Upgrade your internet with mesh wi-fi

Netgear Orbi RBK50.

Need to upgrade your connectivity? Mesh wi-fi systems for the home or small office promise superior coverage and are more affordable than ever.

Are you making do with sub-standard wi-fi in your home or small office? Do you have dead spots, areas with a slow connection, or do you need to extend your wi-fi range?

Buying a new wireless router may help, but there are no guarantees. While the latest wi-fi technology can improve wireless range and speed, it can’t bypass certain types of walls, fridges and other objects that interfere with wi-fi radio signals.

One solution is to buy a wireless repeater or extender for the affected area, but that’s a rather piecemeal approach. A better option is to redesign the network itself with a mesh wireless system. Rather than relying on one router, a mesh system uses multiple nodes to blanket your premises with wi-fi radio signals. 

Linksys VELOP.Mesh networking has been used in businesses for some time, but over the last few months we’ve finally seen affordable mesh products for the home or small business. These home mesh systems tend to cost more than an equivalent home wireless router, and generally include two or three routers: one connects to your broadband, while the others act as satellites, spreading the wireless signal around your home or office.

Home mesh systems do have limitations. While they include some ethernet ports, they’re not designed for creating an extensive wired network and they lack the advanced security features of business routers. However, if you want to create a fast, reliable wireless network around your home or small office, they do an excellent job.

They also look great – a far cry from the typically ugly router. For example, TP-Link’s Deco M5 is a compact, disc-shaped device just 120mm across and 38mm high. As a bonus, home mesh devices are typically easy to set up. With Google Wifi, for instance, you use a simple Android or iOS app.  

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How to decipher the specs

There’s no getting around the fact that wi-fi specifications can be complex. Here’s a quick guide to the specs you need to know when buying a wireless router.

Google Wifi can be set up with an Android or iOS smartphone app.802.11ac: The latest standard, this offers better performance for modern devices that support it, but it’s also backwardly compatible with devices with older, slower standards – 802.11n, g and b.

Dual band: This is a must for any modern wireless router or access point, offering both the old 2.4GHz band and the newer 5GHz band. The latter offers better performance for laptops, phones and newer devices that can connect using this band, and it’s also less likely to suffer from interference with other wireless systems, such as those used for garage doors, that typically use the 2.4GHz band.

Tri band: These routers offer a third (5GHz) band that’s used to more efficiently handle multiple devices or, in the case of Netgear’s Orbi mesh system, it provides a dedicated band between the routers, theoretically improving the performance of the satellite routers

MIMO (multiple input, multiple output): This uses multiple antennas to simultaneously stream multiple wireless signals to and from devices that support it, improving performance. The latest standard is 4x4 MIMO, but home mesh systems are typically 2x2 MIMO, which means each router has two transmit antennas and two receive antennas. With two simultaneous streams, the network speed increases to up to 867 megabits per second (Mbps) when connected to supporting devices over 802.11ac wi-fi, although this is very much a theoretical maximum speed. Network overheads (the additional data you need in order to send your payload) mean actual data transfer rates are much lower, and also depend on factors such as network congestion.

MU-MIMO (multi-user MIMO): Supporting routers can multitask by sending data to multiple devices at once rather than one at a time.

TP-Link Deco M5 is just 38mm high and 120mm wide.802.11ac Wave 2: The latest official 802.11ac specification that supports MU-MIMO and other techniques to improve performance.

AC1200, AC2200: This specification is the total maximum theoretical speed of all bands together over 802.11ac wi-fi. It’s a somewhat misleading marketing term, but it can give an indication of the router’s capabilities. For example, AC1200 means the router is dual band and supports up to 867Mbps on the 5GHz band and 300Mbps on 2.4GHz. Breaking down the performance specs for each band this way is more informative, but don’t get too caught up with these details unless you have a busy local area network or regularly handle big files. All these mesh systems are faster than older home wireless routers, but improving the network performance still won’t boost your internet speed if you’re on a slow or mediocre broadband connection.

Wi-fi coverage: While all manufacturers provide a wi-fi coverage specification, like many other specs it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Thankfully, the coverage offered by mesh systems is likely to be far better than a single home wireless router. They can also be augmented with extra routers if needed. This not only increases wi-fi range, but may improve the consistency of coverage around the premises. If you do need to expand the mesh network, try to stick with the same brand and model to ensure compatibility.

Gigabit ethernet ports: While wi-fi performance has greatly improved in modern wireless routers, ethernet cabling still generally offers more consistent performance and network reliability. Ethernet ports on a router are still handy for connecting computers, TVs or set-top boxes to the network. 

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October 2017
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