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Battle of the off-brand mesh routers

Available on Amazon, these no-name mesh routers feature fancy, tri-band designs for hundreds less than the competition. But are they any good?

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Ry Crist/CNET

If you're looking to upgrade your home's router, one of the best moves you can make is to go with a mesh system that uses multiple devices to spread a more consistent connection throughout your entire home. And, if you're going with mesh, another great move is to spend up for a tri-band model with an extra 5GHz backhaul band that the system can dedicate to transmissions between the router and its satellites.

MeshForce, Rock Space and Tenda Nova each have sponsored listings on page one of most mesh router searches on Amazon.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

A tri-band design like that can greatly improve your system's speeds and performance, particularly when you're connecting at range, through one of the satellites. The problem is that adding in a third band is an expensive proposition. Even if you try to keep the costs down by skipping Wi-Fi 6 and going with an earlier-gen Wi-Fi 5 system, most tri-band models will typically sell for at least $300 or so. In some cases, that'll only get you a two-pack with one router and one satellite.

Enter Amazon, where the search rankings include a number of off-brand mesh routers from companies you've never heard of, many of which are located overseas. Among them are a few tri-band models that make big performance claims -- and all of them cost significantly less than big-name, marquee mesh systems from well-known names like Linksys and Netgear. 

How much less? The three I bought -- the Rock Space mesh system, the MeshForce M7, and the Tenda Nova MW12 each sold in a three-piece setup for about $200 after applying coupons. That's less than what a two-pack of what our favorite dual-band Wi-Fi 5 mesh system Nest Wifi costs, so skipping the brand name is essentially netting you an additional extender and a tri-band design for free here, and then some. That's well-within the too-good-to-be-true range, but with each of these no-name mesh systems, I was determined to answer the age-old question: is this cheap-looking piece of tech actually any good?

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From left to right, the Rock Space mesh system, the MeshForce M7 and the Tenda Nova MW12.

Ry Crist/CNET

Meet the meshtestants

The three mesh systems I purchased and tested out are each tri-band AC2100 models. The "AC" part tells you that they support Wi-Fi 5 (for newer, Wi-Fi 6 models, look for "AX") while the "2100" part tells you the combined top transfer speeds of the bands, in Mbps. Just know that those top speeds are based on laboratory-controlled setups that don't take things like network congestion or interference from obstructions into account -- what's more, you can only connect to one band at a time.

At any rate, the specs for these three systems are identical -- and the similarities don't stop there. Though the MeshForce M7 comes as a set of three cylinder-shaped nodes, the other two (the Rock Space mesh system and the Tenda Nova MW12) both come as a set of three cubes, one black and one white. Both of those cubes have green indicator lights in the same spot on the top face, while the MeshForce system features an identical green indicator light on the front face. All three feature identical ports on the underside of each device, too -- a power jack, a WAN port for connecting to the modem and two spare Ethernet jacks, with no USB jacks whatsoever.

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Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Each system comes from a differently named parent company -- Shenzhen Teno Network Technologies Company Limited for MeshForce, Shenzhen Tenda Technology Company Limited for Tenda Nova, and the aptly named Shenzhen RenQing Excellent Investment Company Limited for Rock Space (in some places, the company is also listed as "Excellent Technology"). Each system uses its own separate app, too -- but those apps are functionally identical, each with the same design, the same features and the same typeface and copy. Each has a slightly different color palette, but that's really about it.

The only other key difference I noticed is that the apps have different privacy disclosures in Apple's App Store. Specifically, the MeshForce and Tenda Nova apps claim to collect data that isn't linked to your identity, including diagnostics, location info, user content and device identifiers. Meanwhile, the Rock Space app claims to collect no data at all. 

I asked Apple if it was unusual for copycat apps like these to have different file sizes and privacy disclosures, and a spokesperson noted that an app's data practices are at the discretion of the company or developer in question, and that some disclosures are optional. Apple is working with the developers of the three apps to ensure that they're in line with the company's privacy and data security guidelines, the spokesperson added.

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Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

As far as functionality is concerned, these apps will do what most router apps do -- they'll walk you through the setup process, and then let you adjust settings on your network as needed. Mind you, those setting options are pretty meager. You can turn on a guest network or utilize some extremely basic parental controls, but that's about it. There's a Quality of Service feature in each app, which is usually intended to prioritize traffic to specific devices, but with these systems, it's just a switch that you toggle on, with no way to actually prioritize anything.

In each case, getting everything up and running was quick and painless. With each system, the three devices are identical, so you can use any one of them as the main router and the other two as extenders. Just pick one, connect it to your modem with an Ethernet cable, plug it into power, and type in the password printed on the bottom of the device when the app asks you to. From there, you'll plug the satellites in within a few meters to let them connect -- you'll then be able to unplug them and plug them back in somewhere else, and voila, your mesh network is up and running.

How do they stack up?

From the way they look to the ins and outs of how they perform, let's run through the gauntlet of criteria you might use to pick between these systems, starting with:

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It isn't a speaker, but the Rock Space router kind of looks like one thanks to that fabric top.

Ry Crist/CNET

Design

All three systems feel lightweight and cheap to the touch, and with the same specs and the same ports in the same place on the underside of each device, there isn't much that's separating them from a practical standpoint. That leaves cosmetics, and while I wouldn't call any of the three eye-catching, the Rock Space system at least has a touch of style with the black build and the fabric on its top face. Though it doesn't play music or put out any sound whatsoever, visitors to your home would be forgiven for mistaking it for a speaker or a home audio accessory. That's better than thinking it's a cheap router, I suppose.

Winner: Rock Space

Hardware

Before testing each system out in full, I made sure to run some speed tests throughout my home using only a single device from each one. That way, I'd get a good look at the individual capabilities of each device in terms of range, speed and signal strength.

In the end, it was close, but the MeshForce M7 finished with the fastest average download speeds throughout my home, ringing in at about 156Mbps, just over half of what my 300Mbps fiber internet plan is capable of. Rock Space finished in a close second at 154Mbps, while Tenda Nova brought up the rear with average speeds of 139Mbps. Just know that none of those numbers are impressive. The previous-gen, Wi-Fi 5 version of Eero and the AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi, both of which are two-year-old dual-band mesh routers, each finished about 50Mbps faster in this single router test, with average speeds of 201Mbps and 196Mbps, respectively. Nest Wifi, another dual-band Wi-Fi 5 system, finished with an average single router speed of 226Mbps. I'll also note that MeshForce also had the slowest average upload speeds of the three no-name system, though it redeemed itself somewhat by putting up the best performance at range, with slightly higher speeds than the other two in the back of my house.

Winner: MeshForce

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Ry Crist/CNET

Download speeds

All three systems share the same specs and what appears to be the same control app, so I was curious as to whether or not I would see much of a difference between them in my performance tests, where I spend days taking countless speed measurements across multiple spots in my home, a smallish, 1,300-square-foot shotgun-style house in Louisville, Kentucky. In the end, I get a good, room-by-room look at what sort of speeds each system is delivering (and again, this is a home with a 300Mbps fiber internet plan).

Each of the three systems performed as expected. In the previous, single router test, my speeds would plummet to the low double digits by the time I reached that back bathroom, the farthest spot from the router and a recurring dead zone for a lot of routers I test. Now, with one of the satellites hooked up in the master bedroom to boost the signal, my speeds stayed well into the triple digits throughout the entirety of my home. The Rock Space system was the fastest, with a whole-home average of about 220Mbps, but the Tenda Nova and MeshForce systems were right behind it with averages of 215 and 206Mbps, which is within the margin of error. 

And again, those speeds are pretty underwhelming -- for comparison, the Wi-Fi 5 version of Eero and the AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi averaged speeds of 204 and 195Mbps, respectively, so they weren't too far behind despite lacking that third band. Meanwhile, Nest Wifi averaged speeds in my home of 222Mbps, so it managed to beat all three of these tri-band systems outright in spite of its dual-band design.

Winner: Push

The green bars represent my average speeds when my connection started in the living room, close to the router. The yellow bars represent my average speeds when I connected in the back bathroom, far from the router. A good mesh router will give you similar speeds regardless of where you first connected, so you want bars that are close together in each room here.

Ry Crist/CNET

Mesh performance

Averages are one thing, but I wanted to look a little deeper into the data to see if I could distinguish a performance winner. One way to do that is to examine the consistency of each system, and evaluate how well the mesh handles your connection as you move about your home.

To account for that, I split my speed tests into two groups. For the first group of tests, I start with a fresh connection in the living room, close to the router, and work towards that back bathroom in the back of my house. For the second set of tests, I reverse things and start with a fresh connection at range in the back bathroom, then work my way towards the front of the house. A good mesh system should deliver fairly consistent results across both sets of tests -- matching green and yellow bars in that graph above.

At a glance, none of the three were disasters, but MeshForce was the least consistent. With Rock Space and Tenda Nova it's much closer. Rock Space nailed it in three rooms, but was noticeably inconsistent in two. Tenda Nova, meanwhile, averaged out to minor inconsistencies across all five rooms.

Dots that are closer together indicate better consistency here (think of these charts a little like targets at a shooting range). The Rock Space system had the tightest spread across all of my tests, so it was the most consistent of the three mesh routers.

Ry Crist/CNET

To split the difference and pick a winner, let's look at one more set of graphs. In these, each dot represents a single speed test result, so you're seeing everything here. Dots that are closer together in each room indicate better consistency. MeshForce clearly has the most spread, so again, that's our loser -- and between Rock Space and Tenda Nova, it's pretty easy to see that Rock Space was more consistent, even if Tenda Nova averaged out to a very close second.

Winner: Rock Space

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Ry Crist/CNET

Are any of them worth it?

If I had to use one of these three systems, I'd go with Rock Space. Though it was close, it did offer incrementally faster speeds than the other two along with better consistency from the mesh. Plus, I think it's the least ugly of the three.

That said, the real winners here are probably the established brands, namely Eero, Nest and Netgear Orbi. All three of them offer dual-band Wi-Fi 5 mesh systems that kept up with all three of these no-name tri-band systems without costing much more, if anything. It wouldn't surprise me if other brands, including Asus, TP-Link, D-Link and Linksys could make similar arguments with systems of their own. And I would trust all of those established brands to do a better job of delivering crucial security and firmware updates on a regular basis, along with a better mix of useful features in the app.

In the end, you get what you pay for -- and in this case, I would skip all three of these off-brand systems and pay for a more impressive mesh router with a stronger track record. We've got plenty of good choices that fit that bill in our rundown of the best mesh routers of the year -- that's where I'd recommend turning if you're in the market for an upgrade and wondering what to buy.