HolidayBuyer's Guide

Forget the pricey router -- Starry's Internet service is what I want

Commentary: A slightly better Wi-Fi router isn't what the world needs

Sarah Tew / CBS Interactive

How do you sell something that people already own? You make it smarter. You make it prettier. You let people control it from their phone. That was the formula that made the $250 Nest thermostat so successful, and other companies have been aping it ever since. These days, you can even buy home security cameras and door locks that have won industrial design awards.

But now, some companies also think we need a prettier, smarter Wi-Fi router. I can't agree with that.

It's true that if you want high-quality wireless Internet access in your home, you'll be looking at options that aren't exactly beautiful. There's a reason the very best wireless routers look like insects with big, nasty antennae on top: good antennas are critical if you want to transmit and receive wireless signals well.

Most of the best routers we've tested look like this.

Photo by Josh Miller/CNET

Of course, these fancy new routers like the $200 Google OnHub and $350 Starry Station aren't primarily promising to improve the speed of your network. (That's just one of the claims.) Mostly, what they're selling is a simple router people can understand, one with modern touchscreen controls, and one which provides, to quote Starry's press release, "a window into their home's Internet health."

One of Google's new OnHub routers.

Photo by Josh Miller/CNET

But those things don't necessarily make a Wi-Fi router any smarter. If I want to connect a device to any modern Wi-Fi router, it's as simple as pressing the WPS button on both devices and waiting for them to pair. If I want to know the "Internet health" of my laptop, I don't need to walk over to my router and read my Internet "score": I can just try browsing some websites or streaming some video.

The Starry Station, another "smart" router shipping this March.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

It's pretty clear to most people when they're connected to the Internet and whether their connection is fast or not. And when the connection fails, looking at the clearly labeled blinking lights on their router (the same blinking lights that Google and Starry are trying to do away with) can be an easy way to decide whether to call Comcast or just reset their equipment.

To be clear, we haven't tested the Starry Station yet. It may well be an excellent product -- maybe even the Rolls Royce of wireless routers. But even if the company's antenna geniuses have produced a wireless access point that works as well or better than the insect-like routers we have today, I just can't see myself spending $350 on a fancy wireless access point.

Basically, unless there's something better these supposedly smart routers can do, I think I'm good with what I've got.

What I really need: A viable Comcast alternative

For a moment, it seemed like Starry's router did have a particularly better thing that really, truly excited me. You see, Starry isn't just selling a Wi-Fi router -- separately, it's also testing a new, totally wireless broadband Internet service that could theoretically compete with the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.

The antenna you'd use to get Starry's wireless Internet service -- the thing I'm actually excited about.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

I'll be honest here: I confused the Wi-Fi router and the wireless Internet service at first. I thought they were the same thing; that the Starry Station would be the gateway drug to help me ditch Comcast. (It's not a terribly hard mistake to make.)

I live in San Jose, the heart of the Silicon Valley. I'm 30 minutes away from the offices of Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Nvidia or practically any other powerful tech company you can name. Yet we don't have Google Fiber, Verizon FiOS or any particularly excellent Internet in San Jose. The options are Comcast, which offers decent speeds but quietly raises my bill every year, or AT&T, which can be extremely slow depending on your location.

I've been breathlessly awaiting any other choice. Even though I know Starry may take years to reach my hometown -- if ever -- and we don't even know if it works, the thought alone is incredibly exciting.

That's why I'm disappointed that the first Starry product -- the one that will be available nationwide -- is just another "smart" Wi-Fi router that will use my same old Internet. That the router, not Starry's Internet service, is what will start shipping in March of this year.

I don't need a better Internet box. I need better Internet, from a better Internet company. And I'm ready to pay any company that can bring it to me.

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