Wi-Fi Mesh technology is an up and coming home networking product, with Google, Samsung and Orbi among the major brands entering this market.
What exactly is mesh technology and how does it work?
Wi-Fi Mesh Systems consist of a kit of one main router, which is connected to your existing router, and one, two or three additional nodes or pods which are strategically placed around different parts of the home. These nodes then transfer data between each other, delivering a stronger and more consistent Wi-Fi signal to all parts of the home.
The idea is to increase wireless network coverage and reducing or eliminating dead-spots in larger properties.
They are expensive but seemingly effective home networking solutions which appear to be good at spreading more reliable Wi-Fi to all parts of the home, increasing the available bandwidth even in remote corners of homes versus just using the standard router on it’s own. If you absolutely need wireless connectivity all around the home then they are definitely worth a considering.
Let’s examine them in more detail below.
How Wi-Fi Mesh Works – 2 Minute Summary
How to Set Up Mesh Systems
Wi-Fi Mesh systems are usually very easy to set up. They come in kits of two or three nodes or pods. One of them acts as the main node, which is connected to your current router supplied by your ISP. Once you have wired this main node up to your router with an ethernet cable, after a short time it will connect to your home Wi-Fi network.
Once this is completed you then need to start strategically placing your one or two other nodes around the home in places close enough where they can still “catch” the signal from the main node, but far enough away that they are extending the signal to more remote parts of the home.
Most mesh systems will have an app or PC program to allow configuration of these nodes. You simply plug the “master” node into your existing router like we said, wait for it to connect to the current Wi-Fi, and then download and app and configure the rest of the network, setting passwords, network names and so on.
Once you plug second and third nodes in, you should now have a more comprehensive wireless network, with stronger signals throughout the home. There are different models available with two or three nodes, depending on the size of the house and the total area you need to cover. See further below for some popular models.
The idea behind Mesh Systems is that they can spread wireless coverage more reliably over larger homes
Some Popular Wi-Fi Mesh Systems
Mesh systems have been around for several years now, so many of the big names in technology have produced models for home use, including Orbi, Netgear, Tenda, and Google.
Let’s link to some of the more popular models.
The Netgear Orbi RBK40 Mesh System is an entry level kit which will spread reliable wireless coverage for an average 4 bed, 2 floor property up to 3000 sq ft. See our Mesh System page for links and product reviews for this and more brands and models of mesh systems which can cover larger properties.
Some Benefits of Mesh Systems
If they can be made to work, mesh systems do carry some good benefits. Let’s run through some benefits.
1. Better coverage – Each node basically acts as a brand new router in the house, so you can theoretically have strong Wi-Fi coverage in all areas of the home. It can be as though you are next to the main router even when you are on a different floor.
Wi-Fi Mesh Systems use what is called a Dedicated Data Backbone to transfer data between nodes – which basically means it has it’s own channel, free of congestion. This is much more advanced technology than the cheaper range extender models, and delivers better results.
When working well, they can spread strong Wi-Fi much more reliably over larger areas than just a single main router or extender can.
2. Better speeds – A result of this improved coverage is that users can get better speeds when further away from the router for things like streaming, downloading and browsing. They are able to preserve more of the available bandwidth from your internet package and deliver it to more reliably to users further away from the router, whereas speeds may start to fade if you are using just the main router or extenders.
3. Roaming – Mesh Systems tend to have roaming features, meaning you can set your entire home network to have one username and password, so once you connect to it once, you are connected to all the nodes. There’s no messing about having to put in separate passwords to connect to different access points, as you sometimes have when using simpler range extender models.
Mesh systems also generally have a clever auto-connect system, meaning that you don’t have to waste time connecting to each separate node depending on where you are in the house. Once you have connected your device to the mesh network, it will automatically connect your device to whichever node gives you the fastest connection at your current location, and since they can be set up to be all on the same passwords, you don’t need to do this manually.
4. Convenience – As well as the roaming feature we just mentioned, Mesh Systems also keep you in totally wireless connections, which is better for using portable devices like iPhones and notebooks, and just in general for users who don’t like to have wires trailing round.
Mesh Systems do however come with at least one ethernet port installed on each node if you do want to connect up wired devices, but their main intended use is for wireless devices for ease of use.
Once up and running it will generally allow for more convenient browsing on the move, especially in larger homes. You may be able to get a good signal in places you couldn’t before like the garden or a detached garage, as well as more remote rooms further away from the main router where may have struggled to get a decent previously.
They may allow you to do more online in these more remote rooms, perhaps now providing enough bandwidth so you can stream or download files properly in these places when you couldn’t before just using your original router.
5. Safety/Security Features – Most brands also offer extra features, such as child safety and content restriction settings to block certain content, and perhaps also traffic prioritization to make sure gamers are not affected when other people are using the network. Some even offer Virtual Private Network (VPN) features to mask your IP and change you location if you want to.
When Mesh Systems Work Well…
Some Drawbacks to Mesh Systems
Despite some real benefits, Wi-Fi Mesh Systems also do have some drawbacks. Let’s list some now.
1. Cost – The main drawback to mesh Wi-Fi systems is simply the expense. They are generally quite expensive pieces of kit, running into several hundred pounds or dollars for the best kits with the widest coverage area, so they can be a hefty investment in return for better Wi-Fi coverage.
Range Extenders and powerline adapters can be available much more cheaply, and depending on your circumstances, can give you what you need without having to spend so much. We’ll do some comparisons further below.
2. Gaming/Ping– The fact that they operate wirelessly can be a negative as well as a positive. For streamers and other users they can be great, for gamers less so, since you really need a wired ethernet connection to your router to keep ping down, especially on busy home networks with lots of users.
Whilst mesh systems can improve coverage, they don’t always address the fundamental issue of network congestion on Wi-Fi – that is, devices connecting wirelessly still have to share the same “space” or band. Many models do have prioritization features, but for low latency, wired connections are still the best.
Powerline adapters may be a better option for gamers looking for a more solid, low ping connection. We’ll cover these further below.
3. Reliability – Reviews on some models are also mixed, with some people being very happy and reporting fantastic reception using them, whilst others are not so impressed and are having problems with the reliability of the signal.
There are so many variables with how well Wi-Fi works even with booster systems like these, with things such as the size and structure of the house having a big impact on how effective they are.
In fairness, some of the early problems with these kits have been resolved as manufacturers have released firmware updates or “patches” to fix known bugs and improve performance and reliability. The Netgear Orbi models seem to have a good reputation and good ratings, though all the models are improving in their reliability as vendors perfect the technology.
In summary, they may definitely be an option worth trying for people living in especially large homes which have multiple storeys or cover a lot of area who want to increase their coverage so it is more reliable in all parts of the house. For people not comfortable with forking out quite so much money, there are cheaper options, which we go into below.
Alternatives To Wi-Fi Mesh Systems
Because the cost of good Mesh Systems can be prohibitively high, we’ll go into some cheaper home networking solutions which can also improve internet coverage in the home.
Alternative #1 – Wi-Fi Range Extenders – Can be seen as a more rudimentary, single plug form of a Mesh System. They are just a single adapter that you plug into a wall socket, and they capture and amplify the wireless signal from the main router, spreading it over a slightly larger area.
The basic idea is the same as a Mesh System, but the technology is more basic and therefore improvement in coverage is not so widespread in most cases.
See the video just below for a quick video of how range extenders work and how to best install them.
Range Extenders – Quick Demo
Here are some comparison points for range extenders vs mesh systems:
- Cost – Range Extenders are much cheaper, Mesh systems are much more expensive.
- Reliability – Range Extenders will work over shorter distances; mesh systems are better for larger areas and distances. Mesh systems use more advanced technology and are more reliable.
- Speeds – Range Extenders tend to cut bandwidth in half each time you pass through them. Mesh systems deliver more of the available bandwidth, so you lose less speed.
- Roaming – Extenders can leave you with multiple SSIDs/passwords on your home network, where you have to connect to different access points as you move round the home. Mesh systems can be set up to have just one password for all nodes, for full roaming without any need to re-connect.
- Number of Users – Extenders are better for helping out a single user (or a specific room or corner of a house); mesh systems are better for handling multiple heavy users over larger spaces (for covering an entire house).
- See our full comparison article on extenders vs mesh for more information.
Alternative #2 – Powerline Adapters – These are a slightly different home networking solution that use the existing house circuitry to transfer data and deliver internet access points to different parts of the home.
Powerline adapter kits consist of two plugs. You plug one in and connect it to your router, you plug the other into and connect to your device. The two plugs communicate through the existing house wiring to deliver a wired internet connection to your receiving end plug.
They can be an ingenious way of delivering a wired access point (with low latency and high speed) to devices a long way from the router that would normally have to rely on Wi-Fi, with all it’s inconsistencies.
They are especially useful for people who don’t want to use Wi-Fi at all, and instead want to be on wired connections, even at distance from the router. However, you need to be able to get powerline adapters to work, and they won’t in all homes.
Powerline Adapters – 2 Minute Intro
Here are some comparison points between powerline adapters and mesh systems:
- Cost – Powerline adapters are generally cheaper than mesh systems, but the higher end models can be expensive also.
- Speeds/Ping – If your house wiring is good, powerline adapters can deliver great speeds and low ping, almost as if you were plugged direct into the router with a cable. This can be great for gamers who want low ping. Mesh systems can deliver good speeds but probably not match powerline if the connection is good. Powerline is best for gamers if you can get them to work.
- Reliability – Powerline adapters may not work if the house wiring is old or in poor condition, since the adapters won’t be able to communicate. Can also be sensitive to interference from other devices. Mesh Systems can have reliability issues of their own but don’t rely on house wiring and are less prone to interference.
- Convenience – Standard powerline adapters keep you on wired connections, which can be limiting for portable devices users. Mesh systems are fully wireless and better for iPhones etc. But……
- Wireless Powerline Adapters – Wireless powerline models are available which can deliver a cloned Wi-Fi access point as well as wired ports at the receiving end. Can be a great compromise, as you get the Wi-Fi convenience and the wired ports for gaming. Some users who would have bought a mesh kit may end up using wireless powerline adapters instead to get the best of both worlds
- See our full comparison article on powerline vs mesh for more information.
Bottom Line – Do You Need a Mesh System?
As we have covered, Wi-Fi Mesh Systems do have their place in home networking, but by no means does everyone need to get one, especially considering the high cost of some good models.
Here is a quick summary of the scenarios when it may make sense to go for a Mesh System:
- If you don’t mind spending a bit more money to get good wireless coverage.
- If you have a larger home, with lots of rooms and/or multiple floors.
- May also be useful for shared student/rented houses and apartments, where you need a good solution to cover everyone.
- If you have multiple, heavy bandwidth users in the same house (streamers), and you need to deliver a strong signal to all of them.
- You have multiple users AND you want to stay purely on wireless, with no wires trailing around.
If you don’t fit into one of these categories, then it’s worth exploring cheaper and simpler home networking products like range extenders and powerline adapters. Gamers should always go for powerline if possible.
See our full guide on whether Mesh Systems are worth it for more on the pro’s and cons of buying a kit.