What is a mesh Wi-Fi router, anyway? Mesh routers are made to blanket your home in Wi-Fi, extending way beyond what a single router can do by sharing that network across multiple devices.
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. Here's everything you need to know about what a mesh Wi-Fi router does, and whether it's right for your home.
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Unlike standalone routers, which use a single device to provide Wi-Fi coverage to a limited area, mesh routers use two or more connected devices to offer multiple sources of Wi-Fi signal, all on the same seamless network. It's like having 3-5 separate routers in your home, but they all share a single Wi-Fi network. And modern mesh systems have super simple setup, letting you wipe out dead spots and fill in the gaps in your home coverage, and enjoy Wi-Fi in every room, and even in the backyard or garage.
Several big names have emerged as popular mesh-router solutions in the last couple of years. Google's Nest Wifi is our current favorite, thanks to its excellent performance, easy setup and the innovative move to include a built-in Google Home speaker in the mesh extensions, adding functionality throughout the house.
The Netgear Orbi is a long-time favorite, delivering great performance across a growing ecosystem of products, from the original Orbi RBK50 to the advanced Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 (RBK852) and the Orbi Voice add-on.
And for value-friendly mesh networking, we really like the 2019 Eero Mesh kit, which comes in a three-pack of compact devices for just $199. The performance isn't stellar, but it will be good enough for most homes and most users.
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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.
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.
For those who aren't sure if they need a mesh system, or who anticipate moving into a larger home in the near future, you don't have to commit to a pack of 2 or 3 mesh units to benefit from the expandable coverage of mesh Wi-Fi. Many of the latest standalone routers can actually be paired up for mesh coverage, letting you expand your Wi-Fi to larger areas without ditching your current equipment.
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. And setting up a mesh system with a smartphone app is far easier than plugging directly into a router and configuring a device through a browser dashboard.
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.
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, even the best Wi-Fi 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.
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 $200 or more, with add-on satellites costing $100 to $200 each. The standalone models on our list of the best Wi-Fi routers usually cost 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.
2. Wasted resources: In small homes and buildings, mesh routers generally present a bigger solution than 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 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.
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 2-3 devices, with the option of adding additional nodes for wider coverage, a lot of modern 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 often do that by adding a second router or extension, creating a mesh system without replacing the hardware you already have.
Many routers, like the Linksys Max Stream MR9600, can be doubled up with other routers from the same brand, and used 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. And the best part? It's not limited to Netgear products, but works with any wireless router, including the modem/router gateway devices provided by many internet service providers.
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