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The new Surfboard Max mesh router makes tri-band Wi-Fi 6 less expensive

Available now, a new Surfboard Max mesh router with a dedicated backhaul band and full support for Wi-Fi 6 costs $400 for a two-pack.

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The new Arris Surfboard Max is available in stores now at $400 for a two-pack.

Ry Crist/CNET
This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

The Arris Surfboard line from CommScope already includes a variety of tri-band mesh routers that support Wi-Fi 6 -- and that tri-band approach, which dedicates an additional 5GHz band to backhaul communications between the router and its satellite nodes, is key to unlocking top-of-the-line mesh performance. This year, for CES 2021, the company released another new tri-band, Wi-Fi 6 Surfboard Max -- and it's the most affordable one we've seen yet.

Available now at Best Buy after initially being pitched for release last year, the new AX6600 Surfboard Max looks like a white version of last year's black-bodied Surfboard Max Pro and Max Plus models -- but it costs less than either of them at $400 for a two-pack capable of covering up to 5,500 square feet. That's also $50 less than a comparable Asus ZenWiFi AX two-pack, which is one of our top-recommended mesh systems, and it's right on par with the well-reviewed Eero Pro 6 system from Amazon, too. That one costs $600 for a three-pack.

Meanwhile, if you just want one unit, you can also buy a single Surfboard Max for use as a standalone router. That'll cost you $250.

For the money, you're getting a tri-band mesh setup with a 4x4 backhaul band and full support for 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. That means the Surfboard Max supports the latest Wi-Fi speeds and features, including OFDMA, 1024 QAM, Target Wake Time and other improvements that make Wi-Fi 6 the fastest version of Wi-Fi yet.

One thing the Surfboard Max doesn't support is Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices equipped to transmit in the newly opened 6GHz band. For that, check out the latest offerings from Netgear, TP-Link and Linksys Velop, but be prepared to pay up.

You only get two Ethernet jacks per device, and they're located on the bottom instead of back, which means your cables will need to be able to make a 90-degree bend.

Ry Crist/CNET

The other noteworthy shortcomings here are that the Surfboard Max only features two Ethernet jacks on each device, and it only supports incoming wired speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. 

These are understandable trade-offs to help bring the price down a bit, but they also mean the Surfboard Max is less future-proofed than systems like the Asus ZenWiFi AX and the AX6000 version of Netgear Orbi, each of which features a multi-gig WAN port. The Surfboard Max doesn't include any USB jacks, either.

All of that said, my biggest gripe about those ports is the way they're designed. You'll find them on the bottom of the device with just an inch or so of clearance, meaning you have to plug your Ethernet cables in at an upward angle and then immediately bend them 90 degrees so they feed out through the slot in the back. It forces your cables into a permanent stress position, and some bulkier cables might not be able to bend like that at all.

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Later this year, Arris will release a small, plug-in range extender called the Surfboard Max Express and bundle it with the full-size router.

CommScope

One other note: In addition to the new Surfboard Max, CommScope also used CES to unveil a new plug-in range extender called the Arris Surfboard Max Express. Built like an adorably miniature version of the router, the device plugs in like an air freshener, then uses Wi-Fi 6 to relay the signal from your router farther into your home. 

CommScope says that the tri-band device supports the full speeds of the full-size Surfboard Max, and that it's designed specifically for use with that system. We'll see it bundled with the Surfboard Max router sometime in the first half of the year -- no word yet on whether or not that bundle will bring the cost of a 2-piece system down even further, but I'll update this space when I hear more.

Initial speed tests

We haven't had a chance to test out the Surfboard Max's top speeds at our lab just yet, and we still need to map out its range and signal strength at the 5,800 square foot CNET Smart Home. We'll get you that data once we have it.

I do, however, have a full set of speed tests finished here at my smallish, 1,300 square foot home, where I have an incoming fiber internet connection of 300Mbps. As with all the routers I test, I spent multiple days running well over a hundred speed tests across five different spots in my home during morning, afternoon and evening hours. 

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The Surfboard Max (yellow) finished with overall average speeds at my home that were just behind the top-performing Netgear Orbi AX6000 and Asus ZenWiFi AX, and just ahead of the also-great Eero Pro 6 and Nest Wifi.

Ry Crist/CNET

The Surfboard Max did well here, with an overall average download speed throughout my house of 265Mbps. The only two mesh systems I've tested with faster average speeds than that are the AX6000 version of Netgear Orbi (289Mbps) and the Asus ZenWiFi AX (272Mbps). That's a great result given that the Surfboard Max two-pack costs $50 less than the ZenWiFi AX, and $300 less than that high-end version of Netgear Orbi.

The overall average speed only tells you part of the story, though. Like I said before, that score averages together multiple rounds of tests -- and in the case of the Surfboard Max, those rounds were kind of all over the place. Just look at the GIF below, which runs through the results of each round. Some were near perfect, with average speeds at or above the ISP speed limit of 300Mbps in every room I tested in, but in other rounds, those speeds came crashing down.

Six different rounds of tests, six very different results. But note that this high level of variance was with a Wi-Fi 5 laptop -- performance was much better when I re-ran the tests on a phone equipped with Wi-Fi 6.

Ry Crist/CNET

Here's the reason why. Whenever I do a round of speed tests, I start with a fresh connection to the router on my laptop, and then I move from room to room, running the numbers multiple times in each designated spot. For half of those rounds of tests, I start in my living room, where the router sits, and work towards the back of the house. For the other half, I reverse things and start with a fresh connection at the farthest point from the router (my home's back bathroom) and then work my way back to the living room.

The average upload and download speeds of every mesh router I've ever tested at home, where the ISP speed limit is 300Mbps. Even with the variance in speeds, the Arris Surfboard Max finished in the top three.

Ry Crist/CNET

Mesh routers like these are designed to automatically "steer" your connection between the faster 5GHz band and the 2.4GHz band, which features better range. A good mesh router should be able to recognize when your signal is strong enough to move you onto the faster 5GHz band -- but in some of my tests where the connection started at a distance, the Surfboard Max left me on the 2.4GHz band even after I returned to the living room, with the router sitting just a few feet away. That brought the speeds down below 100Mbps.

Some networking engineers call that the "sticky client" problem, and it's the same issue that sank Amazon's Eero 6 mesh router in my tests last year. It wasn't as much of an issue here with the Surfboard Max, because it didn't happen on every run -- and when it didn't, speeds were flat-out fantastic.

On the plus side, my connection never cut out during any of my tests, and the sticky client slowdowns weren't enough to keep the Surfboard Max out of the top three on our mesh router speed test leaderboard. And when I ditched my Wi-Fi 5 laptop and re-ran the tests on an iPhone 12 Pro, which uses Wi-Fi 6, those sticky client issues disappeared. As a result, the overall average speed shot up from 265Mbps to 350Mbps -- that's very strong evidence that routers like these will only continue getting better as people continue upgrading more of their network devices to ones that support Wi-Fi 6.

To that end, I'll continue testing this router out, and I'll update this post once we have more data to share, including a look at the top speeds it's able to hit in our lab. Stay tuned.