Mesh WiFi Systems: What Are They and Why Do They Work So Well?
If you have a home WiFi network – and over three-quarters of American households do – we’ll bet you’re no stranger to dropped signals and dead spots.
Imagine you’re upstairs happily checking Facebook or perhaps streaming a video on YouTube then you wander down to grab a coffee. Suddenly the page struggles to load or the video buffers leaving you seething and asking why a brisk fiber connection performs like 90s dial-up just when you need it most.
Well, the answer lies not as much in the connection itself but in the router.
Luckily, a better alternative is coming to prominence in the form of mesh WiFi networks. We’ll look today at what these networks are, how they work and why they might be the most effective way to update your home internet without spending a fortune.
First thing’s first, what’s the snag with routers when it comes to delivering a robust and stable connection?
What’s The Problem With Routers?
In the early days of WiFi, the signal frequency was always 2.4GHz. This low frequency can very easily pass through any walls or other obstructions inside your home.
Increasingly, WiFi networks use a higher 5GHz frequency. You might have noticed this on your regular home WiFi like we did…
ISPs now often provide what appear as two separate networks, named the same but with 5G appended to one of them.
Maybe, like us, you noticed this and thought “But there’s no 5G service available, we’re still using LTE/4G.”
You’d be right. 5G is still not yet in place. The second option actually refers to a 5GHz network you can use in place of your standard 2.4GHz connection but you’ll need to manually flick between networks.
Although this higher frequency is subject to far less interference from other devices, it’s also infinitely worse at penetrating barriers. If you’ve got a larger house in particular, dead spots and dropped signals on a 5GHz connection. Why is that a problem rather than a simple inconvenience, though?
Is A Patchy WiFi Signal Such a Big Deal?
The importance of a rock-solid WiFi connection depends pretty much entirely on you and your circumstances.
If you are a light web user and do little more than occasionally send emails or check your social media accounts, stability and strength of signal throughout the whole house probably don’t come too high on your list of priorities.
Perhaps you work from home, though. Whether you’re teaching English online or conducting home-based business, you really can’t afford a patchy signal.
How about smart home devices?
Firstly, the number of extra devices will in and of itself be placing more burden on your regular router, obviously not a good thing. So straight off the bat, connected homeowners are suffering.
Beyond this, while a minor glitch in signal might not be a big deal with a smart light or an air quality monitor when it comes to home security systems and cameras, seamless connectivity becomes much more important.
So, if you plan to build out a complete connected home, it really is critical to get reliable and solid WiFi coverage throughout your home.
Having presented you with the problem – albeit one you’re probably already aware of – it’s time to double down on the solution. Fortunately, that solution is now easily available and just as simple to implement. The answer is to invest in a mesh WiFi system.
What Is a Mesh WiFi System?
Mesh networks have been used for years in businesses or anywhere that consistent signal and a secure network is critical.
The technology underpinning these secure and stable networks has now made its way into residential homes the world over. You can now take advantage of the principles of mesh networking to optimize the signal in your smart home. This is especially valuable in multi-floored properties with too many walls and too much interference for a regular router to fully deliver.
Where a WiFi router sends out a single blast of the signal, a mesh network is more like a sprinkler system. In place of just a single router, you’ll also get multiple nodes –small mesh modules – placed around the house. These are all connected to your router. A series of smaller but more powerful signals are blasted out resulting in full WiFi coverage throughout the house.
Unlike the regular system with just one router, mesh systems are modular. Most mesh WiFi systems come with 2 or 3 nodes but you can build out your system with as many modules as you need for complete flexibility.
The concept is simple and the result is much stronger and more reliable WiFi wherever you are in the house.
You might be thinking this is the same as a repeater or extender but that’s not strictly accurate. With these, the signal is simply relayed but it also degrades as it’s pinged along. With a mesh system, the nodes are all communicating with each other. This allows all nodes to enjoy a robust signal even if they’re far away from the router.
Most mesh WiFi systems use a combination of 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. 5GHz is quicker and allows you to stream 4K video while the slower 2.4GHz does a far better job of penetrating barriers like plasterboard. Some systems are dual-band, some tri-band, and some offer multiple user, multiple input/output (MU-MIMO) functionality. Whatever the differences, you’ll get several access points rather than a single point and your house will be blanketed with deep WiFi coverage from corner-to-corner.
So it’s time to throw out that router, right?
Do You Still Need a Router With Mesh Systems?
You certainly should get rid of your router since you’ll need the modem it contains. The mesh system will replace the work done by the router part but you’ll still need the integrate modem to connect to the internet.
Indeed, the first thing you need to do when setting up your mesh system is to plug in one of the nodes to your router using an Ethernet cable. You only need to do this with a single node since the rest will pick up the signal wirelessly.
The remainder of the set-up is extremely simple and you can take care of everything in-app without tinkering around too much or reconfiguring anything.
We’ll highlight now the advantages and drawbacks of mesh systems so you can see at a glance if it makes sense for you. We’ll then round out with a brief look at 3 of the best mesh WiFi systems on the market.
Advantages and Drawbacks of a Mesh WiFi System
• Far stronger and much more reliable WiFi signal throughout the whole house
• No more frustrating dead zones even if you’re down in the basement or up in the attic far from the router
• Super-simple network management allowing for remote access in-app even when you’re not at home
• Outstanding security support with many systems performing automatic checks for firmware then installing them on your behalf. Some will even screen and block malicious websites
• A remarkably streamlined connection with no need to manually flit between networks
• Mesh WiFi systems are still not cheap but that will soon change
• You will need to buy and house more equipment so not the best solution for minimalists
• Generally unnecessary in smaller homes where dead zones are not an issue so don’t convince yourself you need a mesh system or be mis-sold one if a simple range extender would work best
As you can see, the advantages – assuming you actually need a mesh system – outweigh the few minor niggles so take a look at some of the best kit on offer today…
3 of The Best Mesh WiFi Systems
We’ll round out today with some brief product reviews. We’ve taken a break over the holiday season to serve you up instead with a broad spread of purely informational content. Now the turkey is eating, work is on the horizon and a new year ready to roll, though, we’re back to help you choose the best smart home gear with the minimum of fanfare. To that end, here are 3 of the very strongest ways you can boost the reliability and extent of your WiFi coverage even if you’ve got a larger home.
If you consider ramping up your WiFi signal as an investment rather than an expense, you should seriously think about Netgear’s top-notch Orbi mesh WiFi system, ideal for even the largest smart homes with demanding requirements.
This system is available in several configurations including and Ultra-Performance version and another packing Alexa functionality assuming you have the requisite device.
Speed runs to 2.2Gbps across homes as large as 6000 square feet with all flat spots and tedious buffering eliminated.
While this is not the most delicate of solutions, the rugged units greatly surpass the performance you’ll get from a router which might be tiny but simply fails to fully deliver.
If you need a wired connection for your TV, you’ll get a pair of Ethernet ports.
Set-up is close to plug-and-play whether you choose to use the app or a browser. This is great news if you panicked about mesh WiFi systems imagining you’d need a PhD to get up and running. Netgear make it easy for you even if you’re not the greatest tech lover.
If you’re lucky enough to have a big house and plenty of smart home devices along with a fluid budget and the burning desire not to be menaced by weak and unreliable WiFi, we can’t recommend Netgear’s mesh system highly enough.
• Set up in-app or using a browser for complete flexibility
• Suitable for even sprawling smart homes and offers absolutely solid whole-house coverage
• Get the most from your system thanks to a dedicated channel for all router-to-extension traffic
• 3 radio-frequency bands with a second 5GHz side channel keeping signal strong and reliable
• MU-MIMO (multiple user, multiple input/output) allows for seamless use of multiple devices
• One of the most expensive mesh WiFi systems but also one of the very best
• Not the most streamlined design so these units don’t really blend in
Another solid choice, if you’re hunting down a superior alternative to a regular router, is this 3-pack system from the mighty Google.
Although you won’t get quite the firepower of coverage as the Netgear Orbi provides, you won’t need to dig as deep either. Available as either single units or in a 3-pack, you can provide full and deep WiFi void of any irritating dead spots up to 4500 square feet so unless you’ve got a mansion in the Hills, you should be all set.
Getting up and running couldn’t be much easier with a free app for either Android or iOS doing all the legwork for you.
Although you don’t get the option to switch bands, Google WiFi monitors your system for you and ensures that everything runs to the best of its ability and you will be able to prioritize bandwidth to certain devices. After all, if you’re on a video conference with clients, you don’t want your teens hogging the connection aimlessly chatting with their friends while they stream and download at the same time!
Whether you want to stream 4K video in the basement den or your kids want to hit the online games up in the attic, everyone in the family can benefit from outstanding WiFi coverage wherever they are in your smart home.
• Works well for homes up to 1500 square feet with a single unit or extend coverage to 4500 square feet with the 3-pack
• Set everything up quickly and easily in-app so get going pretty much straight out the box
• Network Assist optimizes the channel and band on your behalf so all your devices will run at full clip
• Family controls allow you to keep things kid-friendly and even pause the connection so you can eat dinner undisturbed
• Outstanding price to performance ratio
• Relatively limited hardware control
• Not the most powerful mesh system but makes up for this with its user-friendly simplicity
A great third option for a mesh WiFi system comes from Linksys and it’s up for grabs at a cut-throat price so if you want the most bang for your buck, this model is arguably your strongest option.
You can choose from one of 3 packages from a single dual-band perfect for single story homes and apartments through to a bumper tri-band pack with a pair of units perfect for larger multi-level homes requiring coverage extending outside to the patio.
With MU-MIMO technology and both 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections, you’re in safe hands even if you’re a power user making heavy bandwidth demands on your system.
If you frequently have guests over and don’t want to compromise the security of your network, set up guest access. You can also keep close tabs on the way your kids use the internet so this mesh system is perfect for the smart home family of 2019 and beyond.
Linksys took their sweet time joining the mesh WiFi system fray and, we have to say, it was well worth the wait. To skyrocket your connection and give your smart home all the juice it needs from top to bottom, this alternative to a standard-issue router is well worth popping on your shortlist.
• Ideal for apartments or smaller homes of all shapes and configurations with multiple nodes further intensifying coverage
• Takes less than 5 minutes to set up each node then you’ll be running at full steam with no more annoying buffering or flat spots
• No need to manually switch between networks so enjoy uninterrupted whole-house coverage with performance optimized across the board
• Future-proof and easy to build system out further if your needs change
• Take control with voice commands or manage everything in-app
• No web client available so you’ll need to set everything up in-app although it’s straightforward and intuitive so hardly a deal-breaker
We hope this brief look at mesh WiFi systems has cleared up some of the confusion you might have had about this pioneering approach to internet coverage. If you were already fully versed in mesh systems, we trust you’ve found some useful nugget here today, too.
We’re not easing off for a moment throughout the holiday season so keep coming back and check out the smart home news.