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Untangling the mesh: Everything you need to know about Wi-Fi systems

CNET editor Dong Ngo explains the good and the bad of Wi-Fi systems (aka mesh networks) and their alternatives that will make your home Wi-Fi great.

Dong Ngo
allyplus-4.jpg

The Amped Wireless Ally Plus is one of a few mesh systems that offer built-in protection for the entire network against malware and online threats.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Editors' note: This article was originally published on December 18, 2016, and it's regularly updated.

You bought a top-tier router and expected to have Wi-Fi in every corner of your home. Turns out, a large part of the house still has no signal at all. What gives?

Why 'traditional' routers often disappoint

A powerful router's Wi-Fi signal can be strong enough to cover approximately a 3,000-square-foot home, but only if it's placed right in the middle of the house. This is because the signal spreads out equally from the router's location. Most people, however, place the router where the service line (DSL, cable and so on) comes in, which is usually in one corner of the house. In the end, half of the router's Wi-Fi coverage is actually outside of the house, leaving the farthest part of the home uncovered.

Home Wi-Fi systems such as Google Wifi, Netgear Orbi, Eero, Amped Wireless Ally Plus, and Portal -- also known as home mesh networks -- are designed to solve this problem. Instead of just one router, they come in two, three or even more units, allowing you to blanket your home with Wi-Fi.

But Wi-Fi systems aren't perfect. Before you invest in one, consider these pros and cons.

Popular Wi-Fi systems

US price (per set units) Web interface Vendor connected Signal loss Features Protection against malware
Almond 3 $400 (3) Yes Yes Yes Limited No
Amped Wireless Ally Plus $300 (2) Yes Optional Yes Full feature Yes
Eero $500 (3) No Yes Yes Limited No
Google Wifi $330 (3) No Yes Yes Limited No
Linksys Velop $500 (3) No Yes Minor Limited No
Luma $400 (3) No Yes Yes Limited Yes
Netgear Orbi $400 (2) Yes Optional No Full feature No
Portal $319 (2) Yes No Yes Extremely limited No

Why Wi-Fi systems work

These are the benefits you can expect from a Wi-Fi system.

Custom Wi-Fi coverage

Not only will you get expanded coverage with a Wi-Fi system, you can also tailor the Wi-Fi signal according to the shape of your home by placing the extra units where they're needed.

Generally, each unit can be placed as far as 30 to 50 feet from the last (one or two rooms apart). So if you have one long property, a set of three hardware units in a daisy-chain setup will deliver signal from one end to another. And with most Wi-Fi systems, you can expand your coverage by buying and adding more units.

They're easy to use

If you can use a smartphone and have plugged something into a wall socket before, you then can set up a Wi-Fi system.

All Wi-Fi systems are dead-simple to use -- at least those I've worked with, anyway. Usually, you can use your phone -- not a clunky web interface -- to set up the first unit and connect it to an internet source like your broadband modem. After that, all you have to do is place the rest of the units around the house and plug them into power outlets. And that's it.

They're frequently updated

Most Wi-Fi systems are managed by vendors and get regular software update to improve their performance, features and security. Even those that are not connected to a vendor also get automatic firmware updates to address any issues that might arise. So getting a Wi-Fi system means you won't need to worry whether your home network is up to date with regard to security or updating (commonly known as "flashing") the firmware yourself. And at times, you might even get a pleasant surprise when a new feature is added or the performance is suddenly greatly improved.

Built-in protection

Like many single routers, more and more Wi-Fi systems are now available with built-in protection for the entire home network against malware and online threats. This is a great feature to have if you have a lot of IoT devices -- such as appliances, IP camera, printers and so on -- at home that you can't run security software on. Keep in mind that even with this feature, you still need to take precaution by changing the default password of each IoT device.


The caveats

There are a few concerns that one might have about using a Wi-Fi system. They are not necessarily applicable to every system, and I will explain how to mitigate or eliminate each one, when possible.

They're expensive

Wi-Fi systems are generally expensive. Currently, the most affordable option I'd recommend is Google Wifi, which is still pricey at $300 for a set of three units.

What you're paying for here is convenience -- not higher-tier Wi-Fi. Google Wifi, like many other Wi-Fi systems, uses a relatively low-tier Wi-Fi standard oftentimes being AC1200, which is a dual-band, dual-stream (2 x 2) system that has top the speed of 867 megabit per second on the 5GHz band and 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. In short, it's quite low on the performance chart and generally used by routers in the $50 range. So, if you know how to link three routers together manually, a mesh network-like setup will only cost you $150. However, in this case, it will take a lot more effort. So yes, with Wi-Fi systems, you pay for the convenience and ease of use.

Privacy risks

This doesn't apply to all Wi-Fi systems, but many of them are required to be connected to the vendor at all times to function properly. In fact, you can't even manage your home network without logging in to an account with the vendor first. Examples of systems that require this are Google Wifi, the Eero and the Plume. Some of those that don't are the Netgear Orbi or the Portal.

Keep in mind that most other home routers don't need to connect to vendors to work. Having your home network connected to the vendor at all times means the vendor potentially could be monitoring all that's going on in your network, including internet traffic. All vendors say that they don't collect user's activities as websites you visit and so on. But no vendor can give absolute assurance that they won't be hacked, either.

That said, for vendor-connected Wi-Fi systems, make your choice based on how much you trust the vendor.

Slow Wi-Fi speed

This is mainly due to two reasons, signal loss and signal degradation.

Signal loss is phenomenon that takes place when a Wi-Fi signal is extended wirelessly. In this case the signal hops from the main router unit to a satellite unit. This secondary unit will then have to do two jobs at once: receive the Wi-Fi signal from the original router and then rebroadcast it. And when the device uses the same band for these two jobs, it loses 50 percent efficiency, meaning devices connected to the main router unit will have double the real-world speed compared to those connected to a second satellite unit.

If you use three units and daisy-chain them sequentially to extend the signal farther in one direction, devices connected to the third unit will further suffer in speed -- up to four times slower than those connected to the main router. The more units you use farther from the main one, the more the speed will degrade. A few Wi-Fi systems on the market don't suffer from this phenomenon, however, like the Netgear Orbi or the Linksys Velop and more are coming soon, which don't have signal loss if you use no more than two units.

But all systems suffer from signal degradation, which happens when you place the satellite unit more than 20 or 30 feet away from the main router unit. This happens because Wi-Fi signal generally gets worse the farther away from the broadcaster.

This makes it tricky to use a Wi-Fi system; if you place a satellite unit close to the main router unit to maintain the speed, it doesn't help much with the range. But if you place it too far, the range is great but there's not much signal from the original broadcaster to extend, so the real-world speed will suffer.

Most systems help users find out where it's best to place the satellite units via the mobile app, but they tend to favor range over speed. To find the best balance, you'll need to test the speed of your local Wi-Fi network during the setup process.

That said, unless you're having weekly LAN parties, frequently transferring files between computers in your home, or you have a Gigabit-class internet connection, the signal loss and degradation won't matter much since Wi-Fi is so much faster than most residential broadband connections anyway. Generally, if your internet speed is 200Mbps or less, chances are a Wi-Fi system (with no more than three units) can still deliver it in full most of the time. But if you have faster internet speed or need a fast local wireless network, a Wi-Fi system generally won't cut it.

To mitigate the speed problem you can try placing the satellite units around the first router unit. And to eliminate it completely, connect the units using network cables. But if you choose this option, you'd lose the convenience factor.

netgearorbi-3.jpg

The Netgear Orbi doesn't suffer from signal loss if you use the original set of two units.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Signal handoff

When you use multiple broadcasters, a connected mobile device like an iPad is supposed to automatically and seamlessly move from one to another as you move it around the house. This is called signal handoff. If you have a Wi-Fi system with excellent signal handoff, you will experience no disconnection when this transition takes place. But a system with bad handoff will cause interruption for applications that require a constant connection such as Wi-Fi calling or online games, when you're moving around the house.

Lack of features and settings. Also: Not future-proof

All Wi-Fi systems I've reviewed, except for the Netgear Orbi, have a very limited number of features and settings that let you customize your network. Most of the time, Wi-Fi systems have just one or two features -- mostly for prioritizing connections and parental controls -- and that's it. If you're used to deep customization of your network, or like to have a web interface -- the way things are with traditional routers -- you'll find most Wi-Fi systems very lacking. On top of that, most systems have just one LAN port on one each unit, so if you want to hook up wired devices (like servers or desktop computers) you will definitely need to resort to switches.

What's more important is, once you've gone with a Wi-Fi system, you're stuck with it. There's no easy way to upgrade the hardware of such a system. So, if at some point you're no longer happy with either your Wi-Fi speed or the feature set, you'll need a new system entirely.


The alternative

Wi-Fi systems are here to stay. This is because they are set to solve the biggest problem in home Wi-Fi: coverage. That said, it's expected that you will soon have even more options that might have better performance and more features -- and the cost might go down, too.

One thing for sure, though: The best alternative to Wi-Fi systems is to run network cables to certain parts of your home. In this scenario, you have one main router, with all the features you want, and more access points (or routers in access point mode) around the house that connect to it via network cables. That's the best way to have both fast performance and the most features at the lowest cost. Obviously, this tends to require a lot of work or even a major remodeling of your home.