Mesh wifi networks use new technology (for the consumer world, at least) that broadcasts your wifi network(s) consistently throughout your home. They are said to be significantly easier to setup compared to the traditional and familiar option, a router (with the possibility of an extender), and also better for coverage.
However, as a technology that is still fairly new, it is likely that you will have many questions about what it really is and how it works.
This article will explain the difference between a mesh wifi network and a traditional wifi network as well as take a look at two of the most impressive mesh networks out there doing the rounds... Google Wifi vs Netgear Orbi.
What Is A Mesh Wi-Fi Network?
First Up: Traditional Wifi Explained
For most homes, a wifi network involves one router connected to a modem that is able to broadcast internet access and provide entry to your network across your home.
The problem is, that for people with big homes, one wireless router is often not enough to cover an entire house. Even if it does, the signal may have had weak spots that results in areas with a much poorer signal.
Previously, people had two options. The first, simply accept that you weren't going to get perfect wifi all over your house. This was fine in the days of home networks only consisting of a computer and maybe a couple of laptops. Both of which could connect to the internet.
However, nowadays with the evolution of mobile technology and smart homes, it is much more important to have consistent network access in every room of your home.
This leads to the second option. Buy some kind of extender or access point for your network. While these are most certainly effective at sending your network to those hard to reach spots in your house, they don’t come without their downsides.
Firstly, set up can be complicated. Because each extender will generally have a unique SSID (not always), you are not simply extending the signal but in actual fact creating a new mini network. This means that not only is setup more complicated, but every time you move from one part of your house to another, you will have to rejoin the network.
While it is possible to set up an extender with the same SSID as your main router, this can result in your device connecting to a router when it would be better to connect to the extender (and, of course, the other way round).
Extending (or repeating) a wireless signal ?could also seriously deteriorate the throughput of the wifi network. Not just on the extender, but on the main AP (router).
Other options include using a technology like Powerline or MoCA which uses the existing wiring in your home to help you access the internet throughout your house. Powerline technology uses your main electricity wiring by simply providing an adapter that plugs into your main electricity socket, while MoCA uses the coax cables provided by your cable company. These options can work well, but they can get, well, messy....
Mesh Networks (Wi-Fi Systems)
Mesh networks work differently to your average network. They usually come with a main router as well as a couple of satellites (kind of like extenders) that you can be placed throughout your home. However, unlike a traditional wifi network, these extenders don’t require a new SSID meaning that no matter which extender you are closest to, you won’t have to switch to new network.
As well as this, due to the fact that the extenders and routers are already configured to work with each other, setup is much easier. This means that if you have a large house and need to add more extenders to your network, you can simply buy another extender and set it up easily.
Another big difference is that when you connect an extender to a wifi network, you will often end up with network speeds that are much slower than on your router. However, mesh systems will generally see only very minimal slowdown, meaning that you should be able to get great speeds across your entire network.
Mesh networks come with algorithms that enable them to decide which node it is easiest for a connected device to connect to. They also communicate with each other which allows you to automatically switch between access points as you are walking around the house. This is often called ‘roaming’.
It should be pointed out here that unlike when you use an access point on a traditional network, all the access points on your mesh network will communicate with each other wirelessly. This means there will be absolutely no need to add any wires to your house. In fact, the only Ethernet cable you will need is the one between your mesh network’s main access point and your modem (so your network can connect to the internet).
A final benefit is that the mesh network hardware is generally really well designed. They are portable which makes them easy to move to the spots that need them most and they are generally good looking enough for them to sit in view without being too much of a distraction from you home aesthetics.
Google Wifi Features
Google Wifi is a fairly new entrant to the mesh wifi world. But it has the 'Big G' name behind it...
The stand out features for Google Wifi are its simplicity and its price point.
The set comes with three devices. Unlike the Netgear Orbi that feature a main node and an access point, all the Google nodes can do the same things. Essentially, any of these devices could be the main node that connects to your modem. Another handy feature is that if you have a particularly big house and you need more than three devices, you can also buy the nodes individually to extend coverage further.
Looks And Coverage
In terms of their looks, they are small cylindrical devices. They look similar in design to an Amazon Dot, although the pure white color scheme means there will be no mistaking what the product actually is.
According to Google, these nodes should be able to cover up to 4,500 square feet (this will vary greatly, depending on your devices and the layout of your home). In terms of cost, while the initial outlay may seem to be more than your average router, when you consider the extra access points or extenders you would need to buy to get the same coverage, this may not be such a big deal.
As expected with a mesh network, setup is really simple. Users have to download the free android or iOS app and can set everything up from their phone or tablet. In fact, the ease of setup on Google’s device and app even outdo some of the other, already easy, mesh wifi systems out there.
As well as setup, the app allows some network monitoring features, some QoS features, and family controls.
Good Old Wireless AC
In terms of the wifi network, Google wifi uses the wireless AC standard and offers dual band connectivity over the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz bands. This gives a maximum possible transfer rate of 1200 Mbps. As well as the wifi, you also have the option of connecting certain devices via an Ethernet cable as each node comes with two Ethernet ports. These features ensure that any devices that need an extra consistent signal should be able to get one.
Before You Buy
Before buying a Google Wifi there are a couple of things to think about, although none of them are likely to be deal breakers. These are that you will need to ensure that you have a Google account and an Android (4.0+) or iOS (iOS 8+) device. This is so that you can download the app required to use the system.
All in all, Google Wifi is an excellent mesh wifi system that can help bring an extremely reliable connection to every room in your home.
Netgear Orbi Features
While Google seem to have gone for price and simplicity as the main selling points of their home wifi system, it is pretty obvious that Netgear have gone for just one thing, power!
It's a Two Pack - Add More If Necessary
The Orbi starter set comes in a two pack set that includes a main router and an extra node. You can also buy an extra node if needed. However, while the starter set comes with one less node than the Google Wifi starter set, it actually has a further range and Netgear claim it can cover up to 5000 ft. You can add more satellites if necessary.
The Orbi devices look good. They come in the simple white colour that seems to be favored by mesh networks although the shape is quite different to the Google Wifi. Neither is a bad looking product so the one you like will come down to personal preference (although the Orbi is bigger).
One difference between the Orbi and the Google Wifi is that while the two Orbi devices look the same, only one of them can be used as the main router.
USB Ports & AC
In terms of hardware, the Orbi has the Google Wifi beat. It comes with four Gigabit Ethernet ports to allow you to connect devices directly to the router (especially useful for gaming) and a USB 2.0 port which you could use to attach an external hard drive.
It also uses the wireless AC standard, although has a faster theoretical data transfer rate of up to 3,000 Mbps.
Tri-Band! (you only actually use 2 bands though)
As well as this, the Orbi has tri-band capabilities in comparison to Google Wifi’s dual-band. This means there are two 5GHz bands and one 2.4GHz. While one 5GHz band and one 2.4Ghz band are used for your devices, the second 5GHz is only used for the different Orbi units to stay connected. This ensures that they will always have a good connection.
Setup is really easy and can be done on an app or, for those that don’t have a smartphone (or just don’t want to use their phone), it can also be done with a laptop. Unlike with Google Wifi you won’t have to create an account with Netgear to get your wifi up and running which could be an advantage for some people. A further network management option is that you can use an existing Amazon Echo or Dot to control your network using voice controls.
Netgear Orbi vs Google Wifi: In Conclusion
The first thing to say is that both products are excellent choices for those that want a plug and play wifi network. Both send a consistent wifi signal through your house in a way that was sometimes difficult before mesh networks came along.
Which one you prefer will realistically come down to how fast a network you need and how much you are willing to pay.
Google Wifi is for the more budget conscious. It still has most of the benefits (no USB!) and other than a slight reduction in speed at the outer ranges of your network (depending on your home size)...it is a great product.
Netgear Orbi is more powerful of a device that will give you good wifi speeds, for multiple devices, although you'll need to fork out more of your hard-earned cash for it.
Hopefully you have enjoyed our introduction to two of the ‘big brand’ mesh wifi systems out there.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment box below.