AiMesh is a free feature Asus brought to most of its routers in early 2018, and it has proved to be one of the most versatile ways to build a home Wi-Fi mesh system.
I’ll explain it all in this post.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on February 24, 2018. Since then, I’ve been using/testing more than a dozen AiMesh routers in countless combos, and Asus has also been released many firmware revisions to improve this feature (not without some hiccups along the way). This update, posted on January 2nd, 2021, aims to reflect the latest state of Asus’s AiMesh, including the work-in-progress version 2.0.
Asus AiMesh Wi-Fi System
- The most flexible way to build a robust, scaleable home Wi-Fi mesh system
- Excellent performance, top-notch feature set
- Built-in online protection
- No vendor login required or other privacy risks
- Comparatively affordable
- Certain routers combos can be buggy
- Guest network not (yet) supported in most setups
- Firmware updates might break certain working combo
- The seemingly permanent "beta" status
AiMesh review: It’s like no other mesh
Available in most Asus routers, AiMesh allows for combining any two or more routers into a single mesh network, similar to the Netgear Orbi or Linksys Velop. Initially released as an add-on feature, AiMesh has proven to be Asus’s most impactful home networking feature over time.
It’s important to note that AiMesh is not a plug-n-play Wi-Fi solution like other canned systems on the market. It requires some work — or maybe even a lot of work in certain situations — before you get it the way you want. So, it’s not for everyone. But if you don’t mind tinkering with your hardware, chances are you’ll love it.
To take advantage of AiMesh, you need to get a couple of supported broadcasters. Most Asus routers have this feature.
List of Asus’s current AiMesh routers
There are tri-band and dual-band broadcasters. As a rule, for best performance, in a Wi-Fi mesh system, you want a tri-band for a wireless setup. A home wired with network cables makes more sense to use dual-band hardware, though either will likely work out.
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) AiMesh broadcasters
- Tri-band: GT-AC5300, RT-AC5300, Lyra, and ZenWiFi AC.
- Dual-band: RP-AC1900, RT-AC1900, RT-AC1900P/U, RT-AC2900, RT-AC3100, RT-AC5300, RT-AC68P/R/RW/U/UF/W, GT-AC2600, Lyra Trio, Blue Cave, RT-AC86U, RT-AC88U, and more.
Wi-Fi 6/E (802.11ax) AiMesh broadcasters
- Dual-band: RT-AX88U, RT-AX89X, RT-AX3000 / RT-AX58U, RT-AX56U, ZenWiFi XD4, RT-AX86U, RT-AX82U, RT-AX68U, RP-AX56, GS-AX3000, GS-AX5400, ZenWiFi XD6, and more.
Like most mesh systems, you use one as the primary router (or primary node, per Asus), and the rest will be satellites (or nodes). AiMesh nodes automatically replicate the Wi-Fi settings of the primary router and extend the coverage, either wirelessly or via network cables.
And an AiMesh system can offer a lot more.
Flexible hardware setup
First of all, AiMesh enables you to scale up your Wi-Fi network as your needs grow.
You can start with a single router; then, later on, add a satellite or two. It’s also an excellent way to re-use your old Asus router as a node when upgrading to a newer one.
Best of all, AiMesh allows you to pick and choose a mesh system that fits your needs and budget.
You can get two affordable Asus routers and build a budget mesh. Or get two high-end ones to create a high-performing system. And, of course, you can also mix routers of different tiers.
Generally, all AiMesh routers will work with one another, but certain combos will work better than others unless you choose to use wired backhaul — more below.
All the features you’d need and more
An AiMesh system has all the features and settings of the primary router. And since Asus routers currently offer the most features on the market, none of the other home Wi-Fi systems can compete on this front.
In short, AiMesh is the only way to have a mesh that gives you the same feature set as even the most feature-rich standalone router.
There are also tons of networking settings and tools that you can use via the web interface, including Wake-on-LAN, the ability to turn on a computer within your home network remotely.
What’s more, you have the option to use the Asus Router mobile app to manage your network on your phone. It’s the only app on the market that has the options for remote management without you having to register an account and log in with the vendor.
Asus router’s core feature set
To sum it up. Here is the general list of what you can expect from
- Universal setting restoration: You can restore the backup settings of most Asus routers — so far, among those support AiMesh, all but the RT-AX89X and the Blue Cave — interchangeably. As a result, you won’t need to program the new router from scratch in an upgrade. Most of your network’s configurations — including those of an AiMesh system — will migrate from the old router to the new one. Note, though, that it’s always better to set up the router from scratch to avoid possible setting conflicts.
- A robust full web interface: Asus’s web user interface is one of my favorites. It’s intuitive and allows for in-depth customization. But the interface can be overwhelming for novice users.
- Helpful Asus mobile app: Alternatively, users can use the Asus mobile app to manage and set up their router. It’s a well-designed app with decent access to the router. You can also turn on the Dynamic DNS-based remote access without having a login account with Asus.
- AiProtection: This feature includes a free-for-life real-time online protection powered by Trend Micro and a decent Parental Control engine. (Note: Turning this feature on means you put your privacy at risk. ) I’ve used AiProtection for years, with many different routers, and it proved to be quite useful. On the other hand, Parental Control could improve the way Asus define categories for web-filtering is a bit vague.
- Adaptive QoS: A quality of service engine that allows you to prioritize Internet traffic to support different applications or services. Adaptive QoS requires minimum work from the user and is effective. It also includes Bandwidth Monitor if you want to know who uses the most Internet at all and Web History that shows the websites a client has visited.
- Traffic Analyzer: A set of tools and statistics if you want to find out what’s been going on in the network in a set amount of time and in real-time.
- USB-related features galore: When hosting a storage device, the router has all the features you can imagine — from data sharing (locally and over the Internet) to backup (including the support for Time Machine) to a personal cloud. You can also use the router’s USB ports to host printers or select USB cellular modems.
- Frequent firmware releases: Asus regularly pushes out new firmware updates to improve its routers. For the most part, this is a good thing. However, once in a while, new firmware can cause issues. In this case, you should downgrade the router to the previous stable version and wait for the next release. (Asus routers generally don’t update the firmware automatically.)
What you can expect from an AiMesh system
Other than the features mentioned above, you can also expect the following from an AiMesh setup as a mesh Wi-Fi system:
- Wired backhaul: Router and nodes can link to one another via network cables. In this case, you should use the WAN port of the node for the job. When having multiple nodes, you can mix wired and wireless backhaul in a system. You can also daisy-chain the wired backhaul connections when having more than two hardware units.
- Third-party switch supported: For wired backhaul, you can use switches between the main router and nodes. For best performance, make sure you use Gigabit (or faster) ones.
- Auto-sensing network ports: On the router unit, the WAN port functions as its designated role — it needs to connect to an Internet source. After that, the rest of the network ports in the mesh system, including the WAN ports on the satellite units (nodes), work as LANs. That’s generally true in either a wired- or a wireless-backhaul setup.
- High number of nodes: I’ve never tried higher than six nodes and supposedly you can use up to nine in an AiMesh setup. However, in a wireless setup, Asus says realistically, you shouldn’t use more than five nodes. Personally, I’d recommend no more than three unless you use tri-band hardware.
- No vendor account required: Again, no account with Asus is required to use AiMesh, even when you use the Asus Router mobile app. For remote access, Asus uses Dynamic DNS. So, AiMesh is less of a privacy risk (if at all) compared with other systems.
- Access point (AP) mode: As a Wi-Fi system, AiMesh can work in access point mode — not to be confused with an individual router’s AP mode.
- Here to stay: This is an ongoing feature. In fact, all Asus routers released since 2018 support this feature right out of the box. It’s safe to say future Asus routers will support it, too.
How tri-band routers work in an AiMesh system
Generally, you want to use the most powerful (newer) router as the main AiMesh router and a lesser (older) router as a node. But if you choose to use tri-band routers, there are a couple of things to consider.
First, for best performance, consider tri-band routers if you intend to have a wireless AiMesh setup. And in this case, use tri-band hardware throughout, both as the primary router and node(s).
Important note on “Tri-band”
“Tri-band” only applies to Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 routers with one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands. In other words, these are routers that have an additional 5GHz band to deliver extra bandwidth.
This type of “tri-band” is not part of what we’re talking about here. In fact, a Wi-Fi 6E tri-band router is more like a dual-band router, so to speak.
How to manage the (dedicated) backhaul band (5GHz-2)
As soon as you set up a tri-band unit as the primary AiMesh router, it will automatically dedicate its second 5GHz-band (a.k.a 5GHz-2) as the dedicated backhaul.
It does this by:
- Creating a separate network on this band exclusively for the job of linking the routers in the mesh system. And:
- Keeps the SSID (network name) hidden so that general users won’t see it.
As a result, the 5GHz-2 band is generally not available to clients, even when:
- A dual-band router participates as a node. (In this case, this node will connect to the 5GHz-1 band for its backhaul link.)
- You choose to use wired backhaul for the entire system. In this case, the 5GHz-2 remains a standby backup backhaul that kicks in if you remove the network cable.
You can leave this 5 GHz-2 band alone, and all is well. However, you can make it work for end clients, too, especially in the case of wired backhaul. Here’s how:
- Unhide SSID and give it a meaningful name — the default name is a string of random numbers and letters. For now, this new name has to be different from that of the 5GHz-1 and 2.4 GHz bands even when you use these two in a Smart Connect setup, where they share the same name. And:
- Pick an easy-to-remember password for the 5 GHz-2 band’s SSID. The default password, again, is a long string of random numbers and letters. It’s too impractical to use.
Now, this band (5 GHz-2) can still work as a wireless backhaul, but it’s no longer a dedicated one. But when you use wired backhaul, it’ll work only for clients and is available throughout all tri-band hardware units within the mesh.
By the way, if you want to switch from wired backhaul back to using the 5GHz-2 as the dedicated backhaul band, make sure no clients connect to it anymore. You can do that by changing the SSID and hide it. And then unplug the wired backhaul cable.
Update: With AiMesh 2.0, there’s now an option to group all three bands into one network via the Tri-band SmartConnect when using wired backhaul. This option is first available in the ZenWiFi family, but all tri-band routers will likely get it over time. AiMesh 2.0 is more applicable to Wi-Fi 6 broadcasters. Wi-Fi 5 hardware might not get all of its improvements.
AiMesh wired backhaul vs. dedicated wireless backhaul: How it’s not a good idea to mix dual-band and tri-band
Generally, wired backhaul delivers the best performance. It also gives you the flexibility of using a different type of hardware — tri-band, dual-band, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, etc. — with a high chance of success. So always use it when possible — get your home wired! And then keep the following in mind.
Tri-band and wired backhaul
It makes more economic sense to go with dual-band routers. Using tri-band routers, in this case, is unnecessary. But it does give you the option to have an additional 5GHz-only network if you don’t mind setting that up manually, as mentioned above.
Important note: A purpose-built tri-band system — like the ZenWiFi XT8 or CT8 — generally has its firmware tuned for a wireless setup. As a result, developers focus on this configuration and might release firmware not necessarily optimized for the wired backhaul scenario.
Wired and wireless backhaul mix
When using tri-band routers, it would be best to make the 5GHz-2 band available to users only when the wired backhaul is available throughout the entire system.
If you have even one tri-band wireless node, you should leave this band alone. Otherwise, the mesh still works, but its backhaul band is no longer dedicated.
Dual-band and tri-band mix
Mixing a dual-band primary router and a tri-band node means you will likely waste the node’s second 5 GHz band — you’ll not be able to access it, even when you use wired backhaul.
On top of that, the node might use the 2.4Ghz band for backhaul. This is the case even when you use AiMesh 2.0. In short, this is not a good idea.
When using a tri-band router and a dual-band node, the 5GHz-2 band is only available at, well, the router unit.
Like all mesh systems, AiMesh is not perfect. Below is the list of what could use some improvement. While it seems long, most of the items are minor.
- Some router combinations might be buggy. Considering so many routers are involved, it’s quite hard for Asus to work in all scenarios consistently. Also, at times, a new firmware release that fixes one combo might causes issues in others. In most cases, though, I find that resetting your router and setting up your mesh from scratch helps.
- Guest networking is not supported in all combos — it’s only available for sure at the main router. (With the rollout of AiMesh 2.0, most if not all combos will get that throughout the mesh system by the end of 2021.)
- There’s no way to manually set a band of your liking, 2.4GHz or 5GHz, to work as the backhaul.
- For the most part, you can only access the web interface of the main AiMesh router. (If you try accessing a node via its IP address, you’ll reach the router). Among other things, this means you generally can’t manage certain features of the node. (Starting with AiMesh 2.0, though, part of the node’s interface is now available for you to manage its USB applications.)
AiMesh 2.0 and the ZenWiFi family
ZenWiFi products are those built with AiMesh from the ground up. It’s now a central feature and not an add-on one. It’s also the beginning of a major upgrade to the feature called AiMesh 2.0.
(Generally, ZenWiFi systems come with pre-synced hardware — you won’t need to add the nodes manually. But individually, each unit still works as part of a system built by any AiMesh router. Conversely, you can also manually add any AiMesh router to a ZenWiFi set.)
Among other things, an AiMesh 2.0 setup include the following added benefits:
- Better interface: There’s a new AiMesh, which makes managing the feature easier. There’s also a new one-button optimization (available when select routers are used as the primary node).
- Guest network: Certain combos will get the Guest network throughout and not just at the router unit. (Applicable to only one Guest network per band.)
- Better wired backhaul implementation: The 2nd 5GHz band of a tri-band system will be made available to clients when the wired backhaul is used (only applicable to when a tri-band router works as the primary node.)
- Better node control: You can now use the router’s web interface to control certain aspects of a node, including USB applications and Link Bonding (LAN Link Aggregation), when applicable.
- Preferable backhaul: When using multiple wireless nodes, you can force the node’s backhaul to connect to another node or the main router.
AiMesh 2.0 and Guest networking
AiMesh 2.0 has been a slow and fluid process. By the end of 2020, AiMesh 2.0’s improvements are not fully available to all routers, including those of the ZenWiFi family.
Specifically, for right now, it’s not available to many routers, partially available to some, and (almost) fully available to just a few. But this will change.
It’s important to note that the core function of AiMesh works throughout supported hardware, no matter the version a router has. Version 2.0 doesn’t change AiMesh in a big way. In fact, it’s Asus’s effort to make this feature complete compared to other canned systems.
Of the improvements listed above, the support for Guest networking is the most anticipated. Here’s what you need to keep in mind on this particular feature:
To get any benefits of AiMesh 2.0, the router must use firmware version 126.96.36.199.386 or later. With this release, a node will support Guest networking as long as you can enable it on the main router unit.
Here’s the thing, just because the main router runs firmware version 188.8.131.52.386 or later doesn’t necessarily mean it delivers system-wide Guest networking. It must run a version that explicitly includes that in the release note.
Also, as a standalone device, each AiMesh router can deliver three Guest networks per band. However, in a mesh setup, you can turn only the first Guest network of each band system-wide, when applicable.
In my experience, if your router gets a firmware update in December 2020 or later, chances are its Guest networking feature is ready when hosting a mesh. As shown in the screenshot above, you can also check its web interface to see if this option is available.
Other than that, the USB applications and Link Bonding, which are generally available to most nodes running 386 firmware or later, worked well in my testing. To access these, go to the AiMesh section of the main router, click on the node in question, then on Management. The rest is self-explanatory.
In short, AiMesh 2.0 is promising, but unless you use a certain combo, you’ll have to wait for a while to get all of its benefits. And it might take the entire 2021 to see all of its benefits in all combos. And I’m being optimistic here.
Asus AiMesh: Excellent performance
Generally, AiMesh has gotten better over time but not without some flaws. But that’s the case with all mesh systems I’ve tested. And it’s safe to say any AiMesh combination can beat other similarly-priced purpose-built systems in performance and features.
Below are the real-world performance charts showing how AiMesh’s nodes are stacked against the satellites of other mesh systems, both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5. I tested all of these systems in a wireless setup.
Keep in mind that your mileage will vary depending on the combo you pick. However, even when you use the most affordable Asus routers, your AiMesh system will likely be at least as fast as any other mesh of the same price, plus it will have a lot more features.
In my experience, AiMesh is one of the best — and fun — solutions for advanced users who wants to build a scalable, robust Wi-Fi mesh system without compromising their privacy.
Most importantly, again, it can beat all other similarly priced purpose-built systems on the market in both performance and features. But AiMesh is also far from perfect.
For one, it requires more work to set up. Also, a large number of settings and features can be overwhelming.
And finally, certain combos can be problematic, and firmware updates don’t always mean improvement — sometimes they break things. In other words, it’s a work in progress and has been so since day one.
Nonetheless, the only true competitor to AiMesh in terms of features and settings is that of Synology. Unfortunately, Synology hasn’t released more mesh-capable routers for a couple of years now — there are only two, the RT2600ac and the MR2200ac — nor does it have any that support Wi-Fi 6 yet.
Getting an AiMesh system of your own
You need at least two routers to create an AiMesh system. No matter what combo you get, the setup process is generally the same, and it will work.
How to pick the best AiMesh combo
However, in my experience, certain router combinations work better than others. Depending on your situation, picking the right combo can be the key to getting the best performance and stability out of your hardware.
Wired backhaul is the best
Like any mesh system, using wired backhauls is the best way to go. That said, if you have wired your home with network cables, your chance of success is high.
In this case, you have more liberty regarding the hardware — almost all routers will work well with one another. Use the latest or most powerful router as your primary router, and connect the satellite nodes’ WAN port to the network.
Wired backhaul: AiMesh vs. Access Point mode
There are more benefits in using wired backhaul than just performance.
For one, you now have the option of using the nodes in the AP mode. In this case, you don’t have a real mesh system since you’ll have to manage the node separately using its web interface. The signal handoff is probably not working very well, either, if at all.
But in return, you can rest assured that any hardware combo will work well, and you can make use of the AP’s USB port and control its Wi-Fi bands individually.
What’s more, you can also use non-AiMesh routers, including those from a different hardware vendor. Using the satellite units in the AP role is far more reliable than using them as AiMesh nodes in my trial. So, consider this as an alternative when you have issues with a pure AiMesh setup.
AiMesh with wired backhaul: How to connect the hardware units
If you choose to use wired backhaul, the way you link the hardware units together follows the same rules as that of a standard router:
The router unit must be in your local network’s frontmost position, with the rest of the nodes behind it. It’s recommended that a node connects to the network via its WAN port.
So let’s say you have a mesh of one main router and two nodes. Here’s how you’d use network cables to link them up:
- Hook the router’s WAN port to the Internet source (modem/gateway).
- Connect the nodes to the router by:
- Link each node’s WAN port to a LAN port of the router. OR
- Connect the first node’s WAN port to the router’s LAN port, then connect the 2nd node’s WAN port to the 1st node’s LAN port. Or
- Place a switch (or two) in between them. This switch can be between the router and the node(s) or between the nodes themselves. But it also must be behind the router.
- Now let the router works as an AiMesh router mode (default). If the Internet source is a gateway, you also can change the router, hence the entire system, to work in the Access Point mode. More on that here.
If you’re thinking of a wireless mesh, however, things can be tricky.
Wireless AiMesh: Wi-Fi tiers and standards matter
It’s best to use the same routers in an AiMesh system. This helps make sure there are no complications. If you can’t, or if that doesn’t make economic sense, try using hardware of the same Wi-Fi tiers.
And when possible, tri-band routers are the way to go in if you plan on using them wirelessly, thanks to the dedicated backhaul.
AiMesh routers: Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5
I have tried many combos with routers of mixed standards. In this case, again, it’s best to run network cables to link them. Generally, it’s not a good idea to mix tri-band and dual-band routers or mix routers of different Wi-Fi standards (Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5).
However, if that ends up being your case, make sure you use the compatible Wi-Fi setting for the Wi-Fi 6 broadcaster when using it as the primary router.
So, in a mixed setup, chances are you won’t be able to use any of the broadcasters in the venerable 160 MHz channel width, which is required for it to deliver top Wi-Fi 6 speed.
In other words, if you mix Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 in a wireless setup, expect the entire system to be Wi-Fi 5.
AiMesh with wireless backhaul: How to arrange hardware units
An AiMesh system follows the same hardware placement rules as any other mesh and applies only when there’s no a wired backhaul.
Specifically, place a node some 40 ft (12 m) from the main router if there are walls in between. If there’s no wall, you can increase this distance to around 75 ft (23 m). When you have more than one node, place the nodes around the main AiMesh router.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how you arrange the nodes if you use network cables to link them up.
Steps to set up an AiMesh system
If you get a ZenWiFi set, keep in mind that the hardware units are likely pre-synced. In this case, you only need to set up the router unit the way you do any other routers, and your mesh is ready — you won’t need to add the second unit manually.
That said, these steps apply to when you use at least one non-ZenWiFi router in the system.
1. Update all involved routers to the latest firmware from Asus. (Third-party firmware Merlin also supports AiMesh and will work, too. You can mix routers running Asus’s stock and Merlin firmware.) Then, set up the main AiMesh router as a regular standalone router. This process is similar to setting up any router with a web interface.
2. Reset the router(s) that’ll you use as AiMesh node(s). You can do that via its interface or by pressing its reset button with a pin. For more details on how to reset a router, check out this post.
3. Place the node router within 10 feet (3 m) from the primary router. Alternatively, you can also use a network cable to connect the node’s WAN port to the main router’s LAN port — it’s OK to use a switch in between.
4. On a computer connected to the network of the primary router, open a browser, log into the main router’s interface by going to router.asus.com (or its IP address) and click on Network Map, then on the AiMesh icon. Click on Search. After a few seconds, the node(s) will appear.
This step’s progress is shown in two screenshots below.
5. Click on a node, a pop-up prompt will appear. Click on Apply to confirm. Now, wait about a minute for the adding process to complete. This step’s progress is shown in three screenshots below.
Note: During this time, in my experience, you must not navigate to a different part of the web interface. Doing so might cause the setup to fail, and you’ll need to try again from step #2.
And that’s it! Repeat step #4 to add more nodes. Else, mission accomplished.
Note: When adding more nodes later, make sure you first update firmware for all AiMesh members (main router and nodes) again.
Once an AiMesh system is ready, you can always log in to the router unit’s web interface, go to the AiMesh section to manage the nodes, including updating its firmware. You can also do that via the Asus Router mobile app.
The extra screenshots below show what you can do with an AiMesh setup.
Extra: How to set up roaming assistance in an AiMesh setup
In a mesh system, as you move around, you probably want to make sure that your phone (or your laptop) automatically connects to the closest Wi-Fi broadcaster to get the best connection speed, instead of to the one that’s farther away.
And that’s called roaming assistance or seamless hand-off. Before continuing, though, make sure you have read my detailed explanation on the seamless hand-off. (Hint: It’s always hit or miss.)
Also, keep in mind that most of the time, the default hand-off settings will work out. But having the option to adjust it yourself is always nice.
Here are steps on how to customize seamless hand-off with AiMesh:
1. Log in to the primary router’s interface, navigate to the Wireless section (under Advanced Settings), then to the Professional tab.
2. Pick the band you want to customize (2.4GHz or 5GHz)
3. Locate the Roaming assistant setting; you’ll note that there’s a default value already in place, something like -70 dBm.
4. Change the value to a new number that fits your situation — more on this below.
To know what dBm number works best, you first have to understand what dBm means, and I explained separately in this post about received Wi-Fi signal strength.
However, generally, you should keep the dBm value between -60 (clients roam faster) and -75 (clients tend to remain to the original broadcaster).
5. Click on Apply. Repeat step #2 for another Wi-Fi band if need be. Then manually restart all hardware units.
It’s important to note that there’s no precise measurement for Wi-Fi range and signal strength since they vary greatly depending on the environment.
That said, what mentioned above are my estimates applicable to my situation. The actual numbers that work for you depend on your environment and the routers you use. It’s a matter of trial and error.
Also, roaming is tricky since it depends more on the clients than the router. Networking vendors can’t test their products with all existing equipment. As a result, at times, it’s a matter of luck.
One thing is for sure: You can always turn your device’s Wi-Fi off and then back on to get it connected to the closest broadcaster.