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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.