Wi-Fi mesh networks explained: Everything you need to know
As your home gets smarter, you need a better Wi-Fi system.
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 upgrade your Wi-Fi for working from home") 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 network 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. Each of these nodes emits the same Wi-Fi network, so the network has the same name and passcode, no matter which node your device is connected to.
As you walk through the home, your devices (like smartphones and tablets, as well as smart home products) will automatically move from one node to the next, ensuring a strong connection wherever you are.
We at GearBrain have 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.
Amazon eero mesh WiFi system – router for whole-home coverage (3-pack)
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 (like your microwave oven) 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.
Because smart home devices like cameras, video doorbells and smart speakers require a good, steady internet connection, you'll want to drape a blanket of fast Wi-Fi across your entire home. For this, you'll need a mesh network.
According to Nest, the Google-owned smart home company that sells a mesh network called the Nest Wifi, here is how adding additional nodes can increase the coverage of your Wi-Fi network:
Those figures are an approximation and will depend on your home, but give a rough guide as to how a mesh network increases your home Wi-Fi coverage.
The image below, created by Nest, shows how a router and node can cover a property with Wi-Fi:
How a router and node increase Wi-Fi network coverageNest
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 than 2.4GHz, and at a higher speed. 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 are also different flavors of consumer Wi-Fi: in chronological sequence they are b, g, n, ac and most recently ax, all being preceded by the IEEE designation of 802.11. Each protocol provides higher speeds and more robust connections than the previous standard.
Google Nest WiFi Router (2nd Generation) – 4x4 AC2200 Mesh Wi-Fi Router with 2200 Sq Ft Coverage
The Wi-Fi Alliance in 2018 introduced a simpler Wi-Fi ID system: since then, ac Wi-Fi is now called Wi-Fi 5 and ax Wi-Fi is 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.
All Wi-Fi is measured in megabytes per second, or Mbps. If you subscribe to, say, a 100Mbps service from your internet service provider (ISP), 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 online gaming — can use the network simultaneously than if you subscribed to a 50Mbps service. Simply put, there's more data to go around, so more devices can use the network at once.
Your Wi-Fi router or mesh system is limited to the speeds your cable provider pumps in via your wired cable connection. In other words, if you subscribe to a 100Mbps service, you will only get 100Mbps from your Wi-Fi (actually, a bit more since most ISPs over-supply just to make sure you get the minimum).
Orbi is a mesh Wi-Fi network by NetgearNetgear
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 nodes, 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 pummelled by competing and often interfering Wi-Fi signals from neighboring apartments. For instance, when searching for a Wi-Fi network in a typical NYC apartment, a couple dozen networks are likely to show up, as well as your 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. For example, the Nest Wifi in its simplest and cheapest configuration comes with a router for plugging into your modem or phone/cable socket, and a single node, which Nest calls a point, for extending the signal and creating a mesh network. You can then buy additional points/nodes to expand the network across a larger property.
No matter which mesh network you buy, you'll be guided though the set-up via an app, which often 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.
You can also often use this app to check on the connection speed and signal strength of each node, and the all will help you position the nodes more effectively throughout your home. This means putting them the right distance apart, so that a strong signal is passed from one node to the next, and no two are too far apart.
Eero is owned by AmazonEero
Other than almost all them being dull 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 (like your TV and smart home gadgets) on the system to talk to the internet and each other.
Some mesh systems also have an outer performance limit. In our tests, few systems delivered the full 300Mbps service we subscribe to, but all delivered at least 50Mbps to all outlying nooks and crannies of the home, many more than 200Mbps.
As a result, each mesh system can produce wildly different results depending on deployment.
Best mesh Wi-Fi networks to consider
There is a wide range of mesh Wi-Fi networks on the market, including options from some of the biggest names in consumer technology.
These include the Nest Wifi by Google, which is priced at $269 for a router and node or $349 for a router with two nodes. There's also the Amazon-owned Eero range, which is priced from around $165 for a router and node, or $249 for two nodes. The latter is currently also offered by Amazon with a free Echo Dot smart speaker.
Networking specialist Netgear and a mesh Wi-Fi product called Orbi, which cost from around $280 for a router and node, or $280 for a router and two nodes. For businesses, the pricier Orbi Pro with its tri-band technology starts at $330 for a router and node, extending all the way to $1,300 for a system with a router and five nodes.
Our Test Procedure
Our test bed for these various Wi-Fi mesh systems is a 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 the property is surrounded by a bunch of neighboring Wi-Fi networks – more than two dozen networks show up in the available network list.
All of the mesh systems we test are connected directly to the cable modem a home office, and all the nodes from each of the systems are grouped within a few feet of each other in the living room around 35-40 feet away from the cable modem. As noted, we subscribe to 300Mbps service from Spectrum (née Time Warner Cable).
We tested each mesh system on a MacBook Pro, an Acer Nitro 5 laptop PC, an iPad Pro and an iPhone XS Max. We test speeds via Ookla Speedtest, connecting to Netflix and timing the downloading of a 3GB movie in both the living room and in the building's lobby 45- to 60-feet away, separated from the apartment by an elevator shaft.
General Mesh Buying Advice
All the mesh systems we've tested performed better than a standard modem once we had moved to 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 (and expensive) 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, which you can read below: