askST: What is mesh Wi-Fi and what is a good system to buy?

Reader James Lee wrote in to askST: "As Comex is around the corner and my room repeater just died on me, Can you advise what is the most value for money (cheap and good?) mesh Wi-Fi to get now?"

Tech correspondent Vincent Chang answered.

Mesh routers or whole-home Wi-Fi systems are a new breed of home routers that can solve Wi-Fi issues like Wi-Fi dead zones. They consist of multiple wireless nodes that work together to create a Wi-Fi network. Unlike a single traditional router, you can spread out these wireless nodes to ensure that they cover the entire home with Wi-Fi signals and removing wireless blind spots.

These devices have exploded in popularity this year. There are models from major networking firms like Asus, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear and TP-Link which you can buy at local stores .

There are pros and cons however to getting mesh routers.

First the advantages. They are very similar to range extenders that repeat the wireless signal from a primary router.

 

But mesh routers are smart enough to seamlessly hand over client devices like smartphones from one node to node when users move from one part of the home to another, in order to provide the best connection at all times. This means you can walk around the home without suffering from dropped video calls or buffering of streaming videos.

Designed to work out in the open, mesh routers generally look more attractive than traditional routers.

They often come with companion mobile apps that are used to configure and control these devices - no more fiddling around with computers to change your Wi-Fi network settings. You can even monitor your home network from anywhere in the world, as long as you have Internet connection on your smartphone.

Most of them come with hardware that lets them become, with future software updates, smart hubs for Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart bulbs and digital locks.

However, the simplicity of these apps mean that they often lack more advanced features desired by networking experts. Because of their relatively compact sizes, many mesh routers also offer fewer ports than standard routers, such as having just two LAN ports instead of four ports. Many also lack USB ports to connect to a shared network printer or external storage drive.

Mesh routers can be costly, as they are often sold in packs of two or three units. Expect to pay from $400 to $700 for these devices, compared with the $200 to $300 for a decent router. And while these mesh routers can deliver improved wireless coverage, they often fall short of the top routers in the market when it comes to download speeds.