Mesh router kits are the latest trend to hit the residential networking market. Rather than just use a single router to provide Wi-Fi coverage for the home, a series of devices, typically two to three, will blanket the home with the wireless signal, covering every nook, cranny and closet with a usable internet signal—or so the theory goes.
There has certainly been networking gear available to deal with Wi-Fi signal dropouts, and they took the form of additional access points and repeaters. While such devices promised to fix the wireless dead spots such as a basement, or the deck outside, the issue was that the additional gear was sold à la carte, required some DIY networking knowledge and planning, and was not simple to administer, with potential issues of handoffs of the signal between devices. Rather, a mesh network all comes in one nice package, with simple directions and a smartphone app to manage everything.
A mesh network is clearly not for everyone. For those that live in a smaller home or apartment, a single router may be a perfectly workable solution—no additional complexity or cost is required as long as the router is up to date. However, for more challenging home situations, especially in a multilevel dwelling or a larger residence (say greater than 2500 to 3000 sq ft), a mesh router kit is worth considering. It also depends on the amount of obstacles impeding the signal such as thicker walls, floors and fireplaces, and the number of simultaneous devices.
Finally, the other concern is that while a mesh router kit may provide a great signal, there are some sacrifices to be made as some of the current mesh kits are not really oriented for the PC gamer.
All of these mesh kits get setup via a smartphone app, either iOS or Android. If you use an increasingly rare alternate smartphone OS, such as Windows Mobile, or Blackberry we can skip the lecture on how you need a new phone, but be aware that you will not be able to set up any of these mesh kits. The app also provides useful functions to administrate the network, such as integrated speedtests, turning it off to get the children to do their homework, viewing what devices are connected, and upgrading the firmware.
Mesh Network Design
Mesh router kits fit into two categories: “true mesh,” and “router & extender.” A true mesh design has multiple devices, where each functions as a connected node on the network, and they all are interchangeable. Alternately, a router & extender kit has one box designated as a router, with a second box preconfigured to be the wireless extender device. Each has their advantages with true mesh being easier to expand with additional units, and router & extender having features of a more traditional setup with additional Ethernet and USB ports and, but at the expense of future expandability.
Routers have shipped with integrated Ethernet ports, typically at least four, with some higher end routers having six or even eight Ethernet ports, so in a modest setup the router also provides the functionality of a wired switch. Mesh router kits lack these ports, with the true mesh devices having only one or two per node, and the free ports will end up scattered around with each node. Router and extender kits have the advantage of more Ethernet ports at the router.
While total throughput is a touted spec for a network, when it comes to gaming it really comes down to continuous throughput (most games require <1 Mbps, but with low latency), and maintaining this during times of network congestion is what to plan for when designing a gaming network. The traditional approach for a router is to be able to give clients priority, as well as to shape traffic to prioritize gaming traffic via QoS (Quality of Service) settings. All of our picks for “Best Gaming Routers” do this successfully, yet not all of our mesh kits offer these types of settings to prioritize gaming traffic.
A USB port has become commonplace on router gear. While some mesh kits have the physical port, they designate it only for “diagnostic purposes,” so don’t plan on popping in your flash drive for some personal cloud storage. The more traditional router and extender approach has the USB port able to be utilized for accessible storage.
Backhaul is the term on how the mesh nodes communicate with each other. If they communicate on the same channel as the transmission of the data, it significantly cuts into the bandwidth and creates congestion. Ideally, the mesh nodes should be connected on a separate, dedicated frequency, apart from the connection to the client. In at least some cases, each mesh node has a tri-band radio, with the second 5 GHz radio used exclusively for the node to node connections, and not visible for clients to connect to.
Traditionally, routers have offered two SSID’s, one on 2.4 GHz and the other on 5 GHz. Some newer gear offers the option to combine these two SSID’s into a single one, with the router deciding which of the frequencies the client is really connecting to. While this is a useful option, some mesh kits only offer a single SSID, with no way to offer separate SSID’s for each of the frequencies. When you can only connect on 2.4 GHz, and the gear is capable of linking up on the faster 5 GHz frequency, this turns into frustration.
How we test mesh router kits
Against that background, we went hands on with several of the current mesh router kits. All mesh kits are setup in a typical residential setting, with the internet provided via a cable modem. We set up each mesh kit as a two hub system, with the primary unit connected via wire to the cable modem (Optimum 60, DOCSIS 3.0 12 x 4 channels, speeds 60/25 Mbps). The second node was on a higher floor, with several obstacles in the way, including a floor, a partial concrete wall, and metal ductwork. Throughput testing was performed via the same methods used for our Best Gaming Router Guide, with NetPerf software. We performed throughput tests three times:
- “Close” — 8 feet away from the router (or in a mesh kit the primary mesh node as it is the one directly connected via a wire to the cable modem
- “Far” — 30 feet away from the primary mesh node
- “Mesh Far” — the same location as “Far” with a secondary mesh node connected wirelessly 20 feet from the primary node (with no line of sight to the primary node, on a different floor, with heating ductwork providing interference), and 10 feet away from the client
By running these multiple throughput tests, this reveals the performance that the secondary node is providing.
In addition, we run a gaming congestion test. Here, the gaming client is connected via 5 GHz Wi-Fi, and running five simultaneous YouTube 1080P videos to provide network congestion. Then latency gets measured via PingPlotter software, and we see how this impacts gaming performance on a sample game of Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, with the FPS (frames per second) measured via the software tool, FRAPS in a sixty second sample.
Eero is a true mesh design, and we tested the three node kit. The node is white, lays flat and each one provides approximately 1000 sq ft of coverage. Unlike some other systems, the nodes can be connected via Ethernet cables for solid backhaul, and each node has two Ethernet ports. In addition, it had one of the slimmer power plugs to not block the surrounding outlets. Configuration is done via a smartphone app, but this initially stalled when the smartphone failed to connect to the initial Eero unit via Bluetooth. Thankfully an alternate method succeeded that involved entering the node’s serial number into the app, and setting up the second node had no issue. Promised speeds are 240 Mbps on 2.4 GHz, and 600 Mbps on the 5 GHz frequency.
In testing, the Eero nodes provided a solid signal, with decent throughput- although not class leading on any test. Furthermore, max latency was the highest among the tested gear. On our gaming congestion test, the FPS were a low average of 5.383 FPS. Too bad this otherwise useful kit lacks QoS to prioritize gaming traffic.
The Linksys Velop includes three taller nodes that would at home on a bookshelf next to stereo equipment, with each node covering 2000 sq ft with Wi-Fi. Setup was via the Linksys app and Bluetooth communication, which was one of the smoother setups, although it still took close to an hour when a firmware upgrade intervened. Velop features dynamic tri-band, which means that the backhaul is accomplished via a dedicated frequency, but it gets adjusted depending on the fastest connection.
The Velop is a bit of a dichotomy. The efficiency of the dynamic tri-band approach to the backhaul clearly shines on the 5 GHz far test, with a new record on that benchmark of 218.19 Mbps (which bested our previous recordholder, the Linksys WRT-3200ACM which did 214.31 Mbps, for those keeping track). So while the Velop does certainly excel on the 5 GHz frequency, similar to previous Linksys gear, its 2.4 GHz throughput was the second slowest tested, and on the close test, the SSID refused to connect on 5 GHz, which dragged throughput down to the much slower 2.4 GHz speeds. Finally, on the gaming network congestion test, the lack of QoS showed quite a few latency spikes, and the FPS dropped to 5.417 FPS. Once again, the lack of QoS for gaming drags down an otherwise useful mesh kit—does this sound familiar?
The Luma mesh system promises “Surround Wi-Fi,” and features AC 1300 speeds, supports MU-MIMO technology, and integrated malware scanning. Similar to other mesh systems, this all goes through an iOS or Android app. We experienced a speed bump on initial setup, as on two different Android devices, the Luma setup would simply not proceed. Upon troubleshooting, the Luma folks revealed the culprit—Android 5.1. Reportedly on earlier versions of Android than 6.0 (Marshmallow), the Bluetooth communication between phone and node stalls. Luma is reportedly aware of the issue, and a future version of the app will attempt to address this. Reportedly the iOS app is not affected by this bug, so we are chalking this up to yet another dreaded case of “Android fragmentation” striking again. With the Android 6.0 client, setup proceeded smoothly, with the Luma being the fastest mesh router to setup, and surprisingly quite painless. The Luma app provides a robust feature set, including network security, and parental controls.
When it came to the throughput tests, the Luma came in dead last—consistently on each benchmark even when upgraded to the latest firmware. While Luma was only marginally slower on the 5 GHz mesh test at 181.22 Mbps, it was more glaring on the 2.4 GHz close test with a pokey speed of 28.02 Mbps. On the network congestion gaming test, the Luma had the best latency compared to its peers, with only a single spike > 100 millisecs. However, when it came to the gaming performance, the FPS ground to a crawling 5.583 FPS—single digits, and in need of QoS for gaming priority.
Mesh router kits are designed to flood the house with a useable Wi-Fi signal, and each of the tested kits did accomplish this—although with varying throughput speeds. Users with Wi-Fi dead spots from a single router setup, say with a challenging modem location, such as a basement, or a second floor bedroom, should consider a mesh router kit. On the other hand, when compared with the results of a single router, users with smaller dwellings and central router locations may be better off with a recommendation from our best gaming router guide.
Looking at performance, we raised the bar to include the additional challenge of gaming performance in addition to total throughput. When the network was saturated with streaming congestion, the Amped Wireless Ally was clearly the best, and really the only one that was able to maintain a FPS rate that was not in the single digits. It therefore wins our recommendation based on our data driven process.