The future of home Wi-Fi is mesh networking, a new approach to consumer wireless networks that includes smart management and multiple radios designed to handle the load of today’s gadgets. Combine that with the fact that many homes require multiple access points for coverage in different locations and mesh makes the most sense.
With 802.11ac we do finally have some range extenders that actually work now. Even when used at a distance, 802.11ac often gives you enough bandwidth to make an extender worthwhile. It’s never perfect, though, unless you’re using Ethernet (or Powerline or MoCA) for the backhaul between your router and extender. Even a workable situation like this takes a true geek to build and manage it. And when things break, it’s not just the geek who’s upset: the whole family has an opinion on the urgency of fixing these issues.
On top of that, the router/extender scenario isn’t a true mesh—it’s a quasi-mesh. None of the access points knows about the other ones. Yes, they can all be named the same and my client devices can connect to whichever one they deem best, but they do that on their own with no guidance from the router or extender. Client devices have no idea how overloaded a given access point might be nor do they have an idea as to what other devices on the network exist.
Mesh routing completes that puzzle because the access points act as one. They are all aware of each other and can work with client devices to decide which access point is best for that client at that time, not just which one is closest or has the strongest signal. If one device starts streaming a ton of Netflix, for example, the mesh can identify this and either tell that client to move or start moving other clients to free up that radio for the video stream.
This kind of setup is simply not possible to build yourself with off-the-shelf routers.
The good news is that as we’ve often said on Mac Geek Gab, 2016 is the “Year of the Router.” A large part of that has to do with how many mesh products we have.
I’ve tested three currently-available mesh offerings: eero, Netgear’s Orbi and Ubiquiti’s AmpliFi. While they all solve the same problem in basically the same way, they each have strengths and weaknesses. If you’re finished reading and just want to buy, my TL;DR advice is that, at this very moment, I feel like eero is the best product to recommend to most users. That said, it’s worth watching what Netgear does with Orbi over the next six months. If they keep adding features to it, Orbi could easily take the lead due to its tri-band Wi-Fi hardware. Still, even today Orbi or AmpliFi might be right for you, and I’ve listed more than a few points of comparison to help you make your choice. For those details… read on!
Table of Contents
- Intro to Mesh Wi-Fi
- Single SSID Mesh, Range, Speed, Setup and Radios
- Ethernet, User Interface, and Form Factor
- USB, QoS, and VPN
- Apple, Google, Luma, The Prices and The Verdict
Next up: Single SSID Mesh, Range, Speed, Setup and Radios