Mesh Wi-Fi kits are a great way to provide fast, reliable Wi-Fi to a big house that a single router just can’t cover. But after spending the better part of two months rebuilding our Wi-Fi testbed in a new house and and testing new kits for our mesh-networking guide, we found that if you have a compact home (such as a townhome or a single-family house around 2,300 square feet at most), a standalone router can actually be more effective than a pricey mesh kit.
A new router, mesh network, or Wi-Fi extender can improve the Wi-Fi coverage in your home, but each has different strengths and weaknesses.
Upgrading to a new router is a good idea if you need just a smidgen more coverage (for example, if you’re mostly happy with your Wi-Fi but have a few rooms where downloads are a little slow). In most cases a standalone router will outperform the one you might be renting from your ISP, and a new 802.11ac (also known as Wi-Fi 5) router will certainly be more powerful than an old 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) router.
A new router’s faster processor and additional memory and antennas will also help if you’re adding more devices, like a new roommate’s gadgets or the family’s new smart speakers. But standalone routers do best when you have them centrally located in your home, something that isn’t always possible if your Internet comes into your house on a lower floor or a faraway room.
Extenders seem to be a quick solution, as the sales pitches suggest that you simply have to plug in an extender and your network will expand itself. But because extenders merely rebroadcast your existing Wi-Fi and can’t coordinate with your router to make sure devices are connected to the best signal, you may need to create different network names and manually switch between them to get the best performance. If the router and extender have the same network name, your device might be stuck on a weak connection to one when it would be getting a stronger signal from the other. Extenders also have their own apps or Web-administration interfaces separate from your router’s.
In our latest round of testing, we found that many extenders actually degrade network performance—our top pick was the one extender that successfully improved 802.11ac network coverage and performance. Powerline extenders, which use your home’s electrical wiring to transmit data, improve performance more consistently, but their effectiveness depends on the age and complexity of your home’s wiring; they may perform slowly or, in extreme cases, even interfere with other stuff that’s plugged in.
Mesh-network kits are the best choice if you need to cover a home of 3,000 square feet or larger, particularly if you have dead zones such as in heavily trafficked rooms that are far from your main router. We also recommend mesh for smaller homes with obstacles like metal-framed walls or metal-and-glass doors. Mesh-networking kits consist of two or more nodes (boxes) that act as a combination of a router, a Wi-Fi extender, an access point, and in some cases an Ethernet switch. You place the usually identical nodes around your house to increase the Wi-Fi coverage, and each node creates a new Wi-Fi bubble to which you can connect your devices; nodes often have additional Ethernet ports you can use for a console, printer, or PC that lacks Wi-Fi. Each node should be within range of at least one other node—an arrangement that the apps walk you through during setup—so that the network traffic can hop from one node to another and ultimately to whichever room you have the Internet cable entering your home.
Mesh networks also offer the benefit of being centrally administered. You need to use only one phone app or website to set up the network and change settings, instead of needing to use a separate interface for your router and each extender. Your devices connect to the node that can deliver the strongest signal and seamlessly switch to different nodes as you move, so each of your devices maintains a strong connection instead of trying to hold on to a weak signal and slowing the rest of the network.
And because each node has its own antennas and radios, a mesh kit can distribute the load so that your network doesn’t get overwhelmed by your laptop, your phone, and all your smart-home devices fighting for bandwidth. Mesh networks adapt to additional devices quickly, and they automatically compensate in case, for instance, a pet knocks the power cord loose on one of the mesh nodes.
We tested and retested 10 wireless mesh-networking kits over several weeks, and what we found was somewhat surprising: In a 2,300-square-foot home with few obstructions, our best-performing mesh kits did almost exactly as well as the standalone Netgear R7000P Nighthawk router, rather than outperforming the single router as we expected them to.
We’ve been using the netburn Wi-FI networking test to measure the effects of multiple wireless devices simulating everyday tasks such as browsing the Internet, holding a FaceTime or Skype video call, playing a 4K video, and downloading a Windows update, all operating at the same time. We’ll eventually be building a Wi-Fi testbed in a new facility in Long Island City, New York, but in the interest of updating our guide more quickly, we tested a group of 10 mesh-networking kits and our top pick for standalone routers in a 2,300-square-foot home that is not only smaller but also less complex than the 3,500-square-foot home we had been using earlier.
After a couple of weeks of setup and network configuration, we ran the netburn tests on each of the new mesh router kits. We also retested the Eero and Netgear Orbi kits, the picks in our mesh-networking guide, with their latest firmware updates installed. And then we ran the test on the Netgear R7000P, our current standalone router pick, for reference.
One of the things the netburn test measures is latency, or the network response time, while multiple clients are using the network simultaneously. A poor latency score means that your browsing experience will be unpleasant: Poor latency scores at the 90th percentile mean that you’ll be sitting there waiting for portions of websites to load about one in 10 times; poor scores at the 75th percentile mean that you’ll notice slowdown about a quarter of the time, and so on. Our recent tests showed that the network in a smaller home would feel just as speedy whether you’re using one of the top-performing mesh kits or the R7000P router.
What this means is that for a 2,300-square-foot home with traditional wooden construction (or anything smaller, including most one- and two-bedroom apartments), you can skip the upgrade to a mesh network. Replacing your router with a mesh network in this case may increase complexity and cost with little extra benefit. The extra nodes may even slow things down because of the extra “hops” from the device to the node to the Internet connection. Or all your devices may just connect to the main node and ignore the others entirely.
The throughput rates (the speed at which data passes through the wireless network) for the top mesh networks were very close to the performance of the standalone router. The computer in our first-floor bedroom was the closest to the main router/node, while the one in the garage was the farthest and the most likely to connect to one of the other nodes. For most of these networking kits, you’d pay twice as much for the same performance as you’d get from the R7000P.
If you’re experiencing bad network performance—low speeds or dropped connections, in particular—in a 1,800- to 2,500-square-foot home, think about upgrading to a newer standalone router instead of installing an expensive mesh network. But if your home has a true dead zone due to obstructions such as a masonry wall, the added coverage from a mesh network makes sense.
Stay tuned: Our current picks for mesh-networking kits stand firm for now, but we’ll be revisiting and retesting mesh kits once we’ve settled into our new offices later this year. We’re hoping that the extra floor space will allow for a more strenuous test so that we can reassess which mesh network is the best option for the people who need one.
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