUT:

  1. The eero units don’t have many ethernet ports. (Only two per device) So I had to keep my old Apple Airport units around as dumb ethernet hubs. (With their wifi capabilities turned off.) The need for additional devices to provide more ethernet ports added complexity that would prove to be a problem down the line.
  2. My Philips Hue lights started acting up.  There was a very annoying (and very inconsistent) delay when using my phone to adjust the smart lights.  The delay was not there when using the dedicated Philips Hue light switches we had around the house, which don’t use wifi (they use their own proprietary wireless signal). It was also not there when I adjusted the lights when away from home.  The delay (which effectively rendered my phone useless as a light switch) only happened on my home wifi network.
  3. I have a dedicated computer as both a Plex server and an iTunes media sharing machine. (Meaning, as long as the computer is on, I should can access a trove of media content from any other computer or device in the house.) Both Plex and iTunes media sharing stopped working in the early days of using the eero. After hours unplugging all the equipment and re-plugging them back in in different configurations, I eventually got iTunes media sharing working again, but not Plex.

One thing that was always suspect to me about the eero: Its constant need for internet access just to keep your local network functioning (even if you don’t need internet, like just wanting to connect to your Sonos speakers, Hue lights, etc.) Eero routers need to check in with the servers at eero headquarters just to function properly. Could that be creating some kind of proxy issue that’s confusing the Hue?  The complexity of the network — a cable modem with a built-in router, two Apple Airports used as ethernet hubs, and three eero devices, all on the same network that’s both wireless and wired simultaneously — made things too complex to troubleshoot with ease.

One way to simplify things: Just get the Netgear Orbi!

The average American house only needs two Orbi units (compared to three eeros). And each Orbi unit has a bunch of ethernet ports built-in. I could finally do away with those Apple Airports (or any kind of ethernet hub)!

Also: The Orbi doesn’t require an internet connection just for the barest of functionality. With the Orbi, If your internet goes down, your home network should still stay up!

So I thought I’d give Orbi a try, and if it worked, give my eeros to a family member with simpler networking needs.

How did Orbi work out?

Long story short, not great for my needs.  Remember how my home has some wired ethernet ports?  One of them is in the family room. I plugged the “main” Orbi unit into the ethernet port in this room, and then plugged my Sonos, Blu-Ray player, and Apple TV directly into the Orbi. (No additional ethernet hub required!)

Unlike the eero, the “satellite” Orbi unit cannot be plugged into 2nd ethernet port (nor would you want to).  It’s supposed to go in the center of the house.  So that’s where I put it.

The resulting wifi network was great. Covered the whole house, and the download speeds even clocked a bit higher than with the eero.

BUT:

What about that second ethernet port on the far side of the house? As far as wifi coverage is concerned, I didn’t need it anymore. But I still had to have my Philips Hue hub in that room (for proximity to the Hue light bulbs in our bedrooms). And the Hue hub NEEDS an ethernet connection.  So I still had to use the ethernet port in that room.

And that’s where the Orbi was useless.  No matter what I did, the Philips Hue hub was basically invisible to my Orbi-centric home network.

Here, let’s follow the signal from my phone to the Hue Hub:

On my phone, I hit a button to turn on a light –> My phone is wireless connected to the Orbi system via wifi –> the Orbi is connected via wired ethernet to my cable modem/router –> the cable modem/router is connected via ethernet to an ethernet hub –> the ethernet hub is connected to both the Philips Hue hub –> the Hue hub connects wirelessly to the various Hue bulbs in the house (via something other than wifi).

Oh, and also in the mix is an AppleTV, which is necessary to make HomeKit work. (HomeKit is Apple’s system for controlling smart home devices from your iPhone’s home screen.)

The fact that the Hue hub had a wired connection that went through the cable modem/router before going to the Orbi kept it treated as a second class citizen on the network. (as far as I could tell)

With the eero, there were no second class citizen devices.

So back to eero I went, and that’s what I’m using now, simply because the eero system incorporated my two wired ethernet ports into my home network better.

Yes, I still sometimes have a bad delay when using my Hue lights, but it still works most of the time. And that’s better than none of the time.

So if you’ve got a home network that’s a mix of wired and wireless connections…you might find a system like eero to be more your liking. Results may vary, though, as no two homes are exactly alike.

R.I.P. The best tech purchase I ever made…

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My HP Laserjet 1200.  2001 – 2014.  You will be missed.

13 years is long time for any piece of computer equipment.  Sure, printers have gotten faster and more colorful, but for an aspiring writer living in his parents’ house just after college, this affordable laser printer was a godsend.  Back then, if you wanted to proof your own film/TV script, you had to either read it on a low res computer screen or print it up.  If you wanted someone else to read your script, you had to send them a hard copy.  PDFs weren’t the norm yet.  Functional tablets occupied just a couple neurons in Steve Jobs’ brain.  Being able to print an entire script at will, without having to go a copy shop… that was freedom.  That printer got me through many assignments in grad school.  It was there for me when I got a chance to write my first produced episode of television.  Thanks to the Airport Express’s ability to make any wired printer wireless, the HP 1200 even survived the transition to wifi.  This workhorse of a machine has quite literally out-lasted every other computer accessory I’ve ever owned.

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Well, except for one.

My Harmon-Kardon Soundsticks purchased in 2000.

So you want to listen to music throughout your whole home…

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So you want to listen to music throughout your whole house/apartment/condo/etc…

The good news: It’s never been easier.

The bad news: It’s never been more confusing.

It used to be simple: if you wanted to wire your whole house for audio, that’s exactly what you did — you wired your whole house for audio.  Now, wires are entirely optional (if not still preferred, see below).

Here are some of your options, ranging from cheapest to not-so-cheapest:

1.  Just wear earbuds.  For ten bucks, you can get a pair of perfectly fine earbuds at your local drug store.  Plug ’em into your favorite portable audio device and, boom, you’ve got music wherever you go.  You can even take the music OUT of the house!  The only downside? The inherent danger of walking around with a loose cable dangling from your neck.  Get it snagged on a doorknob and you can snap your head off.  Also, sharing music is tough if you don’t have a great singing voice.

2.  Embrace Bluetooth.  For less than $50, you can get a Belkin Bluetooth Receiver that plugs into any stereo and wham-o, you can wirelessly beam audio from your iOS/Android device to whatever sound system you already have.  The downside?  This isn’t a solution for sharing the same audio throughout multiple rooms (not a strongpoint for Bluetooth), so it doesn’t exactly qualify as a “whole home” experience.  But if your smartphone is  your main music listening device, this is a great way to get the music onto your stereo without  spending (at least) twice as much to get a new stereo just because it has bluetooth built-in.

3. Embrace Airplay.  Airplay is very different from Bluetooth.  It’s Apple’s standard for wirelessly sharing audio (and video) across multiple devices.  The chief benefit over Bluetooth?  You CAN share the same audio source across multiple rooms at the same time.  From any iOS device (or computer), you can send music to any room(s) with an Airplay compatible device.  The set-up is super easy — you just need to make sure all the devices are on the same home network.  That’s it.  Great for parties.  The downside?  If you don’t already have a Mac or an iOS device, you’ll probably have to get one.  Sidenote: An Apple TV is a great way to share music from your iOS device (or Mac) to your TV’s speakers.

4. Sonos! A few Sonos devices can create a wireless blanket of sound across your home using neither Bluetooth nor Airplay.  What is Sonos?  Click here for a better summation than I could ever provide. Sonos is now the go-to system for distributing audio throughout people’s home, from non-tech savvy folk who seek simplicity to high-end customers planning to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on their media rooms.  How does it manage to fit both niches?  Because it’s currently the only game in town for what it does.  It’s also very flexible.  You can go crazy and spend thousands of dollars for ultimate customization, or you can keep it simple and still do some cool stuff for $500 or less.

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The Sonos iPad App allows for tremendous, user-friendly customization.

Every device that Sonos makes comes with the ability to talk to other Sonos devices.  They also come with their own built-in software to access your favorite internet radio options (Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, etc.).  That means set-up is minimal.  You literally plug them in, turn them on, then use your tablet/computer/phone to tell it what you want to listen to.  If you own two or more Sonos devices (up to 36, I believe), they’ll form their own invisible network you never have to deal with.  If you already have a home with speakers wired into the walls, you can buy a Sonos Amp for each speaker set and let Sonos do all the heavy lifting, connecting all the rooms together.  There’s no need for a receiver of any kind, unless you really want one (like if you want to share audio from a home theater).  For most people, the combination of Pandora, various internet radio stations, and whatever music they have on their own devices is enough, and Sonos can handle all that on it’s own.

If you don’t have any speakers already wired throughout your home, that’s not a problem.  Most of Sonos’s products are speaker systems with connectivity baked in.  You can easily place one on a bookshelf or kitchen counter without drawing any undue attention. Their cheapest HiFi music player starts at $300, though, which is more expensive than comparable Airplay-compatible sound systems.

My overall recommendation?  If you’re starting from scratch and have the money, wiring speakers is still the classiest thing to do.  And it’s actually not that expensive these days. Just don’t let the installer try to upsell you on speakers.  That’s the biggest cost.  Speakers for a kitchen or a dining room don’t need to be terribly expensive because the rooms themselves aren’t built for sound.  No point in splurging on high end speakers if you’ll never hear the difference due to acoustics.  If you’re good at following directions, you might even be able to install speakers yourself.  Pulling wire through an attic or crawlspace is easier than it sounds.  When I first moved into my house, I hired custom installers, but after watching them I realized: “Hey, I can do that!”  And then I did.  Pulling wire through a crawlspace under my house might be dirty work, but it’s free!  Anyways, once the speakers are installed, whatever closet (or cabinet) houses the ends of the cables is where the Sonos Amps will go.  A typical set-up is one amp per speaker set per room.   If you have the money and/or time, it’ll be well worth it.

If you don’t have that kind of money, you can always skimp.  You can get a multi-zone receiver and use that to control the various sets of speakers wired throughout your home.  For example, to control three separate zones with Sonos, you’d need $1500 in Amps.  A 3-zone receiver should be available for less than a $1000.  The receiver might not come with all the internet connectivity of the Sonos system (especially at that price point), but chances are you already have at least one device in your house that can access Pandora and/or your digital music collection.  Just hook that computer/ipod/whatever up to the receiver and your ears will never know the difference. (The trade-offs are in the area of flexibility and convenience.)  Or you can do what I did: Use fewer Amps.  Instead of having one Amp to power the speakers in the front yard and another Amp to power the speakers in the backyard, I just have a single Amp marked “outside.”

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This closet contains all the Sonos equipment you need to run the audio for an entire house.

If wiring speakers throughout your house sounds like a hassle or isn’t an option, then I’d recommend looking at what you already have, then building a sound system around those.  For example, if you already have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, then just get an Apple TV ($99) for any room where you have a TV and an Airplay compatible stereo for any room that doesn’t. And if you’re an Android/Windows user… then I’d still recommend going the Airplay route.  For example, here’s a cool primer on three apps that’ll allow Android and Windows users to utilize Airplay.

Before you do anything, though, I’d just ask this… WHY do you want the ability to listen to music throughout your whole home at the same time?  If you entertain a lot, then, sure, spend the money and make it happen.  But, seriously, if this is just to listen to music while you do housework, then just buy a pair of good headphones.  Or even earbuds.

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