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.

Your #1 2014 New Year’s Tech Resolution: Do not buy a 4K TV

Seriously.  I know you have that holiday bonus burning a whole in your pocket.  I know you’ve been to your local Sony Store and been blown away by their 4K demo.  I know you really want a new TV, and you don’t want to get stuck with “yesterday’s technology.”  But you must wait. You have to wait. It just doesn’t make any sense to buy a 4K TV this year.

First: What is a 4K TV?  Basically, they are TVs with greater resolution than what’s currently considered high definition.  Some companies call them 4K, others call them Ultra HD (or UHD).  They have approximately four times the resolution of a 1080P set (the highest current standard of HDTV).  At larger sizes from the right distance, the difference is striking.  So if you can afford the new TV, it’s a no-brainer, right?  Not by a longshot…

Reason 1:

There is little-to-no 4K content.  It’s going to be years before your local cable/satellite/fiber company offers 4K channels and Blu-ray simply wasn’t designed with 4K in mind.  Your only hope for content in the short-term is via streaming services — which are still trying to figure out how to compress all that data for the average American broadband connection.  Chances are, you’ll need to upgrade your broadband service. What little content is being made available to early adopters comes at an additional price, and the options are slim.  If you buy a Sony TV, for example, you’ll get access to SOME Sony Movies, but that’s it.  Yes, Netflix is working with TV manufacturers to provide 4K versions of their original programs, but there’s still no timetable for when it’ll be implemented, and even when it does, we’re still only talking about a handful of programs you might actually watch.

Another way to look at it: a 4K version of a movie is essentially a digital negative, hence studios are going to delay making them readily available for as long as they possibly can out of piracy concerns.

Reason 2:

There are still some standards yet to be determined.  A fancy new screen isn’t worth as much if its ports and software are outdated within a year or two. For example, the current standard for HDMI wasn’t designed with 4K transmissions in mind.  You do not want to buy a 4K TV unless it supports HDMI 2 and the first round of 4K TVs didn’t (because the standard hadn’t been finalized yet).

Reason 3:

Price. I’m not talking about the price of the 4K TVs, which can be equivalent to the price of a small car. I’m talking about the price of the current generation of HDTVs — they are so affordable now, it’s ridiculous. You can buy a well-performing 50incher now for less than $500.  Want to go bigger?  You can get 60 and 70 inch screens for less than $1000, and not from knock-off brands either but from legit companies known for producing quality HDTVs.  It makes no sense to spend an egregious amount for a “future proof” TV now when the current cost of a 4KTV  is enough to buy both a regular HDTV now and a 4K TV later.  Yes, I know Vizio just announced a 50 inch 4K TV for $1000, and yes, Vizio is one of the HDTV brands I trust, but — and this is a big BUT — it remains to be seen what compromises Vizio has to make to reach that price point. For example, we know for a fact that Vizio is dropping support for 3D, which is a shame, because passive 3D on a 4K set is SPECTACULAR. It’s theater quality.  Vizio’s $1000 4K TV is also likely to offer a contrast ratio on par with its other “cheaper” models, which is good but not great.  Remember, resolution and image quality do not go hand-in-hand.  It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that a high-end 1080P set will perform better than an entry level 4K set, and for less money.

Reason 4:

Will you even notice the difference?  If you’re only in the market for a 50 incher, and you’re not planning to press your face up against the screen, the extra pixels probably won’t even make it your eyes.  From what I’ve seen so far, 4K is really for the next generation of extra-large TVs with 70, 80, and 90 inch screens.  And those are the sets that still require a mortgage to buy in the short-term.

So even if you’re superrich and can easily afford to be an early 4K adopter, I still can’t advise it.  If you’re that rich, you probably have a special media room in your mansion set aside just for movie watching with blackout curtains and sound-absorbing walls.  You don’t need a 4K TV because you have a kickass projector. Keep enjoying it and use the money you’d spend on a 4K TV on a first class ticket to Tokyo or something.  I hear the robot show is amazing.

Always check the cables

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Today I had to go over to a client’s house to check out his Sonos system.  According to the client, it hasn’t been working properly for a couple weeks, ever since the system tried updating itself.  I could see none of his Sonos devices were able to access the internet, so I thought maybe there was some IP-address shenanigans going on. (Without getting too technical, I thought that two or more devices on the network might be sharing the same network address, and that was causing the system to freak out. It happens.)

I figured a good place to start was just unplugging every device on the network, then plugging them in one-by-one.  If the router is confused by wrongly-assigned IP addresses, this generally takes care of it.  The process took about 15 minutes.  The end result:  Every device on the network worked just fine, except the Sonos system.  Darn.

But the Sonos Controller was giving me a very specific error message.  So that’s good.  Error messages might scare most people, but they shouldn’t.  The more specific the error message, the more specific the fix.  This is where Google (or Bing) can be a lifesaver.  The error message sent me to a specific section on the Sonos help site.  So I figured it couldn’t hurt to follow their advice on how to remedy the situation.  I was wrong.  It hurt a lot.  Another 1/2 hour was gone.  Thanks, Sonos!

So then I decided to take a look at the home network itself.  I noticed that all his wireless routers (it’s a big house, so he had several) were running out-dated software.  So I updated them.  Another 15 minutes went by, but it still didn’t fix anything.

So then I finally did what I should’ve done when I first got there — on a hunch, I swapped out a single ethernet cable that was connecting the main Sonos device to the router.  And that did the fix.

Do ethernet cables go bad that often? No. 7 times out of 10, a network problem will be software related.  And if it is hardware related, it’ll be a device that’s gone bad, not the cable.  Even bad cables have a better failure rate than even the most reliable electronics.

But this time it WAS the cable.  And the next time I have less than an hour to troubleshoot someone’s network problem, you better believe the first thing I’m going to do is swap out all the cables.

Review: MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar

Product:  MartinLogan’s Motion Vision Soundbar
Retail Price: $1500

Released this past summer, MartinLogan’s Motion Vision aims to fill a small-but-significant gap in home theater offerings:  the “high end” soundbar.  There are very few products in this category and understandably so.  If you have over $1000 to spend on a sound system, why not just go with a multi-speaker set-up?  The vast majority of people will do just that.  But not everyone can.  Some rooms simply can’t be outfitted in such a way.  Outside walls, lots of windows, inadequate crawl or attic space — these are things that can hinder speaker installation throughout a decent-sized room.  Or maybe the room just has a nice charm you don’t want to ruin with a multitude of speakers.  Also: If you could get outstanding 5.1 channel “surround” sound from just a single $1500 bar, it could actually be a good deal.  You wouldn’t need an A/V receiver.  You wouldn’t need to pull cables through walls.  Assuming you’ve already got a decent TV (with multiple HDMI inputs), you can use your TV as the receiver and simply plug the soundbar into your TV’s digital audio out port (which is becoming standard on decent HDTVs these days).  No extra components.  No need to hire an A/V installer.  You might not even need a universal remote.  None of that.  Which brings us to the $1500 question…  Is the Motion Vision that soundbar?

My client’s living room is a little over 20 feet x 15 feet.  That’s either large or medium sized depending on where you live.  In a big city like Los Angeles, it’s actually a nice-sized room, especially for a room solely dedicated to entertaining and nothing else.  It’s got two outside walls, lots of windows AND a charming mid-century Mediterranean look the client’s wife didn’t want to alter.  So the room definitely fit the bill for a soundbar, and powerful one at that (to fill the space adequately).  The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama and the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR were both out of the client’s price range (each runs over $2000).  Also, they were kinda ugly.  So, after reading some glowing reviews — here, here, and here — I recommended the Motion Vision.

The first thing you notice is how striking it is to look at.  It definitely looks like a $1500 piece of equipment, at least compared to other speaker systems.  But does it sound like $1500?  Our first test DVD:  The Blu-Ray for Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights.  Why a comedy, you ask?  Well, for one — it’s not just a comedy.  It has several racing sequences that can really test a system’s ability to handle action.  And secondly:  Sound is actually pretty important to comedy, especially for a slave-to-detail like director Adam McKay.  For all the over-the-top gags, there’s just as much humor found in the nuance of individual lines.

Our first reaction:  It sounded FANTASTIC.  Out-of-the-box, the sound was rich and full-bodied.   The race car engines revved like they did in the theater.   For a soundbar with no external subwoofer, the bass was more than enough.

But something odd kept happening.  On more than one occasion, I’d have to ask: “What’d that guy just say?”  Occasionally muddled dialogue is par for the course with movies featuring thick accents and lots of background action — but with the Motion Vision, just about any overly-deep, overly-raspy voice sounded like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

I tweaked and tweaked the soundbar, but no matter how I adjusted the settings, mid-range dialogue sounded either a little muted (compared to other sounds) or too breathy.  I had to turn down the overall bass down a lot just to get the dialogue to sound the way I wanted it to (not an ideal solution if you like bass and don’t have an external subwoofer).

Note: The dialogue sounded better coming from a DTS source than a Dolby Digital source, but if you’re planning to use your TV’s digital out port, DTS likely isn’t an option.

Now, other people who listened to this soundbar didn’t mind the breathiness of the dialogue.  In fact, the amount of “depth” to the dialogue might even be considered impressive to some (because “tinny” voices are a sign of low quality).  Personally, I’d gladly take a little tinniness if it came with a bit more clarity.  So if you plan on watching as many dialogue-heavy costume dramas as you do action films, this might not be the soundbar for you.

For the client, the dialogue issue was actually forgivable.  And I have a feeling this is a common complaint among soundbar technology in general.  But there was a glitch that we couldn’t overlook.  The Motion Vision has an “auto-off/auto-on” feature.  At least, it’s supposed to. I wanted to set it up so the client never had to turn on or off the soundbar, so this feature was something I liked a lot.  On paper.  In actual practice, it didn’t work right.  Every time the Motion Vision turned itself off (to save power), the next time it turned itself on again (whenever it sensed a signal coming from the TV), it defaulted to the wrong audio source.  I tried this with two different units and both had the same defect.  So basically, if you intend to use the auto-power feature to reduce the need for a 2nd remote (or to keep from having program a macro into a universal remote), the feature is worthless.  Every time the system turned on, you still had to manually switch over the right source input.  Very annoying.  I had to turn off that feature and program a universal remote so that it turned on the soundbar manually with the TV.  Not the worst solution in the world, especially if you were already planning to use a good universal remote anyway, but I was really hoping to set-up the system so that it didn’t need a universal remote at all (because the TV and Blu-Ray player were the same brand, and because apps like Netflix and Pandora are baked into the TV itself).

Conclusion:  We returned the MartinLogan.  But it was a tough decision.  The thing was beautiful.  For the most part it sounded EXCELLENT, but the dialogue got a little lost under certain circumstances — just enough that I thought the client could save money and get a less expensive sound bar that wouldn’t be any worse in that area, and maybe even a little better.

The client wound up getting the Harman Kardon SB30 (currently retailing for just under $800). Overall, it’s not as “substantial” a sound delivery system as the MartinLogan — music especially doesn’t sound as good — but for movies it does hold its own against and even does better than the Martin Logan in a couple areas.  Dialogue tended to sound crisper and the SB30’s simulated surround sound worked much better i.e. it has a wider sitting area to get the full effect, and the effect itself was more profound (though still nothing compared to actual rear speakers). It also saved the client nearly $700, which is always a good thing.

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