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Nest Wifi review: Simple, speedy mesh internet, and a great foundation for Google smart homes

The mesh category is getting crowded -- and increasingly affordable.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Is Nest's mesh best?

At launch, the Nest Wifi's top two competitors are the Eero and Netgear Orbi. Each of those high-profile rivals has a new mesh system up for sale this fall, too, and each of them is less expensive than Nest. With the Eero, you get a three-piece mesh setup for $249, which is $20 less than Nest's two-piece setup. With the newest Netgear Orbi system, a two-piece setup costs $129, which is less than half the price of Nest's two-piece setup.

So how do the three measure up?

Top speeds

When testing a single device from each system, Netgear Orbi was the fastest at close range, but the Nest Wifi router performed better at a distance, which gave it the best overall average in this top speed test. Meanwhile, a single Eero's top speeds plummeted at distances greater than 30 feet.

Ry Crist/CNET

We started by taking a look at each system's top transfer speeds. For this test, we wire each system's router to a MacBook Pro that we use as a local server. Then, we use a second laptop connected to the router's wireless network to download data from the MacBook. That shows us how fast each router can transfer data without any of the extra variables that you get when you're pulling data from the cloud. And, by running our speed tests at multiple distances, we get a look at each router's range, too.

Nest did well in this test. With top measured speeds of 612Mbps, the standalone Nest Wifi Router wasn't quite as fast at the Netgear Orbi router was at close range, but it was noticeably faster in the medium- and long-range tests. That gave it the fastest overall average across all three distances that we tested.

Meanwhile, a single Eero was able to transfer data at just under 500Mbps at close range. That's a solid number for a single mesh device, but speeds fell off considerably at medium and long range. 

It's an interesting disparity, especially given that Nest and Netgear each feature designated routers that are distinct from the range extenders. Eero, on the other hand, offers three identical devices, any one of which can serve as the system's router. Don't be too quick to write Eero off, though. At long ranges like that, these multipoint systems expect to be routing your traffic through a second device. That meant we had more testing to do.

Real-world speeds

Specifically, I wanted to get a good sense of how these systems performed when used as intended in an actual home setting. So, I took each system home, set them each up on my network, and then ran lots and lots of speed tests in five different spots around my house. By the end, I ran 120 speed tests for each system -- two separate sets of 15 tests each in the morning, daytime and evening hours to give me the most accurate averages possible for each system, plus two more sets of 15 speed tests with just the router working on its own.

Again, Nest did well, but in this real-world environment, it was much closer. My home, a skinny, little shotgun-style house in Louisville, Kentucky, is only about 1,300 total square feet, but it still has its dead zones -- particularly, a back bathroom located at the very rear of the house. On their own, none of the system's routers were able to muster speeds much faster than 50Mbps or so back there, and my home has a 300Mbps fiber internet connection.

These are the average download speeds by room after running 90 speed tests with each system in a home with a 300Mbps internet connection. Again, Nest averaged the highest overall speeds, especially at a distance, but the three were very close.

Ry Crist/CNET

Then, I added a single range extender in an adjacent bedroom -- with Nest, one of the Nest Wifi Points. With the mesh kicked in, each system's speeds were much faster at range, including average speeds of well over 100Mbps in that back bathroom from all three. Nest averaged the fastest download speeds throughout the house, with an impressive overall average of 222Mbps. Eero was the runner-up with a whole-home average of 204Mbps, and the budget-priced Netgear Orbi finished a respectable third, averaging 195Mbps.

Close as it was, Nest's network seemed a little more robust than the others, with an average upload speed of 229Mbps throughout the home compared to 166Mbps and 169Mbps for Eero and Netgear, respectively. As for latency spikes, I only counted six across all 120 of the Nest tests -- but the others did even better. Netgear's ping to a server located on the other end of Kentucky was only noticeably higher than average during 5 tests out of 120. Eero's ping only spiked twice.

Ultimately, performance for each system was close enough that I don't think most people would notice much of a difference between the three of them. Nest and Netgear offer higher potential for top speeds, but Eero's well-developed mesh does a lot of heavy lifting to help make up the difference. We'll have an even better sense of how they stack up once we get a chance to test them out in a larger setting -- lookin' at you, CNET Smart Home.

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The verdict

A mesh router system makes for a smart, sensible upgrade to your home's network, particularly if you're struggling with dead spots. The Nest Wifi is an excellent option, but at $269 for a two-piece system, it isn't nearly as good a value as the newest Netgear Orbi, which offers roughly the same coverage for just $129. For larger homes, a three-piece, third-gen Eero setup costs $249, which is $100 less than a three-piece Nest Wifi setup. Nest is also more expensive to expand, since the Wifi Points cost $149 each. Each Eero device costs $99.

I'll also mention that the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which is the best Wi-Fi 6 router we've tested yet, is currently on sale for less than $300, right in the same ballpark as Nest Wifi. Nest doesn't support Wi-Fi 6 yet, so TP-Link is worth a look if you'd like something future-proofed. Even right now, in a house filled with Wi-Fi 5 gadgets, that router averaged speeds that were slightly faster than the Nest in each room I tested.

All of that said, Nest Wifi is a terrific mesh router system in its own right, and a perfect platform for the connected lives of folks who already make regular use of Google's products and services. Like a good rug, it really ties everything together. Just please, try not to drop it.

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