Looking to decide whether you should invest in one of those new mesh Wi-Fi system or stick with a more traditional home Wi-Fi router setup? Here are the basics of what you need to know to decide between the two.
[Related: TP-Link Deco M4 review: Expansion pack]
What is Mesh Wi-Fi?
Mesh Wi-Fi (also known as Whole Home Wi-Fi) systems are home networking solutions that opt for a more decentralised approach to the problem of local connectivity.
Rather than force every device in your home to wirelessly connect to the internet through the same router, Mesh Wi-Fi systems rely on multiple Wi-Fi nodes. They start from a place of accepting that your regular router probably isn't located in the perfect spot to serve every connected device in your house and work forward from there.
In a mesh Wi-Fi system, one node is designated the primary router and is directly wired into your gateway connection while the other nodes act as satellites. Collectively, these nodes behave like a single seamless network.
If you’re in the living room, you’ll connect to the closest Wi-Fi node. If you’re in the kitchen, you’ll connect to the closest Wi-Fi node. If you’re in the backyard, you’ll connect to the closest Wi-Fi node. It's all the same network but your devices will connect in the way that makes the most sense. This allows for better performance and less network congestion.
In some situations, mesh Wi-Fi can allow for faster speeds, better reliability and greater wireless coverage of your home than a conventional router would. As systems, they're also very scalable and quick to customise. If you're having trouble with one corner of your home, it's easy to expand a Mesh Wi-Fi network and build the home networking solution that makes the most sense for your circumstances.
What are the differences between Mesh and Traditional Wi-Fi routers?
The key difference between mesh systems and traditional routers is that the former is centralized while the latter is not.
With an old-school router, all wireless traffic is going to rely on that single point-of-access. Your router is connected to your NBN or ADSL connection and then passes that connectivity on to however many devices you connect to it. Devices that are further away will often experience worse quality of service than those closer to your router.
Recent advances like MU-MIMO and Wi-Fi 6 have made addressed these shortcomings to a limited degree but have done little to tinker with the inherently centralised structure that comes as part of this style of home network.
Meanwhile: a mesh Wi-Fi system gives you multiple points of access. This fundamental difference can allow mesh-based networks to offer better real world coverage and speeds in some - but not all - situations. If you live in a large home or one with multiple floors, you're going to notice more of a difference than you would in a small, single-storied locale.
It should be said that, compared to many modern routers, Mesh Wi-Fi systems tend to have slower processors and less antennas. Even if they're more sometimes efficient or effective at handling connections from multiple devices, that can mean that you'll get worse performance from them compared to a top-line traditional router like the Netgear Nighthawk XR700.
What should you look for in a Mesh Wi-Fi router?
Design - Since you’re going to be throwing several of these Mesh Wi-Fi nodes around your house, it doesn’t hurt for them to look visually appealing or, at the very least, innocuous. Due to the smaller internal components required, many networking brands have opted for minimalism when it comes to aesthetics.
Speed - When it comes to any sort of wireless connectivity, it’s always better to have more speed than the opposite. Mesh Wi-Fi systems are no different in this regard. Having greater speed allows for more bandwidth intensive things like 4K media streaming. It also helps to allow for more devices to do those things on the same network without infringing on the experience of one another. As a rule, higher speeds are better. It’s also good form of future proofing.
Coverage - While it’s good to know that you can always get more mesh nodes to deal with any blind spots, it’s equally good to get away with using less mesh nodes where you can. The better the coverage offered by each mesh node in your mesh Wi-Fi system, the less mesh nodes you’ll need to cover your house overall.
Software - A big part of the appeal of Mesh Wi-Fi systems is the ease of use and many mesh Wi-Fi systems come integrated with software apps that help this to be the case. You’ll be locked into using the official app for your Mesh Wi-Fi system of choice, so it’s best to make sure it includes the features you care about. For example, parental controls, high-traffic priority markers and built-in cybersecurity scanning.
How many mesh Wi-Fi systems are out there?
These days, there are plenty of options in the mesh networking space to choose from.
In addition, brands like Amazon and Google are also making in-roads in the space. As opposed to the established brands listed above, these mesh networking systems tend to emphasize pricing and integration with wider smart ecosystems over technical specs. Amazon and Google are less interested in power users and more interested in customers who want their mesh home networking experience to be as painless as possible.
In our recent review of the Nest Wi-Fi, we said that "despite the occasional bit of anomalous conduct, the sheer simplicity of setting up and using the Nest Wi-Fi didn’t take all that long to win me over - and I suspect it’ll do the same for many others. If you’re got a household with way too many Wi-Fi enabled devices, Google’s latest foray into home networking is likely a natural fit that’ll make smart and easy Wi-Fi seem effortless. Whether it performs at a high enough level to sate the needs of gamers is another question entirely."
"Regardless of whether you’ve got a Google Home or not, the Nest Wi-Fi system excels at delivering a clean and painless mesh networking experience."
You can read our full review of the Nest Wi-Fi here.
Mesh Wi-Fi Vs Traditional Wi-Fi Routers: Which is better?
If you’re living in a home with multiple occupants, there are clear advantages to going with Mesh Wi-Fi systems like the Amazon Eero, Netgear Orbi and TP-Link Deco. They're simple to set up, convenient to use and easy to expand.
However, if you’re living on your own or care a lot about gaming or 4K content streaming and want the fastest speeds possible, there are still good reasons to still consider a traditional network router. These routers tend to offer higher speeds offer more heavy-duty specs than mesh systems do. If you’re the kind of power user in need of that extra grunt, it’s easy to make the case for them being the better option.
This article was originally published in April 2018. It was updated on the 31st of August, 2020 by Fergus Halliday.