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.
You’ll learn in this post all about different types of Wi-Fi mesh hardware and how to put multiple pieces of equipment together. Not all Wi-Fi broadcasters are created equally. That’s obvious. More importantly, how you handle them can also make a huge difference.
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.
It’s a mix of multiple broadcasters
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. extender vs. access point vs. media bridge
Hardware-wise, using wireless extenders or access points with your existing router is similar to having a mesh network — there are multiple hubs involved. In reality, though, they are different things (almost) entirely.
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. Even when you program the extender’s Wi-Fi to use the same name (SSID) and password as those of the router, you still end up with two independent Wi-Fi networks 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 need to reconfigure the extender manually. So, performance-wise, extenders are generally terrible in real-world speed, and they can be a pain to use.
However, they are popular Wi-Fi “quick fixes” since they can give you the full Wi-Fi bars at a location where you used to get low or no bars at all — an illusion of “better Wi-Fi.” On top of that, you don’t need to worry about running network cables.
Extra: Extender and virtual MAC address issues
There’s also another odd thing you should keep in mind about extenders: Most of them use virtual MAC addresses for connected clients.
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, any features that use MAC to identify a device, such as MAC-filtering or IP reservation, will not work well, if at all, when extenders are involved.
I’ve personally run into this problem with most of the extenders I’ve used, including those from major networking vendors (Netgear, TP-Link, Linksys, and so on). In most cases, it’s unlikely there’s any way to change that.
If you can install network cables, access points (APs) are a much better choice than extenders. (Note: Some extenders can work as access points and vice versa.)
APs are similar to extenders with one significant difference: An AP connects to the main router using a network cable. For this reason, they deliver significantly higher performance than extenders because there’s no signal loss — more on this below
(If an access point has more than the one LAN port it uses to connect to the existing router, the rest of the ports works as regular LAN ports of the network.)
However, APs and Extenders are mostly the same in the sense that they are the necessary hardware parts, but not sufficient to qualify the network as a mesh.
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.
Bridge (or media bridge)
Bridge, a.k.a Media Bridge, is a popular role that many Wi-Fi broadcasters (router, access point, extender) support. In this mode, the device receives an incoming Wi-Fi signal and relay that to a device (or devices) connected to its network port (or ports).
You can think of a bridge as a Wi-Fi adapter for a wired device. In other words, it allows a wired device to connect to a Wi-Fi network using the network port. The more ports a bridge has the more wired devices it can add to an existing Wi-Fi network.
So, a bridge has little to do with a mesh network because it plays the role of a receiver, not a broadcaster. A bridge will work with any Wi-Fi network. If your existing router supports the bridge mode, that’d be a way you can re-use it when you upgrade your system to a new router.
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.
In a mesh, it’s easier to have continuous connectivity on your device when roaming from one hub to another, as though there was just one hub involved.
Notes on seamless hand-off
- For seamless hand-off to work, all connected hardware devices (hubs and clients) need to support the IEEE 802.11r, 802.11v, or 802.11k standard. Most Wi-Fi systems and most clients released in the past five or so years support at least one of these. But there’s a chance they don’t feature the same one, so seamless hand-off is not a sure thing.
- You can get seamless hand-off in a router + AP or router + extender setup. However, this function tends to work better in a mesh system.
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.
But one thing for sure, you’ll still need to re-setup these extenders (or APs), each time you change your Wi-Fi network’s name or password. And since they work as independent broadcasters, there’s a chance they also cause interference. Also, a wireless backhaul, including a dedicated one, is far less reliable than a wired backhaul.
In my testing, the seamless hand-off is almost always hit or miss, depending on your existing router and your clients and other factors.
Generally, don’t expect to have a real mesh system if you use extenders in your network. But a router plus a couple of access points, all set up properly, are very close to a real mesh system.
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.
Signal loss: Wireless mesh’s biggest drawback
When you wirelessly link Wi-Fi broadcasters together, you will have to deal with signal degradation over distance and 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 has nothing to do with the Wi-Fi indicator on a client — you have it even when you’re getting a full-bar Wi-Fi signal on your phone.
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.
(Signal loss won’t happen when you get either of the two bands to work exclusively as backhaul. But in this case, your system will be slow due to the speed limitation of the 2.4 GHz band.)
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 vendors resort to tri-band Wi-Fi systems (and extenders). Netgear is the pioneer on this front with the introduction of the Orbi product line, which has a second 5 GHz band dedicated to the job of linking the hubs (dedicated backhaul), allowing the other two to focus on serving clients.
Even then, you still have to deal with the fact Wi-Fi signals get weaker over the range. So, the best way to combat signal loss and degradation 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 right way to go but require network cables
The best way to implement a mesh is by using network cables to link the hubs together in a setup called wired backhaul. Note, though, that not all canned Wi-Fi systems can do wired backhaul — their hardware units might not even have a network port — but most do.
In this case, you’ll always have the best possible performance, since the wires eliminate signal loss no matter the distance between the hubs. In other words, you can expect clients to connect at each hub’s top Wi-Fi speed.
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. You just need to place the hardware in a way so that collectively they can cover the entire desired area.
If you have Gigabit-class Internet and want to enjoy it via Wi-Fi, Gigabit (or faster) wired backhaul is a must.
In most cases, in a wired backhaul setup, you can use switches in between mesh hubs. You can also daisy-chain the mesh units together. So wired backhauls allow for flexible hardware placement.
Wireless backhaul: Super convenient but can be temperamental
Running network cables can be hard, so wireless mesh setups are popular. In this case, how you place the hubs among one another is crucial. That’s because, over the air, the connections between them can vary a great deal.
To deal with that, 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 and probably more interferences.
On the other hand, a longer distance means a more extensive coverage, but you’ll end up having a slow Wi-Fi network. For a dual-band system, if you put the units too far, it will use the 2.4GHz as backhaul and you’ll have a very slow 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.
The easiest way, though not completely precise, to find out where you should put the satellite hub is via the signal indicator on your phone or laptop. You want to place the unit where the signal starts to change from full bars to one bar lower.
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.
2. The topology
In a mesh network, the topology is how you arrange the hubs. It’s, again, more relevant to the situation where you can not use network cables to link them. In a wireless setup, signal loss and latency are inevitable. The goal here is how to reduce them.
The star topology
This one is the recommended topology. It’s where you place the satellites around the primary router. This arrangement 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.
The daisy-chain topology
The daisy-chain topology refers to when you place the hardware units in a linear fashion. As a result, the signal has to hop more than once — from the main router to a satellite hub, then to another satellite hub, etc.– before it gets to the device.
In this case, the net speed will suffer a great deal, and you’ll experience severe lag due to compounded signal loss. In a wireless setup, avoid this topology if possible.
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.
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.
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. Even when you use a tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, chances are you won’t get full gigabit at the end device, unless you use wired backhaul.
With wired backhaul, all you need is a dual-band system with top Wi-Fi speed. For example, the Asus Lyra Trio will deliver excellent sub-Gigabit Wi-Fi rates in a wired setup. If you have Gigabit Internet, a couple of Asus RT-AC86U units, or most dual-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems will do.
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.
All Wi-Fi systems that require you to register an account and log in before you can set up or 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.
Extreme examples of this type of what I’d call “data-mining mesh systems” are those from Google and Amazon. I’d recommend against them even though they might offer reliable performance and ease of use.
All Wi-Fi systems generally should be the only router of your home.
If you want to keep your existing router, or can’t replace the ISP-provided gateway, then get a mesh that can work in the access point (AP) mode. In this case, the mesh just extends your existing home network, without offering any feature or settings.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on April 28, 2018, and last updated it on July 27, 2020, with additional relevant information.