Wi-Fi Mesh Systems Compared: eero, Orbi, AmpliFi

| Deep Dive

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.

eero's mesh – like others – blankets your home in Wi-Fi

eero’s mesh – like others – blankets your home in glorious Wi-Fi everywhere

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.

TL;DR

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

  1. Intro to Mesh Wi-Fi
  2. Single SSID Mesh, Range, Speed, Setup and Radios
  3. Ethernet, User Interface, and Form Factor
  4. USB, QoS, and VPN
  5. Apple, Google, Luma, The Prices and The Verdict

Next up: Single SSID Mesh, Range, Speed, Setup and Radios

18 Comments Add a comment

  1. Thank you for a great article. I have been seriously looking at adding Mesh networking to our home.

    One question that is Critical. We have lousy cell coverage from all major carriers.

    So, we have ATT and can only receive calls by using their wifi calling feature.

    Are there any problems doing wifi calling over any of these mesh system?

    Also, Is there any way to download this article as a PDF?

    thanks

  2. I always used multiple units in my wifi. I now am using 4 airports. I don’t have a large house, I have an old house (plaster walls stop wifi) So how would mesh help here?

    The real issue here is Apple updates – the only one the is on time is the iPhone everything else is by the wayside. Very sad for such a great company.

  3. Although I am very happy to see multi-channel mesh wifi finally getting its day in the sun, I am concerned that there is a lack of understanding about how it actually works, and what the underlying protocols and metrics are. Eero, for example, is based on batman-adv, so far as I know. Google is leveraging 802.11s (I think). In the long run, I hope that interoperable implementations exist.

  4. Thanks for the article, I look forward to seeing this field grow. I definitely got more from this article than other similar articles.

    If I were picking one up over the holidays, it sounds like all their wireless performance are similar? I should decide based just on features? How’s the usability of the configuration interfaces?

    I was interested in eero but the price was high and I’m not sure I want cloud-access into my home’s network, especially considering the insecurity of the IoT. (The network I manage at work does have a cloud based backend to its network hardware and to been fabulous, but it’s not my home…)

    I was interested in the Ubiquiti, based on their rep, but was less impressed with the fact their extenders can only be placed where you have an outlet. That’s mostly at shin-level in my house.

    I hadn’t heard anything about the Netgear offering, but the ports , VPN and multi-radio features sound great, but their rep with me has been “good hardware for hardcore geeks who don’t care about usability or design.”

    So it’s hard to choose a team to invest in! (Hence my question on performance)

  5. I wanted to point out one of the biggest problems for me with these systems and that is that they need to have connection with the central server in order to work AT ALL. I had Eero that I tested and in the middle of test we lost power due to high winds. I got everything going on my generator but Eero network would not work at all without connection to the Eero central servers. This means that whole internal network in my house was down. This also means that if for whatever reason, Eero servers down, Eero goes out of business etc. your devices are dead and you cannot use them. I confirmed with Eero that devices need to connect to central server otherwise they would not work.

    This was unacceptable to me. I returned whole thing.

    Additional problem I had is that Eero system was simply not nearly as fast as the Airport Extreme. I run Tivo streaming video over the WiFi and the only router that I have found which would work without interruptions and crashes was Airport Extreme. Eero could not handle this either and video streamed internally over WiFi was unwatchable. It would also crash Eero and force them to reboot. Support was of no help.

    There were also VPN connection problems to the outside servers with Eero and support also was of no help. No problems with Airport in exact same configuration.

    So for me these system are simply not nearly as good as Airport Extreme. I don’t understand why Apple would stop making and selling them.

  6. Dave Hamilton

    Hey, all. Thanks for the comments. I usually let it go a few days before answering, so here I am… answering!

    @Maverick: Wifi calling works great with all of these that I’ve tested. No issues at all.

    @Westfoto: the benefits of mesh over your existing multi-router setup are many. First, mesh gives you a single interface to manage the whole thing (as opposed to having to manage each access point separately). Because of this you (easily) get a single SSID for all your wifi. The biggest benefit to mesh, though, is that the access points talk to both the clients *and* each other. With this everything is involved in the decision process when a client decides which access point to associate with.

    @BrianMonroe: Amped’s Ally isn’t available for review yet, but they tell me it’ll be shipping to me soon (probably next week).

    @mtaht: Indeed. Each vendor’s implementation is currently unique, which means you must stick with that vendor when extending/expanding your mesh.

    @murtuzza: Thanks! I’ll add Edimax to the list.

    @briandigital: I hear you! Add to that the fact that it’s all changing rapidly and it’s tough to make a choice. As for performance, here’s what I can say: access point-to-client performance is all quite similar with these. All AC1200 (or AC1300) radios with similar range. However, wifi backhaul is NOT equal amongst these. Luma and Amplifi are the weakest in terms of range between access points. Eero’s actually pretty good: it got ~50Mbps across my driveway from my house to my office. Orbi, however, is amazing. It got 100Mbps+ from the *far* end of my house to my office (across both the house *and* the driveway).

    @tek: indeed. Eero and Luma require access to their cloud services in order to manage the devices. Orbi and AmpliFi are both locally-managed with no cloud element. The nice part about the cloud integration is that you get the benefits of what the data shows for other users, too. That’s what helped eero create things like TrueMesh. They learned what worked in some homes vs. others and applied that to everyone.

  7. It should be noted that Orbi and AmpliFi (this is exclusive to Amazon for now) are also available as stand alone routers. Also of interest, a second AmpliFi stand alone router can be configured as a mesh point. I’ve had the stand alone AmpliFi router up and running since 11/23 and I’m very impressed with its consistency both with testing and real world streaming. The Orbi might be a better performer and might have been my choice if I needed a mesh system but IMO the esthetics of the AmpliFi is much better and I couldn’t be happier its performance. BTW, I do have it on top of my dresser and indeed if you didn’t look too closely you would think it was a fancy alarm clock.

  8. How do any of these mesh systems coexist or replace the current router I might have! I have Uverse TV and Internet. I could plug one if these units unto a switch connected to my router. As you may know, the Uverse gateway has wireless transmitters to connect to the receivers if the different TVs I have, so I don’t want to interfere with that part of the network. If I can then use the mesh units to extend my existing network, that would be great.
    Thanks for the article. Very helpful.

  9. Really great article!

    All things being equal, I love the way the Orbi sounds. However, the price just seems a good $100 too high. Since my internet connection comes in at the center of the house, to extend the network to all rooms (and particularly to my hammock outside!) I need at least 3 units. So a 3 pack of Orbi would run $650. For $50 less than 2 Orbi, I can get a 3 pack of AmpliFi. I don’t have anything that NEEDs ethernet instead of 802.11 n or AC, so I think I should be fine without ethernet ports. I actually rather like the form factor – seems like it will save space to have it self contained on an outlet. Not sure if anyone else is in my boat, but a big part of the reason I’m buying a mesh system is that it is cheaper than stringing Cat7 from the room with my router and modem. For the $650 I’d be paying Orbi, I could get a wired solution – I think they may have trouble keeping up that price point with so many other options out there.

    (having justified my purchase to myself, now onto the question)
    One thing I am curious about – I have a pseudo mesh network set up now using a few airports and the paltry 40 Mb I’m getting over power line – could one of those further extend the network created by the Orbi or AmpliFi?

  10. I went w/AmpliFi LR and it was on sale on Amazon…and I couldn’t be more pleased after the first four days of use. Speeds great, no dead spots, easy to use and most important…the fastest tech support I’ve ever seen w/national product. You start a chat and you’re with someone in a few seconds. I also think the plug-in mesh antenna’s are a smart design choice. No wires to plug in and the magnetic heads really help when you walk by and accidentally dislodge them…no way to break these unless you deliberately try. All the units are solidly built. I do hope they can squeeze in a few Ethernet ports on the mesh antenna’s in some future builds.

  11. Great article! Another WiFi meshing product – an outdoor system for farms and rural households – was covered briefly on the Mac Geek Gab back in 2013 (MGG 436) – Ayrstone, which is still around. Not for use in the house like these products, Ayrstone makes WiFi available outside in the countryside – in the garden, on the lake, or across the farm.

  12. I just got off chat with the Amplifi support folks, and the rep said you can buy multiple Amplifi routers, connect them via Ethernet, and use the satellites as Ethernet mesh points as you can with Eeros. At $150/router for the HD version, a “3-pack” costs more than the $350 Amplifi HD kit but arguably gives more flexibility and expansion (each can also double as a 4-port switch for wired devices).

    Can anyone corroborate this info? As noted in the article it would be nice to make use of existing ethernet runs through the walls of a house when possible to forward the traffic of wifi devices.

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