Smart Devices

Solve Network: All You Need To Know About The Wireless Network System

You bought a top-tier router and expected to have Wi-Fi in every corner of your home. Turned out, a large part of the house still has no signal at all. What gives?

Why ‘traditional’ routers often disappoint

A powerful router can extend its Wi-Fi signal to approximately a 3,000-square-foot home, but only if it’s placed right in the middle of the house. This is because the signal spreads out equally from the router’s location. Most people, however, place the router at the service line (DSL, cable and so on) drop, which is usually in one corner of the house. In the end, half of the router’s Wi-Fi coverage is actually outside of the house, leaving the farthest part of the home uncovered.

Home Wi-Fi systems such as Google Wifi, Netgear Orbi, Eero, Almond 3 and Portal — also known as home mesh networks — are designed to solve this problem. Instead of just one router, they come in two, three or even more units, allowing you to blanket your home with Wi-Fi.

But Wi-Fi systems aren’t perfect. Before you invest in one, consider these pros and cons.

Wi-Fi systems CNET has worked with.

These are the benefits you can expect from a Wi-Fi system.

Custom Wi-Fi coverage

Not only will you get expanded coverage with a Wi-Fi system, you can also tailor the Wi-Fi signal according to the shape of your home by placing the extra units where they’re needed.

Generally, each unit can be placed as far as 30 to 50 feet from the last (one or two rooms apart). So if you have one long property, a set of three hardware units will deliver signal from one end to another. And with most Wi-Fi systems, you can expand your coverage by buying and adding more units.

They’re easy to use

If you can use a smartphone and have plugged something into a wall socket before, you then can set up a Wi-Fi system.

All Wi-Fi systems are dead-simple to use — at least those I’ve worked with, anyway. Usually, you can use your phone — not a clunky web interface — to set up the first unit and connect it to an internet source like your broadband modem. After that, all you have to do is place the rest of the units around the house and plug them into power outlets. And that’s it.

They are frequently updated

Most Wi-Fi systems are managed by vendors and get regular software update to improve their performance, features and security. Even those that are not connected to a vendor also get automatic firmware updates to address any issues that might arise. So getting a Wi-Fi system means you won’t need to worry whether your home network is up to date with regard to security or updating (commonly known as “flashing”) the firmware yourself. And at times, you might even get a pleasant surprise when a new feature is added or the performance is suddenly greatly improved.


The caveats

There are a few concerns that one might have about using a Wi-Fi system. They are not necessarily applicable to every system, and I will explain how to mitigate or eliminate each one, when possible.

They’re expensive

Wi-Fi systems are generally expensive. Currently, the most affordable option I’d recommend is Google Wifi, which is still pricey at $330 for a set of three units.

What you’re paying for here is convenience — not higher-tier Wi-Fi. Google Wifi, like many other Wi-Fi systems, uses a relatively low-tier Wi-Fi standard, AC1200, which is used by routers in the $50 range. So, if you know how to link three routers together manually, a mesh network-like setup will only cost you $150. However, in this case, it will take a lot more effort. So yes, with Wi-Fi systems, you pay for the convenience and ease of use.

Privacy risks

This doesn’t apply to all Wi-Fi systems, but many of them are required to be connected to the vendor at all time to function properly. In fact, you can’t even manage your home network without logging into an account with the vendor first. Examples of systems that require this are Google Wifi, the Eero, and the Plume. Some of those that don’t are the Netgear Orbi or the Portal.

Keep in mind that most other home routers don’t need to connect to vendors to work. Having your home network connected to the vendor at all times means the vendor potentially could be monitoring all that’s going on in your network, including internet traffic. All vendors say that they don’t collect user’s activities as websites do when you visit and so on. But no vendor can give absolute assurance that they won’t be hacked, either.

That said, for vendor-connected Wi-Fi systems, make your choice based on how much you trust the vendor.

Slow Wi-Fi speed

This is mainly due to a phenomenon called signal loss. When the Wi-Fi signal is extended using multiple units, it hops from the main router unit to a satellite unit. This secondary unit will then have to do two jobs at once: receive the Wi-Fi signal from the original router and then rebroadcast it. In a Wi-Fi system, devices connected to the main router unit will have double the speed compared to those connected to a second satellite unit. If you use three units and set them up sequentially to extend the signal further in one direction, devices connected to the third unit will further suffer in speed — up to four times slower than those connected to the main router. The more units you use further from the main one, the more the speed will degrade. A few Wi-Fi systems on the market don’t suffer from this phenomenal, however, like the Netgear Orbi.

That said, unless you’re having weekly LAN parties, frequently transferring files between computers in your home, or you have a Gigabit-class internet connection, the signal loss won’t matter much since Wi-Fi is so much faster than most residential broadband connections anyway. Generally, if your internet speed is 200Mbps or less, chances are a Wi-Fi system (with no more than three units) can still deliver it in full most of the time. But if you have faster internet speed or need a fast local wireless network, a Wi-Fi system generally won’t cut it.

To mitigate signal loss you can try placing the satellite units around the first router unit. And to eliminate it, connect the units using network cables. But if you choose this option, you’d lose the convenience factor.


Signal handoff

When you use multiple broadcasters, a connected mobile device like an iPad is supposed to automatically and seamlessly move from one to another as you move it around the house. This is called signal handoff. If you have a Wi-Fi system with excellent signal handoff, you will experience no disconnection when this transition takes place. But a system with bad handoff will cause interruption for applications that require a constant connection such as Wi-Fi calling or online games.

Lack of features and settings. Also: Not future-proof

All Wi-Fi systems I’ve reviewed, except for the Netgear Orbi, have a very limited number of features and settings that let you customize your network. Most of the time, Wi-Fi systems have just one or two features — mostly for prioritizing connections and parental controls — and that’s it. If you’re used to deep customization of your network, or like to have a web interface — the way things are with traditional routers — you’ll find most Wi-Fi system very lacking. On top of that, most systems have just one LAN port on one each unit, so if you want to hook up wired devices (like servers or a desktop computers) you will definitely need to resort to switches.

What’s more important is, once you’ve gone with a Wi-Fi system, you’re stuck with it. There’s no easy way to upgrade the hardware of such a system. So, if at some point you’re no longer happy with either your Wi-Fi speed or the feature set, you will need a new system entirely.

Wi-Fi systems will be here to stay. This is because they are set to solve the biggest problem in home Wi-Fi: coverage. That said, it’s expected that you will soon find even more options that might have better performance and more features — and the cost might go down, too.

One thing for sure, though: the best alternative to Wi-Fi systems is to run network cables to certain parts of your home. In this scenario, you have one main router, with all the features you want, and more access points (or routers in access point mode) around the house that connect to it via network cables. That’s the best way to have both fast performance and the most features at the lowest cost. Obviously, this tends to require a lot of work or even a major remodeling of your home.

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