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What Is a Mesh Wi-Fi Router, and Do You Need One?

Illustration: Tom's Guide; D-Link

Illustration: Tom's Guide; D-Link

Mesh routers are the latest technology upgrade for home Wi-Fi networks. Mesh networks have been used for years in large places where a secure network is critical, like military bases and businesses. (In such cases, the network is often isolated and not connected to the internet.) Now, residential wireless-internet users can optimize their home Wi-Fi with a form of mesh networking, too.

If you have a large home — at least 3,000 square feet — or one with an unusual layout, more than two stories or interior brick walls, you probably regularly encounter Wi-Fi dead zones, and your setup could be a good candidate for a mesh-router system.

MORE: Best Wi-Fi Routers

Mesh Routers Compared

EeroGoogle WifiLinksys VelopLumaNetgear OrbiUbiquiti AmpliFi HD
Starting Price$160 Amazon Marketplace$99 Amazon Marketplace$219.25 Amazon$47.5 Amazon Marketplace$196.00 Amazon$109.99 Amazon Marketplace
ColorWhiteWhiteWhiteWhite, black, orange, grayWhiteWhite
Form factorSquare hockey puckRound hockey puckSmall towerHexagonal hockey puckSmall towerCube, plug-in dongles
Admin interfaceMobile appMobile appMobile appMobile appMobile app, browserTouchscreen, mobile app, browser
Max coverage area, in theoryUnlimited4,500 sq. ft.6,000 sq. ft.5,000 sq. ft.4,000 sq. ft.20,000 sq. ft.
Parental controlsYesNoYesYesYesNo
Smart-home integrationAlexaPhilips Hue, IFTTTAlexaAlexaAlexa
Ethernet ports2 per node2 per node2 per node2 per node4 per device5 on base
USB ports1 per nodeNoneNone1 per node1 per device1 on base

Several big names have emerged as popular mesh-router solutions in the last couple of years. Top names include familiar networking companies, like the Netgear Orbi, Linksys Velop and Samsung Connect Home Pro, while others are making their name with mesh systems, like Google Wifi, Ubiquiti Amplifi and Eero Mesh Router.

The Google Wifi system. Credit: Google

(Image credit: The Google Wifi system. Credit: Google)

With such a spike in popularity, you may be wondering whether a mesh router would work for you. If so, here's an overview of this latest upgrade in home Wi-Fi networking, to help you decide if this solution could work in your home.

The basics of wireless mesh routers

At the center of traditional Wi-Fi networks is the router, the key piece of equipment that broadcasts the wireless signal to which your devices connect. A router, as its name suggests, seamlessly routes internet traffic between a connected modem and Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets such as computers or tablets. Most people completely forget about their routers — that is, until the Wi-Fi signal goes down.

A Netgear Orbi unit. Credit: Netgear

(Image credit: A Netgear Orbi unit. Credit: Netgear)

The main issue with traditional routers is that the reach of the signals they send out is limited. Large buildings that need internet access on multiple floors often have areas with limited or nonexistent service, sometimes called dead zones, when the main network uses a standard single-point router.

Mesh routers can help eliminate dead zones. Rather than broadcasting Wi-Fi signals from a single point, mesh router systems have multiple access points. One point links to the modem and acts as the router, while one or more other access points, often called satellites, capture the router's signal and rebroadcast it.

The benefits of mesh routers

In addition to creating a strong, reliable Wi-Fi signal, mesh-router systems have a few other prominent benefits. Here are some of the biggest pros.

1. Easy network management: One main feature that distinguishes mesh-router systems from traditional routers is the easy network access they provide. Many mesh-router systems are totally automated, allowing for easy management through a mobile app, even when you're not at home. Many mesh-router apps let users quickly scan their speeds, cut off Wi-Fi access to certain networks, create guest networks, test the quality between the various connection points and even connect to smart home devices. Some high-end traditional routers have similar features, but you'll usually have to be connected to the local network from a desktop web interface to turn them on.

Linksys' Velop mesh-router system. Credit: Linksys

(Image credit: Linksys' Velop mesh-router system. Credit: Linksys)

2. Streamlined connections: With traditional routers, devices known as range extenders are often used to repeat the signal so Wi-Fi can be accessed from long distances. However, many extenders require you to create a separate network, with a separate name, for the range extender. This means you may have to switch Wi-Fi connections, sometimes manually, as you move around the house. A mesh-router system, on the other hand, doesn't require constant reconnection, even as you move from room to room. You also won't have to deal with as much lag, as the access points all broadcast the same signal, rather than having to route requests through multiple networks.

3. Tight security: Along with easy management, some residential mesh-router kits come with good security support. Thanks to the aforementioned easy network management, it's not hard to keep your router devices safe — many automatically check for, and install, firmware updates. (Until recently, most routers had to be updated manually by the owner.) The Luma takes security a step further by screening out known malicious websites.

The drawbacks of mesh routers

Mesh-router systems, like most pieces of networking equipment, aren't without drawbacks. Here are a few of the bigger ones.

1. High costs: A good mesh-router kit will cost $300 or more, with add-on satellites costing $100 to $200 each. A good traditional router usually costs in the ballpark of $100, while range extenders run anywhere from $20 to $100. That's a big difference in price, even for the most basic mesh-router setup.

A single Eero unit. Credit: Eero

(Image credit: A single Eero unit. Credit: Eero)

2. Wasted resources: In small homes and buildings, mesh routers generally present a bigger solution than is needed. If you don't regularly deal with Wi-Fi connectivity issues, or if you don't have extensive internet demands, mesh routers might be excessive. A few Wi-Fi dead zones can easily be remedied by using a range extender, by putting the existing router in a more central location or by upgrading to a better traditional router with a longer range.

3. More equipment: Although most mesh-router system access points are small and discreet, you may need several of them to take full advantage of their capabilities. This means finding places for multiple devices throughout your home — which could be problematic for users who prefer to keep networking devices limited to one or two inconspicuous locations.

The Luma mesh-router system. Credit: Luma

(Image credit: The Luma mesh-router system. Credit: Luma)

Do you need a mesh-router system?

Many traditional routers won't cover large houses with multiple floors and walls that block wireless signals. Additionally, if you're interested in smart-home features, the easy remote management that mesh routers offer through their mobile apps is a huge plus.

On the other hand, if you live in a small home or apartment and only deal with dropped Wi-Fi every so often, you can probably pass on mesh routers. A simple range extender, or even a long-range router, would work just as well to patch dead zones.

Ubiquiti's Amplifi HD system, with a router and two extenders. Credit: Ubiquiti

(Image credit: Ubiquiti's Amplifi HD system, with a router and two extenders. Credit: Ubiquiti)

You don't have to deal with slow internet speeds or gaping dead zones. If you're tired of constant router resets or antenna adjustments, now is a good time to upgrade to a new traditional router with longer distance capabilities, a mesh-router kit or a range extender — whichever product best fits your situation and budget. All are optimized to deal with home obstructions and can connect homes on numerous frequencies.

There are plenty of wireless networking products that can help boost a home Wi-Fi signal, so analyze your Wi-Fi needs to determine which solution is best for your home.

  • Ashley_P
    I would suspect, that just like range extenders/repeaters, the mesh routers increase rebroadcasting signals, dropping (halving) throughput? I'm an advocate of powerline adapters (now up to 1000mbps), some models have a wifi secondary, which provide a range extender type functionality, but without the loss of speed of repeating. WDS also has been available on many brands for some time, providing mesh functionality. Another question would be how interoperable the brands are, is there a standard for mesh?
  • porsche_1
    The Amplifi does have parental controls.