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This Is How Your Home Wi-Fi System Is a Mesh

A mesh Wi-Fi system generally include multiple hardware units.
A mesh Wi-Fi system generally includes multiple hardware units. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Kudos to anyone who spots the pun in the headline. OK, generally, a mesh is a Wi-Fi system. Often, to be sure, people also call it a mesh Wi-Fi system. If you already know that, well, there’s more than just semantics in this article.

Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on April 28, 2018, and have updated it since.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi system?

A mesh Wi-Fi system has a couple of names, such as a wireless mesh network (WMN), or a mesh for short.

No matter how you call it, in a nutshell, a mesh consists of multiple hardware Wi-Fi broadcasters (routers, access points, etc.) that work together to form a single unified Wi-Fi network.

READ MORE:  Networking Your Home Properly with these Wi-Fi Basics

Generally, the use of a mesh applies to large homes or offices where a single router doesn’t provide enough Wi-Fi coverage. You need at least two hardware units to form a mesh. One is to connect to the Internet, and the other links to the first one — wirelessly or via a network cable — to extend the Wi-Fi coverage.

These hardware units are called different things by different vendors, such as base stations, access points, nodes, satellites, hubs, mesh points, Wi-Fi points, routers, and so on. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them hubs in this article.

In a mesh, one of the hubs will work as the primary unit that connects to the Internet, and the rest will extend the Wi-Fi and other settings of that unit. To distinguish, I’d call the primary unit router (or main/primary router) and the rest satellites (or satellite hubs).

Mesh has been around for a long time, but it became a big deal when Eero announced the Eero Wi-Fi System in February 2016. Since then, there’s been a boom of this type of Wi-Fi solutions, with virtually all networking vendors introducing their own.

Mesh vs. extenders vs. access points

Hardware-wise, using wireless extenders with your existing router is similar to having a mesh network: there are multiple hubs involved. In reality, though, they are two different things entirely.

Extenders

A Wi-Fi extender connects itself wirelessly to an existing Wi-Fi network then rebroadcasts the signal using a Wi-Fi SSID (network name) of its own, and not as part of a system.

As a result, even when you program the extender’s Wi-Fi to use the same name and password as those of the router, you still end up with two independent Wi-Fi broadcasters working in the same air space.

Among other things, that can cause interference and adversely affect the performance of both. Also, if you change the Wi-Fi settings of the router, you will likely need to reconnect the extender manually.

So, performance-wise, extenders are generally terrible in real-world speed. However, they are popular Wi-Fi “quick fixes” since they give you the full Wi-Fi bars, an illusion of “better Wi-Fi,” and you don’t need to worry about running network cables.

Extra: Extender and virtual MAC addresses

There’s also one thing you should keep in mind about extenders: Most of them use virtual MAC addresses for connected clients.

READ MORE:  What Is a MAC Address and How to Change Yours

In other words, devices connected to an extender will register to the network using a different MAC address instead of its own. As a result, if you use any features that require this type of address to identify a device, such as MAC-filtering or IP reservation, they will not work well, if at all, when extenders are involved.

Access points

But if you can install network cables, access points (APs) are a much better choice.

APs are similar to extenders with one significant difference: An AP connects to the main router using a network cable. (Many Wi-Fi extenders and routers can work as an AP). For this reason, they deliver much better performance than extenders because there’s no signal loss — more on this below.

However, APs and Extenders are essentially the same in the sense that they are the necessary hardware part of a mesh, but not sufficient by themselves. For that, you’ll need to use extenders and access points designed to work together to form a single seamless Wi-Fi network. Now each is a mesh Wi-Fi hub.

The Netgear Nighthawk Mesh X4S (EX7500) is one of a few tri-band extenders.
The Netgear Nighthawk Mesh X4S (EX7500) is one of a few tri-band extenders. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

How a mesh Wi-Fi network is better

Compare to using individual extenders or access points; a mesh Wi-Fi network has a couple of clear advantages.

Ease of use

A Wi-Fi system is generally easy to set up. At most, you only need to set up the main hub; the rest of the hubs will replicate the settings of the main hub.

When you need to change Wi-Fi settings, such as the network name (SSID) or password, you only have to do that on the router unit. The satellites will replicate the change by themselves.

Seamless hand-off 

In a mesh, you have continuous connectivity on your device when roaming from one hub to another, as though there was just one hub involved.

For seamless hand-off to work, all connected hardware devices (hubs and clients) need to support the IEEE 802.11r or 802.11k standard. Most Wi-Fi systems and most clients released in the past five or so years support this. To find out for sure, you need to google the specs of your hardware’s Wi-Fi chip.

Keep in mind that some extenders can turn an existing Wi-Fi network into a “mesh” by offering dedicated backhaul and supposedly seamless hands-off  — more on backhaul below. Examples of these are the Nighthawk Mesh Extenders from Netgear — the EX8000 and EX7500.

However, still, you’ll need to re-setup these extenders, each time you change your Wi-Fi network’s name or password. Also, in my testing, the seamless hand-off is a hit or miss, depending on your existing router. So, don’t expect to have a real mesh system if you use extenders in your network.

Better performance

In a mesh network, all the hubs work together as a single unified Wi-Fi network. As a result, they leverage one another’s Wi-Fi signals to deliver the best efficiency, instead of each working independently, which can create interference. For this reason, a mesh will also have better performance and reliability compared with using a bunch of extenders (or APs) together.

The Linksys Velop Wall Plug includes two Wi-Fi satellites designed to plug directly into a wall socket.
The Linksys Velop Wall Plug includes two Wi-Fi satellites designed to plug directly into a wall socket. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Signal loss: Wireless mesh’s biggest drawback

When you wirelessly link Wi-Fi broadcasters together, you will have to deal with a phenomenon called signal loss. 

Signal loss happens when a hub’s wireless band receives and rebroadcasts Wi-Fi signals at the same time. Having to do two things simultaneously, it loses some 50 percent of its efficiency. Keep in mind that signal loss happens even when you’re getting full bars Wi-Fi signal on your device.

Specifically, in a dual-stream (2×2) Wi-Fi system, such as the Linksys Velop Dual-Band, all hubs are capable of delivering up to 867 Mbps. A client connected to a satellite hub will get 433 Mbps from it at most or half the speed compared to when the client connected to the main router hub. By the way, these are theoretical speeds, in real-world usage, the numbers are much lower, due to distance, interference, and overheads.

For this reason, avoid using cheap extenders of slow Wi-Fi standards since, after the signal loss, the actual Wi-Fi speed is too sluggish to be useful. Again, the signal bars on the end device don’t mean much.

To reduce signal loss, networking vendor has introduced tri-band Wi-Fi systems (and extenders), such as the Netgear Orbi, which has a third dedicated backhaul band. This band is used only to connect the hubs, allowing the other two bands to focus on serving clients.

The best way to combat signal loss, however, is to set up your system correctly.

How to best set up a mesh Wi-Fi system

A mesh system generally comes in two or three hubs. You use one of them — any of them if the units are identical — as the main router. This router unit needs to connect to an Internet source, such as a cable modem, using its WAN port. 

After that, you can add the rest of the hubs to the system, using a mobile app or a web interface. From then on, they automatically work with the main router hub to form a unified Wi-Fi network.

Wired backhaul

The best way to implement a mesh is by using network cables to link the hubs together in a setup called wired backhaul. In this case, you’ll always have the best possible performance, since the wires eliminate signal loss no matter the distance between the hubs. By the way, some canned Wi-Fi systems don’t allow for wired backhaul, but most do.

Generally, you don’t need to worry much about how to arrange the hubs in a wired backhaul setup. Within reason, no matter the distance or placement, you’ll get the same performance. By the way, if you have a gigabit-class internet and want to enjoy it via Wi-Fi, wired backhaul via Gigabit or faster, is a must.

Wireless backhaul

On the other hand, in a wireless setup, which saves you from having to run network cables, how you place the hubs with one another is crucial. In this case, there are two things to consider, the distance and the topology.

1. The distance

The closer you keep the hubs to each other, the stronger the signal is between them, which translates into faster speeds for clients. The catch is you’ll have less Wi-Fi coverage. On the other hand, a longer distance means a more extensive coverage, but you’ll end up having a slow Wi-Fi network.

It’s always tricky to find the sweet spot that balances between coverage and speed. Generally, if there are no walls in between, you can place a hub some 40 ft (12 m) to 75 ft (23 m) from the main router unit. If there are walls, 30 ft to 40 ft is about the maximum distance. 

Ultimately, it’s the speed that matters. If you only need to deliver a modest broadband connection, you can go a bit crazy on the distance to get the most extensive coverage.

The recommended star topology (top) vs. daisy-chain topology.
The recommended star topology (top) vs. daisy-chain topology. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

2. The topology

In a mesh network, the topology is how you arrange the hubs, which, again, is only relevant when you don’t use network cables to link the hubs together.

In this case, to reduce signal loss, you should use the star topology by placing satellites around the main router hub. This topology ensures each satellite has a direct connection to the main router, making the Wi-Fi signals hop only once from the router before it gets to the end-client.

If you use the daisy-chain topology, where the signal has to hope more than once — from the main router to a satellite hub, then to another satellite hub, etc,– before it gets to the device, the net speed will suffer a great deal due to severe signal loss.

How to pick the best mesh Wi-Fi system for your home

Cost aside, there are three things you should consider when getting a Wi-Fi system: speed, features, and privacy.

1. Speed

Speed is, by far, the most critical factor.

Generally, for sharing a modest Internet connection (50 Mbps download speed or slower), any mesh system will do. The reason is that even slow Wi-Fi speed is still much faster than that.

However, if you pay for a fast Internet plan — 150 Mbps or higher — you’ll need a system that has a dedicated backhaul band.

The AiProtection is one of many features the Asus Lyra Trio has to offer.
The AiProtection is one of many features the Asus Lyra Trio has to offer. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

And if you have an ultra-high-speed internet connection (500 Mbps or faster), you’ll need to run network cables to connect the hubs. There’s no way around this.

In this case, there’s no need to get a system with a dedicated Wi-Fi backhaul band. Instead, get a dual-band system with the fastest Wi-Fi speed, like the Asus Lyra Trio, that supports wired backhaul. This is, by the way, is the ideal setup for any network.

2. Features

The feature set of a system means what you can do with your home network. If all you want is to access the Internet, don’t worry too much about features. However, it’s always helpful to have a system that includes built-in online protection.

I’m not a fan of mesh systems (or routers) without a web interface since they don’t offer users the full control of the network.

That said, if you want tons of useful features and network settings, use a mesh system from Asus or Synology. The runners up are those from Netgear or Linksys. Others tend to have a limited amount of features and network settings. In return, they are much easier to set up.

Synology Mesh is the latest option in the mesh market and it's easily one of the best.
Synology Mesh is the latest option in the mesh market, and it’s easily one of the best. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

3. Privacy

All Wi-Fi systems that require you to register an account and log in before you can manage your home network pose privacy risks. The reason is your network connects to the vendor at all times, and potentially, third parties can keep tabs of what you do online.

Final note

All Wi-Fi systems are to work as the only router of your home. If you want to keep your existing router, then get a mesh that can work in the access point (AP) mode — some vendors call this Bridge Mode. In this case, they are just extending your existing home network.

Ω Found a typo? Please report it by selecting the text and pressing Ctrl + Enter. Thanks! ♥

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

21 Comments

  1. Hi Dong, Great article and it cleared up some things about wired backhaul that I was unclear about. I have a couple of questions concerning wifi speed on the various mesh systems. I’m going to be setting up a network in a new home for family and It’s a large 4000sq ft home. They will be paying for 200Mbps speed from the ISP. What “AC Protocol” (AC 1750, 2200, 3000 etc..) should I be looking for that will provide at least 200Mbps over a 5Ghz signal from close to the node assuming I use a wired backhaul? Also do you have any recommended systems for this type of set up. I would like to have some features, parental control probably most important. FYI the primary hub/router is going to have to be in a closet/pantry where the modem is going to have to go (they didn’t know any better when they planned it). I’ve been thinking a 3 node system because of that but I would love to hear your take. Thanks!

    1. Hi JB, the ACxxx is very misleading since it’s the combined number of all the bands and a connection takes place on a single band at a time. That said, you’re looking for 2×2 or faster AC broadcasters. If you’re going to use wired backhaul, almost any systems will do. If you’re looking to use wireless backhaul, you need a tri-band system.

      Parental control hasn’t been one of my big concerns (I should have paid more attention to this and I will from now on). But for your needs, I’d recommend getting the RT-AC86U and two Blue Caves. With wired backhaul, they will work very nicely. Also, you’ll have pretty good parental control features (though again, I haven’t really used it.)

  2. Hi,

    A little late to the party here but I was wondering if you’ve done testing to see if Mesh is faster than multiple WAPs?

    You say that Mesh will give the best peformance, but in a Mesh network aren’t all of the nodes forced in to operating on the same channel? If so, wouldn’t there be some degradation of signal due to interference. Or do the nodes automatically reduce/increase signal strength to reduce the interference? ( I think I read somewhere that some nodes do that??)

    I have a large house and have favoured multiple WAPs as I’ve been a bit sceptical of mesh solutions
    I currently have a Asus RT-AC87U acting as the main router in the house, which is placed in the basement.
    On the 2nd story I have a Asus RT-AC66U wired backhauled to the RT-AC87U acting as an access point.

    I’ve set them up to use the same SSID and passwords, channels are configured manually to ensure no overlapping, and roaming assist is enabled.
    Wireless devices jump between the two without problem and I can get full download speeds from both of them using the Speedtest app in alot of the house.

    However, there’s still one small area at the far end of the house where wireless devices experience dropouts and am on the brink of adding another AP (wired backhaul, of course).

    Unfortunately neither of these two routers that I currently have from Asus support AiMesh but have seen that I can buy used Asus routers that do for little money and have been wondering about getting 3 of these devices to try AiMesh, all wired backhauled.
    (RT-AC68Us can be bought cheaply and support AiMesh)
    Worst case, mesh Wi-Fi isn’t cracked up to what everyone raves about and I just set them all to run as ordinary APs.

    But I wonder if it’s worth it? Hence my initial question about you having tested mesh vs multiple WAPs.
    Would there be any benefit performance wise in going mesh instead of multiple APs. I believe my current setup delivers the good (apart from the one dead-ish area which will soon be fixed one way or another)

    Maybe I should just get another RT-AC87U (these can also be bought for little money) but the advantage of this model over the AC68U or AC66U is that it supports 4×4 on the 5Ghz band.

    1. You’re already having a mesh, Ben. It’s just that you had to spend time and configure each AP individually. If you get a mesh from the beginning, you only need to configure it once at the router unit. So, you’re doing well now, no need to change anything. And sure, add another AP for that far corner. Using wired backhaul is always the best approach.

  3. Hi Dong,

    I’ve found this article to be super helpful.

    I currently have a wired star topology with a router which is connected to the internet. Off this main router I have wired connections into different areas of my place with another router attached and set up as AP mode. All SSIDS have a seperate name which is annoying.

    Hence why I’m switching to Orbi (someone is giving it to me). I’m reading a lot of articles discussing how Orbi supports Daisy Chaining and how good it is, but haven’t seen at articles discussing how star topology is better….except your article alludes to it here, albeit in a wireless setup.

    Do I need to change my topology to be a daisy chained network or is star wired network still king?

    It seems as though star topology would be better, but I’m confused now. If you could shed some light on this I’d be super grateful!

    Thanks

    1. Hi Ronnie,

      Star or daisy-chaining topologies applies only to when you use the hardware units in a WIRELESS setup. If you use network cables to link them up, it doesn’t matter. And yes, the Orbi will work great for you, but any mesh system with wired backhaul support is, for that matter, considering your current setup.

      Hope this helps,

      -Dong.

  4. Good article as always. I have couple questions. My background is I have owned Orbi (multiple satellites to the point I ended up getting 9000sqft worth of devices for 3800 sqft house trying to get best coverage throughout house) and currently use Eero Pro. All connected using Wifi (no wired backhaul option for me). For Orbi, I used Star as well as daisy chain options with router located center of house. Currently we have 300Mbps DL service, but recently I see our town getting new cable replacement by Xfinity so I’d assume/hope we will get Gigabit service soon.

    I had major issue with Orbi due to constant connection drop, and eventually ended up selling. But in retrospect I wonder if having too many satellites resulted in interference. Though I added one satellite at a time in attempt to maximize throughput throughout the house. Eero is unremarkably stable, never had issue of dropout for months but does not get me the fastest speed.

    So I’m currently looking at potential of alternative and conceptually, AiMesh really intrigues me. In particular, ROG Ax11000 appears future proof on paper and flexibility of node selection to the extreme of second Ax11000 for dedicated wifi backhaul placed South and North end of house vs. center Ax11000 and as needed Ax88U or upcoming Ax6100 at North and Sounth ends.

    For these, I have couple questions.

    What do you think about satellite/node selection, particularly on AiMesh when compared to system like Orbi or Eero? With the latter two system, I’ve experienced that selection of node seems not always optimal i.e. despite physically closer, instead of satellite, device connects to router, which due to the distance gets slower speed. I’ve also read on other sites, AiMesh still tried to connect to router when reachable despite slower speed and as you move far away enough where router signal unreachable switched to Node, and suddenly speed became faster despite even further away from router and node than before. It certainly sounds like firmware issue, but have you noticed this?
    Dedicated Backhaul Wifi Channel. I know these are supported only on triband AiMesh compatible routers but do we have a option to turn off when triband rounters are meshed?
    Why would you say over 500Mbps, we must have wired backhaul? It makes sense wired backhaul will take away any loss of speed between router and node(s), but devices with dedicated wifi backhaul over 1Gps channel, in theory shouldn’t they be able to support theoretically 1Gbps ethernet equivalent if close enough?

    1. I think AiMesh is much better than Orbi or Eero. You have way more features and almost no privacy risks.

      What you talked about is called roaming assistance, which you can adjust in the professional section of the Wi-Fi settings. You can change the number to make a connection less sticky, meaning a client will more likely jump to a closer node.

      As for speed, I’ve never experienced any AC Wi-Fi connection that tops 950Mbps of real world speed even at optimal conditions. That said on average, at best, you get around 600Mbps, plenty fast but not fast enough to deliver a gigabit broadband in full.

      By the way, for your need, I think a Synology Mesh will suite you better. (Check it out: https://dongknows.com/synology-mesh-review/). Among other things, you will have dedicated back-haul for much less, though, still you won’t get net gigabit Wi-Fi speed. For that you’ll need Wi-Fi 6.

      Hope this helps,

      -Dong.

  5. Thanks for your response. Unfortunately, because of the bldg I can’t run all cat 5 cable to the AP so I ran the powerline part of the way and then the Cat 5 out to my AP which does use a POE. Is the TP-Link AP you noted above better able to support dual-band/backbone? Even with such an AP the closest I’m able to get to the boat is still about 150 ft. So I take it there would be little advantage to just going with the TP-Link AP unit over trying to set up an ASUS AiMESH between office and boat?

    Thanks, Marcus

    1. That’s correct, Marcus. For your situation, I think it doesn’t make sense to go with an AiMesh (though that doesn’t hurt). You better off going with a cheaper solution.

  6. HI Dong,

    I have an ASUS AC-68U router in my office connected to modem as the only local internet source point in my small town, for my primary wifi network. From there I connect to my boat that we live on for Internet/WiFi service. The physical layout of the bldg and dock makes this problematic. The boat is about 150 ft from the back of my bldg on the dock with a clear line of sight. So far, the best arrangement I’ve come up with, after much trial and error, is:

    1. Office (Asus AC-68U router) network- SSIDa >>
    2. Powerline+ethernet cable (~100 ft.) to Engenius 1750AC access point on back of bldg – SSIDb >>
    3. Wirelessly (~150 ft to boat) thru high-gain antenna to PepWave Surf SOHO Mk3 router for my boat wifi network – SSIDc.

    Pepwave router has rollover/fallback capability with tethering to my Verizon 4G LTE phone, but requires manual setup. It works… mostly. I get 20-30Mbps downloads, occasionally up to 50 Mbps depending on time of day, but often lose the connection and have to reacquire the internet for most of my electronics on the boat. When I leave the dock out cruising I have to acquire a new WiFI AP wherever I may be, which is a rather laborious, but obviously necessary process…

    If I haven’t made this too confusing, I have a couple questions and would appreciate your input. I’ve been researching and contemplating adding another ASUS AC-68U router for an AiMesh (and since it will also support 4G rollover and a better interface) to see if this would give me greater ease, speed and reliability, particularly at the dock where the boat spends most of its time.

    1. Can I just replace the Pepwave router on the boat with the 2nd ASUS and invoke AiMesh setup?
    2. Will it work with the Engenius AC1750AP interposed between the two ASUS routers, or should I replace the Engenius AP with the ASUS router as access point (and the Pepwave) for a three node setup, although it would be a linear arrangement?
    3. Would I benefit from all three nodes having the same network SSID?
    4. Would you, perhaps suggest a better alternative setup?

    Thanks for your time and ideas, Marcus

    1. Hi Marc, here’s my suggestion.

      1. Keep the RT-AC68U as it is. Get rid of everything else.
      2. Get a PoE access point (like this one https://amzn.to/2JyXaP5, note that it includes a PoE injector) and a long network cable (CAT5e, up to 300 feet long)
      3. Connect the PoE injetor to the RT-AC68u via a short network cable. Plug it into power.
      4. Connect one end of the long network cable int o the PoE Injector, and the other end into the access point.
      5. Place the access point near your boat, as near as the network cable allows (and there’s a roof over it.)
      6. Set up the access point to have the same Wi-Fi network name (SSID) and password as that of the RT-AC68u.

      And that’s it. If you need a cellular backup connection, you can plug the dongle into the USB port of the RT-AC68U and set that up.

      Hope this helps 🙂

  7. I just bought a house with CAT5 wiring, so I can hard wire to every room. But I also want a Mesh network so things like my phone and iPad can seamlessly travel from one hub to the next. What is the best MESH network that I can set up using direct wiring? i.e., I assume it would be better to direct wire the hubs rather than loosing any speed just setting up the mesh wirelessly. ?? And please don’t tell me Google. I bought it and returned it because I did not know Google follows your every move on the network. I don’t want big brother watching me!

  8. Hi anh Đông. In your Asus AiMesh article you mentioned that if I have 2 routers, 1 with tri-band and the other with duo-band, then the tri-band should be the node and the other should be the router. Does this mean that the node will avoid having to use some bandwidth to connect to the main router, as you said about half of the bandwidth, and can provide full bandwidth for clients connecting to the node?

    In real use if my Internet connection is ~40 Mbps does it make a difference?

    1. That’s correct in a wireless setup, Anh. If you use cables to connect them together it doesn’t matter. Also it’ll make no difference if you just want to share the internet and your internet is slower than 150Mbps.

  9. Lots of grammatical errors in your posts, but this typo definitely needs to be fixed:
    “2. The typology
    In a mesh network, the topology …”
    All of the ‘typology’-ies in this article should be ‘topology’, right?

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