Is a Mesh WiFi network worth it?
A mesh WiFi network might be the nuclear option when it comes to getting rid of dead zones that a wireless router can’t reach. And it’s the most expensive.
Tenda is challenging the premise that you need to spend upwards of $300 for widespread WiFi coverage. The Nova Whole Home Mesh WiFi System is among the least expensive kits on the market. It’s priced at about $200 for three nodes.
In my four weeks of testing the Nova (model: MW6), it lived up to its specs of covering roughly 6,000 square feet. That’s 1,000 square feet greater than the Netgear Orbi, and my top pick for 2017, Google Wi-Fi.
What is a Mesh WiFi Network?
A mesh WiFi setup typically comes with three nodes, or units. The primary one is connected to your modem and functions like a wireless router. The difference is that a mesh router will find and connect to other corresponding units or nodes. Each unit is constantly seeking out the other, constantly communicating.
People often describe this as a so-called blanket of wireless coverage, but describing it that way isn’t exactly accurate. A mesh network can broadcast a WiFi signal to multiple floors in a home or across a backyard like a satellite. Before mesh WiFi networks came on the scene, the best way to expand a wireless signal was by using an access point or powerline adapter. Both options are still very effective. WiFi extenders became more popular because of their lower price.
The problem with a number of WiFi extenders is that it uses some of your bandwidth to transmit a signal, so you’re really not getting optimal performance. You may also have more than one network name using a WiFi extender.
With the Nova, you have one network name, or SSID, regardless of whether you’re connecting to a 5GHz or 2.4GHz band. The Nova mesh WiFi network comes with a main router, and two other nodes or satellites. All three units are identical: a white cube slightly under four inches. Ventilation is out of sight on the bottom of the unit along with a reset button.
How I tested the Nova Whole Home Mesh WiFi System
I spent about four weeks using the Nova Home Mesh WiFi System in my home. I ran more than a dozen devices simultaneously to see if I could achieve any kind of dropped signal or interruptions. I was most interested in streaming live TV on a number of televisions simultaneously. I streamed live shows wirelessly on three TVs using PlayStation Vue, fuboTV and Philo during testing.
I also tried out Netflix, YouTube and Pluto TV on several streaming devices, including a Roku Streaming Stick+, Amazon Fire TV (2nd and 3rd generation) and NVIDIA Shield TV. Using a HDHomeRun Extend, I broadcasted over-the-air TV across my home network, watching channels from my TV antenna on an Android smartphone and one of the televisions. The live TV option on Plex and the HDHomeRun app was also used during testing.
On the gaming front, I played a few games on my laptop using my Steam account. With a NVIDIA Shield TV, I played Android games, and others from GE Force Now. I streamed a few games from my laptop to the Shield as well.
Nova Mesh WiFi Network overview and setup
Setting up the Nova mesh system was remarkably simple. It starts working once you plug in the first node and assign a name to the device through the Tenda smartphone app. The system requires a mobile device that runs at least on Android 4.0+ or iOS 8+.
To make my transition from a Netgear router easier, I assigned the Nova mesh Wifi the same username and password of the existing home network. That way, I don’t have to enter a new network name or password into all my devices.
When you plug in a second node, the Tenda app will find it, and notify you that another node is trying to join the network. Tenda recommends that a node is at least a couple of rooms away to the primary unit for a good connection.
A tiny light at the left corner of each unit indicates the quality of the WiFi signal. A solid blue means you have a solid WiFi connection. Yellow indicates a fair connection and magenta means poor. A red dot means there’s no connection. A fair or poor connection means you are probably too close to the primary unit.
When you first plug in a new node, you can see it on the smartphone app. You will have to approve the connection within the app. Cubes will be colored red when they’re not connected, and turn green once they are ready. While connecting the nodes, it took a couple of minutes for it to be recognized, especially when the node is separated by several rooms. Once the node was recognized, I never lost a connection to any of my devices.
The Tenda smartphone app displays upload and downloads speeds, and the number of connected devices. Press on the number, and you’ll get a list of every device that’s currently connected to the mesh network.
Nova Mesh Network specs
Each Nova mesh unit has 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports on the bottom of the cube. Inside the cube, there is a pair of 3dBi dual band antennas. The mesh router supports 5GHz up to data rates up to 867Mbps, and 2.4GHz up to 300Mbps.
The Nova simultaneously broadcasts 5GHz and 2.4GHz signals and uses Beamforming, and Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology. These two features are commonly seen on high-end routers and home networking units. MU-MIMO sends data to multiple devices simultaneously instead of in sequence (think of a checkout line at a grocery store). The Nova mesh WiFi system uses “true mesh technology” or rather 802.11s, and supports 802.11v and 802.11r.
The settings tab within the Tenda smartphone app has parental controls, guest networking and even bridge networking.
- Parental controls: Simple to establish. Under settings, you create a group name and just pick the device that you want to limit on your network list.
- Guest Network: One click turns on the guest network, which has a unique SSID and WiFi password. You can easily change the password using the app. You can also give your guest network a limited shelf life. Choose a “validity period” for four or 8 hours. Or, you can leave it as “always valid.”
- Connection Type: Setting up PPPoE, DHCP, a Static IP address or Bridge networking takes just one click under Internet settings.
- Port Fowarding: Allow access to your IP address from outside your home network. Used for accessing things like security cameras.
Nova Whole Mesh Wifi Range and Performance
Many homes may only need to connect two Nova units unless you are trying to bring WiFi to multiple floors or a large property.
If I have a router connected to my modem, the far edges of my home is where WiFi signals are the weakest. When I switched out my router for one Nova unit, I was already getting a WiFi signal at full capacity in those near-dead zones.
After I placed a second unit in my bedroom at the furthest end of my home, the WiFi was going way past my home and down the street.
This isn’t particularly a bad thing. If you are looking to expand a strong WiFi signal into a backyard, placing a third Nova unit at one end of your home will give you even a stronger signal.
Backyards are very small where I live in Boston. So when I connected that third Nova unit in my home office, I ended up extending my WiFi signal into my neighborhood again. This time it was on the opposite end of my house. While going for a walk with my daughter, the WiFi signal on my Samsung Galaxy smartphone was still at full capacity roughly five houses away. Cruising through a website or two was no different than if I was at home.
Streaming is a priority in my home. So I fired up a TCL Roku TV in my living room and two TVs in bedrooms that had a Amazon Fire TV and a Roku Streaming Stick+. Generally I’m skeptical of live streaming without using an Ethernet cable. So unplugging my living room TV and NVIDIA Shield TV from my router was a leap of faith.
I didn’t encounter any dropped signals or lag while streaming live TV. Gaming was also quick and smooth on my latop, and also when I streamed them to the NVIDIA Shield. GeForce Now games also worked fine.
Areas of improvement
The one thing I didn’t like was my lack of ports. I needed to keep a wired connection to my HDHomeRun. That’s simply how that tuner works. Each Nova only has a single Ethernet port. I ended up buying a inexpensive 5-port Ethernet switch made by TP-Link so I could plug in more devices if I needed to.
The cube shaped design of the Nova looks stylish, or at least a lot better than a wireless router sitting in the middle of your living room. At the bottom of the unit, there’s about a two centimeter gap to make room for wiring.
This is a space for power, modem and Ethernet cables to exit. The gap felt a little too small. It wasn’t too much of a concern because the unit stayed flat on all four bezels, but it was noticeable during setup. I should also note that I didn’t use the flat Ethernet cable that was included in the kit. Either way, I wouldn’t consider this a major issue that would stop me from buying a Nova mesh kit. The Nova also lacked the ability to set up a private VPN connection that you can use at a coffee shop or somewhere else outside of your home. It’s one of the better features seen on Netgear routers. To most people, this probably won’t matter at all.
Nova Mesh vs Huawei WIFI Q2, Netgera Orbi and other competitors
Tenda may currently have the least expensive mesh Wifi network on the market, but that may soon change. At CES 2018, Huawei unveiled a new hybrid whole home WiFi system. Called the Huawei WiFi Q2, it’s expected to be priced nearly the same as the Nova Mesh Whole Home WiFi System.
Huawei says its new mesh WiFi system “can easily support up to 192 connected devices simultaneously with a complete system.” Huawei said their system is aimed at bringing WiFi coverage at large homes or estates.
If you’re willing to spend a little more money than the price of a Nova mesh wifi system, my top pick of 2017 was Google WiFi system. The price has dropped on these mesh kits. The Google WiFi system operates from a smartphone app, and has a few more features that allows you to “pause” devices. If you children don’t want to stop playing their PlayStation 4, then you can pause it or set a timer on a device.
Netgear Orbi comes as a two-unit system with one functioning as a router, the other as a satellite. The Orbi costs about $100 more than the Nova, but it’s a hugely popular device. More than Amazon 3,500 customers give it a 4.5 star rating out of 5. Instead of using your smartphone to configure settings, you use your computer.
The Linksys Velop Tri-band Whole Home WiFi Mesh System is one of the most popular choices available. Like the Nova, it covers up to 6,000 square feet. The Velop uses MU-MIMO technology, has parental controls and two Ethernet ports per node. The three units cost a lot more than the Nova system, but 79 percent of buyers who weighed in on Amazon give the Velop a five star rating.
What’s the best mesh WiFi networking system in 2018?
It’s still early in the year as of this writing, yet a couple things are certain. The prices of mesh WiFi systems are falling. Companies like Nova and Huawei are entering the market, making high quality devices that are priced at nearly half of what a Netgear Orbi system cost two years ago.
That’s good news for the consumer all around. Even the Google WiFi system is about $30 lower this year on sites like Amazon. If I were thinking of buying a new WiFi system, and wanted an easy setup then the Nova Mesh Whole Home Mesh WiFi System would be worth a look. It’s fast and provides solid coverage for multiple devices all over your house, and if you have a smaller yard, even beyond it.
- Covers up to 6,000 square feet
- Supports 802.11s, 802.11v and 802.11r
- Parental controls
- Controlled via smartphone app
- Plug and Play device
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble