How to build better mesh Wi-Fi for your smart home

Smarter networking for your smarter home

How to build better mesh Wi-Fi
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Bad Wi-Fi coverage is not the nightmare it once was, thanks to the recent rise of whole home mesh networks. There are plenty of them out there promising to spread signal far and wide to the unreachables of your abode, but the price to pay is, well, the price you pay, which can be quite high.

So, are Mesh Wi-Fi systems for you? Will they cure what ails you, smart home-wise, or are you better off checking out the cheaper options?

Read this: The best mesh Wi-Fi systems reviewed

Should you decide to pull the trigger, then come decisions over which brand, type of system and, finally, how best to set them up in your particular palace. No need for the deep yogic breathing, we’ve got it all covered right here. Here we go…

What is a mesh network?

Let’s keep this brief. Internet from outside gets into your wireless router, possibly via a separate modem, and your router turns that signal into Wi-Fi which radiates through your house. That’s plain Wi-Fi. Sadly, as we know, that signal then degrades the further it has to travel and the more barriers you put in its way – but a mesh network introduces other access points or nodes which take that Wi-Fi signal and send it out with more oomph.

Better still, that signal can be passed between other nodes in a Wi-Fi web, or mesh, rather than each node having to go back to rely on the main router each time.

The idea of mesh networks is nothing new, and it’s always been possible to DIY these setups using a bunch of old routers and some software to configure them as access points – but that’s not very average Joe-friendly.

The real development is that manufacturers have started to sell out-of-the-box kits which they call Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi Systems or something thereabouts. They take five minutes to get off the ground, are more reliable, and generally create little-to-no head-scratching whatsoever, unlike the homemade versions.

Unlike when using the Wi-Fi repeaters of old, a mesh offers more built-in network failsafes and a single SSID with the same password. So, no matter where you are in your house and which node you’re connected to, your device just uses the same credentials that it does for your main router.

How to build a better mesh Wi-Fi

Who needs mesh?

Really, anyone who can’t get a decent Wi-Fi signal to all corners of their house should be thinking about mesh networking. That doesn’t mean it’s the right solution for everyone, though. If it’s just one room that doesn’t get the coverage you need, then a powerline adapter might be a better (and certainly cheaper) option. But if you live in a big place or an old house with thick walls or you’ve got a few floors with two or more sets of concrete to get through, mesh might be your only viable solution.

It’s also worth noting that powerlines will only work if the two sockets which your adapters are plugged into are in fact on the same electrical circuit. Older houses and houses with extensions are more likely be on multiple circuits. If that’s your gaff then, again, mesh may be your only viable option.

Hybrid or Wi-Fi-only?

Naturally, there are a few things to consider. You didn’t think this would be easy, did you?

Ignoring price – because that’s really your call – your most important consideration should be the type of whole home mesh network kit that you go for. Some are wireless only while others are a hybrid of wireless and powerline adaptors. Generally, we prefer the hybrid systems because they offer a lot more flexibility in terms of where to place your nodes and because they’re more likely to offer you whole home coverage.

It’s largely down to thick walls. There’s nothing that will knacker a Wi-Fi signal quicker than a double course of bricks or the same thickness in concrete or, worse still, stonework. Period houses tend to have a lot of this. You might even have the same issue if there’s a lot of steel beams in a particular section of your home.

It doesn’t matter how many Wi-Fi nodes you have. The signal will struggle to get through all this, but powerlines are a fantastic way to circumvent that issues by using the electrical circuits to get out of the problem areas and then broadcast Wi-Fi beyond.

If you’re living in a more modern build, then Wi-Fi-only is probably fine.

How to build a better mesh Wi-Fi

Speed and bands

Another concern is the theoretical maximum speeds of service that each setup offers. You’ll need to take a look at the relevant product websites for that kind of info and compare and contrast. Theoretical maximums of 1200 Mbps will do you proud, and bear in mind that this data speed may well be split across more than one bandwidth, which is no bad thing.

Generally speaking, we’d say tri-band is worth it

Briefly, you’ll find that many routers these days broadcast dual-band at the higher frequency, but shorter wavelength 5GHz and lower-frequency-but-longer-wavelength 2.4GHz (and, ideally, your mesh network) will extend that same format.

The 5GHz band is great for carrying more data more quickly, but the 2.4GHz signal is more resilient and will travel further. Having both on offer is a good option.

One or two home mesh kits also have a separate backhaul band or system. Backhaul is all about sending information in the other direction, which may be the smart devices on the ends of your Wi-Fi network uploading information or, possibly, your mesh nodes re-routing signal to one another.

So if you have a home packed with smart bits and pieces, you might want to look out for a system which ringfences backhaul like this. You might see them marketed as tri-band or you may have to read deeper into the blurb.

Generally speaking, we’d say tri-band is worth it.

How to build a better mesh Wi-Fi

Other considerations

You should also consider whether or not the nodes come with Ethernet ports on them, in case you want to hard link any items into them.

Check out how many nodes come in each box and do read the product pages carefully to see what kind of coverage you can expect at the square metre level. What’s more, some of you may be particularly concerned about data privacy and, surprise, surprise, as good as Google Wi-Fi is, the giant G will be having a good rifle through your smart home if you choose to go that way. Worth bearing in mind that Amazon just snapped up mesh Wi-Fi maker Eero too.

Last of all, here, bear in mind that, although most of these whole home mesh kit solutions are modular, you can’t mix and match brands. The manufacturers use different standards and techniques to get their nodes talking to each other and they rarely speak the same language. Even worse, most of them are not even backwards compatible. So, an older piece of routing kit from the same company may not work with your chosen mesh pack.

For our money, it’s an idea to go for a brand with a lot of options within the same device family. That way, you might be able to buy single add-ons instead of whole kits each time.

Interestingly, further down the line, some of the smart home devices available should be able to function as nodes themselves, capable of becoming active, Wi-Fi-broadcasting parts of the mesh. Currently, it’s not a big push but watch out for Zigbee and Z-Wave-enabled IoT gadgety which has this included as a possibility. More one for the future, though.

How to build a better mesh Wi-Fi

Mesh network layout

In an idea world, you’d probably have your main router in the centre of your house for maximum coverage, but that's not the way things generally work. The access point for your ISP is likely to be a room on the ground floor of your home and you may only have one entry point option. You can call up your ISP and see if they’ll install some new points or you can get busy with a drill and cabling yourself. But presuming you’ve not got those skills – because most people haven’t – let’s just run with the work-with-what’s-already-there approach.

A good rule of thumb is to have one node on each floor

Some of the whole home mesh packs come with apps that help you position the nodes in the best possible place. They're definitely worth using if available, but they’re not perfect. The best way is to picture your house as a 3D space – left to right, front to back, top to bottom – and work on the idea of placing your nodes such that each one covers a sphere of a radius of no more than about 15m. Bear in mind, of course, that it’s better to have these spheres overlapping to some degree.

If that all sounds like a bit much to get your head around, then a good rule of thumb is to have one node on each floor. If you live in a tall, narrow townhouse then every other floor is probably fine.

Of course, you’ll have to account for factors like accessibility of plug sockets, non-standard floor plans and any pesky super-thick walls. Think about using your powerlines, if included, to bypass those parts where a Wi-Fi signal will suffer most degradation.

How to build a better mesh Wi-Fi

Your phone’s Wi-Fi readout is going to be particularly handy. Have a rough plan of where you want to put all your nodes but, before you plug them, use your phone to check Wi-Fi signal strength. If it’s any more than 50% below full strength, then move your node somewhere closer to maintain the signal quality as well as strength as best as possible.

Once it’s all up and running, run a final check with a mobile or laptop and perform either a speed test or a practical version of one, such as seeing how easily you can stream high quality video at various points in the house.

Go room to room to check for black spots but don’t lose sight of what will be the likely Wi-Fi use in each location. There’s no need to tear your hair out trying to stream 4K in the spare bedroom if all anyone is ever going to do in there is check their email before they go to sleep.

How to build better mesh Wi-Fi for your smart home

Try after you buy

It’s tricky to tell exactly how many access points you’re going to need, so the best advice is to buy from a retailer that allows for a 30-day no questions product return. That way you can always up or downgrade once you’ve tried your mesh network in situ.

Do be sure to stick to classic Wi-Fi router rules when positioning your nodes. Try not to put them right next to large electrical devices, e.g. your TV stack, which will likely interfere with the signal, and try not to tuck them away at the backs of shelves or in corners. In practice, of course, there are aesthetics to deal with and this is easier said than done.

Live tests

To give you an idea of a test case, we tried out hybrid type whole home mesh systems from two of the top brands. Our test house was around 280sqm (approx 3,000sqft) set over three floors which included to two large extension areas surrounded by double-thick masonry.

Both proved excellent and allowed HD video streaming on all floors of the house, but whole home coverage for our test space definitely required the three-node solution of the Devolo Magic 2. The two node kit of the TP-Link Deco P7 didn’t quite manage every room.

The TP-Link app was particularly good with some very user-friendly access features including parental control and guest networks. Take a look at our Best Mesh Networks article for further reviews.

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