The Google OnHub is like no other router I've seen. It's super-cool and strikingly odd at the same time.
On one hand, this is one of the best-looking, most radically designed routers on the market -- one you wouldn't mind to have displayed in the living room, instead of hidden away in the basement. It's also likely the most convenient and it's fun to use -- especially for Android users. Plus, the hardware under the hood will make it a better router in the future.
On the other hand, at launch, the router is painfully lacking in features while also requiring you to always be connected to your Google account in order to fully function. (To be clear, Google says the OnHub doesn't track users' Internet or network activities.) The OnHub's single local network port will disappoint anyone who needs to hardwire multiple products that aren't wireless friendly. Furthermore, the router's performance was merely average in our tests, both for speed and wireless coverage.
At the end of the day, there's only one scenario that you would want the OnHub right now: you want an attractive router to share a broadband Internet connection to multiple mobile handheld devices and you don't mind the fact that said router is connected to Google 24-7. Otherwise, there are many alternatives in the same price range -- the equally good-looking Apple Airport Extreme, the feature-rich Asus RT-AC68U -- which are better than the OnHub in many ways. Plenty of other models will offer better performance for less money (if not more peace of mind on the privacy front).
Keep in mind, however, that the OnHub is an evolving piece of hardware: some of its most promising features haven't even been turned on yet. That means features, functionality and even performance can change significantly over time via future software updates; these are the type of after-purchase updates that have made products like the Amazon Echo and Google's own Chromecast age well. I'll revisit the OnHub when such an upgrade takes place. In the meantime, check out this list of top 802.11AC routers on the market for one that might meet your needs (and budget) better.
First time I saw the OnHub during a demo at Google's offices, I couldn't help but be impressed. The router comes in a cylindrical shape with a 4.6-inch (11.7cm) diameter that's 7.5 inches (19cm) tall. It's about the size of large a beer mug, minus the handle. The only comparable router I can think of in terms of design is the Apple Airport extreme, but the OnHub goes one notch further, both in terms of style and oddness, by having a removable exterior shell cover, and just two Gigabit network ports (one LAN, for attaching wired devices, and one WAN, to attach to your cable modem.) Most routers comes with four LAN ports and the Airport Extreme has three. OnHub also has one USB port, but right now there's nothing you can do with it; many routers let you attach an off-the-shelf USB hard drive to create an instant network storage drive.
Google says with the limited amount of ports, the OnHub minimizes the amount of cluttering wires coming from it. That plus its eye-catching design is meant to entice users to put the router out in the open, such as on top of a desk, thereby improving its Wi-Fi coverage.
That might be true but the design doesn't provide a solution to the real reason why users tend to tuck their router away: they don't have a choice. For most people, where the broadband connection enters the house is not under a desk in a centrally located room, but rather at a corner of the property. So if you want to put the OnHub somewhere in the open, chances are you will need to run a long cable from the modem to the router's WAN (Internet) port, which can clutter your living space. What's more, if you want to add more than one wired device to the router, you will have to get a switch (which adds three or more ports) and that means more cables and another piece of hardware in the house.
All that said, if you can live with the lack of extra LAN ports (some people don't have use for them,) you'll be happy with the router's great look. Personally, I'm not sure if it's a good trade -- even considering the fact that, per Google, the outer shells will be available in more than just blue and black (the two choices available at launch). I still like the reliability and speed of a wired connection, which always trumps Wi-Fi.
You could also mistake the OnHub for a Bluetooth speaker, and that wouldn't be too far-fetched. On top the router has a 3-watt speaker, but there's no built-in microphone, so you won't be able to interact with it the way you do with the Amazon Echo. OnHub's speaker has no volume control, so it's not designed to play music, either. All it does for now is make the one-time setup process really cool. (More on that below.)
Around the speaker's top is a ringed indicator light that shines or pulses subtle colors depending on the status of the router. Blue means the router is ready for setup; teal means the router is on and active; amber means something is wrong. I love this light; it's bright just enough to show what's going on and dim enough not to be annoying at night.
The OnHub is an AC1900 Wi-Fi router. (You can read more about Wi-Fi standards here.) In terms of tech capability, that means it's a 3x3 (three-stream) 802.11ac router that has a top ceiling speed of 1300Mbps on the 5Ghz frequency band, and top ceiling speed of 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band at the same time. It's also powerful, running a dual-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm IPQ8064 processor with 1GB of RAM, which is double that of most other high-end routers.
Google says it picked three-stream AC1900 over the theoretically faster "bleeding edge" 4x4 (quad-stream) AC2600 technology -- found in routers like the Linksys EA8500 -- because the fastest clients (that is the products connecting to the router, such as phones, PCs, tablets and streaming media boxes) remain mostly three-stream. In fact, most mobile handheld devices use the 1x1 setup of 802.11ac standard that caps at just 433Mbps. In other words, the OnHub is more than capable for most of your devices, and still arguably future-proofed for more powerful wireless devices to come.
The new router comes with 13 internal antennas, including three pairs for the 5GHz band, three pairs for the 2.4GHz band and the final one for signal boosting. Inside the router, each set of antennas is paired orthogonally and positioned 120 degrees apart. Google says this design is to make the router deliver solid Wi-Fi signal, even when it's not optimally placed.
On the inside, the OnHub's circuit board is attached to a metal core which is also affixed to a metal base. When the outer shell is put on, all these parts create a smart ventilation system similar to that of the current Apple Mac Pro . And there's more: Despite the compact design, the OnHub has more on the inside than just the Wi-Fi chip. According to Google, the router has built-in Bluetooth and ZigBee -- an open, global wireless standard used in many "smart" appliances -- implying OnHub can double as a home-automation centerpiece. Alas, those features aren't yet active; the company plans to enable them via future software updates.
Finally, the router also has 4GB of built-in flash storage, though it's unclear what that's used for other than storing its firmware. (Most other routers make do with a fraction of that.)
Out of the box, the OnHub is preconfigured with a single Wi-Fi network (for both bands), the details of which are printed on its underside. Using this information you can use the router right after plugging it into power and plugging its WAN port into a broadband Internet source, such as a cable modem. Unlike other routers, the OnHub doesn't have a Web interface for accessing it through a browser. Instead, you'll need to use the Google On mobile app, available for iOS and Android. You will also need a live Internet connection and a Google account.
On certain supported Android phones, such as the Nexus 5, the setup process is really cool. You run the Google On app, then move the phone close to the router. The router will make a series of robotic noises to transmit its code to the phone so that the two are connected. Now you can use the app to continue with the initial setup and other settings.
On other devices, including iPhones and iPads, you will need to manually connect the device to the router using its preset Wi-Fi network before running the Google On app.
No matter what device you use to set up the OnHub, you must first sign-in with a Google account and the router must be connected to the Internet. In fact, the very first step of the process is to associate the router with the Google account with which sign into the mobile app. This allows the user to remotely mange their home network, and also means that the router will always connect to Google. Once the initial setup process -- which entails picking a new name and a new password for the Wi-Fi network -- is completed, the router will play another cool sound to inform you you've set it up successfully. So far this setup is the only use of the OnHub's built-in speaker.
Vendor-assisted remote management is not new. Linksys offers an option for a similar solution for its Smart Wi-Fi routers, in addition to the Web interface. Google's OnHub is the first I've seen, however, that forces users to connect to Google before they can even make any changes to a router's settings.
Google says it respects users' privacy and that "OnHub does not track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network. However, OnHub does collect data such as Wi-Fi channel, signal strength, and device types that are relevant to optimize your Wi-Fi performance." You can also use the mobile app to disable the data collection function of the OnHub, but there's no option to use the OnHub without a Google account at all -- unless you want to use it with the default settings as mentioned earlier. Even then, though, the router might still connect to Google.
All of this might raise a red flag for privacy advocates and Google-haters, but let's put it in perspective. If you're using any of Google's myriad services -- its search engine, Android devices, Google Now queries, Google Map lookups, Gmail, YouTube, the Chrome browser and the like -- you're already running a good portion of your online life through the company's servers, and putting your "privacy" (browser cookies, sites visited) in its hands. That said, some of those services at least offer the appearance of anonymity -- such as Chrome's incognito mode -- that feels lacking with OnHub.
The Google On mobile app is well-designed and sleek. Other than customizing the Wi-Fi network, you can use it to quickly send the Wi-Fi password to another person or remind yourself if you forget the password. You can also add another Google account to manage the router or add more OnHub units to an existing account. In other words, many people can manage one OnHub and a single person can manage multiple OnHub units at different locations.
In addition to working as a standard router (providing the main Internet access point for your home), the OnHub can also be configured to work in access point (bridge) mode if it's a secondary wireless point in a home. To that end -- according to Google -- if you use more than one OnHub unit at one location, the app can make them work together seamlessly to increase the Wi-Fi coverage. (We were unable to test that claim with our single review sample.)
The app works well in some respects while it's limited in others. For example, it allows you to quickly and accurately view all connected devices on your network. You can tap on the devices to conveniently reserve their IP addresses or add any of them to the priority list. However, you can only make a client priority for up to 4 hours. There are no options to make that permanent or to institute a more flexible schedule, such as every day from 7 p.m. to midnight. The app also tends to name the connected clients after the manufacturers' names -- a connected iPhone 6 will be named "Apple" or a Galaxy Note will be "Samsung." This naming convention only works well if you have one device from each manufacturer; if you have multiple such devices connected to the router -- an iPhone and iPad -- you will have no idea which is which because both will be named Apple. Plus, there's no option for you to rename a connected client.
There are also many popular router features that are not available with OnHub. Some missing features include a guest network, parental controls, firewall, Dynamic DNS, VPN (Virtual Private Network), content filtering, and others. And as mentioned earlier, you can't name the networks of the two bands (2.4GHz and 5GHz) separately and you can't use an external hard drive with the router's USB port. Google says more features will by available via future software and firmware updates. For now, though, the OnHub is by far the most lacking router I've seen in its price range.
Because the OnHub doesn't allow for naming its 5Ghz and 2.4Ghz bands as two separate Wi-Fi networks, I couldn't test it the way I do other routers. Instead, I tested both of the router's bands as one, as though it were a single-band router.
At a close range of 15 feet (about 4.6 meters), the router registered real-world sustained speed of 288Mbps; when I increased the distance to some 100 feet (30m), it scored 67Mbps. Generally, the 5Ghz band has higher data rate but a shorter range, the 2.4Ghz has a lower data rate but longer range. In my experience, when you name a router's two bands with the same Wi-Fi network name, clients tend to automatically connect to the 5Ghz band at close range and the 2.4Ghz at long range in order to maintain stable connections. In the case of the OnHub, there's no way for you to tell which band the client is connected to at any given time.
That said, the OnHub's data rates weren't terrible but they weren't impressive, either. It was about average among AC1900 routers at close range and at long range it was almost at the bottom of the charts.
Despite the 13 antennas, the OnHub's range wasn't the best I've seen. The router's maximum effective range was at about 120 feet (about 37m) away. Further, and I was able to detect the signal on the client but couldn't always hold a steady connection.
Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are plenty of walls and many Wi-Fi devices, including those from adjacent buildings, that are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
It's worth noting that the Google On mobile app has a speed test function of its own which doesn't work the way you might expect it to. Locally, when the mobile device connects to the router's Wi-Fi, the app first tests the broadband connection (between the router and the Internet), and then tests the Wi-Fi speed between the router and the mobile device itself. After that, it rates how effective the Wi-Fi speed is in delivering the broadband speed to the device.
In other words, it tests how good the Wi-Fi connection is for Internet sharing, and not necessarily for local services such as backup or media streaming from, say, a home NAS (networked attached storage) server. This means for homes where the broadband connection's download speed is 50Mbps or less, the app will almost always rate the Wi-Fi speed at 100% efficiency, as long as you stay within the effective range of the router. This is because a Wi-Fi connection, especially on the 5Ghz band is so much faster than even the fastest residential Internet speeds. So unless you have a super-fast Internet connection at home, this kind of measurement will show no difference between the OnHub and an older N900 router.
I'm not sure why Google decided to release the OnHub with so many of its hardware parts -- including Bluetooth, ZigBee and that lone USB port -- not fully activated. One thing is for sure however, in it's current state, it's a wait-and-see device -- as in, you should wait for a major software or firmware update to see how the OnHub fares before spending $200 for it.
At launch, the only appealing things about the router are its radical, eye-catching compact design and the cool one-time setup process. And I find those far from enough to make up for router's long list of shortcomings, such as average performance, the lack of extra LAN ports and the lack of popular features. Meanwhile, the fact that you can't use the OnHub without assigning it to a Google account is notable, even in light of Google's privacy assurances.
That being said, I like the OnHub's potential. The router opens up a new approach to home networking which, once fully activated, might greatly change our expectations of a home router. I'm looking forward to the OnHub's next software upgrade, as well as what the Asus-Google collaboration will bring.