Wireless mesh network Hardware
With the explosion in popularity of smart home devices and countless streaming media services like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify, whole-house Wi-Fi coverage has become a must. Many of the latest wireless routers can provide strong coverage to most rooms of a typical medium-size house, but larger homes and dwellings with dense walls, multiple floors, metal and concrete substructures, and other structural impediments may require additional components to bring Wi-Fi to areas that the router can't reach. Range extenders do a good job of filling in dead zones, but typically provide only half the bandwidth that you get from your main router. Access points offer more bandwidth than range extenders, but require a wired connection to the main router. And both solutions typically create a new network SSID that you have to log in to as you move from one area of the house to another.
If all this sounds too complicated, consider installing a Wi-Fi system instead.
What Is a Wi-Fi System?
Designed to blanket your home with wireless coverage, Wi-Fi systems are a hybrid of sorts, made up of several networking components. There's a main router that connects directly to your modem, and a series of satellite modules, or nodes, that you place throughout your house. They are all part of a single wireless network, and share the same SSID and password. Unlike range extenders, which communicate with the router via the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio bands, most Wi-Fi system satellites use mesh technology to talk to the router and to each other. Each node serves as a hop point for other nodes in the system. This helps the nodes farthest from the router to deliver a strong Wi-Fi signal as they are talking to other nodes and not relying on one-to-one communications with the router. Not all Wi-Fi systems use mesh networking, however; some use a dedicated radio band to communicate with the router and with each other. As with mesh, the dedicated band frees up the standard-use 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for client use.
Easy Set Up and App-Based Network Management
Setting up and maintaining a traditional wireless home network can be daunting, even if you're tech-savvy. Wi-Fi systems, on the other hand, are geared toward users with little or no technical knowledge and can be installed in minutes. They typically come with a user-friendly mobile app that walks you through the installation process with easy-to-follow illustrated instructions. The app tells you where to place each node for maximum coverage and chooses the best Wi-Fi channel and radio band for optimal throughput performance, so you can maintain a strong wireless connection as you move about the house. Wi-Fi systems are easy to expand (with no current limit on the number of nodes you can add) and manage using your smartphone, allowing you to disable Wi-Fi access to specific devices with the press of a button and give certain devices network priority without having to log in to a complicated network console.
Design and Features
Wi-Fi systems look nothing like a traditional setup with a router and range extender. The router and nodes use internal antennas and are almost always tastefully designed so you can place them out in the open rather than in a closet or under a desk. (Don't expect to find a lot of flashing LED indicators—these systems are designed to blend in with your home's décor.) They usually have at least one LAN port for connecting to devices like TVs and gaming consoles, but USB connectivity is a rare feature at this point.
Wi-Fi systems are multi-band networking devices that operate on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands and use 802.11ac wireless technology. Some models offer support for Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, which streams data to multiple compatible wireless clients simultaneously rather than sequentially. Most Wi-Fi systems use band steering to automatically select the least-crowded radio band for the best performance and offer easy-to-use parental controls, guest networking, and device prioritization options. While designed for ease of use, they usually let you configure port forwarding and wireless security settings but lack the advanced networking management options such as individual band control, firewall settings, and wireless transmission rate settings that you get with a traditional router. Nor can you use third-party WRT firmware to customize the system for enhanced performance and network monitoring.
Router/Extender Combo vs. Mesh Network System
Wi-Fi systems range in price from around $130 for a single-node system to as high as $500 for a three-piece system like our Editors' Choice, the Linksys Velop, which, in the 3-Pack iteration we tested, covers 6, 000 square feet. In most cases, they'll cost you more than you'd pay for a similarly powered router and range extender solution. But remember: Wi-Fi systems are all about ease of use. They're a snap to set up and manage, offer whole-house coverage via a series of attractive nodes, and they provide seamless room-to-room roaming over a single network. If you want total control over your network and require the best possible throughput performance and connectivity options, stick with a traditional router solution. If you don't want to deal with things like assigning radio bands and logging in to different networks as you move throughout your home, however, a Wi-Fi system makes sense.