AiMesh is a free feature Asus brought to most of its routers in early 2018, and it has proved to be one of the best ways to build a home Wi-Fi mesh system. I’ll explain it all in this post.
Dong’s note: Since I first published this post on February 24, 2018, I’ve been using/testing more than a dozen AiMesh routers — in too many combos to count. In the past two years, Asus has released many firmware revisions with numerous changes, bug fixes, and, for the most part, improvements on this feature. This update, posted on February 13, 2020, aims to reflect the latest state of Asus’s AiMesh, including the support for Wi-Fi 6.
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
- No auto firmware update
- Hardware units can be bulky
AiMesh review: It’s like no other mesh
Available almost all Asus routers, AiMesh allows for combining any two or more routers into a single mesh network, similar to the Netgear Orbi or Google Wi-Fi. Over time, it has proven to be Asus’s most important home networking feature.
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 use start with AiMesh, you need to get a couple of supported routers. Most, though not all, Asus routers support this feature.
Asus’s current AiMesh-ready routers
- Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac): GT-AC5300, RT-AC1900, RT-AC1900P/U, RT-AC2900, RT-AC3100, RT-AC5300, RT-AC68P/R/RW/U/UF/W, Lyra, Lyra Trio, Blue Cave, RT-AC86U, RT-AC88U, and ZenWiFi AC.
- Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): RT-AX88U, GT-AX11000, RT-AX92U, RT-AX89X, ZenWiFi AX, RT-AX3000 / RT-AX58U, RT-AX56U, 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.
Most importantly, 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 a high-end router with a low-end node.
Generally all AiMesh routers will work with one another, but certain combos will work better than others — more on this in 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.
Examples of these features include AiProtection (online protection and parental control), Traffic Analyser, Adaptive QoS, VPN (client or server), and an excellent dynamic DNS. And if you use high-end routers like the GT-AX11000 or the RT-AC5200, you’ll also get special features tailored to online gaming.
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 any Asus router, and therefore from any AiMesh combo.
- Universal setting restoration: Asus routers can use the setting backup files on one another. As a result, when you upgrade from one to another, just back up the old router’s settings to a file, then restore it to the new router. Most of your network’s configurations — including those of an AiMesh system — will remain the same with the new router. 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 to have an 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. I’ve used AiProtection for years, with many different routers, and it proved to be quite useful. Parental Control, on the other hand, could use some improvement. The way Asus define categories for web-filtering is a bit vague, and you can’t block a specific website, which is a significant shortcoming.
- 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 in case you want to know who uses the most Internet at all and Web History that shows web sites a client has visited.
- Traffic Analyzer: A set of tools and statistics in case 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 don’t auto-update firmware by themselves.)
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:
- Dedicated wireless backhaul: When you use tri-band routers, like the RT-AC5300, RT-AX92U, or GT-AX11000, one of its 5Ghz bands, the 5GHz-2, will work as the dedicated backhaul band.
- Wired backhaul: Router and nodes can link to one another via network cables. When having multiple nodes, you can mix wired and wireless connections.
- No hard limit: There’s no official max amount of routers you can use in an AiMesh setup. However, in a wireless setup, Asus says realistically you shouldn’t use more than five hardware units or three if you use dual-band routers.
- Third-party switch supported: For wired backhaul, you can use switches in between nodes. For best performance, make sure you use Gigabit (or faster) switches.
- Auto-sensing WAN ports: Only on the router unit, the WAN port function as one — it needs to connect to an Internet source. All network ports on satellite units work as a LANs.
- 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 compared with other systems.
- Access point (AP) mode: An AiMesh system can work in access point mode, meaning you can use it with an existing router to extend the network.
- Here to stay: This is an ongoing feature, future Asus routers will support it.
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 keep in mind.
First, for best performance, definitely consider tri-band routers if you intend to have a wireless AiMesh setup. And in this case, it’s best to use tri-band hardware throughout, both as the primary router and node(s).
How to manage the dedicated backhaul band (5 GHz-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, 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.
- 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, if you wish, you can make it work for end-clients, too. Here’s how:
- Unhide SSID and give it a meaningful name — the default name is a string of random numbers and letters. 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. And when you use wired backhaul, it’ll work only for clients, and be 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, just 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.
AiMesh wired backhaul vs. dedicated backhaul (tri-band)
Generally, wired backhaul delivers the best performance. So always use it when possible. And then keep the following in mind.
- If you have run network cables, it makes a more economic sense to go with dual-band routers for your AiMesh setup. 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.
- You should 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, its backhaul band is no longer dedicated.
- Using a tri-band node with a dual-band primary router means you will likely not make use of the node’s 5 GHz-2 band at all, in both wirelesses and wired backhaul configurations.
Like all mesh systems, AiMesh is not perfect. Below is the list of what that could use some improvement. While it seems long, most of the items are rather minor.
- Some router combinations might be buggy. Considering there are so many routers involved, it’s quite hard for Asus to make all work consistently in all scenarios. 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.
- No support for WPA3 for now. While most of Asus routers now support WPA3, if you choose to use it, your AiMesh system will stop working. Considering WPA3 is so new, this might change in the future.
- Guest networking is not supported — the Guest networks remain at the router unit. Initially, Asus said it would fix the issue by the end of 2019. Now it looks like this might happen eventually.
- There’s no way to manually set a band of your liking, 2.4GHz or 5GHz, to work as the backhaul.
- 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 interface of the router). Among other things, this means you generally can’t manage certain features of the node, including its USB ports, unless you use the ZenWiFi hardware throughout — more on this below.
- Firmware updates of the nodes are only available via the interface of the router unit, and you’ll need to download the firmware on your computer manually first. Currently, there’s no auto-update — this is true for all Asus routers — so you’ll need to manually check for new firmware using the interface once in a while. Firmware update works better on the Asus Router mobile app, which allows you to perform the update, of both router and node units, via a few taps.
The ZenWiFi family: The latest of AiMesh
ZenWiFi products are those built with AiMesh from the ground up. It’s now a central feature and not an add-on one.
For this reason, the Wi-Fi 6 ZenWiFi AX is arguable the best AiMesh system on the market, while the ZenWiFi AC is the best AiMesh setup among Wi-Fi 5 routers. Neither is perfect, though.
Among other things, a ZenWiFi setup includes the following improvement:
- A new AiMesh section within the web user interface, which makes managing the feature easier.
- You can now use the web interface of a ZenWiFi router unit to control the USB port and lighting of a ZenWiFi node unit.
- WPA3 support, (only if all involved routers in the mesh are ZenWiFi.)
- The likely support — it’s not a sure thing — for the Guest network feature at the ZenWiFi node. (But not at a none-ZenWiFi node, for now.)
Again, ZenWiFi hardware will work with other AiMesh-ready routers, in the role of the main router or node. But in a mixed setup, you won’t have the benefit of some or all of the improvements above.
Asus AiMesh: Excellent performance
Generally, all Wi-Fi 5 router combos worked well, though not completely bug-free. By the end of 2019, AiMesh on Wi-Fi 6 routers was buggy.
In early 2020, Asus released a new round of firmware updates, which makes them work much better, though still far from perfect. And you can expect even more firmware releases in the future.
That said, AiMesh will always have some flaws, but so do other mesh systems. Any AiMesh combination, though, can beat other similarly-priced purpose-built systems in performance and features.
Below are the charts of the real-world performance that shows how AiMesh’s nodes stack up 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.
On the Wi-Fi 6 chart, keep in mind that the ZenWiFi AX cost hundreds of dollar less than all other competitors, namely the Orbi RBK852, the Alien Kit, and the Arris SURFboard mAX. Also, Asus said it would release new firmware “in weeks” to double the ceiling speeds of the ZenWiFi AX.
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. In return, it requires a bit more work to set up, and a large number of settings and features can be overwhelming.
The only true competitor I can think of is the Synology Mesh. Unfortunately, Synology hasn’t released more mesh-capable routers — 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, generally the setup process is 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, wired backhaul 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. Just use the latest or most powerful router as your primary note, and connect the nodes’ WAN port to the network.
If you’re thinking of a wireless mesh, however, things can be tricky.
Use the same routers or routers of the same Wi-Fi tiers
It’s best to use the same routers in an AiMesh system. This helps make sure there are no complications.
If you can’t use the same routers, or if that doesn’t make an economic sense, try using hardware of the same Wi-Fi tiers.
Generally, it’s not a good idea to mix tri-band and dual-band routers. 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. Again, in this case, it’s best to run network cables to link them.
But if you can’t, make sure you use the compatible Wi-Fi setting for the Wi-Fi 6 router when using it as the primary node. So, in a mixed setup, chances are you won’t be able to use it in the venerable 160 MHz channel width, which is required for it to deliver top Wi-Fi 6 speed.
AiMesh hardware placement
An AiMesh system follows the same rules of hardware placement as those of any other mesh and applies only to when you don’t use 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, if you use network cables to link them up, it doesn’t matter how you arrange the nodes.
Steps to set up an AiMesh system
If you get a 2-pack ZenWiFi system, keep in mind that the hardware units are pre synced. In this case, set up one as your network’s router, the way you do any other routers with a web interface, 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 supports AiMesh in only a few routers but will work, too.) 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 on its reset button with a pin. For more details on how to reset a router, check out this post.
3. Place the node router(s) within 10 feet (3 m) from the primary router
Note: Generally, you should use Wi-Fi for the setup process. But with the latest firmware, I was able to add nodes by connecting their WAN port to a LAN port of the main router (or of another node or switch) using a network cable. In this case, you can place the node wherever you want.
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 from step #4 to add more nodes, else, mission accomplished.
Note: When adding more nodes at a later time, 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 uint’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.
Asus’s roaming assistance
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 we go any further, though, keep in mind that it’s always the speed that matters. If your connection is fast enough for your task at hand, there’s no need to concern about which node your device connects.
Also, for roaming to work, the clients need to support that, too. Specifically, they need to feature 802.11k/r/v standards. The good news is most Wi-Fi hardware released in the past decade has at least one of those.
So, most of the time, the default hand-off settings work out just fine. And in fact, many purpose-built systems don’t even give you the option to change this setting.
But you can do this with an AiMesh setup. And that can be quite useful.
How to set up roaming assistance in AiMesh
The act of adjusting the roaming is easy and fast. How to figure the correct values, however, is a different story entirely.
Here’s how to customize seamless hand-off with AiMesh:
- Log in the interface of the primary router, navigate to the Wireless section (under Advanced Settings) then to Professional tab
- Pick the band you want to customize (2.4GHz or 5GHz).
- Locate the Roaming assistant setting; you’ll note that there’s a default value already in place, something like -70 dBm.
- Change the value to a new number that fits your situation — more on this below. Then click on Apply.
- Repeat from step #2 to #4 for the other band
Wi-Fi dBm explained
To know what fits your situation, you first need to understand dBm, (short for decibels relative to a milliwatt). Here are what you should keep in mind about dBm:
- We are dealing with negative numbers, so the lower the number, the higher the value, hence the stronger the signal.
- dBm doesn’t scale like most measurements (weight, length, etc.). It’s not linear and consistently incremental. Instead, it’s logarithmic and spiral — it’s curvy. As a result, the gap between -30 dBm and -60 dBm might not be more significant than between -60 dBm and -65 dBm, if at all.
- Generally, meaningful dBm values range from -10 (optimal signal) to -90 (unusable signal or no signal at all). Still, the useful range that applies to each router varies.
- Depending on the environment, a router picks a dBm value that works best. Consequently, you’ll find this number different from one router to another, but you can use it as the base to adjust roaming assistance to your liking, generally within plus or minus five dBm points.
My test routers automatically pick the dBm value of -70, so I’ll use it as the base.
Pick the right dBm value
In my experience, where I live, that number is equivalent to about two bars of Wi-Fi signal on the client — an OK signal. That means -65 dBm is now an excellent signal, and anything below -70, like -75, is probably no good.
At this threshold, a client would disconnect itself from the current node when the signal strength gets weaker than 2 bars, and it detects another node with a stronger signal nearby. It then connects itself to the closer node.
So, if you want the hand-off to take place at a higher threshold (like 3 bars), increase the dBm value a few points from the base (-67 or so in my case). Now, your phone won’t wait till the signal gets as low as two bars before it jumps.
If you change it to an even higher value (like -60 in my example), hand-off might happen too frequently, which can be a bad thing, especially when you stay right in the middle of two nodes.
The reason is each jump takes a bit of time for the client to re-authenticate with the new node. Hence, too many of them close to one another can cause interruption.
On the other hand, if you change the value to lower than -70, hand-off might not happen at all, and your phone remains connected to a node until there’s no signal from it.
But, generally, I’d keep the value of dBm between -60 (less clingy, faster speed) and -75 (more clingy, slower performance).
AiMesh roaming assistance: The takeaway
It’s important to note that there’s no precise measurement for Wi-Fi range and signal strength since they vary a great deal 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.