Review

TP-Link Deco M9 Plus: Mesh router doubles as smart home hub

The new Deco M9 Plus is a tri-band model with an extra 5GHz wireless band over last year's dual-band Deco M5 that should lead to faster and more consistent speeds.
The new Deco M9 Plus is a tri-band model with an extra 5GHz wireless band over last year's dual-band Deco M5 that should lead to faster and more consistent speeds.PHOTO: TP-LINK

TP-Link has launched its second whole-home Wi-Fi system (or mesh router for short).

The new Deco M9 Plus is a tri-band model with an extra 5GHz wireless band over last year's dual-band Deco M5 that should lead to faster and more consistent speeds.

On top of that, the M9 Plus comes with an integrated smart home hub that can control compatible smart home gadgets like smart locks and smart bulbs via smart home communication protocols, including Bluetooth, Zigbee and Wi-Fi.

This idea of a smart home hub piggybacking on a mesh router is not new - Samsung did the same with its Connect Home mesh router, which launched last year.

It makes sense because a smart home hub needs to be connected to a router. And mesh routers are typically configured as two or three linked nodes located throughout the home to improve Wi-Fi coverage.

In short, your smart home gadgets will always be within range of a hub.

  • SPECS

    PRICE: $369 (pack of two), $199 each

    ETHERNET INTERFACE: 2 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit LAN

    STANDARDS: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Zigbee 1.2, Bluetooth 4.2

    SECURITY: WPA/WPA2

    ADVANCED FIREWALL FEATURES: NAT, DoS and SPI

  • RATINGS

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

The M9 Plus and the Connect Home are direct competitors and there are some slight but key differences favouring each device.

Unlike the M9 Plus, the Connect Home also supports Z-Wave, another popular standard used by smart home devices.

But the M9 Plus has the upper hand as a mesh router - it can use a dedicated 5GHz wireless band or wired connection for backhaul communication. In addition, it can tap up to half the bandwidth of its remaining 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands for this purpose, giving it up to 1.5Gbps of aggregate bandwidth.

This is unlike other mesh routers with wireless backhaul that is restricted to a single band.

In contrast, the Connect Home lacks wireless backhaul and supports only wired backhaul.

The M9 Plus is a white circular disk like the M5, but larger and thicker. It runs warm, especially at the base of the unit. You can mix and match it with the older Deco M5 units to create a home network.

It has only two Ethernet ports at the back. The single USB port is reserved and cannot be used to connect an external storage drive or printer.

A small LED status indicator at the top is handy during the set-up process, which requires the use of a smartphone (not a computer) with Bluetooth connectivity. You will first need to download the Deco app (available for iOS and Android), which can be a problem for those without a mobile data plan.

The app automatically scans the vicinity for the M9 Plus and provides simple set-up instructions aided by clear visuals. A TP-Link account is required because the M9 Plus is a cloud-connected router that can be managed remotely from outside the home network.

I was impressed by its download speed, which averaged 403Mbps in my usual speed test. This is faster than the Netgear Orbi (382Mbps) and the Samsung Connect Home (228Mbps).

While the two-pack Deco M9 Plus is said to be good for homes of up to 4,500 sq ft and my home is smaller than that, I found myself wishing I had a third unit because it was much slower (around 101Mbps) in my bedroom where the signal strength was around 30 per cent.

TP-Link has partnered Trend Micro for parental controls and security (free for three years). The router can block external attacks and quarantine infected devices.

I found the parental controls comprehensive and simple to use. First, you select an age profile (child, pre-teen, teen or adult) for the user, which affects the selection of websites and apps that would be blocked by the filter. You can then customise this list by adding specific undesirable websites.

Usage limits can also be set for each connected device. Notifications were sent to my smartphone when my child attempted to access a blocked website. A report showing the user's top five most visited websites is also generated.

To use the M9 Plus as a smart home hub, you need to set up your smart home devices through their own proprietary apps. For instance, the TP-Link HS110 smart plug ($49) that I tested had to be first set up using TP-Link's Kasa app. Subsequently, the Deco app can be used to control the smart plug, such as getting it to switch on a coffee machine in the morning at a fixed time.

The Deco app also supports the IFTTT (If This Then That) app, which lets you create custom routines to control other apps and supported devices manually or through triggers.

• Verdict: As a mesh router, the M9 Plus offers competitive performance. The parental controls and security features are spot-on and the app is easy to use. As a smart home hub, it lacks Z-Wave support, though IFTTT integration helps.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2018, with the headline 'Mesh router doubles as smart home hub'. Print Edition | Subscribe