New York – The next time you upgrade your Wi-Fi equipment, take a bold step: Throw out your stand-alone router and instead consider investing in a so-called mesh system.
A mesh network could solve most, if not all, of your Wi-Fi problems. It’s basically a system of multiple Wi-Fi stations that work together to blanket every corner of your home with a strong wireless data connection.
Unlike stand-alone routers that lose signal the farther you move away from them, mesh stations piggyback on one another to create a continuous wireless link throughout your home, minimizing the possibility of dead zones. The network technology is quickly becoming popular: After the start-up Eero released a mesh system last year, bigger brands like Google and D-Link followed with similar products.
Obviously, large houses with many rooms would benefit from multiple Wi-Fi hubs. But based on my tests with several mesh systems over the last year, I would go a step further and recommend a mesh network for most people, including those with modestly sized homes, for a variety of reasons.
For one, mesh Wi-Fi systems like Eero and Google Wifi include intuitive smartphone apps that make managing your network easier to understand. For another, some mesh systems are aesthetically pleasing — unlike traditional routers, which are bulky contraptions of hideous antennas that look as if they were made on the Death Star.
Most important, mesh networks better accommodate a shift in how people use technology today. We carry mobiles devices like smartphones, smart watches, laptops and tablets from room to room. Internet-connected gadgets like smart speakers, bathroom scales and smart televisions are also increasingly scattered throughout the home. With mesh networks, your Wi-Fi coverage has less chance of being interrupted.
“It’s really nice to see the router vendors doing something that is properly useful for once,” said Dave Fraser, the chief executive of Devicescape, a tech company that helps make public Wi-Fi networks more reliable for mobile phone service. “It’s like they’ve finally realized it’s human beings buying these products rather than I.T. staff.”
I tested three popular Wi-Fi systems: Eero, Google Wifi and Netgear’s Orbi. All were solid, though my favorite was Eero. Here’s what you need to know about mesh networks when picking one that suits your home.
Advantages of Mesh
First, a primer on how a mesh system works. You connect a primary base station to your broadband modem. From there, you connect satellite stations in rooms where you might get weak coverage.
Let’s say your primary base station is in the downstairs living room, and you have a satellite station in the upstairs office. When you are in the office and loading a webpage on a laptop, the primary base station retrieves the webpage data and bounces it to the satellite station, which then beams it to your computer in the office in what’s known as a hop.
“It’s like taking a flight where you can’t fly direct, but you can fly indirectly through a hub,” Mr. Fraser said. “If you go into the back room, there’s no signal. The only way you can get there is through two shorter flights.”
In addition to expanding your Wi-Fi range, a mesh system helps your device automatically connect to the strongest station as you move about the house. When you’re in the living room, your smartphone will automatically pull a signal from the station there; when you move to the bedroom, your smartphone will seamlessly switch to the station there.
That’s better than what we could do with older router setups. With a traditional Wi-Fi router, your signal would degrade the farther you move from the base station. You could boost a Wi-Fi router’s connection with an extender station. But in that situation, you would have to manually connect your device to the extender’s Wi-Fi network, and when you moved away from the extender, you would have to manually switch back to the main router’s Wi-Fi network. That’s a pain.
Finally, mesh systems like Eero, which looks like a sleek white hub with rounded corners, and Google Wifi, which is a white cylindrically shaped device, aren’t eyesores. So you need not be shy about putting the Wi-Fi hubs out in the open, like on a side table, for a clear line of sight with your gadgets.
It Isn’t Perfect
The main downside of a mesh network is that you lose some speed with every so-called hop.
Let’s say that your primary Wi-Fi station is in the living room, you have a satellite hub in the basement, and in between those two rooms there is another satellite hub in the garage. In the basement, your speeds will be slower, because the primary router makes a copy of the data as it hops to the satellite in the garage, and then the satellite in the garage produces another copy that reaches the satellite in the basement. As a result, it will take more time for that data to travel to your device via the basement hub.
Despite the sluggishness, that is still better than getting a crummy signal or no connection at all in the basement if you had just one router.
Netgear’s Orbi works differently than traditional mesh systems. It has a dedicated Wi-Fi band, or connection, in which only the router and satellites can talk to each other; no other devices can interfere with their connection. Hence Orbi’s hubs can transfer data more quickly to one another than systems like Eero and Google Wifi can.
The other downside of a mesh system is they are not cheap. A pack of three Eero devices costs about $400, Google Wifi costs about $300 for a pack of three, and Netgear’s Orbi with a router and one wall-plug satellite costs $300.
Google says the rule of thumb for choosing a package is that each access point covers about 1,500 square feet of space. But configurations will vary depending on the layout of your home and the materials inside your walls. In my roughly 1,100-square-foot apartment, I needed two access points because my main rooms are separated by a long hallway.
In my tests with Eero, Google Wifi and Netgear’s Orbi, all were quite fast in each room. The Orbi delivered the speediest results over all, and Eero and Google Wifi performed roughly the same. The Wirecutter, the product recommendations site owned by The New York Times, tested multiple mesh systems in a large house and also found Orbi to be the fastest, strongest system.
Yet speed isn’t everything. Eero’s app was the easiest to understand, which made setting up and checking on the status of the Wi-Fi system extremely smooth. Google Wifi’s app was also intuitive, though less polished than Eero’s. Netgear’s Orbi had the clunkiest setup, requiring an arcane web browser interface to get started, and the configuration language would probably be intimidating for those who are not information technology professionals.
In addition, the Orbi, which looks like a water purifier pitcher, is the bulkiest and ugliest of the three, so you may feel tempted to hide it behind a pile of books, which would weaken its signal.
Consumers would probably be happy with any of these systems compared to a traditional router. If speed is your top priority, consider the Orbi. If price is a concern, go with a Google Wifi package. Or if your goal is to make Wi-Fi less of a headache for you or a loved one, buy an Eero system.
If you live in a tiny space, like a studio apartment, a mesh network is probably overkill. But you may still want to consider buying a single Eero or Google Wifi hub to take advantage of their intuitive apps for managing your Wi-Fi.
The complexity of Wi-Fi is what inspired Eero’s chief executive, Nick Weaver, to create a mesh product. Years ago, he grew frustrated with getting phone calls from his parents begging for help whenever their internet connections failed.
“If something broke, there were no logs to understand how to improve it,” Mr. Weaver said. “This kept driving me crazier and crazier.”
He ended up plugging his parents’ networking gear into a surge protector and labeling the power button “internet kill switch” for them to easily reset their internet connection whenever it went down.
Now his parents use Eero’s mesh system — and love it, Mr. Weaver said.
The New York Times