What is a mesh network? With prices dropping, you’ll be hearing more about them in 2017
It’s a pricier solution than a high-end router like the Netgear R6400. But if you are having trouble with getting consistent WiFi coverage across a very large home then a mesh network is the way to go. I also like the Orbi Home WiFi System by Netgear because of its speed and wide coverage. The Amplifi HD system is another strong performer that has an unique way of expanding WiFi across a vast space.
Google Wifi works as a dual-stream AC1200 router that can deliver better WiFi everywhere. With a set of three units, you can cover about a 4,500 square foot home. Speeds are consistent and run up to 470 megabits per second.
Unlike other mesh networks, Google Wifi units are identical. So one unit by itself works as a router. Additional units create a single Wifi mesh network.
Mesh networks in 2017 may replace WiFi extenders
2017 might be the year of mesh networks. Prices have been dropping with some of the major players like Netgear and Eero. People are demanding higher performing wireless routers and WiFi extenders to stream HD movies and shows. Call it an expectation or a change in the market, but more and more people are demanding a high level of performance from their WiFi signal for home entertainment.
People want to stream HD movies or play games in every corner of their home from the attic to the basement. And they want to do it on multiple devices at once. Our guide to the best mesh networks examines what delivers the most dependable coverage for a decent price.
Whether you are a dedicated cord cutter, or someone who just wants a better WiFi signal to stream TV in your bedroom, mesh networks may soon become the norm. Many people are now beginning to use them as the foundation to smart home features. For example, if you own an Amazon Echo, you might control a Nest Learning Thermostat by using your voice. Specialized remotes controls like Harmony Hub paired with the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot allow you to dim lights, turn on Netflix, or perform multiple tasks simultaneously using voice control. Having a solid WiFi connection in every corner of your house will become more of a need than a want once you start using smart home devices.
Google WiFi has shaken the standard price point for this technology by offering a high-performance mesh network that’s hundreds of dollars less than competitors.
If you are familiar with access points, then the concept of mesh networks won’t be that foreign to you.
Before getting any deeper into our recommendations for the best mesh networks, let’s cover a few basics. I want to make sure you are getting the most out of your current WiFi signal before you plunk down any of your hard earned cash.
Why is my WiFi signal so weak?
Building materials such as steel and concrete can impact your WiFi signal. Halogen bulbs and electrical signals can affect how far a 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz signal can broadcast. A neighborhood chock full of devices like baby monitors and garage door openers using wireless signals may impact your reception. Even a unique landscape to a property can cause your wireless signal to take a hit.
Most homes, even large ones, can get great coverage from a dual-band wireless router. Our top pick for a WiFi router, Netgear R6400, is powerful enough to broadcast dual-band signals throughout a sizable home without the need for a WiFi extender. Some people can also pair their router with a powerful WiFi extender like the TP-Link AC1750 range extender to get the coverage they want.
If you’re reading this, chances are you may have exceptional or unique circumstances that got you here.
How to improve WiFi range
In our guide to the best WiFi extenders, I cover three key things you should investigate to improve your WiFi signal.
Put your current router in a central location in your home, and off the ground. Make sure your wireless router is not hidden away in a closet or behind a television.
Most quality dual-band routers will automatically perform software updates. You shouldn’t assume that yours does. Check the manufacturer’s website to see if your router does automatic updates.
If you already own a dual-band router and still have problems in parts of your home, experiment with the direction of your antennas. My Netgear R6400 provides excellent coverage in my home despite numerous walls and other obstacles. I didn’t achieve its best results until I tilted two of my antennas toward the end of the house where WiFi was the weakest. That spot now gets five bars. I can stream a live TV feed in a faraway bedroom over a 2.4GHz band via PlayStation Vue with zero lag.
Can I use two WiFi extenders at the same time?
The short answer is yes.
However, using multiple range extenders is not always practical. Buying multiple extenders to improve a WiFi signal can be just as costly as a mesh network, but with unsatisfactory results. That said, many people can use two WiFi extenders without a problem.
If you’re going to use two range extenders, you need to make sure that you don’t connect one extender to the other.
This will take a toll on the overall performance for your second extender and you won’t solve your problem. Make sure you connect the second WiFi extender to the router. Both extenders should NOT broadcast the same Service Set Identifier (SSID). Some people set up a WiFi extender to broadcast the same SSID so they don’t have to set up their devices to detect more than one. Generally, by default, a quality WiFi extender will automatically broadcast a different SSID. If you’re using a Powerline or Ethernet connection to connect an extender, it’s a moot issue and you don’t have to worry about it.
What kind of cable modem do I need for a mesh network?
You want to make sure that you have a cable modem with upload and download speeds that will match the capabilities of a mesh network. Check the upload and download speeds of your current cable modem. Don’t forget that your Internet subscription also factors into the performance of your Internet signal. The ARRIS SURFboard SB6190 is our recommended cable modem for mesh networks. The SB6190 is compatible with most U.S. cable and ISP providers. Download speeds run up to 1.4Gbps and 262Mbps. Upload speeds will depend on the capabilities of your ISP subscription. The SB6190 is a powerful DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem. But it also supports the latest Internet standard, IPv4 and IPv6.
Compare the three mesh networks we like
Mesh networks are different from using a typical router and WiFi extender combination. A mesh network deploys a single network throughout a large space like a multi-story home.
Each mesh network handles disbursement of their signals a little differently. But the goal is the same: to give you a high-performing Internet signal in typically tough-to-reach spots. Unlike a router/WiFi extender combo, you will be operating from the same SSID. So you won’t have to set your tablets, smartphones or TVs to search for more than one network name.
A mesh network is able to spread a stronger WiFi signal by sprinkling access points throughout your home.
The challenge of disbursing a powerful, consistent signal is to deliver so that it does not result in a toll or signal loss. A mesh network typically switches you to the strongest access point automatically as you roam about with iPad in hand.
OUR TOP CHOICE
Covers up to 4,500 sq. ft./ works as solo unit / mobile pause and timer features
Google Wifi is our top pick because it offers high performance at the lowest cost compared to any other mesh network.
You could buy one unit and simply use it as a router that will cover roughly 1,200 to 1,500 square feet. With two additional units, your WiFi coverage can expand between 4,000 to 4,500 square feet.
To operate Google WiFi, you will need a Google account, which is free. You’ll also need a smartphone or tablet to operate Google WiFi using its app.
Whether you are setting up one unit or three, the WiFi app sets up your network in a few clicks. The app has a nifty feature that helps you determine where exactly the best distance is to place your other units to set up a mesh network.
The app is also used to manage your Google WiFi system. This is great for when you are away from home. You can “pause” a group of devices (including your child’s Xbox One) to get their attention. You can also set timers as well.
You can also access these features with your voice using Google Home or Amazon Echo. If you already have an OnHub then you can upgrade it to become part of your Google WiFi system. Like with the OnHub, Google says that it does not collect what websites you visit.
There are a few caveats to Google WiFi when comparing it to other mesh networks. It’s not the fastest on the market. The further away you go from the router, the slower the speeds. The WiFi app is the only way to manage the system, so you don’t have a desktop or laptop option.
There is only one wired port on the main router unit. The additional hubs have two Ethernet ports, which is about two less than many routers. There is no USB port. And the add-on units are not sold in two packs.
These exceptions aren’t dealbreakers. Google WiFi is still the best mesh network out there for its price and capabilities.
Tri-band / 4 LAN ports on satellite / up to 4,000 sq. ft. of coverage
The Orbi WiFi Home Wifi System by Netgear uses two pod-shaped devices that look practically the same. One functions as the router, the other is an add-on satellite. The satellite unit works just like a WiFi extender to the Orbi router. You can hardwire four devices on the satellite unit through its four LAN ports.
The add-on satellite extender connects to the router through a dedicated WiFi band. That’s a feature you won’t see among its competitors. The Orbi WiFi system uses a separate quad-stream 5Ghz band that achieves top speeds around 1.7Gbps.
Two other bands are used to connect to wireless devices. The concept here is simple. Your broadcast signal connecting the Orbi router to the satellite unit is traveling on the separate highway, so to speak, than your devices.
So your devices will be connecting to a separate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands without taking a hit. There is a color-coded ring at the top of add-on satellite, telling you about the quality of your signal. A solid blue ring equals a great signal. Solid amber indicates you may want to move it a little closer to the router. A magenta ring means you are too far away from your router and need to move it closer.
Finding the perfect spot for any extender can be tough. It largely depends on the layout of your home, and the location of the dead spots you are trying to eliminate.
The Orbi Home WiFi system is a MU-MIMO router, which means it can break up bandwidth individual streams. But this might be moot for many people because they do not (yet) own MU-MIMO devices.
Connecting the Orbi WiFi network is as straightforward as setting up a router with web interface. You can go to orbilogin.com or use the router default Ip, 192.168.11. The Orbi WiFi system also has features for parental control and Dynamic DNS forwarding similar to newer Netgear routers.
You will find more features and faster speeds with the Orbi Home Wifi System, but it will also cost more money. That’s why it’s our runner-up choice.
Dual-band 802.11ac / Real-Time speed display / Easy setup
The design of AmpliFi HD Home Wifi system is unlike any mesh network on the market. It uses two large antennas called “mesh points” that plug into wall sockets around your home to expand your Internet signal.
The AmpliFi base has four Gigabit Ethernet ports and WAN port. The downside of the mesh points is that they have no wired ports. If you plug them into wall sockets at ankle-level, it’s not an ideal location. Broadcasting from a lower point in the room means the Internet signal has to fight past more obstacles before reaching your device. It’s the same reason that you want to keep your router off the ground.
Some homes have electrical outlets higher up, so this may be less of an issue.
The price for an AmpliFi HD mesh network is less than our runner-up choice. It has a decent smartphone app that allows you to “pause” Internet use for a particular device or entire network.
Google WiFi vs Netgear Orbi, AmpliFi HD
Choosing between Google WiFi and the Orbi Home Wifi System by Netgear comes down to your needs. If you need a faster, higher performing tri-band system, then the Orbi WiFi system is a better choice. Just be prepared to pay more. The Orbi WiFi system also has more features than Google WiFi.
The AmpliFi HD system might be worth considering if you are seeking some middle ground on price point.
If you are using AC1200 Internet at home and just need to cover dead zones, buying Google WiFi is a no brainer. Potential smart home options along with voice capabilities via Google Home and Amazon Echo are a bonus.
Jim Kimble is a seasoned industry expert with over two decades of journalism experience. He has been at the forefront of the cord-cutting movement since 2016, testing and writing about TV-related products and services. He founded The Cord Cutting Report in 2016.
Major publications, including MarketWatch, Forbes, and South Florida Sun Sentinel, have interviewed Kimble for his years of expertise. He gives advice on the complexities consumers are navigating with streaming options, and over-the-air TV. Kimble has been a staff writer or correspondent for several award-winning, daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. You can follow Jim on LinkedIn, YouTube and at X at @james_kimble