Smart speaker-router combo makes sense

The Netgear Orbi Voice melds two of the hottest consumer tech gadgets in recent years – smart speakers and mesh Wi-Fi routers – into one.

Like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home, the Orbi Voice is a smart speaker that answers your queries and obeys your commands.

At the same time, it also acts as a wireless extender to improve your Wi-Fi coverage and eliminate wireless blind spots.

Such a two-in-one device makes so much sense that I wonder why it took manufacturers so long to realise this concept.

After all, just as one would place smart speakers throughout the home to ensure that they are within earshot of the occupants, one would similarly distribute Wi-Fi extenders around the home to maximise wireless coverage.

But there is a caveat. The Orbi Voice comes with Amazon Alexa built-in, not Google Assistant. Amazon Alexa is not supported in Singapore, unlike the Google Assistant.

This means I could not find the Alexa app, required to configure Alexa’s settings, in the Google Play Store. Instead, I had to sideload this Android app from a third-party website.

SPECS

PRICE: $549 (Orbi Voice), $799 (Orbi Voice and Orbi mesh Wi-Fi router)

ETHERNET INTERFACE: 2 x 10/ 100/1000 Gigabit

LAN STANDARDS: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac

SECURITY: WPA/WPA2-PSK

SPEAKERS: Front-facing subwoofer and front-facing tweeter (35W total peak power)

RATING

FEATURES: 5/5

DESIGN: 4/5

PERFORMANCE: 4/5

VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

OVERALL: 4/5

Apple users have it slightly easier – they need only to change the country setting for their Apple ID to an eligible country, such as the United States, to have the app show up in the App Store.

Besides the hassle, some Alexa features such as shopping and voice calls are unavailable here.

If you plan to stream music on the Orbi Voice, a paid subscription is required for services such as Spotify or Deezer. Alternatively, the TuneIn radio app can play local, as well as international, radio stations on the speaker for free.

While the Orbi Voice speaker can be purchased separately here ($549), it will work only with an Orbi router. For this review, I was given an Orbi Voice kit, which comes with the router and the speaker.

The Orbi Voice speaker is large and heavy, weighing around 1.8kg compared to the Google Home (477g).

Its Harmon Kardon-powered audio sounds fuller and louder than my Google Home Mini, though I did not have the opportunity to compare it to premium smart speakers such as the Apple HomePod and the Google Home Max (both unavailable in Singapore).

At its top are touch controls to trigger the Alexa voice assistant, adjust the audio volume, as well as to mute the speakers or disable the microphones.

Different coloured LEDs indicate the status of the speaker. For instance, a solid cyan light shows that Alexa is listening to your command, while a pulsing amber light means something is wrong.

It comes with two Ethernet ports to enable network connectivity for wired devices such as desktop computers. These ports can also serve as backhaul, the internal communication channel between the speaker and other linked Orbi units.

Both the router and the Orbi Voice speaker can be set up using the Orbi app (for iOS and Android). It offers only a handful of settings, such as configuring the guest Wi-Fi networks. More advanced options, such as setting up a network printer, are available through only the Orbi’s browser interface.

Using your voice or the Alexa app, you can set up reminders, alarms and smart home devices, as well as stream music with the Orbi Voice.

Third-party developers can also add functionality to the voice assistant through Alexa Skills, which are like mini apps that interact with your voice.

They range from news snippets to games to controls for smart home gadgets and are found in the Alexa Skills Store. For instance, a Skill I enabled lets anyone play a trivia game of Jeopardy! with Alexa using the Orbi Voice.

In my testing, Alexa does not always understand my accent. I seem to have better luck getting the Google Assistant to understand me. But Alexa has the advantage with its Skills Store. Google’s equivalent Actions number in the hundreds compared to the thousands of Alexa Skills available.

The Orbi Voice’s four far-flung microphones can pick up my voice across a room, even when the speaker is playing music.

As for its networking performance, both the Orbi router and the Orbi Voice support three wireless bands compared to cheaper, dual-band competitors.

It manages an average download speed of 301Mbps in my speed test, which is slightly lower than the original Orbi Wi-Fi system (382Mbps).

•Verdict: The Orbi Voice is a great idea, though it is relatively pricey compared to other smart speakers. Alexa is not as easy to set up as the Google Assistant, but offers more functionality via its comprehensive Skills library.

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