Network / Internet

A reliable wireless network is the crux of a working smart home, so spend the money for a quality system.

: Andres Urena @ Unsplash
Categories > Infrastructure > Home Automation
Competitors in this space: Google, Eero, Ubiquiti, Netgear, Linksys, Asus, Plume, TP-Link

I’ve personally tested the following:

Google Wifi
TP-Link Onhub TGR1900
Amplifi HD (AFI-R) T-Mobile TM-AC1900

What you need to know

When I added a few cameras, tablets, smart speakers, and media streaming devices to the house, my network router nearly died from the overload. Websites took longer to load, devices stopped responding, and eventually, the wireless network went offline. I knew I would have more issues in the future unless I replaced the router, so I started looking into the latest network tech—Wi-Fi mesh systems.

Tom’s Guide offers a good primer on Wi-Fi mesh technology, but in a nutshell, Wi-Fi mesh systems are similar to network routers but streamline the process of adding wireless access points while maximizing speed and range. Simplicity is the key philosophy here–band and AP steering and a mobile app to manage the mesh system are now common features of mesh systems in order to make managing your network easier. There is no need to have separate network IDs for the router’s 2.4ghz and 5ghz bands since the Wi-Fi mesh system determines which band is best for each connected device.

After unsuccessfully extending my wireless network’s range with alternatives like wireless repeaters, powerline, and MoCA adapters, I highly recommend Wi-Fi mesh systems to anyone who wants to spend less time troubleshooting issues with their routers. The high cost was initially an issue, but Google Wifi and other mid-range mesh systems can be purchased for $200 or so, making it easier to recommend.

For those who want networking features like VPN and VLAN or have over 40 connected devices, I would suggest Ubiquiti’s lineup of network gear. Managed and Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) network switches are needed to support VLANs and PoE all around the house. If you want both, then it will cost you — an 8-port managed network switch with PoE sells for $200.

No matter what product you choose, be sure to thoroughly test the system for issues. That means: connect as many devices as you can and start watching high definition videos on multiple devices. Turn on every feature you plan to use—like static IP addresses, VPN and guest network. Every system has problems and the same goes for my recommendation—there isn’t a router that meets everyone’s needs.

Oh, and make sure to buy the right product SKU, as companies are releasing a confusing amount of SKUs to take advantage of brand recognition and consumer confusion. Not all Netgear Orbis are created equal—without proper research, you could be paying a high price for a low-end product. The Wirecutter’s Wi-Fi mesh system recommendations are listed by model number and also suggests avoiding certain SKUs that are underpowered.

To get a sense of the SKU confusion, here is a list of products currently available from each major company. I won’t bother explaining the differences—it’s better to do your own research.

Google Wifi: Google Wifi point

Netgear Orbi: RBK53, RBK50, RBK44, RBK40, RBK33, RBK30, RBK23W, RBK22, RBK20W

Linksys Velop: AC6600, AC4800, AC4400, AC3900, AC3600, AC2600, AC2200, AC1300

Ubiquiti Amplifi: Amplifi HD routers, Amplifi mesh points, Amplifi Instant

Considerations before buying a Wi-Fi mesh system

  • If your home has wired ethernet ports built into the house, connect the Wi-Fi mesh system to it! Wireless speeds will improve greatly if the system supports a feature called Wired Backhaul.
  • Know the brand and model that fits your needs—don’t buy based on brand alone.
  • What is more important—speed or reliability? Households that have gigabit internet available and have heavy internet users watch multiple 4K video streams should consider faster but less reliable systems like Netgear Orbi.
  • Test the router thoroughly as it’s impossible to guarantee everything will work with your mix of devices.

What You Get With a Wi-Fi mesh system

  • An easy to use interface to manage the network. Usually through a mobile app that can access the network, even when you're not at home.
  • Increased wireless coverage and speed through Wi-Fi mesh, hard-wired APs, or faster routers.
  • Support a greater number of wired and wireless devices on the network.

One of the Google Wifi points. | Google

Google Wifi

If you want a hassle-free Wi-Fi mesh system with a decent set of features, go with Google Wifi. It is not the fastest Wi-Fi mesh system, but the reliability of Google Wifi convinced me to buy one. It is incredibly easy to set up and manage the network using the Google Wifi app, as you would expect from Google. No more clunky web interfaces here—routers finally feel like the modern connected devices they should be. Security updates are frequent, though new features are rare or nonexistent for a two-year-old product. That’s fine with me—I’ll trade reliability for features since features are meaningless if it doesn’t work properly.

Another unique feature of Google Wifi is that each Wi-Fi point acts as a standalone router, meaning you can buy a multi-pack and split it among friends. In my case, I only needed two points, so I bought a 4-pack from Costco and sold two to my friends. I paid only $150 for a basic Wi-Fi mesh system that I could easily expand by purchasing another point. Hooray for scalability!

The Google Wifi app. It's really simple to use. Maybe, a little too simple.

My home network consists of 25 to 30 devices and Google Wifi handles it with ease. Whether it is music streaming throughout the house or watching movies in 4K while someone plays online games – I haven’t run into any issues with Google Wifi. I’ve read on forums that network issues are more noticeable once you hit the 40+ device limit – by that time, you should upgrade to Ubiquiti routers and APs and have someone in the house to actively manage the network.

The Problems

With all the good things I’ve said of Google Wifi so far, I find myself looking at other solutions that support advanced features like VLAN and VPN. With the number of security vulnerabilities found on connected devices like cameras and even Chromecasts, a separate, segregated network for IoT devices is becoming more and more necessary–yet none of the current consumer routers currently offer it.

I originally set up a TP-Link/Google Onhub router and a Google Wifi point together but ran into disconnection issues every few weeks. Replacing the TP-Link with a Google Wifi point as the main router seems to have solved the problem, though it’s disappointing to have run into this issue in the first place. To Google’s credit, every issue I encountered was easily resolved through the app—I even fixed the issue while I was away from the house. Still, I wish this system was a set-and-forget-it type solution, but I haven’t found the answer in Google Wifi, yet.

Not everyone prefers Google Wifi as its simplicity means less control in some cases. I’ve run into issues that could have been resolved if Google Wifi had the following features:

  • Wi-Fi speeds are not sufficient to utilize gigabit internet. Best to go with Netgear Orbi or wired access points if the fastest speeds are important.
  • Wi-Fi band steering cannot be disabled, meaning the router determines which Wi-Fi band (2.4 or 5ghz) is best when sometimes it isn’t.
  • VLAN is not supported, but most consumer routers don’t have this feature, unfortunately.
  • Cannot disable internet connectivity on a per device basis. The Family Wifi Pause feature exists, but blocks both local and internet access.

The Amplifi HD router (AFI-R). | Ubiquiti Networks

Amplifi HD

If you want faster Wi-Fi speed and reliability, consider purchasing two Amplifi HD routers to form a Wi-Fi mesh system. It is more expensive than Google Wifi and sales are infrequent, but I have personally used it for the past year and found it to be solid. Setup and maintenance are almost as easy as Google Wifi, though tasks like assigning static IP addresses will reboot the router on each assignment. When you’re assigning addresses to over twenty devices, the waiting can be tedious. Using as a single router, the Amplifi HD’s Wi-Fi performance is worse than my Netgear R7000, but as a Wi-Fi mesh system with wired backhaul, all my devices connect without a problem.

Amplifi routers are made by Ubiquiti, a trusted company that has provided quality professional-level network gear under the Unifi name for several years now. Security updates and useful features like wired backhaul have been rolling out for the past two years, so the support is still active. I haven’t seen any major complaints or issues on the r/Amplifi subreddit either.

At this price range ($250-350), you are encroaching on Netgear Orbi’s territory, which the RBK50 is the top performer to beat. I hesitate recommending Netgear because of my past bad experiences with their firmware and their confusing product line (9 different Orbis? Why?), despite Wirecutter’s recommendation. I can only point to the Netgear Orbi forums to show the little faith that consumers have in Netgear’s firmware.

The TM-AC1900, too good to be true. | ASUS

Asus TM-AC1900 Router

For the budget-conscious who doesn’t mind taking a gamble, the T-Mobile TM-AC1900 router can provide great value, if only the features worked reliably. The router is a rebranded ASUS RT-AC68U router that normally sells for $100-160 so you can see why this is a steal when it is on sale for $40.

Though I had major problems using this router, my friend’s router, using stock firmware, hasn’t run into the same problems. I would normally stick with stock firmware, but the router is no longer supported by T-Mobile or ASUS since early 2018, and patches for security issues like the KRACK vulnerability are going to be few and far between.

The Problems

I bought a TM-AC1900, thinking that it would be powerful enough for my 25-30 devices, but it failed quite hard under normal internet usage. Between the Wi-Fi disconnect issues, broken guest network, difficulty in flashing the router and updating the firmware, lack of security updates, and the time wasted dealing with these issues, I just cannot recommend this router for beginners. There are a few things to consider before purchasing this router:

  • The steps to flash from T-Mobile to ASUS firmware can be difficult for beginners.
  • Features like AiMesh aren’t as fast or reliable as true WiFi mesh systems, according to Smallnetbuilder.
  • Features like wireless bridging stopped working after running for one day .
  • ASUS is taking drastic measures to revert the router back to T-Mobile firmware without user permission. This was as recent as June 2018.
  • Custom firmware like Asuswrt-Merlin do not support the TM-AC1900. The firmware creator specifically said so here, here, and here.

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