Update 9/2/2020: In light of the huge number of issues we keep seeing with systems that don’t have dedicated back-haul radios, we’re recommending the Netgear Orbi exclusively. The Linksys Velop might prove to be a contender, but we haven’t seen it yet. What we do keep seeing are clients who have set up mesh systems without dedicated back-haul radios (and that’s pretty much all of them) and who keep winding up with performance and reliability issues that wouldn’t have existed had those systems included this feature, which makes node placement not matter quite so much and allows each node to use the channel that fits that particular node’s environment.
In a perfectly connected world, the network should be fast, reliable and everywhere it’s needed.
More now than ever, this means your home network needs some love and attention if it’s not up-to-snuff. Let’s look at the considerations that influence the way Sentant deploys networks in residences and at some of the best systems to deploy
Your home network is not like your business network — and that’s a good thing.
Don’t try to use these devices in an office setting. We see mistakes made all the time by people applying what they’ve learned setting up WiFi in their homes to their offices. Most of these mistakes stem from approaches to distributing the network that don’t scale with increasing numbers of users. The good news is that you probably don’t have as many people using your home network as you have in your office, which makes the current crop of “mesh” wireless systems work reasonably well in residential settings. There are some caveats, but let’s compare some of the best offerings to see who they’re intended for and whether they’re right for your home.
Google WiFi at $99 per device offers an inexpensive solution that’s easy to set up and gets the job done well, with a feature set that includes most of what you’d want a residential networking system to do. You can see usage statistics, set up parental controls on specific devices limiting the kinds of content they can access and even set up quiet times for devices. Each device has two network jacks for connecting to your cable or DSL modem or other network devices that either don’t have WiFi or work better when wired — more on that later. Unfortunately as of now, you can’t block specific sites with Google WiFi, and while it performs really well, it’s not quite as fast as the Eero, Netgear Orbi or Ubiquiti systems on offer.
When Eero was introduced it offered better performance than Google WiFi by virtue of having a third radio in each router that it could use for communication between devices. That’s still true on all but its newer less-expensive devices designed to compete with Google WiFi.
Having said that, Google’s parental controls are better up until the point you pay Eero $29/year for their add-on Security service, and like Google WiFi it isn’t configurable to block specific sites. If you’re more concerned with slightly better wireless performance than you are with parental controls, we’d opt for Eero and would recommend the Eero Pro at $200 over their other products, which will offer similar performance to Google’s at similar prices.
Saying the name “Netgear” to a networking professional will often elicit a wince and a shiver: not everything this company has made has stood up to the rigors of home or business networking.
Still, the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 system is a good bit of kit, so much so that Netgear has clouded the issue lately by adding “Orbi” to a lot of gear doing other things. We’d recommend only the Tri-Band Mesh WiFi 6 system, not the ones with built-in modems or other unrelated functionality. Priced at $350 per device they are both more expensive and significantly faster and the only devices offering multi-gigabit support; the free parental controls let you block both types of content and specific sites, a capability missing from Google and Eero. You do need to subscribe to an add-on service for $50/year to get some of the basic functionality that Google and Eero offer for free like scheduled quiet times for certain devices.
Finally we’d like to present our take on Ubiquiti’s AmpliFi HD Mesh router and UniFi Dream Machine.
Neither of these devices offer parental controls, so they may be ruled out by families who regard that feature as important.
They do however offer higher performance than Google or Eero that is on par with non-multi-gigabit versions of the Netgear Orbi at a lower price. The difference between the AmpliFi and UniFi solutions lies in how configurable they are: Amplifi offers very simple setup and offers meshing between the wired network ports on all connected devices that have them, though not all devices do. UniFi offers no wireless-to-wired meshing but does offer the same configurable options as the rest of the UniFi line-up familiar to the SMB users who are this line’s target market.
You’ll have to configure every last thing yourself, and most of you will get a few settings wrong in the process. Still, this product will appeal to users who want to have granular control over how their gear is serving up the network: the UniFi Dream Machine is an opportunity to do-it-yourself for $329 plus $150–350 per additional UniFi access point. Most home users will probably be better served by the AmpliFi HD Mesh package that includes the router and two wireless-only additional access points for under $340, or by a collection of meshed AmpliFi HD routers, each of which costs $230 and which represents the best value of the bunch for homes that don’t need filtering or multi-gigabit speeds.
Finally, a word on “mesh” networks, where wireless extenders are used instead of connecting everything with ethernet cables.
You’ll notice that with the exception of some of the add-on extenders for the Netgear Orbi and Ubiquiti Amplifi, all of these solutions offer wired network ports. The reason for this is that to use wireless between the devices is simply less reliable than to connect things directly, and it takes bandwidth away from what’s available to clients. If multiple devices in your home need to talk to each other at high speeds (are you streaming video from a NAS?) know that the highest performance will always come from wiring devices together, and where it can be done it usually should be.
We hope this round-up of home networking systems has been helpful. Please let us know in the comments!