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CommScope SURFboard mAX 6E Review: Decent Hardware Meets Soddy App

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As the world is slowly adopting Wi-Fi 7, CommScope's first complete Wi-Fi 6E solution, the 2-pack SURFboard mAX 6E Tri-band Mesh Wi-Fi System (model W161) announced on June 15, 2023, is fashionably late to the party, to say the least.

Yet, the company touts the new hardware as a "cutting-edge" solution that "takes advantage of the newly available 6GHz band" to provide "best-in-class speed and performance for the modern home network." 

The marketing language is so over the top it's comical. And considering my sub-par real-world experience, I'd say somebody at the company should consider getting a new career.

The bottom line is if you can tolerate the horrid SURFboard Central app and the, consequently, high price of $499.99 for a 2-pack, the new mAX 6E is worth considering for a large and airy home.

Or you can skip it. Any of these options will be much better.

Dong's note: I first published this post on June 15, 2023, as a preview and updated it to an in-depth review on July 25 after thorough hands-on testing.

SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System Box Content
The new SURFboard mAX 6E comes in a 2-pack with two identical routers, each model W61.

SURFboard mAX 6E: The “best-in-class” nonsense

Before this maX 6E, CommScope released some odd 6GHz Wi-Fi devices a year ago.

And wireless standard had debuted over a year before that. Since then, more than a dozen purpose-built Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems have arrived. Compared with them, the new SURFboard mAX 6E is modest -- so much for "new" and "best-in-class".

Let's scrutinize a bit.

The common Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E issue in wireless backhauling

Right off the bat, this is an AXE6600 system. The number shows the total combined theoretical bandwidth of all three bands. It doesn't mean much.

However, CommScope audaciously claims the mAX 6E has "speeds up to 6,600 Mbps" (*). To put things in perspective, the company's older version, the SURFboard mAX AX6600, also has the same total theoretical bandwidth. Taking the numbers at face value, you can expect the new mAX 6E to deliver an experience of the same ballpark.

(*) A Wi-Fi connection (6E or a lower standard) occurs on a single band. So the fastest connection speed you'd get from the mAX 6E is that of its 6GHz band, which, on a good day, would negotiate at 2400 Mbps -- there are only 2x2 client -- and sustains that around Gig+. In most cases, you'll get a much slower real-world speed.

A top-tier Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster like the Asus ZenWifi Pro ET12 generally has the AXE11000 designation. The new mAX 6E is on the same tier as the ZenWifi ET8.

Secondly, CommScope says the mAX 6E "can easily support multi-gig speeds over a dedicated connection between the two mesh routers while concurrently supporting devices compatible with 6GHz." That's just flatly wrong.

Here's why: As a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E router, the mAX 6E has no band to work as the dedicated backhaul. If it dedicates any of the three bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) as the backhaul, that frequency is no longer available to clients. Either that or whichever band working as the non-dedicated backhaul will suffer from signal loss.

Backhaul vs fronthaul

When you use multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters -- in a mesh network or a combo of a router and an extender -- there are two types of connections: fronthaul and backhaul.

Fronthaul is the Wi-Fi signals broadcast outward for clients or the network ports for wired devices. It's what we generally expect from a Wi-Fi broadcaster.

Backhaul (a.k.a backbone,) on the other hand, is the link between one satellite Wi-Fi broadcaster and another, which can be the network's primary router, a switch, or another satellite unit.

This link works behind the scenes to keep the hardware units together as a system. It also determines the ceiling bandwidth (and speed) of all devices connected to the particular broadcaster.

The connection type, a Wi-Fi band or a network port, used for the backhaul is often called the uplink. A Wi-Fi broadcaster might use one of its bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) or a network port for the uplink.

Dual-WAN: Where the distinction between bandwidth vs speed is clear

When a Wi-Fi band handles backhaul and fronthaul simultaneously, only half its bandwidth is available to either end. From the perspective of a connected client, that phenomenon is called signal loss.

A Wi-Fi connection between two direct parties occurs in a single band, using one fixed channel, at any given time. This principle applies to all existing Wi-Fi standards, up to Wi-Fi 6E.

When a Wi-Fi band functions solely for backhauling, it's called the dedicated backhaul.

In a mesh system, only traditional Tri-band hardware -- those with an additional 5GHz band -- can have a dedicated backhaul band without ostracizing clients of the same band.

Generally, it's best to use network cables for backhauling -- wired backhauling. And that's an advantage of mesh hardware with network ports. In this case, a satellite broadcaster can use its entire Wi-Fi bandwidth for front-hauling.

In networking, network cables are always much better than wireless in speed and reliability.

Wireless backhauling is always problematic in all Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems -- the 6GHz band has too short a range to work reliably as the backhaul, and there's no option for dedicated wireless backhauling. That's partly why we have Quad-band systems like the Orbi RBKE960.

In the case of the mAX 6E, on the fronthaul, its 5GHz band has limited bandwidth, which caps at just 1200Mbps on paper. Its real-world speeds sustain much lower. In my testing, the new mesh couldn't even deliver Gig+ on this band.

What is Gig+

Gig+, or Gig Plus, conveys a speed grade faster than 1Gbps but slower than 2Gbps. So, it's 1.5Gbps, give or take, and it's not fast enough to be qualified as Multi-Gig or multi-Gigabit.

Gig+ generally applies to the sustained speeds of Wi-Fi 6 or 6E -- via a 2x2 at 160MHz connection which has the 2400Mbps theoretical ceiling speed -- or Internet speed and is not used to describe wired network connections.

SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System FrontSURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System Underside and Ports
Each mAX 6E mesh router is relatively compact. Here are one's front and its underside, where the parts are. The WAN port is a 2.5GBASE-T Multi-Gig. When used as the satellite, both of its ports function as LANs.

Next, each SURFboard mAX 6E router has only two network ports, of which only the WAN port is a 2.5GBASE-T. As a result, in wired networking, the new SURFboard mAX 6E can deliver a single Gig+ sustained connection at best, and that's only when you have faster-than-Gigabit broadband.

It's worth noting that the mAX 6e doesn't support wired backhauling -- more below. But even if (or when) it does, this link would be limited to Gigabit since each hardware unit has only a 2.5Gbps WAN port. There's no chance of using the new hardware via multi-Gigabit wired backhauling.

In all, the new mAX 6 is entry-level level Multi-Gig hardware. It has nothing to brag about.

Still, on the new system, Jonathan Wu, CommScope's vice president of product and customer support, offers this rosy statement:

β€œBy leveraging the 6 GHz band, the SURFboard mAX 6E provides less interference, higher speeds and overall better performance for devices that utilize Wi-Fi 6E to ensure flexible coverage and optimal internet access is available throughout the home.”

That turned out to be wishful thinking. The mAX 6E proved to be one of the most disappointing Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems I've encountered.

Hardware specifications: ARRIS SURFboard mAX 6E AXE6600 vs mAX AX6600

SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System SURFboard mAX Mesh System
Full NameARRIS SURFboard mAX 6E AXE6600 Wi-Fi 6 Mesh RouterARRIS SURFboard mAX AX6600 Wi-Fi 6 Mesh Router
ModelW61W21
Mesh Availability2-pack
(model W161)
2-Pack 
(model W121)
Dedicated Backhaul Band
(per vendor)
Yes (*)
(6GHz)
Yes
(5GHz-2)
Wired BackhaulNoNo
Dimensions7.8-inch (19.8 cm) tall, 4-inch (10.2 cm) wide7.8-inch (19.8 cm) tall, 4-inch (10.2 cm) wide
Weight1.72 lbs (780 g)1.37 lbs (620 g)
Wi-Fi BandwidthTri-Band AXE6600Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) AX6600
1st Band (2.4Ghz)
(channel width)
2x2 AXE: up to 600Mbps
(20/40MHz)
2x2 AX: up to 600Mbps
(20/40MHz)
2nd Band (5GHz)
(channel width)
2x2 AX: up to 1200Mbps
(20/40/80MHz)
2x2 AX: up to 1200Mbps
(20/40/80MHz)
3rd Band
(channel width)
4x4 AXE 6GHz: up to 4800Mbps
(20/40/80/160MHz)
4x4 AX 5GHz-2: up to 4800Mbps
(20/40/80/160MHz)
Backward Compatibility802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Mobile AppSURFboard CentralSURFboard Central
Web User InterfaceNoNo
Bridge ModeNoNo
AP ModeNoNo
USB PortNoNone
Gigabit Port1x LAN1x LAN
1x WAN
Multi-Gig port1x 2.5Gbps WANNone
Link AggregationNoNo
Dual-WANNoNo
Power Input100-120V100-120V
Power Consumption
(per 24 hours)
β‰ˆ 245 Wh
(measured at the router)
not measured
US Retail Price
(at launch)
$499.99 (2-pack)$399.99 (2-pack)
ARRIS SURFboard mAX 6E AXE6600 vs mAX AX6600: Hardware specifications.
(*) None of the mAX 6E's bands works as dedicated backhaul in real-world usage. The 6GHz band is available to clients.

SURFboard mAX 6E: The painfully mediocre real-world experience

Having had experience with the SURFboard mAX Pro and mAX AX6600, as well as almost all Wi-Fi 6E mesh available on the market, I had a measured expectation with the mAX 6E. Yet, the new mesh managed to give me some surprises. Not in a good way.

It's all because it has no web user interface, and the SURFboard Central app has worsened over the years.

The unacceptably terrible SURFboard Central mobile app

Like the case of the mAX AX6000, the mAX 6E uses the SURFboard Central app, which requires a login account to work. In return, it works locally and when you're out and about.

Having to sign in with the vendor means inherent privacy risks. That's never good, but it has become common in app-operated canned mesh systems.

And in the case of the mAX 6E, users' concern about potential privacy risks is the least of its problems.

SURFboard Central App
The SURFboard Central, the only way to manage the mAX 6E, has sparse Wi-Fi/network settings and features. It's slow to launch and often freezes when applying changes.

Initially, the mAX Pro used a different app called ARRIS SURFboard mAX Manager. In July 2020, the replacement SURFboard Central app was introduced as the only app for CommScope's mAX mesh family.

The SURFboard Central app has always been limited, but it was passable when I reviewed the mAX AX6600. Now with the mAX 6E, it is unbearable, especially compared to counterparts from competing mesh brands. It seems the software gets worse after each "update."

Here are a few highlighted bullet points on its current status with the latest version (released on the last days of May 2023):

  • The app takes a long time to start and often freezes. It might also crash for no reason. This happens on both Android and iOS. It's generally buggy. Using the phone's camera to scan a QR code barely works.
  • There's no multi-user or multi-device support. In other words, you can't share the same account among family members or for multiple mAX mesh sets. If you've had an older set and want to use the mAX 6E, the fastest way is to create a new account.
  • There's no Wi-Fi customization other than changing the SSID names and passwords -- one main SSID and another for the Guest network. There's no way to connect a client to a specific Wi-Fi band, 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz, or to set a specific band as the backhaul.
  • There's no confirmation to apply most changes. The app does that by itself when you turn on a feature (such as the Guest network) and then often restarts or freezes. It's generally hard to know if a new setting applies successfully, especially in a hurry.

Additionally, with the latest version, CommScope has changed the app to remove the product's names and show only their cryptic model numbers, making things unnecessarily confusing.

Specifically, the SURFboard mAX 6E Tri-band Mesh Wi-Fi system includes two identical routers. On each's underside, you'll note their model number, which is W61. However, during the setup process, the model "W61" or the name "mAX 6E" is not listed within the app among supported devices. Instead, there was only the model "W161". As it turned out, W161 is the model of the 2-pack mAX 6E, and you'd miss this unless you read the manual, which nobody does.

That, plus the app's bugginess mentioned above, made me believe at one point that the hardware was not yet supported. It took me hours to sort things out and get the mesh up and running. It was quite extreme.

And then it didn't get better.

SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System BoxSURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System include two identical units
The SURFboard mAX 6E's retail box and the back of the two mesh routers. While they are identical, one is designated as the main router, the other the satellite.

SURFboard mAX 6E: Frustrating to test, inconsistent performance

For this review, I used the SURFboard mAX 6E for over a week, and it was an unpleasant experience.

Apart from the problematic initial setup mentioned above, the mesh system can be frustrating to manage and, in my case, to test in a meaningful way.

SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh Router Long Range Performance 1 SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh Router Short Range Performance
The SURFboard mAX 6E's Wi-Fi performance when working as a standalone router.

For one, there's no way to make sure a client connects using a particular band. I had to check the connection status regularly to know which band, 5GHz or 6GHz is in use.

The most frustrating thing is that it often switches a connected client from one band to another at random, and mysteriously my Wi-Fi 6 and 6E clients -- I used many of them -- often connected to the 2.4GHz band initially, even within a reasonably close distance. On this front, it reminded me of Google's Nest Wifi Pro.

SURFboard mAX 6E Satellite Long Range Performance SURFboard mAX 6E Satellite Short Range Performance
The SURFboard mAX 6E's Wi-Fi performance when working as a wireless mesh satellite, with the 6GHz presumably working as the backhaul.

The mAX 6E, as a single router or a mesh system, failed my 3-day stress test, during which I experienced multiple brief disconnections. In most cases, these can be too brief to notice unless you're using Wi-Fi for calling or other real-time interaction applications. Still, disconnections are never good.

As for range, each mAX 6E can cover about 1600 ft2 (149 m2), so a 2-pack can handle about 3000 ft2 to 4000 ft2 -- your mileage will vary. That's if you're willing to have a relatively slow connection. If you want to use the 6GHz band as the backhaul -- the default -- you'll need to place the satellite unit within the light of sight no further than 40 feet from the main router.

Note, though, that the performance numbers shown on the chart were of best case scenario when the 6GHz band worked a solid backhaul. When I moved the satellite unit further or behind a wall, its performance decreased a great deal since I had to use the 5GHz or even 2.4GHz for the job.

mAX 6E connected at 2.4GHz band
My Wi-Fi 6 and 6E are often connected to the mAX 6E using the 2.4GHz band.

I tried using a network cable to connect the two units. In this case, nothing changed. The two still use Wi-Fi as their backhaul, as shown on the app and the real-world rates. As mentioned above, there's no way to force the two to use a particular band or the wired connection as the backhaul.

Overall, the mAX 6E felt dated, and its performance proved atypical of a beta device.

ARRIS SURFboard mAX 6E AX6600's Rating

6 out of 10
SURFboard mAX 6E Mesh System out of Box
Performance
7 out of 10
Features
4 out of 10
Design and Setup
6 out of 10
Value
7 out of 10

Pros

Support Wi-Fi 6E and 2.5Gbps WAN; decent performance and Wi-Fi coverage

Compact, fan-less, practical design

Cons

The SURFboard Central app is a disaster; no web user interface

Fluctuating performance; limited settings and features; no wired backhauling

Only two network ports per unit; single Multi-Gig port

Conclusion

With a better app or a web user interface, the SURFboard mAX 6E could make a good Tri-band mesh Wi-Fi system. As is, it seems the horrid SURFboard Central mobile app works against the hardware to purposely turns it into a big frustration.

So, until there are major app/firmware updates, take what CommScope says about this new mesh system with a huge grain of salt or as a joke.

Still, if you can get past the initial setup and have no desire to make any further changes, the mAX 6E can be a good solution for a home with lots of open space. Consider it if you can get it with a deal. Something around half its suggested retail price would do.

Or you can make your life easier by opting for one of the top-five Wi-Fi 6E alternatives previewed below.

TP Link Deco XE200 AXE11000 Whole Home Mesh Wi Fi 6E System 2 Pack Asus ZenWiFi Pro ET12 2 Netgear Orbi RBKE960 Quad band Mesh Wi Fi 6E System Box 1 Asus ZenWiFi ET8 Tri band Wi Fi 6E Mesh System 1 Linksys AXE8400 Atlas Max 6E with power adapters
NameTP-Link Deco XE200's RatingAsus ZenWiFi Pro ET12's RatingNetgear Orbi RBKE960 Series' RatingAsus ZenWiFi ET8's RatingLinksys AXE8400 Atlas Max's Rating
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Value
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