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, the feature-rich -- 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 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.
Design: Show me off, please!
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. 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.
Hardware: Sweet spot Wi-Fi with potentials
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-- 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. 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.)
Setup: It's all about a Google account
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.