The AmpliFi Alien is one of several spiffy new routers that support Wi-Fi 6 -- the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi. Available as a standalone router for $379, or bundled with a high-powered range extender in a two-piece mesh setup for $700, it's one of several expensive tri-band Wi-Fi 6 routers that exist in a premium tier above most everything else on the market. Even so, the high-powered specs might have you highly tempted to make the splurge (at least, it might once it's available -- Ubiquiti currently lists the Alien as out of stock, but tells CNET it expects to have more available for purchase soon).
Sure, the Netgear Orbi 6 and the Linksys Velop MX10 -- two other $700 tri-band mesh routers that support Wi-Fi 6 -- were each a bit faster when I tested them out at my home, but the Alien wasn't far behind. In fact, it actually finished first in our lab-based top speed tests. On top of that, it has a couple of extra tricks up its sleeve that that might help you feel like you're getting your money's worth.
Along with a spacey design that includes a cylindrical build, a touchscreen interface and a ring of LED indicator lights around the base, the Alien router features a unique trick called AmpliFi Teleport that lets you route your web traffic through your home network from anywhere in the world. And, unlike a lot of VPN services, it's both a cinch to use and completely free. That's a handy layer of security if you're connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, and useful if you want to stream your local channels from a digital TV service while you're traveling. Other routers competing with the Alien don't offer anything quite like it.
But the Alien's missing a few things, too. For starters, it doesn't include a multigig Ethernet jack capable of accepting incoming wired speeds any faster than 1Gbps. On top of that, one of its two 5GHz bands only supports Wi-Fi 5, which undercuts some of the tri-band appeal. Those are both high-end quibbles, but legitimate ones at this price.
Still, the Alien gets enough right that breaking the bank on it doesn't seem like such an out-of-this-world idea. I like it best as a standalone router, and would rather go with Netgear Orbi 6 if I were looking to spend big on a truly top-of-the-line mesh setup. And keep in mind that a number of new, less expensive mesh systems that support Wi-Fi 6 are set to hit stores in the coming months. But if you want a fancy, feature-rich router with plenty of horsepower and support for Wi-Fi 6, the Alien fits the bill.
Distinctive design, simple setup
The AmpliFi Alien and its accompanying mesh point are each stout black cylinders with rings of yellowy green light around the base. You'd be forgiven for mistaking either of them for a smart speaker, but unlike the Nest Wifi and Netgear Orbi Voice, which each feature built-in voice assistants, the Alien is just a router.
Still, the hardware looks good, and I appreciate that the vertical design sits the array of antennas at the top of each device, where they'll perform their best (higher is always better when it comes to antenna placement). You'll hardly use the router's LCD touchscreen, but it's still nice to be able to see the time at a glance, as well as the occasional reminder to download the latest firmware update whenever one is ready to go.
And don't worry -- if you'd prefer more subtlety from your router, you can dim the LEDs and the touchscreen or turn them off altogether. A Night Mode feature can also automatically dim them down to your preferred setting during evening hours.
I'm also happy to see a growing number of routers offering a simplified setup experience, and the Alien is no exception. Just plug it in, connect it to your modem with an Ethernet cable, connect to its network, and open the AmpliFi app on your Android or iOS device (and if you'd prefer it, there's a web interface, too). You'll give your network a name and a password and be up and running within minutes. Adding the mesh point is just as easy, complete with a signal strength indicator in the app (and on the device itself) to help make sure you've picked a good spot for it.
Before I get to the speed test data, a few words about Ubiquiti's approach here. By default, the AmpliFi Alien combines its three bands -- a 2.4 and 5GHz band that each support Wi-Fi 6, and a second 5GHz band that supports Wi-Fi 5 -- into a single network, but you can split any of those bands off as a separate network with its own SSID as you so choose. That gives you some nice control over how you use the Alien in your home, but the lack of two distinct Wi-Fi 6 bands means that your options all come with compromises.
For instance, the system is designed to send its backhaul transmissions between the router and satellite on the faster, Wi-Fi 6 5GHz band. If you give that band its own unique SSID, then connect your network devices to the SSID encompassing the other two bands, you'll have a dedicated Wi-Fi 6 backhaul that keeps the system's relay transmissions separate from your normal network traffic. The rub is that you won't have access to Wi-Fi 6 on the 5GHz band.
Another option would be to separate out the 5GHz band that supports Wi-Fi 5 and use it as a dedicated network for gaming, or for smart home gadgets. Of course, then your devices will have to share the 5GHz band that supports Wi-Fi 6 with the backhaul, which will keep you from hitting the router's top speeds.
Compromises aside, that level of flexibility is nice to have, and the app makes it easy to customize things as you see fit. I also appreciate that the app includes a prioritization engine that lets you mark specific network devices for gaming or streaming.
The other feature of note is the aforementioned AmpliFi Teleport VPN service. To use it, you'll need to log into the AmpliFi app with an Ubiquiti account, or with your Facebook or Google account. You'll request a five-digit code and specify how long you want access to your home network, then you'll open the separate Teleport app on the iOS, Android, or Android TV device that you;re trying to connect. Enter the code, and AmpliFi will use Wireguard to encrypt that device's traffic and route it through the cloud back home to your Alien. All of that is totally free.
I ran that pitch by Rae Hodge, an authority on VPNs here at CNET. She didn't like the idea of connecting via your Facebook or Google account given that Teleport tracks certain bits of usage data, which is a fair point of consideration. AmpliFi says that it doesn't collect the content of any communications sent via Teleport, which offers me some reassurance, but I agree with Rae that other dedicated VPNs like Nord and Express that don't collect usage data at all are probably the better choice for anyone who plans to make regular use of the feature.
The other obvious limitation with Teleport is that there isn't a web interface for it that'll let you teleport your laptop. I wouldn't be surprised if AmpliFi changes that at some point, but for now, the feature is reserved for phones, tablets, and Android TV devices.
Let's talk speed tests
AmpliFi pegs the top theoretical speeds of the Alien's three bands at 1,148Mbps on the Wi-Fi 6 2.4GHz band, 4,800Mbps on the Wi-Fi 6 5GHz band, and 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band that only supports Wi-Fi 5. The system uses device steering to automatically route the traffic from older, Wi-Fi 5 devices to the Wi-Fi 5 band, and newer, Wi-Fi 6 devices like the iPhone 11 or Samsung Galaxy S10 to the bands that support those faster speeds.
Theoretical, manufacturer-listed speeds like those use controlled, lab-based tests to paint the product in the most flattering light possible. In our own lab, where we wire each router we test to a local server, then connect a Wi-Fi 6-equipped laptop to its network and measure the download speeds, the numbers are a lot lower.
In the Alien's case, we saw an average download speed of 890Mbps when connecting from a distance of 5 feet. That number only fell to 722Mbps when we tested again from a distance of 75 feet. Both of those are higher than any other mesh router we've tested, but note that we've seen standalone Wi-Fi 6 routers like the TP-Link Archer AX6000 go as fast as 1,500Mbps in that test. The Alien isn't operating at that level -- and with no multigig WAN port on the router, your speeds from an incoming wired connection will always be capped at 1Gbps (1,000Mbps).
Real-world speeds, too
Lab-based top-speed tests are all well and good, but we make sure to take a good look at how these things perform in a typical home environment, too. So, I lugged the Alien home with me for a weekend and ran an abundance of speed tests at various distances throughout my smallish, 1,300-square-foot house in Louisville, Kentucky, where I have an incoming fiber internet connection of 300Mbps. I run a live video stream during these tests to simulate typical usage -- remember, the idea here isn't to see how fast these routers can possibly go, but rather, how well they perform in a realistic usage scenario.
In the end, I saw average speeds of 228Mbps throughout the place, which is better than Nest Wifi, Eero and most of the other Wi-Fi 5 routers I've tested, mesh or otherwise. It wasn't as fast as the other Wi-Fi 6 mesh setups, I've tested, though -- the Linksys Velop MX10, the Arris Surfboard Max Pro and the Asus RT-AX92U were each able to inch it out, while the Netgear Orbi 6 left it in the dust with an overall average throughout my home of 289Mbps.
On the plus side, the system's mesh point did a great job of extending the network's range. Speeds in my back bathroom, the farthest point from the router, were only about 17% slower than my speeds in the same room as the router. That's much better than you'll get with a Wi-Fi 5 setup, where speeds tend to fall by at least 40% in the same test.
That said, note that my speeds only fell by 4% with Netgear Orbi 6, which dedicates an entire Wi-Fi 6 band to the sole purpose of transmitting data between the router and its satellite. If you wanted, you could separate out the Alien's Wi-Fi 6 5GHz band as a dedicated backhaul, too, which would likely net you similarly strong results -- but again, you'd be left with a 5GHz band for your network devices that only supports Wi-Fi 5 speeds. No such limitation with Orbi 6, as both of the 5GHz bands support Wi-Fi 6.
Our last performance test measures signal strength in the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home. With the router and its extender running on the main floor, we use NetSpot software to measure how strong the signal is across the entire space -- both the main floor and the basement below. The stronger the signal strength, the faster you'll be able to connect.
We use that data to generate signal strength heat maps, where blue is bad, green is good, yellow is great and orange is stupendous. As you can see, the Alien did an adequate job of blanketing the space in Wi-Fi, but it was a little underwhelming when compared with the Netgear Orbi 6. That remains our top-tested mesh system overall.
You definitely don't need to spend $700 in order to upgrade to a mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6, but you've got a couple of options in that premium, tri-band tier that are pretty compelling. Strongest among them is the Netgear Orbi 6 -- but the AmpliFi Alien isn't too far behind it. It's fast, it's easy to set up and use, and it offers a good mix of features that give you lots of flexibility from your network.
I just wish the system was more future-proofed. We saw the difference a dedicated Wi-Fi 6 backhaul can make when we tested Orbi 6, but you can't go that route with the Alien without taking the Wi-Fi 6 5GHz band away from the devices on your network. On top of that, the Alien caps your incoming speeds at a single gig, while the Orbi 6 adds in a multigig Ethernet jack that supports incoming speeds of up to 2.5Gbps (2,500Mbps). It's the better high-end splurge here -- but the best play is to wait and see how the less expensive Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems coming out this year stack up before buying anything.