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What is a mesh Wi-Fi router, and do you need one?

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

A mesh Wi-Fi router or mesh system joins two or more Wi-Fi access points together to create and share a single, seamless Wi-Fi network that can even be expanded to cover even the largest homes or buildings.

If the Wi-Fi router you used in your small apartment doesn’t give you the wireless connectivity you want in a larger house, then a mesh Wi-Fi router system could be the perfect solution.

If you have a large home – at least 3,000 square feet — or one with an unusual layout that rises more than two stories or has brick walls in its interior, then you’ll likely encounter Wi-Fi dead zones. This means your home could be a good candidate for a mesh system instead of a traditional Wi-Fi router.

Modern mesh Wi-Fi systems provide super-simple setup procedures while letting you wipe out dead spots by filling in the gaps in your home coverage. Once installed, you can enjoy wireless internet access in every room as well as in your backyard or garage.

Here’s everything you need to know about what the best mesh Wi-Fi systems do and whether one might be right for your home.

A regular Wi-Fi router creates a single access point that broadcasts Wi-Fi signals to a limited area whereas mesh networks link two or more access points which are also called nodes together.

With a mesh Wi-Fi router, one access point acts as the router or base station and connects to one of the best cable modems to get internet access. Meanwhile, the other nodes act as satellites, receiving internet access from the base station and then rebroadcasting it to nearby devices.

All of these units share data back and forth and provide multiple sources of Wi-Fi signal. One of the best things about a mesh system is that unlike with Wi-Fi range extenders, they all share the same network, so you won’t have to bother with switching to a new network as you move throughout your house.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Google)

Several of the big players in consumer networking equipment now offer mesh-router solutions. Google’s Nest Wifi is our current favorite and sits at the top of the best mesh routers thanks to its excellent performance, easy setup and the fact that each access point also works like a Google Home speaker.

The Netgear Orbi line is another long-time favorite, delivering great performance across a growing ecosystem of products from the latest Netgear Orbi WiFi 6e to the original Orbi RBK50 and the Orbi Voice add-on.

For more affordable mesh networking, we really like the TP-Link Deco X20 as it provides great Wi-Fi 6 speeds for the whole house without costing much more than a standalone unit.

Given their increased popularity, you may be wondering whether a mesh router might work for you. If that’s the case, here’s an overview of this new twice on home Wi-Fi networking to help you decide if this solution could work in your home.

The basics of a mesh Wi-Fi router

At the center of all traditional Wi-Fi networks is the router which serves as a key piece of equipment that broadcasts a wireless signal to all the devices you want to connect.

A router, as its name suggests, seamlessly routes internet traffic between a connected modem and Wi-Fi enabled gadgets like computers, tablets or smartphones. Most people completely forget about their routers though, until their Wi-Fi signal goes down.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

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

The main issue with traditional routers is that the reach of the Wi-Fi signals they send out is limited. Large buildings that require internet access on multiple floors often have areas with little or no service, often referred to as dead zones, when the main network uses a standard single-point router.

Mesh routers can help eliminate dead zones though. Instead of broadcasting Wi-Fi signals from a single point, mesh router systems feature multiple access points. One node links to the modem and acts as the router, while the other access points, often called satellites, capture the router’s signal and rebroadcast it.

For those who aren’t sure if they need a mesh system, or plan on moving into a larger home soon, you don't have to commit to a pack of two or three mesh units to benefit from the expandable coverage of mesh Wi-Fi.

Many of the latest standalone routers can actually be set up as base stations for mesh coverage which lets you expand your Wi-Fi further by adding more nodes from the same manufacturer down the line. This way you don’t have to get rid of your current equipment.

The benefits of mesh routers

Besides creating a strong, reliable Wi-Fi signal throughout your whole home, mesh-router systems have a few other notable benefits which include:

1. Easy Network Management: One main feature that distinguishes mesh routers from traditional routers is the easy network access they provide. Many mesh routers are totally automated which allows for easy management through a mobile app, even when you’re not at home. Setting up a mesh router with a smartphone app is far easier than plugging a computer directly into a router and configuring it through a browser dashboard.

Many mesh router apps allow users to quickly scan their speeds, cut off Wi-Fi access to certain networks, create guest networks, test the quality between various connection points and even connect to smart home devices. Some high-end traditional routers have similar features, but you’ll usually need to be connected to the local network using a desktop web interface to turn them on.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

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

2. Streamlined connections: With traditional routers, range extenders are often used to repeat the signal so a Wi-Fi connection can reach even further. However, even the best Wi-Fi extenders require you to create a separate network (with a separate name) for the range extender. This means you’ll likely have to manually switch Wi-Fi connections as you move around your house.

A mesh router on the other hand, doesn’t require constant reconnections, 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, mesh routers often come with good security support. Thanks to the aforementioned easy network management, it’s not hard to keep your devices safe as many automatically check for and install firmware updates.

The drawbacks of mesh routers

Like most pieces of networking equipment, mesh-router systems aren’t without their drawbacks. Here are a few of the bigger ones.

1. High costs: A good two piece mesh-router kit will likely cost $200 or more, with additional satellites costing $100 to $600 each. The standalone models on our list of the best Wi-Fi routers generally range from $80 to $250, while range extenders can run anywhere from $20 to $100. That’s a big price difference, even for the most basic mesh-router setup. 

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Google)

2. Wasted resources: In small homes and buildings, mesh routers are often a bigger solution than what is needed. Covering 3,000 to 5,000 square feet with a simple two-unit mesh network is overkill for many homes.

If you don’t regularly have Wi-Fi connectivity issues or if you don’t have extensive internet demands, a mesh router may be excessive. A few Wi-Fi dead zones can be easily fixed with a range extender, by putting your 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 actually need several of them to take full advantage of their capabilities. This means finding places for multiple devices throughout your home. This could be problematic for those who prefer to keep their networking devices limited to one or two inconspicuous locations.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Eero)

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.

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.

Adding mesh routers to your existing network

While most mesh Wi-Fi systems are sold in a package of two or three devices, with the option of adding additional nodes for wider coverage, a lot of newer routers and extensions are made to offer mesh capability. 

If you like your existing router, but want to get that same coverage across a larger area, you can sometimes do that by adding one or more mesh nodes, creating a mesh system without replacing the hardware you already have.

Many routers, like the Linksys Max Stream MR9600, can be doubled up with mesh nodes from the same brand to create a mesh network. It's a handy function that gives you the choice of of a single unit for smaller homes and apartments or a more expansive mesh system for larger homes.

Wi-Fi extenders traditionally aren't capable of creating mesh networks, but that's also changing, with products like the Netgear AX1800 Mesh Extender (EAX20) . When paired with other devices, it offers the same coverage and network, with no need to manually switch networks or bands when you move from one end of the house to another. 

The best part? It's not limited to Netgear products but works with any wireless router, including the combination modem/router gateway devices provided by many internet service providers.

Next: Think you know what Wi-Fi stands for? Get ready for a surprise.


Check out all of our home networking coverage:

Best Wi-Fi routers | Best mesh routers | Best Wi-Fi extenders | Best powerline extenders | Best cable modems  

Anthony Spadafora
Senior Editor Security and Networking

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart 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?
    Reply
  • porsche_1
    The Amplifi does have parental controls.
    Reply