Wi-Fi mesh systems

Homing in on better wireless coverage

The Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi system.
The Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi system. PHOTO: NETGEAR

Mesh routers have emerged as the hottest thing in the home Wi-Fi networking scene

Relief is here if you are facing Wi-Fi woes. You can now choose from a rapidly growing pool of whole-home Wi-Fi systems, a new breed of wireless routers that promises to improve your home's wireless coverage and remove Wi-Fi blind spots.

Asus launched its Lyra Wi-Fi system here this month, while TP-Link and D-Link are poised to launch their models next month. They join similar offerings from Linksys, Netgear and Portal that were launched less than a year ago.

Instead of relying on a single router, whose signal deteriorates the farther away your device is from it, whole-home Wi-Fi systems create a network of wireless hubs to propagate Wi-Fi signals throughout your home.

These devices, also known as mesh routers, have emerged as the hottest thing in the home networking scene. Despite the fact that the first such devices, from tech start-up Eero, debuted just over a year ago, Wi-Fi systems have grown in popularity to account for almost a quarter of the router market in the United States, according to market research firm The NPD Group.

While the earliest Wi-Fi systems were mostly from small start-ups or companies that you probably do not associate with routers, such as Google, the big networking firms have quickly jumped onto the bandwagon.

Familiar router brands like Asus, D-Link and TP-Link showed off their Wi-Fi systems at the CES trade show in January.

So far, the local reception has been very positive. Mr Rajesh Attal, CEO of Kaira Technologies, which distributes Netgear routers here, said: "Home users are choosing the Orbi over entry-level or mid-range routers. Sales revenue for the Orbi Wi-Fi system is about five times that of other Netgear routers."

  • Pros and cons

  • Before you buy a Wi-Fi system, here are some things to consider.

    IMPROVED COVERAGE, BUT NOT FASTER SPEEDS

    An average router will likely provide faster download speeds than a Wi-Fi system and cost half the price. But performance is moot without a stable Wi-Fi signal - this is where such systems excel, with most promising coverage of up to 6,000 sq ft.

    LIKE A RANGE EXTENDER, BUT BETTER

    A Wi-Fi system is similar to range extenders that repeat the signal from a primary router. But the former is better because it provides a single network name (SSID), unlike the multiple SSIDs created by range extenders.

    More importantly, when your wireless client devices - such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops - move around the home, they are switched seamlessly to the most optimal wireless hub in a Wi-Fi system. This seamless switching does not happen with typical range extenders, leading to dropped VoIP calls and buffering of videos.

    DEDICATED BACKHAUL IMPROVES PERFORMANCE

    Some Wi-Fi systems reserve a dedicated wireless band, also known as backhaul, for its separate hubs to communicate with each other. These systems usually offer better speeds than those without the backhaul.

    REUSE EXISTING CABLING

    Even if you have already wired up your house with LAN points in every bedroom, there are still good reasons to use these Wi-Fi systems. This is because some models can create a mesh network using Ethernet, or even a combination of Wi-Fi and Ethernet. SLICK LOOKS, FEWER FEATURES Most Wi-Fi systems look nothing like the usual prickly antenna-heavy router. Their antennas are hidden in sleek bodies that are good-looking enough to be displayed out in the open. Hence, the Wi-Fi performance is better as the router is not stuffed inside a closet.

    They are also easy to set up, requiring just a mobile app, not a computer.

    Often designed from the ground up, these apps are generally more modern and slick than the typical Web-based router interface. Security and firmware updates are automatically pushed to these devices without user intervention.

    But many Wi-Fi systems lack the advanced options found in standard routers, though some manufacturers have added new features via firmware updates.

    Vincent Chang

 
 

Linksys is similarly upbeat about these routers. Its spokesman disclosed that total sales of all its networking products have tripled since the launch of its Velop Wi-Fi system in April: "We believe this category will continue to grow as more people understand that these systems let them roam freely at home with the same network without compromising on performance."

Mr Roger Yuen, CEO and founder of the Clozette fashion social network, recently switched to the Velop Wi-Fi system after experiencing spotty connectivity despite using three routers in his four-storey home.

"The previous weak spots, such as the master bedroom, living room and the kitchen, now have very good Wi-Fi reception. I can now easily stream YouTube recipe videos in the kitchen as I love to cook," Mr Yuen said.

In addition to improving Wi-Fi coverage, Wi-Fi systems are also being positioned as all-in-one hubs for both Wi-Fi and Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart bulbs, digital locks and home-security cameras.

Qualcomm, which makes most of the chipsets powering current Wi-Fi systems, has said that its next-generation Mesh Networking platform will support IoT standards. It will also work with popular cloud-based assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. The company has even provided a reference router design to demonstrate the potential.


Previously reviewed

NETGEAR ORBI

Price: $649 (RBK50), $599 (RBK40)

Netgear recently followed up its standard Orbi kit (RBK50) with a slightly cheaper, but less capable Orbi mini (RBK40).

The Orbi models have a dedicated wireless channel to maintain good wireless performance between the pre-assigned router and the satellite. They have up to four Ethernet ports, compared with two ports on most of its rivals.

In addition to fixing bugs, Netgear has used firmware updates to introduce new features, such as guest networks. However, its app is not as polished as its competitors'. Advanced settings are available only with a Web browser.

LINKSYS VELOP

Price: $349 (1 unit), $599 (2 units), $749 (3 units)

The Velop is probably the most expensive Wi-Fi system here, but it offers, on top of a dedicated wireless band for communication, an option to use wired Ethernet for this purpose instead.

Each identical Velop unit looks more like an elegant PC speaker than a router. It has just two Ethernet ports and no USB ports.

Firmware updates have added features such as a Web-based interface and bridge mode. Its mobile app is sleek and intuitive, though it comes with few options to tweak network settings.

PORTAL WIFI

Price: $249 (1 unit)

Distributed by Convergent Systems, Portal resembles a standard router with four Ethernet ports.

Its advantage is its ability to tap reserved Wi-Fi channels to avoid congestion. But I could not see any benefit in my tests.

Multiple Portal units can be configured as a mesh Wi-Fi system, though the clunky setup requires physically connecting a LAN cable between two units. Its mobile app is relatively easy to use.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Homing in on better wireless coverage'. Print Edition | Subscribe