Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi System review: Don't be tempted by this mesh Wi-Fi system's novel design
The Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi system is a rather original idea to blanket your home with Wi-Fi. Instead of using two or three medium-size pieces of hardware (found in most Wi-Fi systems, like the Eero, the Netgear Orbi or the Google Wifi), you use a bunch of them; basically one for each room.
Each hardware unit, called a Plume Pod, is quite small, about the size of, well, a plum. It has a Gigabit Ethernet network port and can be plugged directly into a wall socket, resembling a typical power line adapter. Each pod alone has a short Wi-Fi range, but there's no limit to how many pods you can wirelessly chain together to cover an entire home with a Wi-Fi signal.
You can get up to six pods in a set for $329 (£260 or AU$430), three for $179 (£140 or AU$235), or a single pod will run you $69 (£55 or AU$90). UK and Australian prices and availability have yet to be announced, so those are just rough conversions.
With multiple pods, they leverage one another's signal to deliver a reliable Wi-Fi network, fast enough to stream 4K content at every corner of your home. Just make sure you have enough free wall electrical sockets.
All things considered, even though this seems like a neat idea, unless you have a house with an unusual number of thick walls, any other Wi-Fi system will give you more coverage and at a lower cost than the Plume.
You connect one of the Plume Pods to an internet source, like a broadband modem, and it works as your main router. Plug in 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 among the pods; the more pods you have, the larger the coverage area.
As long as you have an internet-connected 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.) 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 10 minutes to get all six pods up and running. And after that, everything just worked.
You need a Plume account before you can use the app, and the system will stay connected to the cloud at all times. This means two things. First, if there's no internet, you can't manage your home network at all. This is because you first need to log in to Plume Design 's server before you can send commands to your pods.
Secondly, the company can know everything you do with the system. Plume Design's privacy statement doesn't say clearly what it doesn't collect from customers, it only gives examples of the things it does collect. And the privacy risk isn't your only concern. Having somebody else control your home network could lead to accidents, like the recent outage that happened with the Google Wi-Fi.
Auto channel hop
When a Wi-Fi signal is extended, it hops from one transmitter to another. Generally, when this happens, severe signal loss -- at least 50 percent -- occurs, because the extender unit has to both receive and rebroadcast the signal at the same time. 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 tend to include only three or fewer units, effectively making the signal hop twice at most. Since Plume allows for an unlimited amount of pods, signal loss is a big concern.
Plume says that with its Auto channel hop feature, the Plume 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. In our testing, however, the system's speed turned out to be anything but consistent.
Good range, but slow, inconsistent Wi-Fi
The Plume system relies on number of pods to deliver coverage. This means each pod itself doesn't have to have great Wi-Fi range. In fact, with the idea that you have one pod per room, you then are never more than 10 or 15 feet away from a pod. And this is exactly the ideal range for each pod.
In my testing in a small home of some 1,800 square feet, I indeed needed all six pods to have a Wi-Fi signal everywhere -- something a standard Synology RT2600AC router, when placed in the middle of my home, could achieve all by itself. You also need an electrical wall socket for each pod, and that can get tricky considering how many things we want to plug in these days. I had to use two power strips to install a set of six pods throughout the house. Another thing is, if you have children or pets, the pods can easily be mistaken for toys, so be aware!
While the range issue can be easily taken care of by getting more pods, Plume as a system, is frankly quite slow. A single pod can be as fast as 350 megabits per second, but with multiple pods, I generally got somewhere between 25 Mbps to 125 Mbps of sustained Wi-Fi speed in most rooms. This speed fluctuation occurred even when I stayed at the same spot. It seemed this was the "adaptive" notion of the system at work and automatically changed the speed in real time depending on the network traffic, which might or might not be beneficial to the user in the end.
One might ask why I'd need faster Wi-Fi speed when 4K content -- the heaviest task in streaming -- only requires 25 Mbps. That's true if streaming and using the internet is all you want. However, Wi-Fi can also be used for other local tasks, such as data sharing, network backups, networked security cameras and so on. Faster is always better. I tried a simple shared Access database via the Plume's Wi-Fi and the performance was excruciatingly slow.
Plume Design says that the system will optimize the data transmission between its pods automatically to deliver the best performance over time, specifically after about a week. I tested the system at home over seven days and found no improvement. Essentially, after an hour or so it would reach a consistent state.
Like all Wi-Fi systems, what you can do with the Plume might change over time via firmware updates. For now, though, the system lacks features commonly found in other Wi-Fi systems, like bandwidth priority, online protection, parental control and so on.
Basically, 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), set up port forwarding and change the name of each pod. Other than that it gives a cool visualization of your home network that resembles a floating solar system where the main router unit is the sun, each extra Plume pod is a planet and each connected client is a satellite. And that's it! Most other Wi-Fi systems give you at least web filtering and a few more useful features. All routers have a lot more.
Should I get it?
If you just care about surfing the internet or streaming Netflix, the Plume system will do that well. Cost aside, a basket full of Plume pods, plus a few extension cords, will quickly and surely bring a moderate internet connection to every corner of your home.
But if you want a fast Wi-Fi speed for your local tasks, better control of your home network or more features, the Plume won't cut it. And let's face it: $70 per room can quickly add up to a lot of money. After so many rooms, you'll definitely think about other Wi-Fi systems -- any of them, really -- that can deliver a lot more for less.