Router vs. Mesh Networking: What’s best for your home Wi-Fi network?
If your Wi-Fi at home is busted or you want to make a change, which should you buy?
Mesh Wi-Fi networks are the new thing. And that’s great because mesh networks can put fast Wi-Fi where you need it without getting complicated. There are some great products available that are easy to setup and keep running with Google Wifi, Eero’s Home WiFi system, Netgear’s Orbi, and Amplifi’s HD system. Setting up your own mesh Wi-Fi network is simple, thanks to consumer gear that does the hard work for you.
But “regular” Wi-Fi routers and access points are getting better, too. Faster speeds and longer range are more than buzzwords when it comes to buying the latest Wi-Fi router, and you’ll often find advanced tools that a simple mesh system can’t offer.
That leads to the obvious question — should anyone switch to a mesh-based Wi-Fi network in their house? Like most things, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no. There are a couple things you should consider before you dust off your credit card.
More: Google Wifi vs. Orbi vs. Eero vs. Amplifi: Which mesh system should you buy?
Do you need to upgrade your Wi-Fi network?
This is the first thing you should ask yourself. Ideally, a Wi-Fi network is something you should set up once and then never have to think about it until it’s time to replace it. When properly planned, a Wi-Fi router or a mesh client device should run unattended for several years — at least until it’s time to upgrade to a newer wireless standard for increased speeds and bandwidth.
Ideally, a Wi-Fi network is something you should set up once and then never have to think about it until it’s time to replace it.
Of course, that’s often not the case and many of us know our router needs that weekly reboot or things start misbehaving. Or even worse, we aren’t particularly savvy when it comes to network issues and gear and have to call Comcast or AT&T for help. Waiting for a technician to arrive sometime between 8 am and 5 pm is never fun.
If you have a solid Wi-Fi network that doesn’t demand you fiddle with it enough to become frustrating, you should probably hold off on doing anything until we see 802.11 ad technology become more mainstream. On the other hand, if you are tired of pulling plugs and counting to 10 or any of the other silly things we do to fix bad Wi-Fi, or if your home network is just too slow, you shouldn’t wait any longer than you have to. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken!
Are you just trying to fix a dead spot?
This is a pretty common issue. You have great Wi-Fi in the kitchen or living room, but when you go downstairs or to the bedroom things are just slow or intermittent. If everything is working well in parts of your home that are close to the router or that aren’t blocked by things not Wi-Fi friendly — the walls of your bathroom are notorious Wi-Fi signal blockers because of the special drywall used and all the copper pipes inside them — you could be the perfect candidate for a wireless repeater instead of setting up a whole new network.
A Wi-Fi Extender is a cheap way to fix a single dead spot in your Wi-Fi coverage, but there are drawbacks.
Also known as Wi-Fi Extenders, wireless repeaters do exactly what their name implies — they take your existing Wi-Fi signal and repeat the signal to extend its range. Usually very easy to set up using a network cable or an online settings page, Wi-Fi Extenders are also compact and only need a power connection. One thing to be aware of is that you usually can’t connect a consumer-grade Wi-Fi Extender to an existing extender, so daisy-chaining them to reach your garage or the neighbor’s house isn’t very practical.
You also will have a new network name (known as an SSID) to use when connecting to the extender instead of the router itself. This can be a bit of a pain if you move in and out of a room that needs an extender very often. Quality Wi-Fi Extenders run between $30 and $150 dollars depending on the network type, so if you need multiple fast Wireless-ac extenders it might be more practical to set up a mesh network using Google Wifi. These drawbacks aside, a simple Wi-Fi Extender is an easy way to fix a single dead spot and a great idea if the rest of your Wi-Fi network is working well. If you’re in the market for one, we can recommend Netgear’s simple extender that plugs directly into a wall socket for home use.
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When to choose a mesh network
If you’ve decided you need to get rid of the gear you have and set up a new network or are setting things up in a new place, the choice between a mesh network and a traditional linear router-based network comes down to one thing — money.
For some, a simple Wi-Fi router and an extender is perfect.
A Wi-Fi router that will service a normal sized single floor home plus one extender for hard-to-reach spots can be had for around $100. You can also lease them from your internet service provider. While the more inexpensive models aren’t quite as easy to install as something like a Google OnHub router, they’re not too ornery, and as long as you have a phone, you can use Google to answer any questions you have.
I understand that wireless networking equipment is something that doesn’t have the appeal that other tech does. If you only want a Wi-Fi network so you can use the internet from your laptop or phone or tablet and don’t have any special needs like a home office or a favorite online video game, there’s nothing wrong with keeping things simple. We do recommend at least an 802.11n or faster network, though. The internet is too media-rich to go any slower. Netgear also makes a simple and reliable router that pairs well with the extender above.
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If you need anything more robust than a simple router solution, mesh networking makes the most sense.
The cost of a high-speed router with the tools for quality of service scheduling or port forwarding starts at about $120 — about the same as a single Google Wifi unit. When you add extras like long range antennas or multiple access points it doesn’t take very long to hit the $299 price for a three-pack of Google Wifi units. Either method should last the lifetime of the technology they’re using and offer trouble-free use during that time, but you’ll miss out on some key advantages of having a mesh network, like not having any single point of failure and the better traffic handling mesh networks offer. If you need Wi-Fi in a multi-story home or one that’s bigger than 1,500 square feet or so, mesh networking is simply a better choice most of the time. The only case I would hesitate to use wireless mesh network in favor of a linear router based setup would be if you have equipment that requires a physical wired network connection. Even then the addition of Google OnHub and a simple switch could be added to a Google Wifi powered mesh network. If you have those sort of networking needs, you’re probably not looking for basic networking advice and you understand exactly what we’re talking about here.
If you want or need a router-based solution that can handle more traffic or offers the power-user bells and whistles, you can’t go wrong building it around a Netgear Nighthawk router. Sticker-shock warnings apply.
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For the rest of us, Google Wifi is exactly what we’re looking for
Two of the biggest drawbacks to wireless mesh networking are no longer an issue when using Google Wifi — needing an advanced networking education to set things up and maintain them, and a pocket full of money.
Google Wifi tackles the biggest problems with home mesh networking — administration and cost.
A wireless mesh network is designed to handle high volumes of traffic in a big area with no downtime due to equipment failures. A three-pack of Google Wifi units will be easy to set up using the Google Home app and only costs $299. New stations are easy to add using the same app, and all traffic shaping and route handling are automatic so you’ll have no need for QoS scheduling when you want to play Call of Duty without lag glitching or when you want to work while the kids are watching Netflix. They’re small, don’t look like leftover robot parts, and everything you need to connect to your modem is in the package. And anytime you need to expand your network, adding a station only makes the rest of the network better by offering another node to handle traffic from all points.
The easy administration and relatively low cost make adding a mesh network to your home (or place of business, where it can be even more important) something any of us can do. Whether you’re upgrading your existing equipment or building a network in your new house, there are very few reason not to go with Google Wifi.
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Updated June 2018: this post has been checked for accuracy and updated with current product links.