You know how when you sit on your couch, the Wi-Fi on your laptop cuts out? Or when you're in the bathroom your phone refuses to connect? From Google to Netgear, everyone's rolling out expensive "Mesh Network" kits that promise to fix Wi-Fi dead zones in offices and homes. But only some people should shell out the $500+ for one.
How Wi-Fi Mesh Networks Work
Eero's animation for mesh network are a simplified description of how the system works. As a technology, mesh networking has been around for a long time, mostly used by the military, hospitals, and for large scale commercial applications. Mesh networks work for any type of radio signal, and allow different types of devices to piggyback off each other as nodes in a network, each node spreading the radio signal a little further than the last. You might remember hearing about mesh networking after Hurricane Sandy, when a mesh network in Red Hook helped people communicate when the internet was down, or when protesters used a mesh network in Hong Kong to organise off the grid.
Wi-Fi mesh networking is new in the consumer space, but the technology works essentially the same way. To boot, we've seen an explosion of consumer-friendly mesh networking kits. Eero led the charge with its $US500 kit, but others quickly followed suit. Over the course of just a year, we've seen kits like the Luma, Netgear Orbi, and of course, Google WiFi. All of these promise one simple thing: they kill Wi-Fi dead zones by blanketing your home in Wi-Fi signal.
Your average mesh networking kit includes several routers, called nodes, which essentially act like satellites for your Wi-Fi network. One of these nodes acts as a gateway and connects to the internet through your modem. Then, each node talks to each other, expanding your wireless coverage every time you add a new node. Instead of communicating with a single access point like a traditional network, each node of a mesh network talks with each other and amplifies the signal, which creates a blanket of strong Wi-Fi coverage, like a big invisible venn diagram. While only one node is physically connected to the modem, each node should be able to send data back and forth at equal speeds. Where the quality of a Wi-Fi connection varies depending on your distance from and position around a traditional router, a mesh network expands that coverage so distance and direction shouldn't matter, no matter where you are in the house.
Large Homes Benefit the Most from Mesh Networking
Mesh networking kits are most useful in larger houses that a single router can't cover anyway or when you can't move your router to a central location in your house. Most of the manufacturers we mentioned recommend you have a home between 2,000 and 4,500 square feet to make the most use of their kit. They're also good for houses built out of old brick, with plaster walls, or any other building material that blocks Wi-Fi signals.
For everyone else, a mesh network is overkill if your home is smaller than 2,000 square feet. Even then, depending on its layout, a good router placed in the right location (in the center of your home, away from dense walls) goes a long way. Even moving a router a couple inches can help. Of course, you can't always rewire your house just to move a modem, so if your modem is stuck in the basement, a mesh network can help push that signal up to the second floor.
Mesh networks also have one quality has nothing to do with their actual function: form and usability. These units don't look like traditional routers. The setup process and management tools are user-friendly. Eero, Google WiFi, Luma, and the rest require little more than a smartphone and five minutes to set up. One they're configured you do all your network management from an app, including rebooting the router, creating guest networks, and so on. This is great for techies and luddites alike, and the convenience alone is worth the cost of admission for technically illiterate people who just want a working network without any fuss.
If the cost doesn't scare you away, then you just have to choose which mesh networking setup is best for you. The Wirecutter likes the $750 two-unit Netgear Orbi, while Gizmodo found the $US500 three-unit Eero the most user-friendly option for most people. the US (but not Australia), there's also Google's new Google Wifi, which comes in a bit cheaper at $US299 for three units, the same price as the Luma Home. Early reviews of Google Wifi have been positive, but we'll have to wait and see how well it works under rigorous testing.
All that said, unless you have a large home, a weirdly-shaped house, a home where the router is awkwardly out of the way, or a house built with Wi-Fi killing materials, you can probably skip a mesh networking kit if you don't mind doing a little work yourself. For those of us with one or two weird but annoying dead zones, Wi-Fi extenders are a much cheaper solution to the problem.
Don't Waste Money on Mesh Networking When a Wi-Fi Extender Will Do the Job
LInksys shows off exactly how extender's work. Wi-Fi extenders (also sometimes called repeaters) get a bad rap because they create their own technical headaches, but that doesn't mean they can't solve your Wi-Fi signal problems.
As the name suggests, a Wi-Fi extender extends the range of your current Wi-Fi network. It connects to your current Wi-Fi network and rebroadcasts its own signal, much like a hot spot. Where a mesh network features nodes that communicate with each other to create a web-like net of coverage, an extender creates a single new access point and is essentially unaware of devices on the other network.
While an extender can technically repeat the same network name and password as your base router, it's usually not recommended because your devices don't always know which access point to connect to for the strongest connection. This means your client devices will bounce between connecting to your extender and your base router. If your device is mobile, like your smartphone, this causes issues because your phone usually won't switch between the two routers as you move around the house, instead clinging on to the last network it connected to even when that connection is bad. Mesh networks don't have this problem because they intelligently route data to the closest router and work together to move data efficiently back to the gateway. Mesh networks don't create new access points, they're all a part of a single network. A router-extender combo can't do this.
Alternatively, you can name your extender's network something different than your base network, but then you're forced to manually switch between the two networks. For example, if your dead zone is upstairs, every time you go upstairs you'll need to manually switch to the extender's network name. This means extenders work best to fix Wi-Fi connection problems where the client device is immobile, like a desktop PC or TV.
Let's take my own Wi-Fi quibbles as a case study. My current router is an old TP-Link WDR3600. Its Wi-Fi signal covers the house except in two places: the living room where the TV is, and an oddball two foot wide section of the kitchen. In the case of the TV, this means Netflix stops working mid-stream, the Chromecast occasionally refuses to connect to anything, and the Apple TV just spontaneously logs out.
Good news though. The TV, as well as every device connected to it, never move, so a Wi-Fi extender is a cheap way to fix this problem. I set up an extender with its own network name so the TV doesn't get confused about which network to connect to, and everything's been fine ever since. In my case, I went with a cheap, $99 Linksys N600 Range Extender because I didn't need much power. I plugged the extender into an outlet midway between the TV and the router, and the TV connected to it without issue. When I compared the connection strength and quality to what I got when I tested the Eero, they were nearly identical, though the extender definitely loses on speed compared to the Eero. A more complex home, where you have concrete walls or appliances blocking a signal, might benefit from a beefier extender like the Wirecutter's pick, the $179 TP-Link AC1750. If you have an older router sitting around collecting dust, you might be able to convert that into an extender for free. The setup process requires a bit of trial and error and small amount of technical know-how, so it's definitely more cumbersome than a mesh network. Extenders might be cheaper, but they're certainly not as convenient as mesh networking.
Even after setting up an extender, I still have the weird dead spot in my kitchen, and even if the extender works there, I don't want to change Wi-Fi networks every time I walk into the kitchen. In cases like this, a mesh router fixes the problem much more conveniently than an extender.
If my home had several of these dead zones, I'd be singing a much different tune, one with a three part harmony praising the positive effects of a mesh network. There's no denying they work and can blanket a home in Wi-Fi with little effort on your part. It's about deciding whether you want to experiment with moving your router around and possibly buying an affordable extender to spend a little time setting up and configuring just right, or just buying a single, expensive kit and never thinking about it again.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.