As our smart homes get even more jam-packed with devices needing a gateway to the internet, our routers are under more strain than ever. And, while it perhaps wasn't that big of a deal that you didn't get a strong Wi-Fi signal on your porch in the past, if you are hooking up a smart security camera to monitor your front door, it could be an issue now.
Likewise the bathroom for your waterproof Alexa speaker, your hallway for your connected thermostat, your basement for your air quality monitor or your dining room for your funky colour-changing lightstrip.
Let's face it – you need a decent Wi-Fi signal everywhere in your house if you're going to get in on the smart home action. That's where a Wi-Fi mesh system comes in.
Unlike traditional extenders, powerlines and wired access points, the new generation of mesh systems don't require you to have a PhD in networking – they are designed to work straight out of the box, without you needing to know your SSIDs from your BSSIDs.
What is a Wi-Fi mesh system?
You may hear a home mesh setup described in many different ways, as no one has really settled on a common name as of yet. Whole-house-wireless is a bit of a mouthful and Wi-Fi system sounds too vague – but if you see these labels, you're probably looking at the box of a Wi-Fi mesh system.
And they all aim to do the same thing – make the Wi-Fi signal in your house stronger throughout and more reliable for your connected tech. You'll usually get two or three mesh modules (technically referred to as nodes) in a box, or they will be on sale individually so as you can add as many as you need, depending on the size of your home. The beauty of a mesh network is that it's modular, so you can keep adding nodes to the setup (assuming your bank balance allows it) – there's no maximum node count.
The idea of a mesh network is that, unlike repeaters and extenders that just relay your router's Wi-Fi signal with deterioration, the nodes all communicate with each other, so even the one furthest from the router has a great signal as it hops around the system, from one node to another. It's not just a one-to-one signal from a device back to the router.
Now, they all work slightly differently – and that means that you'll need to stick with one system, you can't really mix and match as they'll just interfere with each other. On the whole, mesh systems use a combo of the 5GHz and 2.4GHz spectrum to fire signals around between the nodes, and to your Wi-Fi enabled tech. There are tri-band options, there are dual band options and there are options that boast Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO).
But you don't really need to worry about that – as we mentioned in the intro these systems are designed to just work out of the box. You'll usually use a dedicated smartphone app to walk you through the initial setup process, which should be measured in minutes not hours.
Does a mesh system replace my current router?
Although a mesh system is designed to essentially take over your router's Wi-Fi duties, don't go throwing it into the bin just yet. Chances are, you'll still need it. That's because the router that your internet service provider (ISP) gave you, or the one you bought to replace it, probably contains a modem. The modem is what connects to the internet; the router part is the transmitting of that connection over Wi-Fi. So, while a mesh system will replace the router part, you'll still need to rely on the built-in modem.
That's why your first step of setting up a mesh system is to plug one of the modules into your existing router/modem using an Ethernet cable. Only one mind – the rest will simply pick up its signal and start sharing the Wi-Fi love. Now, you might see mesh devices with multiple Ethernet ports on them. That's simply so as you can wire some devices to your network if you want to.
Those easy-to-use apps we've mentioned will grab your existing network's credentials (username, password and so on) and beam them around the other modules. No need to set up new networks, no need to reconfigure your connected gadgets, and no need to worry about the best Wi-Fi channel – all of this will be taken care of within the app. Of course, you'll be free to tinker as you see fit but if you want to just plug and play, then you can.
The new breed of consumer facing mesh systems comes with a raft of extra functionalities that go above and beyond what a regular router is capable of. Some systems allow you to pause the Wi-Fi (for the whole house, on certain nodes, or indeed specific devices); some allow you to set up guest networks (permanent or temporary); and some even give you a breakdown of what devices are connected and how much data they are using.
Smart home tech is usually static – i.e. you put your camera / speaker / thermostat / smart kettle in its place and it stays put. As such it will just grab the best signal connection it can get from the mesh and it will pretty much just stay locked onto that.
However, other connected devices that are designed to be more mobile – your smartphones, tablets and laptops – will obviously move around the rooms in your house. With a mesh system in place, these devices will simply jump between whatever is the strongest signal point (technically called the BSSID) and you won't even notice anything has happened. That's the theory anyway… Smartphones can be a bit flaky about holding their connections when making the jump, and you may encounter drop outs for a few seconds here and there.
Now, when it comes to your smart home tech, not all of it uses Wi-Fi to communicate. A Lifx smart bulb, for example, does have a Wi-Fi radio so could benefit from a node being placed near it. A Philips Hue bulb, however, has no Wi-Fi smarts – it's the Philips Hue Bridge that packs in an internet connection. So that Hue bulb that never seems to respond is not going to be fixed by a mesh system. That'd be down to a problem in the bulb's connectivity to the Bridge using the Zigbee network… but that's a whole other meshy story.
The top Wi-Fi mesh systems available now
The good news is traditional networking companies have realised that people want easy-to-use and easy-to-understand solutions to their home Wi-Fi problems, and they also don't want clunky looking routers and extenders with antennas dotted all over their homes. The result is a wide selection of good-looking devices under new brands, from some of the biggest names in networking.
We're currently in the process of testing a number of mesh devices for a big buyers' guide, but for now, here are the ones to look out for…
At the top-end of the price spectrum, the Velop is about as bell and whistle packed, tech-wise, as you can get, with MU-MIMO enabled for super quick speeds. These white tower modules pack six antennas and uses automatic band steering to provide the best coverage.
It's not just the traditional network brands getting in on the mesh action. Google is on board with its super slick setup, with easily the best looking devices in the whole-home-wireless game. Google's dual band setup has one of the easiest to use apps but does limit tinkering somewhat – for example there's no splitting out 2.4 or 5GHz. Parents will love the Family Wi-Fi features though.
Again, with the MU-MIMO (just Google it) skills of the Velop, the Orbi was updated last year to offer a guest network option. On the Wi-Fi front, it actually uses a slightly different mesh method than its rivals, with a 5GHz band used entirely to communicate between the router and the node. The Orbi is port-tastic too, with three Ethernets and a USB socket for hard-drives, printers and the like.
What about ISPs?
Internet service providers are getting wise to the fact that we don't just use our connections for surfing the internet on a laptop, in a living room, within a few metres of the router. In the UK, two of the biggest names now offer their own mesh platforms.
BT have a system, BT Whole Home, which is pretty similar to the Velop in that it uses a tri-band setup to hop data around the mesh network, via the stylish disc modules – and the app is about as user friendly as you're likely to get.
Sky, with its Q system, have a mesh system that's a bit different from the rest. The arrangement begins with the Sky Q router, which speaks with your Sky Q set top box and any Sky Q Mini boxes you have – with all of your set-top boxes beaming around the Wi-Fi in your house. If you want strong Wi-Fi in a room where you don't have a Sky TV box, you can add an additional node: a Sky Q Booster. Sky uses a dual-band setup, like Google, with 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks sharing network traffic and TV signals.