The next time you upgrade your Wi-Fi equipment, take a bold step: Throw out your stand-alone router and invest in a so-called mesh system.
A mesh network could solve most, if not all, of your Wi-Fi problems. It’s basically a system of multiple Wi-Fi stations that work together to blanket every corner of your home with a strong wireless data connection.
Unlike stand-alone routers that lose signal the farther you move away from them, mesh stations piggyback on one another to create a wireless link throughout your home, minimizing the possibility of dead zones. The network technology is quickly becoming popular: After the startup Eero released a mesh system last year, bigger brands like Google and D-Link followed with similar products.
Obviously, large houses would benefit from multiple Wi-Fi hubs. But experts also recommend them those with modestly sized homes.
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Mmesh Wi-Fi systems like Eero and Google Wifi include smartphone apps that make managing your network easier to understand. And some mesh systems just look good, – unlike traditional routers, which are bulky contraptions of antennas.
Mesh networks also better accommodate a shift in how people use technology today — carrying smartphones, smart watches, laptops and tablets from room to room. Internet-connected gadgets like smart speakers, bathroom scales and smart televisions are also increasingly scattered throughout the home.
“It’s really nice to see the router vendors doing something that is properly useful for once,” said Dave Fraser, the chief executive of Devicescape, a tech company that helps make public Wi-Fi networks more reliable for mobile phone service. “It’s like they’ve finally realized it’s human beings buying these products rather than IT staff.”
There are three popular Wi-Fi systems: Eero, Google Wifi and Netgear’s Orbi. Here’s what you need to know about mesh networks.
Advantages of mesh
First, a primer. You connect a primary base station to your broadband modem. From there, you connect satellite stations in other rooms.
The primary base station retrieves data and bounces it to the satellite station, which then beams it to whatever device you’re using in what’s known as a hop.
“It’s like taking a flight where you can’t fly direct, but you can fly indirectly through a hub,” Fraser said. “If you go into the back room, there’s no signal. The only way you can get there is through two shorter flights.”
A mesh system also helps your device automatically connect to the strongest station as you move about the house. When you’re in the living room, your smartphone will automatically pull a signal from the station there.
With a traditional Wi-Fi router, your signal would degrade the farther you move from the base station. You could boost a Wi-Fi router’s connection with an extender station. But you would have to manually connect your device to the extender’s Wi-Fi network, and when you moved away from the extender, you would have to manually switch back to the main router’s Wi-Fi network.
Finally, mesh systems like Eero, which looks like a sleek white hub with rounded corners, and Google Wifi, which is a white cylindrically shaped device, aren’t eyesores. So you need not be shy about putting the Wi-Fi hubs out in the open, like on a side table, for a clear line of sight with your gadgets.
It isn’t perfect
The main downside is that you lose some speed with every so-called hop.
Let’s say that your primary Wi-Fi station is in the living room, you have a satellite hub in the basement, and in between those two rooms there is another satellite hub in the garage. In the basement, your speeds will be slower, because the primary router makes a copy of the data as it hops to the satellite in the garage, and then the satellite in the garage produces another copy that reaches the satellite in the basement.
Despite the sluggishness, that is still better than getting a crummy signal or no connection at all.
Netgear’s Orbi works differently than traditional mesh systems. It has a dedicated Wi-Fi band, or connection, in which only the router and satellites can talk to each other; no other devices can interfere with their connection. Hence Orbi’s hubs can transfer data more quickly.
The other downside of a mesh system is they are not cheap. A pack of three Eero devices costs about $400, Google Wifi costs about $300 for a pack of three, and Netgear’s Orbi with a router and one wall-plug satellite costs $300.
Google says the rule of thumb for choosing a package is that each access point covers about 1,500 square feet of space. But configurations will vary depending on the layout of your home and the materials inside your walls.