How to Choose the Best Mesh Wireless System For Your Home

15 minute read
| How-To

[Update #2, December 13, 2017 – Added Orbi’s new Ethernet backhaul, Orbi’s change to using Disney’s Circle for parental controls, and Google Wi-Fi’s LAN IP customization. Also added KRACK patches for Orbi, Google Wi-Fi, Luma, Deco. See Changelog]

Mesh wireless systems are all the rage these days, and for good reason. Mesh networking technology now allows us to have high-speed coverage everywhere in our homes with no dead spots and, equally as important, simple setup and management.

There are a lot of products calling themselves “mesh”, and not all of them share the same features or capabilities. For our purposes, we define mesh as a system that uses multiple wireless access points positioned throughout your home that all broadcast the same wireless network name (SSID) and are all managed from one interface. This last bit is important because, in most cases, being managed from one interface means that all the devices are aware of each other and can work together to manage the Wi-Fi throughout your home without you having to worry about it.

Sorting your way through this mess of mesh can be a bit tricky, especially as software updates roll out and features previously missing from one are added or enhanced. Remember: software can be changed after you buy, hardware cannot. And while hardware may seem to be the most important factor to consider when buying, you need to discern whether your vendor of choice is likely to update their software at a pace that’s acceptable to you.

I’ve personally tested every one of the systems here, and they all perform quite well. Still, there are specific features that we find important, and even more that you might find important. Read on, and we’ll teach you how to decide which mesh wireless system is right for you.

Summary Chart

Let’s do this in reverse and give you the overview right up front. If you need or want details, we’ve got them for you in spades, but here are the broad strokes.

Mesh Wireless Key Feature Summary

ModelWi-Fi
Radios
BufferBloat
QoS
Ethernet
Backhaul
Intrusion
Protection
Package

Price*

 Amped ALLY2 Yes$149
 eero3 (or 2)Yes**Yes $349
 Google Wifi2Yes$269
 Linksys Velop3Yes $429
 Luma2Coming Soon YesYes $157
 Netgear Orbi3Yes Yes $350
 TP-Link Deco2 Yes YesYes $239
 Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD2Yes**$312

*All prices are in USD for an Amazon Prime-shipped standard packages from each vendor, current as of the listed publication date. Amped ALLY and Netgear Orbi come with two units (one base and one satellite) while all the rest come with three units (one base and two satellites).

**Ethernet backhaul is only available on devices with Ethernet ports, and the eero Beacons and AmpliFi Mesh Points both just plug directly into AC outlets and have no other ports available.

Hardware: Streams/Antennas/Radios

The number of antennas describes both the maximum number of streams any one mesh access point can deliver simultaneously, as well as how flexible it can be in terms of getting the best connection to your existing devices. This is expressed by Transmit x Receive, which you’ll see written as 2x2, 3x3, and even 4x4 at times.

Mesh access points with two radios have one each of 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Devices with three radios include a second 5GHz radio for enhanced bandwidth to high-speed clients and/or backhaul (that being the communication between the mesh itself).

  • Amped ALLY: one 3×3 5GHz radio and one 4×4 2.4GHz radio.
  • eero: All first-generation eero devices have two 2×2 radios, as do the new wall-plug-only Beacons. New, 2nd gen eero units have three 2×2 radios within.
  • Google Wifi: Two 2×2 radios.
  • Linksys Velop: Three 2×2 radios.
  • Luma: Two 2×2 radios.
  • Netgear Orbi: Two 2×2 radios for your client devices, one additional radio only used for backhaul between the Orbi devices. The AC3000 units have a 4×4 backhaul radio, the AC2200 units have a 2×2 backhaul radio.
  • TP-Link Deco: Two 2×2 radios.
  • Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD: Two 3×3 radios in all HD units.

Advice: In our practical experience, most homes do just fine with the basic two 2×2 radios. However, if you have a lot of client devices that are often simultaneously streaming data, having that third radio of the Velop or 2nd gen eero can be quite helpful. Additionally, if you have a very long backhaul between mesh points (stretching to an outbuilding, for example), Netgear’s AC3000 Orbi unit can maintain a 100Mbps connection over more than 100 feet of distance, including through walls.

Hardware: Ethernet Backhaul

Most of us buy mesh systems because our homes are not wired and we cannot easily run Ethernet wires in our walls. That said, if you happen to have wires in your walls (or plan to install them), that can make a mesh system remarkably more efficient. Ethernet Backhaul support means that the mesh access points will link with each other over Ethernet, freeing up the wireless radios for client communication.

  • Amped ALLY: Not supported.
  • eero: First and second gen eero units are all capable of Ethernet backhaul. The new Beacons lack Ethernet ports and, as such, are unable to use it.
  • Google Wifi: Supported.
  • Linksys Velop: Supported for everything except setup. Use Wi-Fi backhaul for setup, then once the system is working you can move the nodes to Ethernet cables and the system will automatically reconfigure itself.
  • Luma: Supported.
  • Netgear Orbi: Ethernet backhaul was added December, 2017 with firmware 2.1.1.12.
  • TP-Link Deco: Supported for everything except setup.
  • Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD: The base units are all capable of Ethernet backhaul, but the kits come with the mesh points that plug into the wall, and these do not have Ethernet jacks on them.

Advice: if you have wires between your rooms or plan to install them, make sure you get a system that supports Ethernet backhaul. Otherwise, don’t sweat it.

Table of Contents

  1. Summary Chart, Hardware: Streams/Antennas/Radios, and Ethernet Backhaul
  2. Software: QoS and BufferBloat Protection, Band Steering and Access Point Steering, and Cloud vs. Local Management
  3. Software: Intrusion/Malware Protection, and Parental Controls
  4. Geekier Features, Buying Advice, and Article Changelog

17 Comments Add a comment

  1. Graham McKay

    In the overview/summary it’d be nice to know which of these has been “internationalised”. Last time I checked there were a few mesh systems that were US only.

    • nicol

      From Google Wifi – we’re now available in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and France (we’re adding more countries later in the year too)

    • Dave Hamilton

      Plume is off the list solely because we’ve been unable to work with them on a test unit.

      I’ve heard very good things from Plume owners, but I only include things here that we’re able to personally test and work with, both short-and-long term.

      Every device listed here is up-and-running in some capacity, long-term, in a real household. I test short-term in my home and off office, and then relocate the systems with colleagues, friends, and family, to get true, real-world performance reports.

      We’d love to work with Plume, and have been trying for almost a year, but their review availability is unfortunately limited. We’ll get there with them. They just need some time.

      • John Kheit

        That is crazy. Do you have more than one going at a time. Just the sheer logistics of it all! Kudos Dave!

  2. whshep

    Surely this article should note a significant downside to the Eero: if the internet goes out, the whole network is likely to go out with it.

    According to Eero support, there is no guarantee of “Persistent LAN,” because while “the eeros will typically maintain the LAN when the internet connection drops,” eventually their “self-repair function” will try “to reestablish connection, and if the ISP service is still down when the eero does this, the LAN will be lost.” In other words, when you lose internet, you are likely to lose the entire network—no local streaming, no printers, no file transfer, no nothing. Forget listening to iTunes while you’re waiting for the Comcast truck.

    Never in my wildest imagination did it occur to me that a modern router—a premium-priced one at that—would be completely disabled simply because it could not connect to the internet (which around here goes out all the time). I wouldn’t recommend Eero until this is fixed.

  3. John Kheit

    Great article and info Dave. One more column on your table would be great. Privacy. Several of those products send your data/surfing habits (anonymized or otherwise) up to the cloud for analysis. Those are nonstarters for many privacy minded Apple folks. It would be nice to know which are wiretaps, which are not, and which have an option to turn that off.

    Anyway, as always, your analysis is a super service to the gear head community, so thanks!

    • Dave Hamilton

      On page 2 there’s a section titled, “Software: Cloud vs. Local Management” that discusses this. For the chart, I chose to distill things that matter to most people… and the remainder of the article goes deeper into those and other topics.

      • John Kheit

        Yea the cloud part is very useful, and I guess you can just assume if it has cloud ability, it will take your traffic. I suspect there might be some control over that, but the conservative approach is to just assume, if it has a cloud option, it’s a wire tap, even if it aint necessarily so, or there is an option to opt out…

      • John Kheit

        Which means only the Netgear Orbi or the Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD are options if you have privacy concerns. Thanks Dave!

    • Dave Hamilton

      The main difference is essentially what I described in the intro to the piece:

      For our purposes, we define mesh as a system that uses multiple wireless access points positioned throughout your home that all broadcast the same wireless network name (SSID) and are all managed from one interface. This last bit is important because, in most cases, being managed from one interface means that all the devices are aware of each other and can work together to manage the Wi-Fi throughout your home without you having to worry about it.

      With multiple routers (from the same or different vendors), one must manage each individually. On top of that, the routers are (generally) not aware of the fact that others are involved, so things like handoffs between the two can’t be managed gracefully, nor can the access points all participate in load balancing between the radios and each other.

      The setup you have is what I call “quasi-mesh”, and is essentially what I ran at my home and office for over a decade. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and, especially with Ethernet backbone tying everything together, can work very, very well.

      But management of a quasi-mesh is a headache, and that can get even trickier when you don’t have Ethernet and want to link everything together wirelessly. Mesh, as described in the piece here, solves all of those problems internally, making it a plug-and-play experience for most.

  4. Lou Burt

    Thank you so much for the great article! I have been using airport extremes since 2008 and the all still work unlike the parade of Linksys etc. routers I used and had to replace about every year.

    How is the build quality of the various units? This is a big deal for me and why I love Apple hardware.

    Thanks again for the best article on this subject that I’ve come across.

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