Wi-Fi Mesh: Everything To Know To Run Your Smart Home

UPDATED 2/13/17

In order to get the most out of your smart home devices, you need solid, consistent and reliable Wi-Fi in not only every nook and cranny of your castle, but around its perimeter as well, coverage you're unlikely getting now. As we've noted ("How To Make Wi-Fi Great Again") the best way to get Wi-Fi everywhere you need it is to replace your old-fashioned router with a new Wi-Fi Mesh system.

To recap, Wi-Fi Mesh, aka "whole home Wi-Fi," creates a single Wi-Fi system around your living space via a base station wired to your cable modem then a series of nodes or satellites placed around your home. If you need more Wi-Fi to some distant area of your home, simply add a node or satellite.

We've managed to put a number of these mesh ecosystems through their paces; reviews are linked below, and we'll add reviews as we receive more systems.

Wi-Fi mesh works as well in urban environments as sprawling suburban homes

Wi-Fi 101

In order to determine which mesh system is best for you, it's helpful to understand some Wi-Fi basics.

First, Wi-Fi is a radio technology. Any device with Wi-Fi both receives and transmits digital signals – data, audio and/or video. Wi-Fi range is usually cited as around 150 feet, but only under perfect, line-of-site conditions. Because Wi-Fi is radio, it is subject to interference from other radio signals as well as physical barriers, such as walls, ceilings and floors. The thicker and more steel-reinforced the barrier, the less range the signal will have and the weaker the signal will be. In most homes, good Wi-Fi connections are likely only within 40-50 feet of your router.

There are two Wi-Fi frequency bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Signals sent over 2.4GHz travel farther, but aren't as robust as those traveling over 5GHz; conversely, 5GHz signals don't travel as far, but can carry more data faster than 2.4GHz. Within each of these frequency bands are a number of channels over which the signal is carried; think of a frequency band as a highway and the channels as the individual lanes on the highway.

There also are different flavors of consumer Wi-Fi: in chronological sequence they are b, g, n and ac, each protocol providing higher speeds than the previous.

An increasing number of mesh systems access a previously restricted set 5GHz frequencies called DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection). Since DFS bands have been heretofore reserved for air traffic weather radar they're mostly empty, which means smoother and faster connections in a Wi-Fi-packed urban environment (as long as you're not near an airport).

All Wi-Fi is measured in megabytes per second, or Mbps. This number indicates both speed and quantity. If you subscribe to, say, 100Mbps service from your internet service provider (ISP), likely your cable company, files will not only download faster, but more people and devices – especially media streamers such as Roku or Apple TV – can use the network simultaneously than if you subscribed to 50Mbps service.

Your Wi-Fi router or mesh system is usually limited to the speeds you cable provider pumps in via your wired coaxial cable connection. In other words, if you subscribe to 100Mbps service, you will only get 100Mbps from your Wi-Fi (actually, a bit more since most systems over-supply just to make sure you get the minimum), regardless of the often ridiculous figures cited on router marketing or packaging (i.e. "AC3200," which implies you'll get 3200Mbps, which you can't and won't).

How you deploy mesh systems will affect how they work.

Mesh System Similarities

All mesh systems access both 2.45GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi frequency bands, and many are tri-band – 2.4GHz plus two sets of 5GHz frequency bands; think of a tri-band system as a data interstate with an additional express lane.

Mesh systems automatically choose the clearest frequency band and channel to connect to the internet or to a particular device; some will let you manually select the clearest channel if you're technically inclined. All mesh systems are compatible with all flavors of Wi-Fi.

Mesh systems are best deployed in sprawling suburban homes of 2,000 square feet or more, especially those with multiple floors and expansive outdoor coverage needs, such as a patio or a pool, or in urban apartment environments pummeled by competing and often interfering Wi-Fi signals. For instance, when I search for a Wi-Fi network in my NYC apartment, 24 additional networks show up on the list in addition to my own.

All the mesh systems we've played with are sold in multi-pack bundles – two, three or more nodes; you can buy singles, but you'd only do so to expand your original multi-node system purchase.

To install a mesh system, you power-down your cable modem, connect a mesh base node, then power on both. Once the system reboots and the base node is operational, you add subsequent mesh nodes or satellites in another room.

In most cases, you'll be guided though the set-up via an app, which also provides performance information and access to other features such as allowing guests to easily connect to your network or parental controls that curtail connectivity to specified devices.

To successfully control new smart home device, clear, strong Wi-Fi signals are crucial.

Mesh Differences

Other than all them being white, mesh designs differ radically from one another in both size – from hardcover book- to palm-sized – and shape, from curved and tall, to flat and rectangular, to small and hexagonal. But the size and shape is generally no indication of function or performance.

More importantly, mesh systems also differentiate substantially in their connectivity logic and specifications, including which frequencies they connect via, the number of radios included, and especially how the system nodes talk to each other and to the base unit.

For instance, some mesh units provide a separate Wi-Fi channel over which the system nodes talk to each other. As a result, there's more bandwidth for the devices on the system to talk to the internet and each other.

Some mesh systems also have an outer performance limit. In my tests, few systems delivered the full 300Mbps service I subscribe to, but all delivered more than 50Mbps to all outlying nooks and crannies, many more than 200Mbps. Few of you likely subscribe to 300mpbs service, so a comparatively "faster" system may be akin to killing a fly with an anvil for you.

As a result, each mesh system can produce wildly different results depending on deployment.

Our Test Procedure

My test bed for these various Wi-Fi mesh systems is my seemingly inappropriate Manhattan two-bedroom apartment. But it's a pre-war building with thick steel-reinforced concrete walls, blocking clean Wi-Fi transmission. And, as noted, I'm surrounded by a bunch of neighboring Wi-Fi networks.

All the mesh systems are connected to a Netgear splitter connected to my cable modem in my home office, and all the satellites from each of the systems are grouped within a few feet of each other in my living room around 35-40 feet away from the cable modem. As noted, I subscribe to 300Mbps service from Spectrum (née Time Warner Cable).

I tested each mesh system using a new MacBook Pro, an iPad Air 2 and an iPhone 7 Plus, using Ookla Speed Test, connecting to Netflix and timing the downloading of a 3GB movie in both my living room and in my building's lobby 45- to 60-feet away, separated from my apartment by an elevator shaft.

General Mesh Buying Advice

All the mesh systems I tested performed better than my standard modem once I was in a second room. In other words, any of the mesh systems reviewed will solve your whole-home Wi-Fi problems.

Which mesh system you ultimately choose will depend on your physical environment, your internet service subscription level, how many people and devices potentially will access your network simultaneously, your technology comfort level, and your budget. We've tried to take all these factors into account in our reviews.

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