By now, you must have heard of “mesh,” “Wi-Fi system,” or “mesh Wi-Fi system,” and might have some idea about that they are. OK, they are the same thing. If you already know that, well, there’s more than just semantics in this article.
You’ll learn here all about this type of Wi-Fi solutions, including when it’s not a mesh and how to best set up one for your home. Sometimes, the little things I mention here can make a huge difference.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on April 28, 2018, and last updated it on November 15, 2020, with additional relevant information.
Mesh Wi-Fi system explained
A mesh Wi-Fi system has many names. Apart from those mentioned above, some also refer to it as a wireless mesh network (WMN). But mesh is a short and sweet moniker. I like it.
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.
The reverse might not be true, however. Just because you have multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters in a single network doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mesh system.
Mesh has been around for a long time, but it became a big deal when a company named eero — all lower case — announced the original eero Wi-Fi System in February 2016.
Since then, there’s been a home mesh revolution with Wi-Fi systems coming out from virtually all networking vendors.
When do you need a mesh
The use of a mesh applies to large homes or offices where a single broadcaster (router) doesn’t provide enough Wi-Fi coverage.
Generally, it’s best to have just one broadcaster in a home to avoid interferences. In other words, a mesh is not an upgrade to a single router — it’s a necessary alternative.
That said, if your place is 1800 ft2 (167 m2) or smaller, you probably only need a standalone router. But this depends a lot on the layout of your home and where you place the router.
A home Wi-Fi broadcaster emits signals outward somewhat like a sphere. So, think of a mesh when there are areas in your home the current Wi-Fi broadcaster can’t reach. And that can be the case even in a small/medium home if you have to place the router at a side instead of in the middle.
What constitutes a mesh
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, etc. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them hubs.
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).
One of the most important requirements for a mesh is that the hardware units work together to form a single seamless network. On top of that, you should be able to control all of them in one place, like the web interface of the main router or a mobile app.
If you have to manage any hardware piece separately, then it’s not part of a mesh. Below are examples of popular Wi-Fi hardware that doesn’t immediately turn your network into a mesh when put into use.
Non-mesh hardware: Extender vs. access point vs. media bridge
Hardware-wise, using Wi-Fi extenders (a.k. repeaters) or access points (APs) is similar to having a mesh network — there are multiple hubs involved.
In reality, though, they are entirely different. For one, extenders and APs are flexible and will work with any existing network (router), while mesh hubs generally only work specifically with one another or a specific router.
But that’s about the only advantage extenders and APs have over real mesh hardware.
A Wi-Fi extender connects itself wirelessly to an existing Wi-Fi network and then rebroadcasts the signal using a Wi-Fi SSID (network name) of its own. (That’s the reason they are often referred to as repeaters.)
As a result, even when you program the extender to use the same Wi-Fi 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 likely need to reconfigure the extender manually. Else it might get disconnected.
Extenders tend to be terrible at real-world speeds due to signal loss — more below. And they can be unreliable and a pain to use. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of folks plug an extender in a power socket, and that’s it, thinking it’ll somehow magically make things better.
However, extenders 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.
Specifically, devices connected to an extender will register to the network using a different MAC address instead of its own. Consequently, any features that rely on MAC to identify a device, such as MAC-filtering, IP reservation, or Parental Control will not work well, if at all.
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 you can change that.
If you can install network cables, access points (APs) are a much better alternative to 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 below
That said, an access point must have at least one network port to connect to the router. Some even have more for you to add wired clients to the network.
However, still, APs are similar to extenders in the sense that they need to be managed separately from the router and operate as an independent broadcaster instead of being a seamless part of the existing Wi-Fi network.
However, using APs is the best non-mesh choice. In fact, performance-wise, it can be better than using a real mesh in a wireless setup.
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 wired device (or devices). A media bridge must have at least one LAN port.
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.
Extra: Bridge mode in a gateway unit
In a gateway unit, a router+modem combo box, the Bridge mode is a bit different. That’s when the gateway will work solely as a modem, and no longer has any router-related function.
You can read more on this post about how to get the most out of ISP-supplied equipment.
How a mesh Wi-Fi network is better (than using non-mesh hardware)
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 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.
- There’s a chance you can get seamless hand-off out of a router + AP or router + extender combo. 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.
In my testing, the seamless hand-off is almost always hit or miss, depending on your existing router and your clients, and other factors.
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. By the way, even a dedicated wireless backhaul is still far less reliable than a wired one.
Generally, don’t expect to have a real mesh system if you use extenders in your network. But, again, a combo of a router plus a couple of access points, when set up properly, can work very similar 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.
Note, though, that using network cables to link the hubs — a practice called “wired backhaul” — is by far the best for a mesh system.
Signal loss: Wireless mesh’s biggest drawback
When you wirelessly link dual-band 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 at least 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 can deliver up to 867 Mbps on the 5GHz band. A client connected to a satellite hub will get 433 Mbps from it at most, or half the speed, compared to when it connects to the main router.
(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.
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 often comes in two or three hubs — referred to as 2-pack or 3-pack. One works as the main router and needs to connect to an Internet source, such as a cable modem, using its WAN port. After that, you can add the satellite hubs to the main router.
Importantly note: A satellite hub must connect to the main router, either directly, or indirectly (via a switch or another satellite). It won’t work if you connect it to the device the router also connects to, such as the internet source mentioned above.
Most others require adding the satellite manually via a mobile app or a web interface. After that, they automatically work with the main router hub to form a unified Wi-Fi network.
Wired backhaul: The only way to get the best performing mesh
The best way to implement a mesh is by using network cables to link the hubs together in a wired backhaul setup. In this case, you’ll always have the best possible Wi-Fi speeds throughout.
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.
All you need to do is place the hubs in a way they can collectively blanket the entire desired area. By the way, if you have Gigabit-class Internet and want to enjoy it via Wi-Fi, Gigabit (or faster) wired backhaul is a must.
In a wired backhaul setup, you can also use switches between hubs or daisy-chain the mesh units together — it allows for flexible hardware placement.
Wireless backhaul: Super convenient but can be temperamental
Running network cables can be hard or even not possible at all. So wireless mesh setups are popular. In this case, how you arrange the hubs 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 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 likely 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 between 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 to find out where you should put the satellite 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. By the way, you only need to worry about topology when you use more than one satellite. Having a 2-pack network? 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 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. And this depends a lot on if your home is wired with network cables.
General guidelines for a high-performing mesh
First, pick a system with the highest possible Wi-Fi specs within budget.
For a fully wireless mesh, make sure you get a tri-band system with a dedicated backhaul band. Note that for a wireless mesh, Wi-Fi 6 hardware decidedly better than Wi-Fi 5 counterpart.
For a wired home (wired backhaul), go with a dual-band set with the highest possible Wi-Fi specs. A tri-band system will also work but with some, especially the Netgear Orbi, you’ll still lose a band which only works as backhaul.
Generally, for sharing a modest Internet connection (100 Mbps download speed or slower), any mesh system, especially one using the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, 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 — 250 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.
Again, with wired backhaul, all you need is a dual-band system with top Wi-Fi speed. For example, the Asus ZenWiFi AX Mini 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 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 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 on 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 should be the only router in your home.
If you want to keep your existing router, or can’t replace 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 special settings.
No matter what set up you decide to go for, one thing is always true: Using network cable to link the hardware units is the only way to get the best performing system. So get your home wired.