X

Portal Home Wi-Fi System review: This is not the Portal you're looking for

It has some unique features, but are they enough to justify the cost?

Dong_Ngo.jpg
Dong Ngo
Dong_Ngo.jpg

Dong Ngo

SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

See full bio
5 min read

When I first learned about the Portal a few months ago, it was intended to be a single Wi-Fi router. Now Ignition Design Labs has reintroduced it as a mesh system, meaning you can use a second unit to extend its Wi-Fi network.

portal-1.jpg
6.3

Portal Home Wi-Fi System

The Good

The Portal has fast speed and far-reaching Wi-Fi coverage. The system has both a web interface and a mobile app and doesn't require an account to work.

The Bad

The web interface lacks some fairly typical Wi-Fi features and the mobile app is buggy. You can only use the app on a single mobile device. It requires you to change your settings in order for it to be compatible with all 5GHz devices. The system has terrible signal handoff.

The Bottom Line

Though fast, the Portal has too many niggling issues that prevent it from being a seamless experience. Go with the Google Wifi or the Netgear Orbi instead.

While it works fine as a single router, it's not a well thought-out or well-tested mesh Wi-Fi system. And it certainly isn't worthy of its current price of around $180 for a single unit or $319 for a set of two. So if you're a fan of Portal (the game), this Portal is, for now, a lie.

Why should I care about yet another Wi-Fi system?

Good question. What makes the Portal different from the most Wi-Fi routers is a dynamic frequency selection (DFS) mechanism Ignition Design Labs calls FastLanes. The router can use Wi-Fi channels that were previously only available to radar systems to boost speed at peak times (around 6-8 p.m. wherever you live). This means that FastLanes will only benefit those who've had speed or connection problems during peak times in the past. I personally didn't see any improvement at home, but your mileage will vary depending your internet speed and how congested the air space in your neighborhood is.

The real problem with Fastlanes, however, is that not every product is compatible with it. Here's a short list of those that aren't and therefore will only connect to the 2.4GHz frequency band of the Portal (FastLanes is only available on the 5GHz band.) Since the the 2.4GHz's airspace is almost always congested, which is why we need the 5GHz band in the first place, FastLanes will mean extremely slow Wi-Fi for certain devices.

FastLanes is turned on by default. When turned off, the Portal will support all existing devices.

portal-2.jpg

The Portal system includes two identical units.

Dong Ngo/CNET

OK, here's what's (mostly) good

Simple setup

Setting up the Portal is similar to that of the Google Wifi or the Eero. But you don't need to create an account with Ignition Design Labs. As with most home routers, the system does not require you to connect to the vendor in order to work.

The Portal mobile app (available for Android and iOS) was buggy, however. I used it on a Pixel XL and the interface would freeze while applying changes or switching from one section to another. Still, it took me just 10 minutes to set up the first router. Basically, all I had to do was pick a name and a password for the Wi-Fi network.

Adding a second unit to create a mesh system took me much longer but most of the time was spent on waiting for the system to be ready. The process itself was still simple and relatively straightforward.

Good performance

Supporting AC2400 Wi-Fi, the Portal performed well both as a single router and a mesh Wi-Fi system. As a single router, it has a top sustained real-world Wi-Fi speed of more than 540 megabits per second. As a Wi-Fi system, when connected to the second unit, the top speed fell to just 244Mbps, due to signal loss. Signal loss is a common phenomenon of Wi-Fi systems, when the "satellite" unit needs to both receive and rebroadcast the Wi-Fi signal from the first router unit at any given time, resulting in some 50 percent efficiency reduction. Dynamic frequency selection (FastLanes) is supposed to mitigate this phenomenal but it doesn't seem to help in the Portal's case.

The Portal has good range. As a single unit, it could cover about 2,800 square feet of a residential setting with strong a Wi-Fi signal, with two units combined into a mesh network, you now can cover easily around 5,000 square feet or even more.

CNET Labs' Wi-Fi system performance

Portal (single router) 543.3 237Google Wifi (single router) 473 97.4Netgear Orbi (single router) 416.2 229.6Netgear Orbi (via one extender) 415.83 229.3Eero (single router) 352.5 197.7Almond 3 (single router) 315.8 220.6Portal (via one extender) 244 84Google Wifi (via one extender) 206.9 91.7Eero (via one extender) 170.7 60Almond 3 (via one extender) 159.1 110.1
  • Close range
  • Long range
Note: Measured in megabits per second. Longer bars mean better performance.

Here's what I didn't like at all

Poor signal handoff

Wi-Fi clients won't automatically or seamlessly switch to the Portal unit they are closest to. The only time a client switched was when I got too far away from the original unit I was connected to or if I turned its Wi-Fi off and back on.

Just to be clear, I found this out by checking the data speeds -- there's no way to actually tell which Portal unit you're connected to.

Mobile app works on just one mobile device

The Portal mobile app is necessary to change many crucial network settings (including the Wi-Fi name and password) and manage FastLanes. Unfortunately, the mobile device you've used to set up the Portal is the only one you can use the mobile app on. To make matters worse, if you want to use it with another device, you'll need to reset the Portal system to factory default, then use that new device to set it up from beginning.

screenshot20161209-154159.png

The mobile app is buggy (note the spinning dots on the left screenshot) but you can't customize FastLanes without it.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Spartan feature set

The Portal has even fewer useful features and settings than previous Wi-Fi systems like the Eero and Google Wifi, both of which I've lambasted for their limited feature set. It doesn't even have web filtering or prioritizing options. If you're used to making deep customization to a router using a web interface, you'll be extremely disappointed with the Portal.

The Portal has a lot of other little things that aren't well thought out, too. For example, there's no prompt to change the default password for the web interface, and you can't dim or turn off the bright status light on top. Again, the whole package doesn't seem thoroughly tested.

Should I get it?

The Portal has powerful hardware and relatively reasonable price compared with other similar Wi-Fi systems, such as the Netgear Orbi. But while the Orbi worked right off the bat and doesn't suffer from signal loss, the Portal is still a work in progress.

The CEO of Ignition Design Labs, Terry Ngo (no relation), told me that the Portal gets a firmware update every two weeks or so and all the issues I mentioned in this review will be addressed within a month. I'll follow up around that time. You should wait at least until next year before getting it if you're interested.

At its current stage, the Portal fails to deliver either as a single robust high-end router, or an easy-to-use seamless Wi-Fi system. Need a system by the holidays? I'd recommend the Google Wifi or the Netgear Orbi instead.

portal-1.jpg
6.3

Portal Home Wi-Fi System

Score Breakdown

Setup 6Features 5Performance 8Support 6
laptop
Get the best price on everything
Shop your favorite products and we’ll find the best deal with a single click. Designed to make shopping easier.
Add CNET Shopping