You must have heard of “mesh,” “Wi-Fi system,” or “mesh Wi-Fi system,” and might even have some idea of what they are. They refer to the same thing. And this post is a lot more than just semantics.
I’ll explain in simple terms this type of Wi-Fi solution and offer tips on how to build an optimal one for your home. Sometimes, the little things I mention here can make a big difference.
Right off the bat, similar to the case of getting a single router, only you would know which mesh system fits you best — no “expert” can decide that for you from afar. There’s no one-size-fits-all Wi-Fi solution. This post aims to point you in the right direction.
There’s no such thing as “best” routers for a particular Internet service provider or type — Fiber-optic, Cable, or whatnot.
If you run into that type of information somewhere on the Interweb, it’s likely nonsense content written for SEO purposes.
Any standard router, including the primary unit of a mesh Wi-Fi system, will work, at its full potential, with any standard Internet broadband terminal device — modem, Fiber-optic ONT, or others. That’s true as long as the two can connect via a network cable, which is almost always the case.
Compatibility is generally applicable only between a terminal device and the ISP. For example, certain modems work with Comcast Xfinity while others might not. This is also the case for any gateway unit.
In relatively rare non-standard cases, some Fiber-optic lines might require a router that supports VLAN tagging (a.k.a IPTV). The majority of Wi-Fi 6 and newer routers support this.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on April 28, 2018, and updated it on July 15, 2023, with up-to-date information.
Mesh Wi-Fi network explained: It’s more than lumping a bunch of broadcasters together
A mesh Wi-Fi system has more names than those mentioned above, but “mesh” is a short and sweet moniker. I like it.
The mesh concept has been around for a long time in enterprise applications. In February 2016, mesh entered the consumer-grade space in a big way when a company named eero — all lowercase — announced the original eero Wi-Fi system. Since then, there’s been a boom in home mesh options, and the rest is history.
With that, let’s start with the simple question: What constitutes a mesh Wi-Fi system?
What is a mesh?
In a sentence, a mesh consists of multiple centrally-managed Wi-Fi broadcasters working together to form a unified Wi-Fi network.
Initially, “mesh” meant using multiple centrally managed Wi-Fi broadcasters wirelessly linked together to create a single network. Nowadays, using network cables as the backhaul links is commonplace — it’s the only way to get the best-performing mesh system, as you’ll learn more about below.
There are two ends to a Wi-Fi connection: the broadcasting and the receiving. In the traditional infrastructure configuration, a Wi-Fi broadcaster is always an access point, which can be part of another device, such as a Wi-Fi router. One Wi-Fi broadcaster can handle multiple recipients (clients.)
You need at least two separate Wi-Fi broadcasters to form a mesh — many purpose-built mesh systems are available as a 2-pack.
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, etc.
But in all cases, one of them acts as the primary router unit to connect to the Internet — each network only needs one router — and the rest of the hardware units links back to this router unit to extend the Wi-Fi coverage.
This link is called the backhaul.
Backhaul vs fronthaul
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.
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. Often that means no other band will do this job, though that depends on the hardware.
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.
Let’s find out when a mesh system is necessary.
When do you need a mesh?
Generally, it’s best to have just one broadcaster (typically a Wi-Fi router) in a home or an office to avoid interference.
In a situation where a single router doesn’t provide enough Wi-Fi coverage, we need more broadcasters, and that’s when a mesh is applicable.
As for as Wi-Fi is concerned, more hardware is not necessarily better. A mesh is not an upgrade to a single broadcaster in terms of performance. It’s a necessary alternative in coverage.
Besides the coverage, a Wi-Fi system doesn’t solve any problem you might have with a single router of the same specs and feature set. Using multiple broadcasters too close to one another can be a bad thing.
It’s hard to say precisely when a mesh is needed. But generally, if your place is airy and of 1800 ft2 (167 m2) or less, you probably only need a single broadcaster. In this case, a standalone Wi-Fi router near the center is better than getting a mesh.
A Wi-Fi broadcaster’s coverage depends a lot on the layout of your home, the number of walls, where you place a broadcaster, etc. The cabinet below will give you some highlights on general expectations in the Wi-Fi range.
Extra: Wi-Fi range in brief
Wi-Fi range, in theory
The way radio waves work, a broadcaster emits signals outward as a sphere around itself — the range is the radius of this sphere.
We generally perceive our daily world on a flat surface. For this reason, hardware vendors often use square footage to show a Wi-Fi broadcaster’s coverage, which is inherently incorrect. However, using the correct cubic footage measurement can be too much for the mind.
The lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in Megahertz — you can listen to the same station in a vast area, like an entire region or a city.
Wi-Fi uses 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies — all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That’s not to mention a home Wi-Fi broadcaster has limited power.
But, regardless of Wi-Fi standards, these bands generally share the following: The higher frequencies (in Hz), the higher the bandwidth (speeds), the shorter the ranges, and the more bandwidth progressively lost over increasing distance.
Generally, bigger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones. Still, it’s impossible to accurately determine the actual content of each because it fluctuates a great deal and depends heavily on the environment.
That said, here are my estimates of home Wi-Fi broadcasters’ ranges determined via personal experiences:
These were determined in the best-case scenario, i.e., open outdoor space on a sunny day. Also, note that Wi-Fi ranges don’t die abruptly. They degrade gradually as you get farther away from the broadcaster. The distances mentioned below are when a client still has a signal strong enough for a meaningful connection.
- 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200ft (61m). However, this is the most popular band, also used by non-Wi-Fi devices like cordless phones or TV remotes. Its real-world speeds suffer severely from interference and other things. As a result, for years, this band has been considered a backup, applicable when the range is more important than speed.
- 5GHz: This band has much faster speeds than the 2.4GHz band but shorter ranges that max out at around 175ft (50m).
- 6GHz(*): This is the latest band available, starting with Wi-Fi 6E. It has the same ceiling speed as the 5GHz band but with less interference and overheads. As a result, its actual real-world rate is faster. However, due to the higher frequency, it has just about 70% of the range, which maxes out at about 130ft (40m).
(*) Wi-Fi 7 has a new feature called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) that, when implemented, increases the broadcasting power of the 6GHz band enough to make its range comparable to that of the 5GHz.
Some might consider these numbers generous, and others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.
Wi-Fi range in real life
Wi-Fi broadcasters of the same frequency band and broadcasting power generally deliver the same coverage.
Specifically, they are all the same if you measure the signal reach alone. What differentiates them is their sustained speeds and signal stability, or how the quality of their Wi-Fi signals changes as you increase the distance. And that generally varies from one model or Wi-Fi standard to another.
In real-world usage, chances are your router’s Wi-Fi range is much shorter than you’d like. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interferences and obstacles.
While the Wi-Fi range doesn’t depend on the channel width, the wider a channel, the less stable it might become — it’s more susceptible to interference.
The new 6GHz band generally doesn’t suffer from interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz have a long list of things that can harm their ranges.
Common 2.4 GHz interference sources
- Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
- 2.4GHz cordless phones
- Fluorescent bulbs
- Bluetooth radios (minimal)
- Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources
- Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
- 5GHz cordless phones
- Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Walls and large objects
As for obstacles, walls are the most problematic since they are everywhere. Different types of walls block Wi-Fi signals differently, but no wall is good for Wi-Fi. Large objects, like big appliances or elevators, are bad, too.
Here are my rough estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals — generally use the low number for the 2.4GHz and the high one for the 5GHz, add another 10%-15% to the 5GHz’s if you use the 6GHz band:
- A thin, porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals — a router’s range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
- A thick porous wall: 20% to 40%
- A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50%
- A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.
Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to know how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a specific spot in your home. A simple rule is that more walls equal worse coverage.
Mesh system vs individual extenders or access points
It’s important to note that just because you have multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters in a network doesn’t mean you automatically have a mesh system. As mentioned above, having two or more hardware pieces is only part of the requirements. Let’s take a closer look.
A mesh system consists of multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters (access points or extenders) that work together and can be managed in one place, such as a mobile app or the web user interface of the router unit.
In a mesh with wireless backhauling, each satellite unit of the system is essentially a centrally managed Wi-Fi extender. In a mesh with wired backhauling, each satellite unit of the system is essentially a centrally managed access point.
The biggest difference between a mesh system and using multiple individually managed broadcasters is that the former gives you better ease of use, low (or no) interference between broadcasters, and seamless handoff, while the latter doesn’t.
Extenders are quick and dirty fixes that work to only some extent and will likely break when you change your Wi-Fi settings (SSID, password, etc.) On the other hand, thanks to the wired backhauling, an individually-managed access point can deliver excellent performance.
An access point always delivers better performance than a wireless mesh satellite of the same Wi-Fi grade.
Extra: The access point mode of a mesh system
When you put the router unit of a mesh system into the access point mode, the entire system is now working in this mode to extend the network of the initial router, allowing you to still manage the Wi-Fi settings of all mesh units via the interface of the primary unit.
But this AP-mode-as-a-system is not available in all mesh brands. Some canned systems, such as the Google Nest Wifi, only have this AP mode when you use each hardware unit individually.
Mesh Wi-Fi network: The benefits
Using a real mesh network has many advantages over lumping a bunch of Wi-Fi broadcasters together willy-nilly. Specifically, there are three main things to gain from a Wi-Fi system:
1. Ease of use
A Wi-Fi system is easy to set up. At most, you only need to set up the primary node (the router). After that, the rest of the satellite will replicate the Wi-Fi settings and expand the coverage.
That’s the case in the ongoing management, too. For example, you only have to do that on the router unit when changing Wi-Fi settings, such as the network name (SSID) or password. The system will apply that to the satellites automatically.
2. Seamless hand-off
In a mesh, it’s easier to have continuous connectivity on your device when roaming from one broadcaster to another, as though there’s just one.
Specifically, as you roam around within a mesh’s Wi-Fi coverage, the device in your hand will automatically switch to the broadcaster with the best signals. Additionally, signals from one mesh unit don’t adversely interfere with those of another.
By the way, signal hand-off works on band per band basis and doesn’t require Smart Connect, where you name all bands as a single network (SSID).
The seamless hand-off also applies when two or more satellites are in a wireless setup.
In this case, a satellite will automatically pick which other satellite or the primary router to form the backhaul link, depending on the real-time condition.
Notes on the seamless hand-off
It’s important not to take seamless literally. That doesn’t exist.
Physically, the client needs to disconnect itself from one broadcaster and move to another, and there’s always a brief interruption during the process — it’s a matter of how quickly. It’s seamless when it happens so fast that you don’t notice it.
But generally, you will always notice the interruption if you use real-time communication apps — like Wi-Fi calling or video conferencing. To avoid that, pick a location with solid signals and stay there.
However, if you stream a video or do general web surfing, file downloading, etc. The transition can appear seamless.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- For seamless hand-off to work, involved hardware devices on both sides (broadcasters and clients) must support the IEEE 802.11r, 802.11v, or 802.11k standard.
- Most Wi-Fi systems and clients support at least one standard above, but there’s a chance they don’t feature the same one, so seamless hand-off is not a sure thing. In any case, turning Wi-Fi off and back on, or disconnecting and then reconnecting to the SSID, is the sure way for the client to connect to the best mesh broadcaster.
- It’s the speed that matters. If your connection is fast enough for your task, there’s no need to be concerned about which mesh point within the system your device connects to.
- Wi-Fi doesn’t follow human logic in terms of distances. Within a specific range where signals are consistently strong (or weak) to a certain extent, devices might not see anything better or worse between closer or farther broadcasters.
- The oversensitive hand-off is not a good thing. Constant jumping from one broadcaster to another will cause unstable connectivity.
In my experience, via testing hundreds of hardware devices, the seamless hand-off is almost always hit or miss. It varies depending on your existing router, clients, and other factors.
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.
3. Better performance
All the broadcasters work together as a single unified Wi-Fi network in a mesh. As a result, they leverage one another’s Wi-Fi signals to deliver the best efficiency instead of working independently.
For this reason, multiple wireless mesh satellites generally have better performance and reliability than using extenders of the same Wi-Fi grade at the exact locations.
Still, wireless backhauling is temperamental, and using network cables to link the broadcasters — wired backhauling — is the best way to build a well-performing mesh Wi-Fi system.
Signal loss: The biggest drawback of wirelessly connecting broadcasters
There’s always signal degradation due to distance or interference when wirelessly linking Wi-Fi broadcasters. And, if you use dual-band (or Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E) hardware, there’s also this phenomenon I’d call signal loss.
That’s when a satellite broadcaster’s wireless band receives and rebroadcasts Wi-Fi signals simultaneously. Having to do two things simultaneously, the band has, at most, only 50 percent of its bandwidth on either end.
Take a specific example of the Asus RP-AX56, which is a dual-stream (2×2) AX1800 broadcaster. It has up to 1200Mbps on the 5GHz and 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz.
In a wireless setup — as a standard extender or a mesh satellite — we can expect the RP-AX56 to deliver the theoretical fronthaul ceiling speed of 600Mbps on the 5GHz band. The band’s half of the bandwidth is used for the backhaul link.
The signal loss won’t happen when you get either of the two bands to work exclusively as backhaul. But in this case, the broadcaster will be slow due to the speed limitation of the 2.4 GHz band.
The speed numbers above are theoretical. In real-world usage, the actual sustained rates will be markedly lower due to distance, interference, and additional overhead.
Mesh Wi-Fi network and Wi-Fi 6E
Starting in 2021, we have new hardware that supports Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6E has a new 6GHz band. As a result, for compatibility reasons, all of its hardware (broadcasters and clients) will come with three bands, including 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz. It’s a new type of Tri-band instead of the traditional Tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz).
Having three different bands, a Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster is not better than a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 counterpart in a wireless mesh configuration. Like Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 or 5 hardware, it has no extra band working as the dedicated backhaul.
In other words, a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E mesh is similar to a Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 counterpart in wireless backhauling. Consequently, a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E mesh system also suffers significantly from signal loss unless used via wired backhauling.
To fight signal loss, networking vendors use hardware with an additional 5GHz band (5GHz + 5GHz + 2.4GHz).
Netgear is the pioneer on this front with its Orbi product line, which dedicates the second 5 GHz band to backhauling. This type of dedicated backhaul allows the other two bands to focus on serving clients.
Even then, you still have to deal with Wi-Fi signals getting weaker over the range. So, the best way to combat signal loss and degradation in a wireless backhauling mesh is to set up your system correctly.
Using multiple broadcasters in a mesh vs non-mesh setup: The summary table
The table below includes a general idea of when you should use a mesh system vs other non-mesh setups and what type.
(at the router)
|Top Applicable |
|Mesh with Multi-Gig wired backhauling||Ultimate||Gigabit or faster||Gigabit or faster||Yes||Multi-Gigabit||Performance decided by port grade|
|Mesh with Gigabit wired backhauling||Best||Gigabit or faster||Gigabit at most||Yes||Gigabit||Generally, Gigabit is the top speed|
|Router + Access point||Good||Gigabit or faster||Gigabit or faster||Maybe||Gigabit and faster||Performance decided by port grade;|
Can be a real mesh system with certain hardware
|Mesh with mixed wired and wireless backhauling||OK to Good||Gigabit or faster||depend on the backhaul||Yes||Gigabit||Slow performance at the wireless satellite|
|Mesh with wireless backhauling||OK||Gigabit or faster||Sub-Gigabit or slower;|
Potentially 50% signal loss;
Performance at satellites depends heavily on the backhaul range
|Yes||≈500Mbps or slower||Slow performance overall|
|Router + Extenders||Bad||Gigabit or faster||Sub-Gigabit or slower;|
50% signal loss
|No||≈150Mbps or slower||Slow performance;|
Hard to manage;
How to best set up a mesh Wi-Fi system
A mesh system often comes in two or three broadcasters — referred to as a 2-pack or 3-pack.
One works as the primary router that connects to an Internet source — such as a cable modem, a Fiber-optic ONT, a gateway, or another router — using its WAN port. After that, the rest work as satellites to extend the network of the router unit.
Others require adding the satellite manually via a mobile app or a web interface. After that, they automatically work with the main router to form a unified Wi-Fi network.
Extra: Mesh and gaming
This portion of extra content is part of the explainer post on gaming routers.
Mesh Wi-Fi and Internet quality for gaming and real-time communication: Important rules
After that, connect your gaming rig to your network via a cable. No matter how fast, Wi-Fi is always less ideal and will put a few extra milliseconds, or even a lot, on your broadband’s latency.
Reliability and low latency are more critical than fast speeds in gaming or any real-time communication applications. So it’s more a question of wired vs Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 7.
But we can’t use wires all the time. That said, the rule in Wi-Fi for gaming is to avoid multiple hops.
Specifically, here is the order of best practices when connecting your gaming device to the network via Wi-Fi:
- Use a single broadcaster — just one Wi-Fi router or access point.
- If you must use multiple broadcasters (like a mesh system), then:
- Use a network cable to link them together (wired backhaul).
- If you must use a wireless mesh, then:
- Connect the game console directly to your home’s first broadcaster — the primary router. Or
- Connect the gaming device to the first mesh satellite node using a network cable. Also, in this case, it’s best to use tri-band mesh hardware.
- Avoid the daisy-chain mesh setup.
- Avoid using extenders. If you must use one, make sure it’s a tri-band.
Again, the idea is that the Wi-Fi signal should not have to hop wirelessly any additional time before it gets to your device — you’ll get significantly worse latency after each additional hop.
The general rules of connecting mesh Wi-Fi hardware
A satellite must be behind the primary router unit of a mesh system in terms of the network connection. Specifically, it needs to connect to the router directly or indirectly — via a switch or another satellite.
This arrangement is generally automatically the case in a wireless backhauling setup.
In a wired backhauling setup, you won’t have a mesh if you connect the satellite to a device in front of the router, like an existing switch or an Internet gateway.
That said, here’s a simple diagram to connect a mesh system’s hardware via network cables:
Service line -> Modem or Gateway (*) -> the primary unit of the mesh (the router) -> switch(es) / satellite unit(s) -> (switches) -> more satellites.
(*) If you use a gateway, check out this post on double NAT.
Wired backhauling: The only way to get the best-performing mesh
Again, wired backhauling is the only way to have the best possible Wi-Fi performance out of a mesh network.
In this case, you don’t need to worry much about hardware arrangement. You’ll get the same performance from each broadcaster regardless of distance or placement. Still, place them strategically so they can collectively blanket the desired area.
In a wired backhaul setup, you can also use unmanaged switches between broadcasters or daisy-chain the mesh hardware — all the more flexible in hardware placement.
But running network cables can be hard or even impossible in some situations. So the use of wireless mesh systems is commonplace. In this case, how you arrange the hardware is crucial.
Wireless backhaul: Convenient but temperamental
Over the air, the wireless connections between the mesh broadcasters can vary greatly depending on the range of each broadcasting unit.
So, in mesh Wi-Fi coverage, there are two things to consider, distance and topology.
1. The distance
That’s the gap between two directly connected broadcasters.
The closer you keep them to each other, the stronger the signals are between them, which translates into faster client speeds. The catch is you’ll have less Wi-Fi coverage and probably more interferences.
On the other hand, a longer distance means more extensive coverage, but you’ll have a slow Wi-Fi network, especially when the system has to use the 2.4GHz band for backhauling. This band has a better range than 5GHz.
Most, if not all, Wi-Fi mesh systems automatically pick the 2.4GHz as backhaul when you place a satellite unit too far away. This is true even for those with permanent 5GHz backhaul by default or when you manually pick a different band (5GHz or 6GHz) for the job.
It’s tricky to find the sweet spot that balances coverage and speed. Generally, if there are no walls in between, you can place a satellite between 50 ft (12 m) to 75 ft (23 m) from the primary router unit — 30 ft to 40 ft is the maximum distance if there are walls.
The easiest way to find out where you should put the satellite is via the signal indicator on your phone or laptop. You want to place it where the signals of the band you intend to use as backhaul, which is often the 5GHz, change from full bars to one or two bars lower.
More on those bars or visual ways to figure out the Wi-Fi signal strength at a particular location in this post on Wi-Fi power.
Ultimately, it’s the speed that matters. If you only need modest network speeds — such as in a home with slow broadband — you can go a bit crazy on the distance to get the most extensive coverage.
2. The topology
In a wireless setup, signal loss and latency are inevitable. To reduce their effect is where topology comes into play.
Topology is how you arrange the broadcasters. It’s relevant only in a system with wireless backhauling that includes three or more hardware units. Have a 2-pack mesh? You can skip this part.
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 directly connects 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 linearly place the hardware units. As a result, the signal has to hop more than once — from the main router to a satellite, then to another satellite, etc.– before it gets to the device.
In this case, the actual speed will suffer greatly, and you’ll experience severe lag due to compounded signal loss. In a wireless setup, it’s always a good idea to avoid this topology.
Tri-band hardware with a dedicated backhaul generally has better speed than dual-band. Still, it’s best not to daisy-chain the broadcasters.
Mixing wired and wireless backhaul
In many cases, you can’t use wired backhauling throughout and need that extra wireless satellite at a tricky spot.
If so, keep the following in mind:
- It’s generally better to mix wired and wireless backhauls than pure wireless.
- Only Wi-Fi clients connected to a wireless-backhauled satellite will suffer signal loss. Those connected to a wired broadcaster will still enjoy fast and reliable connections.
- It’s best to wire the router to a satellite and then use another wireless satellite (that connects to either).
- It’s OK to wire the satellites together and have (any of) them connected to the router wirelessly. However, in this case, clients connected to any satellite will still suffer from signal loss.
- In a mixed setup, how the dedicated wireless backhaul (available only in hardware with an additional band on the same frequency) works depends on the vendor. Some specific examples:
- If you use Netgear hardware (Orbi, Nighthawk), the dedicated backhaul band is never available to clients. It’s wasted.
- Linksys Velop, eero, TP-Link Deco: It’ll work dynamically.
- Asus AiMesh or Synology mesh: It can be opened up to clients and is no longer dedicated (for the wireless satellite) when clients connect to it.
How to pick the best mesh Wi-Fi system for your home
First, remember that you should avoid using hardware of different Wi-Fi standards on the same frequency band.
For example, Wi-Fi 6 hardware generally won’t work well with the Wi-Fi 5 counterpart in a system — the two use the same 5GHz band differently. In some cases, they can work, but your luck will vary.
After that, there are four things you should consider when getting a Wi-Fi system: hardware units, speed, features, and privacy.
1. Number of hardware units
A home Wi-Fi broadcaster emits signals outward, somewhat like a sphere. Conservatively, you can assume each can cover about 1500 ft2 (140 m2) — multiple floors. Now consider these:
- In a wireless setup, you can’t place the hardware units too far away from each other, as mentioned above.
- In a wired setup, you can place them farther so their signals won’t overlap, though it’s OK if they do to a certain extent. (Use a phone or laptop to determine each unit’s coverage, as mentioned above.)
Use the numbers above to figure out how many broadcasters you will need. Generally:
- If a single broadcaster is almost enough, then a 2-pack will do.
- If a 2-pack of low-end hardware is barely enough, a 2-pack of a higher-end will be perfect.
- If you’re comfortable with a low-end 3-pack, a high-end 2-pack likely won’t cut it — you’ll need a new 3-pack set of a similar higher tier.
It’s always tricky to figure out the number of necessary broadcasters. The good news is you can always start with a 2-pack and add more units later to scale up the coverage.
Speed is, by far, the most critical factor. And this depends a lot on if your home is wired with network cables. Here are some quick bullet points:
- Gigabit or faster: Getting your home wired is a must.
- 300Mbps to Gigabit: Wiring is recommended, but traditional Tri-band wireless mesh will do.
- Slower than 300Mbps: Most systems will do, though it doesn’t hurt to get your home wired.
- For a wired home: It’s generally best to get a Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 or a Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E system. There’s no need for hardware with an additional 5GHz band.
Generally, for sharing a modest Internet connection (100Mbps download speed or slower), any mesh system, especially one using the Wi-Fi 6 standard, will do. The reason is that even slow Wi-Fi speed is still much faster than the broadband speed.
However, if you pay for a fast Internet plan — 300 Mbps or higher — you’ll need a system that has a dedicated backhaul band or a top-tier dual-band system.
And if you have an ultra-high-speed internet connection (500 Mbps or faster), you’ll need to run network cables to connect the broadcasters. There’s no way around this.
Even when you use a tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, you won’t get full Gigabit at the end device unless you use wired backhauls.
Again, with a wired backhauling, all you need is a Dual-band system with top Wi-Fi speed. But if you want to get the last, pick one among these Wi-Fi 6E systems.
For example, the Asus ZenWiFi XD5 will deliver excellent sub-Gigabit Wi-Fi rates in a wired setup. If you have Gigabit Internet, a couple of Asus RT-AX8xU units or most dual-band Wi-Fi 6 systems will do.
The feature set of a system means what you can do with your home network.
If all you want is Internet access, don’t worry about the features. However, it’s always helpful to have a system that includes lots of customization and built-in online protection.
I’m not a fan of mesh systems (or routers) without a web interface since they don’t offer users complete network control.
If you want many valuable features and network settings, use one of these advanced DIY mesh approaches. The runners-up are canned systems from TP-Link, 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 requiring you to register a login account for setup and ongoing management can cause privacy risks.
Your network connects to the vendor at all times; potentially, third parties can keep tabs on what you do online. What happens behind the scenes is generally unknown, and some vendors are worse than others.
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.
The primary broadcaster of your mesh system should be the only router of your home network.
If you already have an existing router, such as when you can’t remove the ISP-provided gateway, get a mesh that can work in the access point (AP) mode. In this case, the mesh extends your existing home network without offering any features or particular settings.
Or you can also turn the existing gateway into a modem by putting it into bridge mode.
No matter what setup you decide to go for, two things are always true:
- Using network cables to link the hardware units is the only way to get the best-performing system.
- Wi-Fi is always a matter of nuance:
- It never works like when you connect your computer via a network cable.
- The performance is always worse than what the vendor claims.
That said, get your home wired, take what the vendor says with a great grain of salt, and most importantly, read each mesh review with some attention. Match the information with what you want, need, and your home’s layout, and you’ll be able to figure out which best suits your situation.