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Smart Home

This is the one thing every smart home needs

Few things are more frustrating than poor Wi-Fi in a smart home. That's why you need a mesh network.

Dong Ngo/CNET

The ideal smart home has changed a lot over the last few years, from a few smart bulbs and a thermostat to video doorbells and robotic lawnmowers. With an ever-growing number of connected devices in your home, there is an obvious bottleneck that can occur: Wi-Fi reliability.

The more devices you pile onto your network and the more widespread throughout your home they are, the more you'll notice holes in your Wi-Fi coverage.

That's why if you are planning on making your home smart, you should have a mesh Wi-Fi system.

What is a mesh network, anyway?

It should first be noted that wireless routers are much better than they were just a few, short years ago. They support faster wireless speeds to better match the speeds your internet service provider delivers. They can also deliver enough range to fully cover a 3,000-square-foot (279-square-meter) house… assuming it's located near the center of the house.

Before affordable, personal mesh networks came into play, if your router couldn't reach a far corner of your home, you'd likely turn to powerline network adapters or convert an old router into a wireless bridge. While these are affordable solutions, they're finicky and fairly complex to set up for a networking novice. And they don't always play well with smart home gadgets anyway.

A mesh network, on the other hand, is a combination of two or more wireless access points that communicate with one another to blanket your entire home with stronger, more reliable coverage. Almost all of the mesh kits available are incredibly easy to set up and use, and they can be tailored to suit your needs.

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Spotty Wi-Fi can make your smart home devices unusable. A mesh network, like this one from eero, can help.

Josh Miller/CNET

That means you can add more access points at will, with minimal setup, to bring Wi-Fi into parts of your home that were unreachable before. As former CNET editor Dong Ngo put it, "If you can use a smartphone and have plugged something into a wall socket before, you then can set up a mesh Wi-Fi system."

Of course, mesh networks aren't perfect either. Despite prices falling gradually, they're still prohibitively high for most. Your network speeds, especially at the far reaches of your home, will be noticeably slower than near the node that's attached to your modem. And beware, not all mesh networks support simultaneous dual-band networks, so you may be relegated to a 2.4GHz network, just to support all the smart home devices in your home.

Still, the ease of use, customization and faster broadband speeds across the board help negate most of the negatives of mesh networks.

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How much does a mesh network cost?

There's no way to sugarcoat it. Mesh kits are still expensive. While you can get a stellar router for anywhere from $70 (£53 or AU$94) to upwards of $200 (£151 or AU$270), a starter mesh kit will set you back around $250 (£189 or AU$337).

If you have a home between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet (139 and 279 square meters), Google suggests at least two Google Wifi ($100 at Amazon.com) points. That alone will set you back $238 (£179 or AU$320) before tax. If your home is on the upper end of that squarefootage and has multiple levels, you may need a third node, which is another $119 (£90 or AU$160). The same three-point setup with eero will set you back $399 (£301 or AU$538).

If you're prone to choose the most affordable router available, the price difference will feel significant. So, too, will the reliability of your wireless network. On the other hand, if you're used to buying a higher-end router, the price will be more palpable, and you should see an improvement in the average performance of the network in the far reaches of your home.

Do I really need a mesh network?

The $300 question, of course, is do you really need a mesh network in your home? With the price of Wi-Fi systems still teetering between affordable and a bit pricey, it's tough to recommend them for everyone.

However, if you have a smart home, it's an entirely different scenario. You're doing yourself a disservice with a smart home if you don't have reliable coverage throughout the entire house and beyond.

Smart bulbs, for instance, are some of the most simple smart home gadgets you can install in your home. But without a reliable connection, they can quickly become one of the most frustrating products you'll own, constantly going offline and becoming unreachable because of other devices on the network. And smart bulbs are one of the more common connected gadgets that you'll be installing in those far nooks and crannies, because who wants to go down to the other end of the house and down into the basement to flip a switch anymore?

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Google WiFi can extend your wireless Internet into the far reaches of your home.

Josh Miller

Want to take an Alexa speaker outside while you cook or work? You better hope you have a strong enough Wi-Fi signal in your backyard. Want to turn the basement into the ultimate home theater with game consoles and streaming devices? This is what a mesh network is built for. (Well, for streaming anyway. For gaming, your best bet is and will continue to be a hard-wired connection for the foreseeable future.) Need a security camera on your detached garage? A mesh network might be the best solution.

If you want your smart home to truly be cutting edge and work as intended, a mesh Wi-Fi system should be at the top of your list things to add first.

How many Google Home or Alexa speakers should you own? The answer depends.

Internet outdoors: Our guide to extending your Wi-Fi into your backyard.