Here at Ars, we’ve been rocking some high-tech Wi-Fi setups for a while—in particular, Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson and I are fond of Ubiquiti’s UAP line of wireless access points. A lot of people either can’t or don’t want to run cables through their house at all, though, and that’s the niche Wi-Fi mesh kits seek to service.
I’ll save you some time up front: I’ve played with just about everything out there, and nothing comes close to the performance of multiple access points with full wired backhaul like the UAPs. To be fair, nothing Wi-Fi at all comes close to the performance of wired Ethernet itself, so don’t get too excited about the “3.2 gigabits per second!” that AC-3200 Wi-Fi router promises you. You’ll never actually see such speed. But if you don’t want wires and you don’t want the possibly intimidating controller systems like Ubiquiti’s UniFi interface, mesh might be for you. Luckily, today happens to be a bit of a boom for mesh offerings.
What we tested (this time)
Our trio of contenders are Google Wifi, Plume, and AmpliFi HD. We’d originally intended to test the new Eero v2.0 firmware, too, but unfortunately two of our three test units refused to make it through the update process. At press time, we don’t have a fix from the Eero team, so we regretfully had to put Eero aside for now.
We tested each device using iperf3 to get raw throughput numbers in several sites throughout the house, but first and more importantly, we’re going to look at heatmaps of the Wi-Fi signal produced by each kit. Hutchinson introduced me to NetSpot, a free-as-in-beer visualization tool for Mac or Windows that lets you walk around your house and map out the signals throughout. I was impressed enough that I actually installed Windows on a laptop just so I could run it—and it was worth it. The visuals it generates are an absolutely invaluable tool if you want to geek out hard and get the most out of your Wi-Fi coverage.
AmpliFi is Ubiquiti’s answer to wireless mesh networking. To be honest, I expected it to sweep the field clean based on my experience with their UAP line of traditional wired-backhaul access points. Our own Eric Bangeman has AmpliFi HD in his home and loves it, but my testing hasn’t left me as thrilled. AmpliFi HD has a seriously “hot” RF signal that carries well, but it’s coupled with a very not-kid-friendly, avant-garde physical design that leaves it prone to really bad locations and even physical breakage.
AmpliFi’s router is a little white cube that makes a reasonably good, if Star Trek-ish, clock, but its satellite units are magnetically coupled “towers” that plug directly into wall sockets. They’re big, they’re outlandish, and they’re fun to break apart.
AmpliFi’s HD model packs enough of a wallop in RF signal to largely, although not entirely, overcome the very poor usually floor-level placement its satellite design demands. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable letting my three-year-old roam loose around these devices, though. Why, why would you make your Wi-Fi gear fascinating to break?
This is a heat map of the Wi-Fi signal put out by AmpliFi HD’s base unit only. The image scale is from -30dBM to -75dBM. Basically, anything from red to green is great; pale blue is decent but slow, and once you dip all the way down to the deepest blue it gets iffy.
The big takeaway here is that the base unit alone is fine for the entire top floor of my house (around 2,800 square feet) along with a good chunk of the yard. This should make you ask the question: why mesh, then? Well… there’s a bottom floor, too. And there’s a foundation slab and a few feet of packed earth in between it and the wiring closet upstairs.
What you’re looking at here is a heatmap of my normal day-to-day Wi-Fi on the bottom floor, but only looking at the signal coming from the top floor. Until I set up my Ubiquiti UAPs—one on the top floor, one on the bottom floor—there basically just wasn’t any Wi-Fi down here at all.
Things look much better with multiple APs. Let’s take a look at AmpliFi HD’s signal on both floors, this time with all three nodes activated.
With both satellites added in, the top floor looks like an absolute war zone. You’re definitely going to get connected, no problem, wherever you wander around. The satellite on the right is heating things up nicely for the carport and driveway. The question then: is the one underneath the TV clearing that foundation slab and overcoming the problem area downstairs?
The satellite upstairs clears the edge of the foundation slab, and without a doubt, it makes things a lot better down here. Performance testing shows this is actually usable, but it’s still not something I’d want to bring my buddies over to brag about.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Google, but I was definitely excited to find out. Like AmpliFi, Eero, Luma, and most of the mesh pack, Google is pushing Google Wifi in packs of three as the default size. On a conference call with their team, the presenters told us to expect “a lot of signal” from even one Google Wifi node. They said this in the kind of careful tone that told me they really meant it. I’m used to Wi-Fi gear with very high-powered radios, though, so I wasn’t sure how much signal I should really expect from something that didn’t look out of place in my seven-year-old daughter’s room on a piece of furniture her great-grandmother used to call a “vanity.”
Still, this was Google, and the presenter didn’t gush about how amazingly powerful it was. He sounded more… cautionary. So I was pretty eager to see what the heatmap survey had in store.
Google’s not kidding. Google Wifi nodes have really powerful radios in them, and it’s incredibly obvious when looking at a heatmap of the router node only.
I was pleased to see that the app individually tested the satellite nodes’ throughput to give me a yea/nay on placement as I set them up. This might not sound like much, but it’s a big and much-needed improvement over what I’ve grown used to from other devices. Never again will you stumble through the inevitable “this LED flashed a funny color; is that a good funny color, or a bad funny color?”
With both satellites up and running, the heatmap looks like an RF war zone again—even hotter than AmpliFi HD’s.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why the satellite locations aren’t identical to AmpliFi HD’s. Rest assured, there’s a reason: the physical form factor of each device lends itself to different placement. AmpliFi’s right-in-the-socket design made it seem best served in the wall socket underneath my television where it wasn’t actually down at baseboard level. Similarly, one of Google Wifi’s little jar-shaped nodes would have looked funny just sitting there under the TV, and it wouldn’t be getting as much height to do its magic as it otherwise could.
Basically, it would’ve been cheating to put a node somewhere I wouldn’t put it if I was really living with the device day to day, so I didn’t. With that said… what’s the downstairs look like this time?
Google Wifi’s coverage downstairs is a marked improvement over AmpliFi’s, except, unfortunately, for the bedroom on the right. It’s actually quite usable there, too, but some adjustment of the satellite locations would’ve helped a lot here.
In addition to a smoking hot signal, Google Wifi offers a ton of accessible functionality. You can tweak the brightness of its LEDs to your heart’s content, you can pause Internet delivery to devices or groups of devices (get to the dinner table, kids!), you can even manage home automation gear. All of this functionality is exposed via a “cards” system that should be familiar to anyone using modern Android phones.
Google Wifi performed well overall—noticeably better than AmpliFi HD, even where the signal level looks a little “bluer”—but it didn’t take top honors either.
Listing image by Jim Salter