Here's an interesting idea for a Wi-Fi system. Instead of using two or three medium-size pieces of hardware (like the, the or the ) for your whole home, how about using a bunch of little ones, say, one for each room?
That's the basic premise of the Plume Adaptive WiFi system. You can get up to six tiny identical units in a pack. Each unit, called a Plume Pod, has a Gigabit Ethernet network port and can be plugged directly into a wall socket, resembling a typical powerline adapter. There's no powerline involved though, this is a pure Wi-Fi device.
How the Plume system works
You connect one of the Plume Pods to an internet source, like a broadband modem, and it works as your main router. Now plug the rest of the pods around the house and you have just created an extended or "mesh" Wi-Fi network. The Wi-Fi signal will propagate from one pod to another and the more pods you have, the larger the coverage area is. There's no limit to how many pods you can use. One pod costs $69, three cost $179 and six cost $329.
Usually when a Wi-Fi signal is extended, it hops from one transmitter to another. When this happens, severe signal loss occurs, because the extender unit has to both receive and rebroadcast the signal at the same time. This means devices connected to the extender will have around 50 percent slower speed compared to those connected to the original broadcaster. The more extenders you have in a system, the more times the signal will hop, exponentially reducing the speed. This is the reason most Wi-Fi systems have only three units, effectively making the signal hop twice at most.
Plume says that with its Auto channel hop feature, the pods use different channels or bands, deliberately picking those that aren't crowded so the signal loss from each hop is minimized, if not eliminated. This should translate into faster and more reliable performance, allowing the Wi-Fi speed to remain constant when extended. This is similar to the Netgear Orbi, which has a third dedicated band exclusively for extending the signal.
So that's the theory. And in theory, it's a great idea. In reality, you should prepare yourself for some disappointment.
Easy to use, flawless operation
As long as you have an Android or iOS phone or tablet, the setup process is quick, easy and even fun with the Plume app. (There's no web interface option.) OK, you do need to tap on the screen a few times but really, everything was self-explanatory and every step happened exactly as expected in my case. It took me less than 5 minutes to get five pods up and running. (I couldn't immediately find a free wall socket to plug the sixth in; more on this below.) And after that everything just worked, flawlessly. I didn't run into any trouble at all.
By the way, you do need an account with Plume before you can use the app and the system will stay connected to the Plume at all times. This is the case with many Wi-Fi systems, including the Eero and the Google Wifi.
Once setup, in any room where there's a pod, you'll have full-bar Wi-Fi signal. However, full bars just means you have a strong connection to the pod you're closest to. It has no bearing on the actual speed of that connection to the rest of the network and the internet.
Slow speed, short range, no features
And in my testing, standing just a few feet from a pod, the max sustained speed I got was just 90 megabits per second. For comparison, the Eero can deliver some 200Mbps from 75 feet away and the Negear Orbi is even faster, at 230Mbps. When I move farther, say at about 20 feet away, the Plume fluctuated at around 20 to 30Mbps. And I couldn't move much farther away because each pod's Wi-Fi range is short, especially when there's a wall in the way, and in a home, you don't need to move very far before getting a wall or two in between. In fact, the range is so short that I couldn't be one room away from a pod (so with two walls in between) and still get a strong signal from it.
This short range can make it tricky to find an ideal wall socket to plug the Plume pods in for the mesh network to function optimally. If you want good performance, you can't put them more than 25-30 feet away while within line of sight, or no more than 15-20 feet way if there's a wall between them, and never put them two walls apart. This is the reason I had a hard time finding a good spot to plug the sixth pod into. In the end, I found that with all six pods I could make the system cover a home of some 1,800 square feet (plus a basement) with decent internet speed. But my single Asus RT-AC88U router ($209 at Amazon) -- strategically placed right in the middle -- can do that with much faster speed.
The Plume system has no features at all, including those commonly found in other Wi-Fi systems, like bandwidth priority, parental control and so on. You can only make it work in router mode (where it's the only router in the house) or in Auto mode (where it works as a Wi-Fi extension of an existing network) and change the name of each pod. Other than that it has a cool visualization of your home network that resembles a floating solar system where each Plume pod is a planet and each connected client is a satellite. And that's it!
The Plume system is definitely slow, but it's fast enough to deliver midtier broadband connections, which tend to have somewhere between 30 and 50Mbps download speeds. So if you just care about surfing the internet, or even streaming Netflix, its speed won't be a big concern. (You only need 25Mbps for streaming 4K content, anyway.) Its price will be, however.
You can get one Plume pod for $69, a set of three units for $179 and a set of six units for $329. The problem is six units can barely cover an 1,800-foot three-bedroom home. If you have a larger home, you probably will need more than six: one pod for each room in your home, and if you have a very large living room, you might want to use two for it alone. If you live in a small apartment or studio, a set of three pods will likely get the job done, but so does an AC1200 router that you can get for around $50 (less than the cost of one pod) and it will give you faster Wi-Fi speed and a ton of features.
Also, keep in mind that while the Plume pods are small, they still take up space at the wall socket. In my personal experience, they kinda stuck out a bit too far from the wall. And with the amount of things we want to plug in these days, chances are you'll need a few power strips if you want to use that many pods in your house. I had to get one in during my trial.
So yes, the Plume Adaptive WiFi system is an innovative idea, super easy to use, and its Auto channel hop actually works -- I didn't experience noticeable speed reduction when moving between the pods. But in reality, you will be much better off, both in terms of cost and performance, getting a normal router or, if you have a large house, a more traditional Wi-Fi system, like the Eero or the Netgear Orbi.
Cost aside, though, if all you care about is a moderate connection to the internet, a basket full of Plume pods, plus a few extension cords, will quickly and surely bring reliable Wi-Fi to every corner of your home.