This post will walk you through specific steps to build an AiMesh setup and offer tips on how to optimize and maintain one.
This post is part of my series on Asus's AiMesh, a popular way to build a robust home Wi-Fi mesh system. That said, check the related box below to make sure you've followed the coverage in the right order or if you have any AiMesh-related questions.
Dong's note: I first published this post on February 11, 2022, and last updated it on January 13, 2023, with more detailed steps and relevant information.
Getting an AiMesh system of your own: The hardware arrangement
Generally, we do the hardware arrangement after already logically linking the units to build your mesh system -- via the step-by-step guide below.
I put it on top because I believe we should have an overview of how the system is supposed to pan out physically before setting it up. The whole thing is a chicken and egg situation, and I lay it out according to how my brain works.
With that, here goes:
You need at least two routers to create an AiMesh system. No matter what combo you get, which I detailed in this post, the setup process is generally the same.
Here's the diagram (schema) of hardware arrangement in an AiMesh system:
Internet source -> Primary AiMesh router -> [ optional unmanaged switch(es) ] -> AiMesh satellite nodes.
Specifically, you connect the primary router's WAN port directly to your Internet terminal device -- often, that's a Cable modem or a fiber ONT. (If there's a device in between them, you'd have to think of double-NAT, or something is wrong.)
After that, add your AiMesh satellite to the router, which is always the case in a wireless setup since the (first) satellite always connects (directly) to the primary router's Wi-Fi network.
In a wired backhauling setup, when you use network cables to link them, things need to be more specific. Let's dig in!
AiMesh with wired backhauling: How to connect the hardware units
When you choose wired backhauling, there are two scenarios in terms of hardware arrangement: Standard mode and mesh AP mode.
Standard scenario: Primary AiMesh router + AiMesh wired satellite nodes.
This configuration is generally recommended, and it works best.
In this case, the way you link the hardware units together follows the same rules as that of a standard router, specifically:
- The router unit must be in your local network's frontmost position, with the rest of the nodes behind it.
- Use a node's WAN port to connect it to the existing network, namely a LAN port on the router, a switch, or another node.
In other words, the satellite units must be at least one level behind the router unit.
So let's say you have a mesh of one primary router and two nodes. Here's how you use network cables to link the hardware units:
- Hook the router's WAN port to the Internet source (modem/ONT/gateway)
- Connect the satellite nodes to the router by:
- Link each satellite's WAN port to a LAN port of the router. OR
- Connect the 1st satellite node's WAN port to the router's LAN port, then connect the 2nd satellite's WAN port to the 1st's LAN port. Or
- Place an unmanaged switch (or two) in between them(1). This switch can be between the router and the satellite node(s) or between the satellites themselves. But it also must be behind the router.
(1) Use a Multi-Gig switch in a mesh with multi-Gigabit backhauling. In a direct connection, the wired backhauling speed is determined by the slowest port grade involved -- that of the primary router, the switch, or the satellite.
In a fully wired backhaul setup, you should explicitly use Ethernet Backhaul Mode via the AiMesh section of the router's web interface.
If the Internet source is a gateway, you also can change the AiMesh router and, therefore, the entire system to work in the Access Point mode. That brings us to the second scenario.
AiMesh system in AP mode scenario: An existing (AiMesh or not) router + wired AiMesh nodes
This configuration applies to the situation where you already have an existing router (like an ISP-provided gateway) and want to avoid double-NAT. Or if you want to use mixed hardware in general, such as when using AiMesh routers of different Wi-Fi standards or AiMesh router(s) on top of a third-party router.
In this case, you can arrange the hardware the same as the standard configuration above. Or you can also connect each AiMesh satellite directly to the existing router. In other words, all AiMesh units (primary and satellite) can be at the same level.
So let's say you have an existing router and three AiMesh nodes. You first set up the AiMesh system the standard way, using a double NAT. After that, from within the web interface of the primary unit, change the whole mesh system into the AP mode.
Now you can connect all three units' WAN ports to the existing gateway (or a switch.)
This configuration is also an option to build a Multi-Gig wired AiMesh system of mixed Dual-band and Tri-band hardware.
With that, let's find out how to build an AiMesh system in detail.
Asus AiMesh Setup: The step-by-step guide
Generally, AiMesh comes in different flavors. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you get a ZenWiFi set, chances are the hardware units are pre-synced. Consequently, you only need to set up the router unit the way you do any standard router, and your mesh is ready -- you won't need to add the other units manually.
- The setup process is the same if you get multiple standalone routers or use ZenWiFi hardware of different sets.
- If you use a standalone router as the primary router and a ZenWiFi mesh set (2) as satellite nodes, keep in mind that you should add one satellite unit at a time and ensure the other satellite(s) are turned off during the process. The same can be said about using multiple ZenWiFi sets together.
(2) In a 2-pack or 3-pack, ZenWiFi hardware units are pre-synced. They would automatically link to one another when turned on simultaneously, preventing them from joining a system hosted by a different router, as satellite units.
With that out of the way, below are steps on getting your own AiMesh setup, no matter what hardware combo you use.
As a rule, I'd recommend the web user interface for these steps. While the Asus Router mobile app is helpful, it might create inconsistency in the setup process.
There are three main steps in setting up an AiMesh system. By the way, for this post, I use the GT-AX6000 as the primary router and a few others as satellite nodes. However, the process is the same if you use any other combo.
A. Set up the primary router
This step applies when you set up a home network from scratch. If you're already using an AiMesh-enabled router, you can jump to step B.
Again, you can set up an Asus router with a web user interface like any standard router. Here are the general steps:
- Connect the router's WAN port to the Internet source, be it a modem or a Fiber ONT.
- Connect the computer to the router's LAN port or its default Wi-Fi open network, which is "ASUS_xx".
- Launch a browser (Chrome, Firefox, or Edge) on the connected computer and navigate to the router's default IP address which is 192.168.50.1 (or router.asus.com.)
- Follow the onscreen wizard to set up the router as a standalone router, or you can pick the AiMesh router role -- the two are the same.
The router will restart once or a few times during the setup process. Make sure you give it a few minutes after the final restart for it to be ready.
Note: Generally, you can upgrade the router to the latest firmware if prompted. But in many cases, such as when you use mixed hardware units in the system, make sure you update their firmware appropriately, as described below. This applies to the satellite units, too.
Making a wrong decision on the firmware version will likely give you big headaches.
B. Prepare the satellite node unit(s)
- Firmware update: If you use Wi-Fi 5 hardware, such as the Blue Cave, or RT-AC86U, you must update the firmware to an AiMesh-supported version, which starts with release version 384. Generally, you must set up the hardware as a standalone router and update the firmware via the web user interface. If you want to use version 384 (and not 386), it's also recommended that you manually put the router in the AiMesh node role -- as mentioned in step A.4 above.
- Reset: If you use Wi-Fi 6 or newer hardware, all you have to do is reset it to the default setting, which is already the case if you get a brand-new unit.
- Placement: Plug the node or nodes into power and place them some 10 feet (3m) from the main router (3).
(3) With some models, you can connect their WAN port to the router's LAN port. However, using a wired backhaul might or might work during the setup process. It's safer to set up the node wirelessly and use the wired backhaul afterward.
Again, as mentioned above, if you use a ZenWiFi pack as nodes, add one hardware unit at a time, with the other being turned off.
C. Adding a satellite node to the main router to form the mesh
This step is entirely on the router unit's web interface.
Note: When applicable, get the main router out of the Ethernet Backhaul Mode for this step. You can put it back in this mode after you've added all nodes.
1. Search for satellite node(s)
On a connected computer, navigate to the main router's web interface -- as shown in step A.3 above.
Click on Network Map on the menu, then on the AiMesh icon. Now click on Search. After a few seconds, the node(s) will appear, as shown in the screenshot below.
(Alternatively, you can use the AiMesh section of the interface, but in my experience, using the network map is much better and more consistent.)
2. Add a satellite node to the mesh
Click on a node, and 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 in the 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 #1 to add more nodes if need be. Otherwise, mission accomplished! (Make sure you give the system a manual restart and a few minutes after to be ready.)
All you have to do now is strategically place the satellite(s) around the house for the best coverage.
3. Rearrange the hardware
Once you've added all satellite nodes to the main router, it's time to rearrange the hardware accordingly.
If a wireless setup, make sure the satellites are placed around the primary router.
In a wired backhauling setup, connect the hardware to the network accordingly. Generally, you want to use the WAN port of the satellite to hook it to the existing network, either to the router's LAN port or to a switch that connects to the router. You can also daisy-chain the nodes.
In a mix of wired and wireless backhauling setups, it's best to have the wireless satellites connected directly to a router or a wired satellite.
After that, you might want to manage them properly, too.
AiMesh setup: Hardware management
Once you've gotten your system up and running, AiMesh has a lot of ways for users to manage the satellite nodes.
Below are those you'll find handy. Let's start with what folks care about the most: Keeping the devices connected to the closest (strongest) node, a.k.a Roaming Assistance.
Understanding roaming assistance
As we move around the house, we generally want our phone (or laptop) to automatically connect to the closest Wi-Fi broadcaster to get the best connection speed instead of the one farther away.
Generally, that's called hand-off or seamless hand-off in a mesh Wi-Fi system. With AiMesh, that's called roaming assistance.
Before continuing, remember that signal hand-off is complicated and almost always hit or miss, as I detailed in this mesh explainer. Another thing is most of the time, the default hand-off settings will work out, and most canned systems don't even allow you to change the settings.
Wi-Fi roaming in real-world usage
Mesh hardware often uses the connection speed as the base for the hand-off.
Specifically, a client would consider jumping from one broadcaster to another only when the connection speed between it and the current broadcaster is no longer fast enough for its general bandwidth needs.
Depending on the situation and varying by hardware or Wi-Fi standard, this threshold can be very low, like 50Mbps, because most clients generally don't need more than that in real-world usage.
In any case, this is the reason why in specific mesh setups, devices are more clingy to a far mesh node -- they don't reach the speed threshold required for the jump yet.
So, having the option to manage hand-off can be nice but might bring about adverse results if not done correctly. Remember that this part is optional, and you should tread lightly.
Step to adjust AiMesh’s roaming assistance
Like everything in an AiMesh system, you adjust this setting on the primary router unit. The screenshot below belongs to an RT-AX89X, but the process is the same if you use any router.
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, 5GHz, or 6GHz)
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 (more sensitive, clients favor fast speeds and roam faster) and -75 (less sensitive, clients tend to remain to the original broadcaster).
Important note: If you make the roaming too sensitive, a device placed in the middle of two nodes of the same signal strength (or weakness) might have problems staying connected -- it might keep jumping between the two.
5. Click on Apply. Repeat step #2 for other Wi-Fi bands when applicable. Then manually restart all hardware units and give the system 5 to 10 minutes to start up.
And that's it. Your system should deliver the best signal hand-off now.
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, mentioned above are my estimates applicable to my situation. The 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 that almost always works: You can always turn your device's Wi-Fi off and then back on to get it connected to the closest broadcaster.
Adding device to the Roaming Blocklist
This is the opposite of the above: You want a device to remain connected to a specific node for one reason or another.
An example is when you have a device right in between two equally strong nodes, and it keeps jumping back and forth, causing unnecessary disconnections. Or you want to keep the load evenly among different nodes manually.
Here are the steps:
- Log into the primary router's web interface and ensure the device is connected to the node you want. You can check on this via the AiMesh section.
- Go to the Wireless section, then click on the Roaming Block list tab
- Enter the device's MAC address (or pick it on the list of the connected clients) and click on the Plus sign (+). Repeat to add more devices.
- Hit Apply.
And that's it. The device will now be locked to its current Wi-Fi node. To undo this, click on the trash icon and apply the changes.
Managing a node’s backhaul and additional settings
Each satellite node uses the Auto setting for the backhaul by default, which should work in almost all situations. But sometimes, you should adjust the settings of this backhaul connection.
Picking the best backhaul
There are a couple of instances where you might want to pick the backhaul manually.
One example is if you use a satellite node with a single Multi-Gig port (LAN or WAN) -- such as the ZenWiFi XT8 (or ET8), RT-AX86U, or RT-AX89X -- in a wired backhauling setup with another Multi-Gig router, you want to manually pick that port (instead of a Gigabit port) as the backhaul priority.
And generally, you should use wired backhaul for Dual-band (or Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E) hardware. I detailed that in this post on how to pick an AiMesh combo.
Another example is if you use a Wi-Fi 6E satellite node in a wireless configuration, it's imperative that you pick the best band for the backhauling job. The 5GHz band is generally a safer choice, while the 6GHz band is the best if you can put the hardware near the router within a line of sight.
In any case, to manage the backhaul, go to the AiMesh section of the primary router's web interface, pick the node in question and change the setting accordingly. Here you can also manage a few other aspects of the satellite, including its LAN ports, LEDs, and USB ports.
Disabling the use of DFS (when necessary)
When using the 5GHz band as the backhaul and you live in an area with frequent RADAR signals, it's recommended that you turn off the use of DFS channels for this band.
In most cases, turning off DFS means you can no longer use a 160GHz channel which cuts the performance in half, but you'll get a much more reliable connection.
If your hardware supports UNII-4, like the case of the ZenWiFi Pro X12 or ZenWiFi XT8, you can use the 160MHz for backhauling without having to use DFS.
To manage the use of DFS channels, go to the Wireless section of the router unit's web interface, pick the band in question (5GHz or 5GHz-2), and uncheck the box that reads "Auto select channel using DFS channels." as shown in the screenshot above.
Using the Ethernet Backhaul Mode (when applicable)
If you use a network cable to link the router and the satellites throughout -- a pure wired backhauling setup -- it's best to choose the Ethernet Backhaul Mode explicitly.
Note: Don't use this mode if you mix wired and wireless backhaul. Also, turn this mode off when adding more satellites to the system or during troubleshooting, such as when changing the backhaul port of a satellite unit.
Here are the steps:
- Log in to the router's web interface.
- Go to the AiMesh section, then to Systems Settings.
- Move the slider of Ethernet Backhaul Mode (EBM) to the On position (right).
Depending on the router, you might be asked to set up the Wi-Fi network names (SSIDs) -- picking between Smart Connect and separate SSIDs -- before you can turn EBM on. In any case, you can always customize the SSIDs afterward. If you have a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 (or Quad-band Wi-Fi 6E) router, it's a good idea to unhide the 5GHz-2's SSID and give it a meaningful name, different from the default.
The router will restart to apply the changes. After that, it's a good idea to give all hardware units in the system a manual restart and a few subsequent minutes to be ready.
This mode allows for better performance and easier management of the system's Wi-Fi settings. If you use Tri-band hardware, you'll also be able to lump all bands into a single SSID known as Smart Connect.
Removing a node
If you want to remove a satellite node from the system within the web interface, go to the Network Maps, then click on the AiMesh button. Click on the trash bin icon next to its name, as shown in the screenshots below.
That will also reset the node to factory default.
AiMesh firmware update
The last but most important thing is to manage the hardware's firmware.
Asus regularly releases firmware updates, a Linux-based operating system called Asuswrt, for its routers. Many of these updates add new features to the hardware -- they do more than patch security vulnerabilities.
Some updates may inadvertently cause a particular model to go haywire, likely because the company tries to do so much with its routers.
As a result, firmware is a tricky thing with Asus. When it comes to updating -- especially in an AiMesh setup of mixed hardware units using wireless backhauling -- keep the following three items in mind:
- Avoid the initial major release(*): This is the first firmware version of a model where the 3xx number changes, such as from 384 to 386 or from 386 to 388. Generally, the latest minor update of the previous major firmware release is always the most stable.
- Avoid using Auto-Update for firmware: You should update the firmware when you see fit instead of letting the hardware update itself.
- Version consistency (in a mesh system): Generally, it would be best to use the firmware version of the same major release for all AiMesh members. (Mixing hardware of different releases might produce mixed results.)
(*) How to read an Asus router's firmware: As shown in the screenshot below, in a particular official firmware version, such as 22.214.171.124.386_47629, the 3xx number in the middle denotes Asus's home-grown major release. The following number -- often includes five digits, such as 47629 in the screenshot -- indicates a minor update.
(A firmware version that starts with 9.x.x.x instead of 3.x.x.x is a beta release meant for testing purposes only.)
The part before that -- 126.96.36.199 in the screenshot -- is the Linux kernel version that will also change, albeit much less frequently. It's even more significant and should also be taken into consideration.
On the one hand, moving between major releases might break your AiMesh setup or even your standalone router. On the other, new hardware comes with a specific initial version out of the box -- you have no option to downgrade it -- and some old models won't get the latest release. So depending on the mesh combo, your luck will vary.
AiMesh started as an add-on feature with firmware version 384 in early 2018 -- represented by the RT-AC86U -- and was stable by the latest minor update of this version. In early 2020, Asus released version 386, buggy in the early stages, to add AiMesh 2.0 via the introduction of the ZenWifi product line. By late 2022, version 386 became fully mature, and Asus started releasing version 388, and the history repeated itself. So on and so forth.
As a rule, in a mesh system, it's best to wait for a few minor updates of a major release before upgrading. Depending on the hardware combo, you might need to rebuild the system from scratch or reset and re-add a satellite node if you change the major firmware version (in one or all hardware units involved.)
In any case, for firmware updates, go to the firmware section of the main router -- you can jump directly there by clicking on the router's firmware version running at the top of the web interface.
Asus also allows for going back to an older firmware version. So if a new firmware breaks things, you can always manually go back to the previous version that works.
To return to a previous firmware version, download the desired version and upload it to the router via the button that follows "Manual firmware update:" in the screenshot above. For detailed steps, check out this post on Merlin firmware.
An AiMesh setup is not the easiest way to build a mesh system, compared to other canned alternatives like Orbi, TP-Link Deco, or Amazon's eero.
However, getting it done right will give you an excellent mesh with little or no privacy risks, which is a rare commodity these days.