TP-Link Deco M5 Whole-Home Wi-Fi System review: An excellent Wi-Fi system, especially if security is key
At $299 for a set of three units, TP-Link's Deco M5 has more to offer than other similarly priced systems, like the Google Wifi, or the Luma. The most noticeable is the ability to keep the entire home network, including IoT devices, from online threats.
On the down side, like many other Wi-Fi systems, the M5, connects to its vendor at all times, which can be a privacy risk. Those wanting to keep their existing router, or those who have a router/modem combo that can't be replaced, should also note that the M5 currently doesn't work in the access point mode. This means it will create a separate network on top of the existing network, making devices connected to it and those connected to the original router not able to communicate with one another locally -- your wireless speakers or network streamers might not work as expected.
All things considered, though it's far from perfect, the M5 is an excellent Wi-Fi solution if you want to quickly bring internet to every corner of a large home (up to some 5,000 square feet) and have a layer of protection against online threats.
As a Wi-Fi system, you connect one of the M5's three identical hardware units to an internet source, such as a broadband modem, to work as the router unit, then place the rest of the units about 40 feet away to work as satellite units. The three link to one another to create a seamless Wi-Fi network.
As long as you have an internet-connected smartphone or tablet, setting up the M5 is as easy as running a mobile app. All you need to do is download the free Deco app (iOS or Android) and follow its instructions to create an account with TP-Link. After that the rest is self-explanatory. I was able to get the system running in less than 10 minutes.
The app enables users to manage their home network from anywhere. This is because both the app and the M5 system connect to TP-Link servers at all times. This means everything you do in your home network can be reported to the company. Controlling your home network via the vendor is convenient but comes with its own risks. Apart from privacy concerns, accidents like the one that took place with the Google Wifi could happen at any time.
Like most Wi-Fi systems the M5 severely lacks features and settings compared to single routers. It doesn't even have a web interface. However, it indeed has more features than many other mesh systems. For parents, it has a comprehensive web-filtering and internet usage control options (pausing, scheduling and so on). And everybody can appreciate its quality of service (QoS), which prioritizes internet traffic for different applications and antivirus, which the company says guards the entire network, including smart appliances -- IoT devices -- against online threats. According to TP-Link, the antivirus feature monitors internet traffic for suspicious pattern in real time, prevents port scanning and stops compromised IoT devices from sending out signals to unknown sites, in real time.
All of these features are well-designed and easy to manage via the Deco app. Most importantly, they worked as intended in my trial. I wasn't able to do a thorough test of its antivirus' effectiveness, but when I tried accessing known bad websites, I did, instead, get a warning that the sites are blocked. The feature, which doesn't incur extra cost, is powered by Trend Micro, so generally it's safe to say that it's as effective as Trend Micro's antivirus software.
The M5 is not the first Wi-Fi system with built-in protection; the Amped Wireless Ally -- which costs $299 for a set of two units -- also has a similar feature powered by AVG.
No back-haul band
Unlike the Ally, the M5 doesn't have a dedicated band for backhaul, the job of connecting its units together wirelessly. For this reason, in my testing, the system clearly suffered from signal loss, meaning devices connected to the satellite units have a net connection speed more than 50 percent slower than those connected directly to the main router units.
The good news is that the M5 allows you to link the units together using network cables, which will eliminate signal loss completely. TP-Link says you can connect up to 10 M5 units together and can even connect some of them via network cables and the rest wirelessly.
Great range, reliable performance
I tested the M5 over a week and it delivered reliable Wi-Fi with similar performance to other dual-band systems like the Google Wifi or the Eero. And even with the signal loss, its Wi-Fi speed was still faster than most residential broadband connections.
It has excellent Wi-Fi coverage, too. I was able make it cover some 4,000 square feet of residential setting with a sustained Wi-Fi speed of more than 100Mbps. Like all systems, you can adjust the Wi-Fi coverage by placing the units at different distances from one another. However, keep in mind that large Wi-Fi coverage always means slower Wi-Fi speed, so pick a balance that you're comfortable with.
Should I get it?
If you already have a Wi-Fi system, the M5 doesn't have enough to qualify as an upgrade, unless you really want the antivirus feature. However, if you're using a single router and having problems getting Wi-Fi everywhere, you should definitely consider replacing it with the M5. TP-Link told me that comes June, it will update the M5 with the access point mode, allowing it to work seamlessly with an existing router. That said, if you're using a modem/combo device, maybe wait a month or two before getting your own. And by then, chances are there will be even more options on the market.