If getting Wi-Fi coverage right across your home is a constant battle, a mesh system might be the answer to your connectivity woes.
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 â 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 â 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 â 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 â 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) â 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 â 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).
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 â 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 you can wire some devices to your network if you want to.
The accompanying app 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 â 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, you can.
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.
Home Wi-Fi mesh systems: Considerations before buying
The first thing you need to think about before buying these expensive mesh network systems is just how much you need the coverage in your home. For many people the money might be better spent on one really good home Wi-Fi router.
Mesh networks come into their own in larger homes, or where there's a lot of area to cover. It's also worth considering the materials used in the construction of your home. Modern homes often have internal walls which are not solid brick. This allows Wi-Fi signals to move more easily as the signals are able to pass through them.
However 5GHz Wi-Fi, which offers the best speed, is blocked more easily by any material in their way, especially plasterboard. Slower 2.4GHz wireless does a better job with walls, but won't let you stream 4K video, for example, and download speeds will be lower.
If you have a very big house then a Wi-Fi mesh network is the way to go, and if your house has solid brick walls then you'll likely see vast improvements too. None of this should put you off, but don't expect wired Ethernet performance from any sort of Wi-Fi yet, and if you can cable then you absolutely should.
How we tested
In the test environment we used, a Linksys EA9500 was the pre-existing router, and for the most part delivered decent results.
One final note about speed testing. For simplicity we tested each device individually in the room in which it was placed â an office in this case â and then again as far away from that spot as possible in the master bedroom. These tests used the Speedtest.net app on an iPhone X rather than any internal diagnostic tools in the device apps themselves. The speed tests were done on the same day, and close together to remove any possible environmental or congestion-based inconsistencies.
Also, bear in mind that this speed test used broadband, so anything over 220Mbps wouldn't be possible as that's the speed our test line maxes out. This isn't a major problem as the majority of people will not be transfering data on their internal networks.
Best mesh Wi-Fi systems
Eero popularised the Wi-Fi mesh system, and for a while managed to go it alone. The small networking startup was sticking it to giants like Netgear and Linksys, then it got gobbled up by Amazon â but it still makes one of the best mesh systems out there.
Eero's setup is so good that it'll guide you to working out which areas are best for placing the mesh nodes. All you have to do is carry around your phone as you choose where to put it.
Once your Eero system is all set up and ready to go, you're going to find some blazing fast Wi-Fi with a wide range. The three-mesh system will cover up to 4,500 square feet â that's a wide area of land that will blanket your yards easily. In fact, we've been able to nab Wi-Fi from across the street from our house.
Eero's app is well laid out. When you open it up, you'll get a quick look at your Wi-Fi's status, where it will tell you if everything is ticking along smoothly. You'll also get a quick look at all the devices in your mesh network and how they're doing. If one of them is down, you'll see it with either a green or red light outline. It will also let you know how many devices are connected to your network â and which ones are sucking down the most data.
At the bottom of the main screen you'll see the latest speed test. All of this information is crammed into a single screen on the main app. You can also create a guest network for, well, guests, and there are family profiles that'll let you schedule pauses for dinner time or bedtime. You can't boost performance during certain periods though, as you can with Google Wifi.
Then there's Eero Labs, which will let you test out features like band steering â which remembers which band is best for which device and will use that next time â and smart queue management, which reduces latency by better managing traffic on your network.
Eero Plus, which is $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year, is an add-on subscription that gives you enterprise-grade security against dangerous websites, free subscriptions to 1Password password manager, Encrypt.me VPN and Malwarebytes malware protection. You'll also get content filtering so you can better manage what your kids are watching or visiting, along with ad blocking.
You can also get reports that show you how many threats are blocked. And you can block ads on all your devices, not just your desktop browsing. Your mobile devices are fair game, too. Eero's own added features, like content filtering and threat protection, aren't worth the subscription â but if you don't already have a VPN or a subscription to 1Password or Malwarebytes, Plus becomes worth it. That's $18 per month worth of subscriptions for around half the cost.
As for speeds, you're in the clear here. Eero can easily manage your connection for things like 4K streaming. You'll even have a good time downloading 4K games. In fact, we've regularly downloaded 4K games while 4K streaming and it hasn't broken a sweat.
There are a number of purchase options. We tested the three-mesh system, but you can also get a single Eero, or an Eero with a number of Beacons, which plug into your wall and expand your system.
- Excellent setup
- Great speed
- Eero Plus is a good deal
- US and Canada only
- No boost mode
If Netgearâs Orbi system were a car, it would be a posh family SUV with a touchscreen, Alexa-enabled in-car entertainment-come-navigation system, and it would smell of new leather. It would doubtless have cup holders, over-achieving but really nice children, and the topic of conversation would be an art movement youâve never heard of. Itâs nice. Thatâs weâre saying here. Orbi is nice and very family friendly.
Itâs nice because first, like our imaginary SUV, itâs plush. All the routers and satellites look like they match a Farrow & Ball colour named âsmug whiteâ, are pleasingly curved like all future objects in sci-fi films and they glow reassuringly even when theyâre trying to say theyâre not working properly which, if it happens, is basically your fault.
Again, like our SUV, the Orbi family is seriously impressive â one of the most impressive mesh systems we've tried. We looked at the Orbi Router, the Orbi Outdoor Satellite and the Harman Kardon-designed Orbi Voice Smart Speaker which doubles as an Amazon Echo. Theyâre all pretty excellent, really.
Itâs a tri-band system with a dedicated backhaul so that the Orbi units stay in perfect contact no matter whatever other nonsense is going on in your home network. The router can act as a standalone hub or it will work with whatever other modem/router you already have, which was dead handy for us given we had a cable set up that insists on its own box. Whatâs really impressive is that the Orbi Router really pumps out the Wi-Fi with strength and even when the satellites pushed on a mediocre signal it was still easily enough to stream 4K video at quite some distance away.
The Orbi Voice speaker is pretty damn divine. The sound quality is top notch and the mics were superb at picking up our voice commands no matter the music volume. The blue, Alex-acknowledge light was a little weak but itâs no major issue. The Outdoor Satellite was very tasty too; easy to set up, totally weatherproof and comes with both a stand and simple wall-mounting kit. Designed to push Wi-Fi to outbuildings on your estate, again, it really gives quite the boost and can be used indoors as well.
Naturally, the Orbi app is high quality and features a network map which gives an accurate and very clear picture of what all the units in the mesh are up to and whoâs connected to them - plus the ability to pause the internet or lock out devices as you see fit. Itâs a little weird that all the parental controls are outsourced to the Disney Circle app. Itâs a very good app which allows you to assign devices to the profiles of different family members and start filtering content down to a very impressive platform level (Amazon, YouTube, etc) but youâll need to start paying a ÂŁ4.49-a-month subscription for premium features for granular control by time of day and usage stats.
- Fantastic range of units
- Great app support
- Superb signal strength
- Subscription for premium features
The Google Wifi devices are small and well-designed. The major irritation is that, like most of the company's devices, they demand a Google account. Most people reading this might be fine with that. After all, Google already knows us pretty well without the help of its Wifi pucks. However, it's worth considering that Google's routers will know every page you look at on the internet, even if you don't land on those pages via Google.
Checking through the "My Activity" section of Google's account information doesn't show a log of things you've done through Google Wifi and the company says in its privacy information that the company does not log this.
Setting up the pair of Wifi pucks was easy in testing. You scan a QR code and the app makes everything else happen. Use one puck to connect to your existing network with a cable, then adding extra devices will cause the app to build your mesh network. This is seamless and really well managed. There's quite a bit of tapping around the app itself, but it's not especially bothersome.
The information in the app is also pretty good. You can perform speed tests to see how the system is working and Google contextualises these with English phrases like "that's lightning fast" â it's pretty user-friendly. You can also restrict access times to family members and boost certain devices for preset times. For example, if you're watching 4K Netflix on a TV you can give it high priority. That's incredibly useful.
There's also guest Wi-Fi if you want to let people use your connection without giving them full access to your network. Naturally, Google also integrates home products that can be controlled through the app. There are a decent number of these and for smart home fans it makes a lot of sense to buy Google products â especially if you're in their ecosystem.
In terms of the overall package, Google delivers something decent. However in testing it was clear that it didnât deliver results as fast as those from most other devices. The only slower product was Velop and not by very much. Now, the point of mesh networks isnât to provide top speed, but to cover your house with a wireless signal. That said, all of these products do the mesh networking thing well, leaving speed as the main distinguishing feature (along with price).
In reality the speed offered here is more than enough for 4K streaming. The only problem youâll have is if two TVs in your house are trying to stream in 4K or other heavy workloads are taking place.
- Well designed and compact
- Dead easy to install
- Good power levels despite small size
- Google's stranglehold on our data
- No web interface, only an app
- Not that cheap
Devolo Magic 2
Itâs hard to be objective about the Magic 2 but weâll do our best. It has extra features like parental controls, access scheduling and guest networking capabilities but theyâre all rather buried and hard to use within an app thatâs too heavy networking acronyms and long strings of numbers. So, if youâre after some straightforward, then youâre digging in the wrong place. But in terms of core functionality the Devolo Magic 2 is flippinâ ace.
Devolo is everything many of these others whole home kits are not. Itâs designed to stay the hell out of your way, to be plugged in and forgotten about. Itâs a hybrid mesh/powerline system of units which look like big plug adaptors and give you the best of both worlds, connectivity-wise.
Each pumps out a pretty reasonable signal but can also rely on your homeâs electrical system to bypass any ridiculously thick or damp walls which would otherwise halt even the strongest Wi-Fi radio. For us, that meant over 4,000 square feet-worth of superb internet access in every corner of our test house from the three-unit Devolo Magic 2 (2-1-3) setup.
Whatâs more, because of the physical design â theyâre attached direct to your sockets â thereâs no need to make room for any odd-looking boxes on your sideboards and window sills and no cables to worry about either. Each one also has a mains passthrough which means that you also donât lose any electrical socket access, although they will take up more than their fair share of a space on a 4-way extension or similar. Thereâs also two Ethernet ports on each unit if you want to get old school.
Like all good mesh systems, it uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels and its dedicated backhaul is over the powerlines rather than wireless. Thatâs generally great but you may come into difficulties if youâre looking to add on some other networking kit in a DIY-type fashion. Itâs also worth noting that, unlike some others on this list, the Magic 2 mother unit cannot replace your router but, frankly, who needs it to?
- Dead simple to set up
- Fantastic coverage and range
- Low visual impact
- Horrible app
- Networking features hard to use
- Backhaul hard line only
Zyxel Multy X
Man alive, the Multy X hardware is as ugly as its name. The twin pack tested here is pretty bulky and the units themselves will win no awards for beauty. The impression given by these devices is that they're aimed at people who aren't bothered about looks but want a specific feature set. Indeed, the dedicated backhaul in the Multy is good news as it gives dedicated capacity for one Multy to send data back to the router-connected device. This might not be obvious in most circumstances, but under high loads youâll find it useful.
To that end the Multy has four Ethernet sockets. One is used to connect to your cable/ADSL or fibre router, so canât be used for anything else, and is clearly marked as such. This will be excellent if youâre using it to connect to an AV system and need to wire in things like an Apple TV, Shield or games console. There wonât be massive speed advantages to this, but you might find it useful if devices themselves struggle to get a strong signal.
Setting up the Zyxel Multy X is really no different to the way you set up the Google Wifi. There's an app which is reasonably easy to find â make sure you search "Zyxel Multy". One thing we noticed was that the app setup is done per phone, this means that if you switch phones you won't be able to configure the system unless you reset it.
Multy supports Amazon Alexa, which lets you disable the guest network, switch off groups at bedtime â aimed at keeping kids in line â and perform a speed test. Itâs handy if youâre building a smart home but youâll need to register for a Zyxel account before it will work.
One interesting thing to note is that the speed test in the Zyxel app is terrible. It doesn't seem able to correctly measure speed. Tests with the Speedtest.net app were much more consistent and the system performs really well. There is a nice signal strength meter too, which can help you position your second device at just the right distance from the primary. Try and get the second somewhere that it can talk to the first, but still give your mesh network more range.
Like many of these products, Multy has a guest network option in the app too. There are options to add devices to a parental timer, with scheduling to cut off access at set times. There's also a more instant "block" button for situations where you need to stop a device's access to the net.
- Serious networking options
- Big, ugly hardware
- App issues
Linksys sent the three device pack of Velop, however because the Zyxel Multy and Google Wifi systems we tested were both two-packs we have omitted the third device for fairness. A twin-pack option is available though â and likewise you can add additional modules to both of those systems too.
The Velop is the best looking of all the mesh devices we've tested. A simple enough look, an elongated rectangle, but itâs smart and compact. Putting them at various places around your home wonât attract a lot of attention. It could almost be an air freshener. The unit also has a cable tidy on the bottom to feed in the Ethernet cable (to connect to your main ADSL or fiber modem) and power supply. Itâs neat. Thereâs also a power switch down there and a second Ethernet socket to connect a device directly.
You have to create an account to use Velop. This is annoying and itâs one of three things about this pack that put it bottom of our list. Nothing here is a dismal failure, but given the pricing it feels like your money would be more wisely spent elsewhere â unless the Linksys has other features you want.
One of Velopâs other selling points is that it works with Alexa. This is â as with Multy â a pretty neat idea. However, there is a weird feature that allows you to ask Alexa your Velop Wi-Fi password. The only way this can possibly work is if your Wi-Fi password is stored in the cloud â which we know it is from the requirement to have a user account.
This isnât an entirely great idea. While Iâm sure security precautions are taken itâs still worrying. Someone could, in theory, shout âWhatâs my Wi-Fi password?â through your letterbox and listen to the Alexa response. From there theyâre on your wireless network and can access anything.
The app is simple enough, setup is automated as with the others, and it looks nice. There are the usual features, like switching off access to some users at certain times. However during our tests it was possible to put the app into a loop that it couldnât recover from. It seems that adding a second network device in without following the correct process was the problem here.
The other issue we discovered was that the Velop had very odd and inconsistent speed test results. The first time we ran them it managed only 90.3Mbps in the same room as the main router. A re-test saw that massively jump to 219Mbps in the office and 164Mbps in the master bedroom. It could be that the system updated itself, or it could be that it's not able to deliver consistent results.
- Great looking
- Hassle-free setup process
- Not as fast as the others tested
- Buggy app
- Weird Alexa password issue
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi
The BT system is the cheapest by far, and like the Linksys we had the triple pack to test, but only used two of the three in these tests.
The BT discs, as they are called, are an interesting design. They're not ugly and they aren't pretty. They are interesting and people will ask "what's that?" but they don't look like any other Wi-Fi device.
BT has clearly designed this system to be workable without an app. These devices have a web interface where you can configure them and they come pre-programmed with a username and password. These are secure enough, and generated in a factory somewhere and paired to the device. A little plastic tab is fitted to each which can be removed and given to guests or used to key in passwords to your devices.
Getting more than one disc working is also interesting. You need to plug the second in and connect it to your router at the same time as the first. It will then get its settings from the original disc. This is actually kind of brilliant, as again it means the app isn't a requirement.
That said, the app does help with disc placement and is worth using for the instructions for pairing the devices to make the mesh network. It does also show you clearly which network devices are connected to and it also allows you to group devices so they can be shut down. Kids messing about? Shut off their tablets or Netflix boxes â it's a simple but useful addition. Again, a guest network is on offer here too which is a useful feature.
The only missing thing here is device prioritisation, which can be useful if you need one network product to be given the fastest possible access.
But BT has really understood "normal" customers here. This won't appeal to the router fanatics but it does offer simplicity over everything else.
The BT Whole Home Wi-Fi is the cheapest product tested here. There's also a reassuring familiarity to how the system works â it's just like any BT hub. In terms of speed, it matched all the other devices, maxing out the test broadband.
For all their apps and features the others are left standing by the BT system. BT has a phone app like the rest, but the crucial thing here is that you do not need it. That means this system is instantly more suitable for users who aren't tech-savvy. It is, of course, UK-only though.
- Great price
- Nice design
- Bit basic
- UK only
- Needs BT router