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

UPDATED 11/27/18

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 for outdoor security cameras and video doorbells, 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 router wired to your cable modem, then a series of client nodes or satellites placed around your home. If you need more Wi-Fi to some distant area of your home, simply add another node or satellite.

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

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 concrete or 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, and on multiple floors only if located immediately above or below the room with the 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 around 10 times 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 — which is currently the most common Wi-Fi standard — and they just announced ax (all preceeded by the IEEE designation of 802.11), each protocol providing higher speeds and more robust connections than the previous standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance recently introduced a simplier Wi-Fi ID system: ac Wi-Fi is now called Wi-Fi 5 and ax Wi-Fi is now Wi-Fi 6, although the older nomenclatures are likely to linger. What standard the router or mesh system users is usually indicated in a model number – a router model number starting or ending with AC uses ac, or Wi-Fi 5.

An increasing number of mesh systems access a previously restricted set of 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 streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu from your smart TV or via a media streamer such as Roku or Apple TV, or live online gaming — 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 unless you're an engineer.)

How you deploy mesh systems will affect how they work.

Mesh System Similarities

All Wi-Fi 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. This third 5GHz band is often dedicated for communication between the mesh router and its satellites, which can increase WiFi speeds all over.

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. Some smart home devices, however, such as some Wi-Fi security cameras, require a connection specifically to a 2.4GHz network. In some cases, the mesh system doesn't recognize this requirement and the camera won't connect to the mesh networks. There are some mesh systems that allow you to create segregated 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, or you may have to add a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi extender to your system for these stubborn smart home devices.

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, pool, or workshop/garage, or in dense urban environments pummeled by competing and often interfering Wi-Fi signals from neighboring apartments. 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 – a router base with usually one but sometimes multiple nodes; you can buy single nodes, but only 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 other rooms.

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 and web/app access to specified users and devices connected to the mesh network.

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

Mesh Differences

Other than all them being white boxes, mesh system 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, as noted, 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 at least 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 that block clean Wi-Fi transmission. And, I'm surrounded by a bunch of neighboring Wi-Fi networks – more than two dozen networks show up in my available network list.

All my mesh systems I test are connected directly 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 my cable modem. As noted, I subscribe to 300Mbps service from Spectrum (née Time Warner Cable).

I tested each mesh system on a MacBook Pro, and Acer Nitro 5 laptop PCs, an iPad Pro and an iPhone XS Max. I test speeds via Ookla Speedtest, 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've tested performed better than my standard modem once I was in a second room. In other words, any of the mesh systems reviewed can solve your whole-home Wi-Fi problems. Or, you may need only a Wi-Fi extender rather than a more expansive mesh system.

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, what web access you'd like to control or filter, and your budget. We've tried to take all these factors into account in our Wi-Fi mesh reviews:

Review: Netgear Orbi Blows Away Wi-Fi Mesh Competition

Review: Eero: Best way to control your kids' Wi-Fi

Review: Linksys Velop: Great performance with hiccups

Review: How AmpliFi can boost your smart home's Wi-Fi

Review: Portal is a blazing fast router you won't want to hide

Review: Plume is best for weekend web surfers