This post will walk you through picking two or more Asus routers into a well-performing and seamless AiMesh setup.
“Well-performing” is the key here. It’s in the nuance — you might want to pay close attention to the details.
This is part of my series on Asus’s AiMesh, a popular way to build a robust home Wi-Fi mesh system. Check the box below if you have any AiMesh-related questions.
How to pick the best AiMesh Router Combos: The three rules
There are a few dozen and counting AiMesh-enabled broadcasters, and while they all supposedly work together, there are better combos than others. Some are outright no good.
If you somehow end up with multiple AiMesh devices, chances are you can make them work. But if you’re actively looking to build one from scratch, based on the router you’re using or about to get, it’s best to pick and choose them wisely.
Asus hardware and AiMesh
The drawer below consists of existing Asus routers for the US market that can work as part of an AiMesh Wi-Fi system. Most are also available worldwide. Some other regions might have other models unavailable in the US.
Extra: Current AiMesh broadcasters
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) AiMesh broadcasters
Most of these are legacy broadcasters that might not support the latest version of AiMesh.
- Tri-band: GT-AC5300, RT-AC5300, Lyra, and ZenWiFi AC.
- Dual-band: RP-AC1900, RT-AC1900, RT-AC1900P/U, RT-AC2900, RT-AC3100, RT-AC5300, RT-AC68P/R/RW/U/UF/W, GT-AC2600, Lyra Trio, Blue Cave, RT-AC86U, RT-AC88U, and possibly more.
Wi-Fi 6/6E (802.11ax) AiMesh broadcasters
These non-complete lists only include mostly the latest broadcasters already covered on this website.
- Tri-band (Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E):
- Dual-band (Wi-Fi 6): RT-AX88U/RT-AX88U Pro, RT-AX89X, RT-AX3000 / RT-AX58U, RT-AX56U, ZenWiFi XD4, RT-AX86U/S/Pro, RT-AX82U, RT-AX68U, RP-AX56, GS-AX3000, GS-AX5400, ZenWiFi XD6, GT-AX6000, ZenWiFi AX Hybrid XP4, ROG Rapture GT6 and more.
The way it works, you use one router as the primary node, and the rest will work as satellite node(s) to scale up the coverage. The primary router decides the features of your mesh.
Technically, you can arbitrarily use a combo of any broadcasters above to create a mesh system, and it will likely work. It’s a matter of degrees. The point is don’t do that. Instead, follow these tips to ensure you get the best out of your hardware.
For the most part, picking AiMesh hardware is similar to any mesh system.
AiMesh combo rules #1: Consider wired backhauling
Like all home mesh systems, you should use wired backhauling. That’s when you use a network cable to connect the main router and a satellite unit.
Wired backhauling is highly recommended when:
- You want to enjoy true Gigabit or faster connection speeds. In this case, it’s also recommended that you consider hardware with Multi-Gig ports.
- You want to get the best Wi-Fi speeds, especially out of Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 or Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E broadcasters. Even low-end Wi-Fi broadcasters can deliver Gigabit-class sustained speeds via wired backhauling.
- You want to use hardware with mixed Wi-Fi standards or tiers.
Use CAT5e or higher-grade network cables. You can daisy-chain the hardware units or place unmanaged switch(es) between them.
With wired backhauling, you can use almost any AiMesh router combo without worrying about performance or reliability. “Almost” is the key here. You might want to avoid using wired backhaul in some specific sets — more below.
AiMesh combo rules #2: Traditional Tri-band hardware is best (only) for a fully wireless setup
When wired backhauling is unavailable, which is often the case, consider Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 (or 5) AiMesh routers.
Specifically, you want to use broadcasters with an additional 5GHz band that works as the dedicated backhaul. Dual-band hardware works in this case but only at 50 percent of the satellite unit’s bandwidth due to signal loss.
This applies to Quad-band Wi-Fi 6E broadcasters, too, such as the GT-AXE16000. However, in this case, consider using multi-Gigabit wired backhauling to make your investment worthwhile.
The idea is that you want a 5GHz band working solely or mostly as the dedicated backhaul. Conversely, if you have wired backhauling, it’s generally good to avoid Tri-band hardware.
It’s important to note that wireless backhauling will cause slow connection speed at the satellite. In the best-case scenario, a wireless mesh system using Wi-Fi 6/6E or older standard generally sustains at around 800Mbps when hosting a single client, no matter how expensive the hardware is. Most of the time, you’ll experience significantly slower speeds.
AiMesh wireless combo: Avoid mixing Wi-Fi standards
In a fully wireless system, it’s best to avoid broadcasters of the different Wi-Fi standards.
Specifically, mixing Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5, in this case, will be problematic. Among other things, the nodes will not link to each other reliably, and Wi-Fi 6 devices will need to work in compatibility mode, which is slow.
AiMesh wireless combo: Don’t count on the 6GHz band
It’s important to note that all Wi-Fi 6E routers are at least Tri-band, but they have no extra band that can be dedicated for backhauling — you need all three to host clients.
Additionally, the 6GHz band has a short range and can’t work reliably over distance or in a home with walls. (This is completely true, all that marketing hype about the band’s range is false.)
That said, if you use Wi-Fi 6E AiMesh routers, treat them the same as Dual-band Wi-Fi 6 (or 5) hardware — use them via wired backhauling or expect reduced performance.
The takeaway is this: Don’t count on the 6GHz unless you live in a small or open space.
AiMesh combo rules #3: Be smart about mixing hardware
It’s generally safest in terms of performance and reliability when you use the same routers across the entire system. But that’s hard to follow and also not a must.
In most cases, mixing a high-end primary router with affordable satellites is the smart way to have an effective AiMesh system.
Following are some tips for mixing AiMesh hardware
1. Use wired backhauling when possible
As mentioned above, using networking cables to link Wi-Fi broadcasters is the only way to get the best-performing mesh system. It also gives you more flexibility in hardware combos.
A mix of wired and wireless backhaul is still better than full wireless. In this case, the primary router unit should be wired to the first node, but you can wire only the nodes together.
AiMesh hardware with wired backhauling: Consider the AP mode
With wired backhauling, you can use standard access point (AP) mode for any satellite unit.
While this setup will not give you a real mesh system — you can’t control the AP’s Wi-Fi settings via the main router — it’ll give you excellent performance, reliability, and more control. Specifically:
- You can fully control the satellite hardware, including some extra features available in the AP mode (Wi-Fi settings, USB-related, lighting, and others).
- If your primary router is a Dual-band and the AiMesh satellite is a traditional Tri-band, you can use the node’s 5GHz-2 band, which is unavailable in the AiMesh mode.
- You can use a third-party router (or AP) or a non-AiMesh Asus router, such as the RT-AC3200.
Using the satellite units in the AP role is far more reliable than using them as wireless AiMesh nodes in my trial. So, consider that an alternative when you have issues with a pure AiMesh setup.
2. Pick the right primary node and appropriate settings
In an AiMesh system, the primary router is the device that decides the features of your network. Consequently, keep the following in mind for the hardware for this role:
- It should be one of the highest Wi-Fi tiers, measured in the number of streams (4×4, 3×3, 2×2, etc.).
- It’s the one with the most bands. So, pick the Tri-band instead of the dual-band if you have both.
- Use the latest router with the most feature. So pick the Wi-Fi 6 router if you also have Wi-Fi 5 broadcasters.
- Use the Wi-Fi settings at the primary router applicable to the satellite. For example:
- Avoid the 160MHz or UNII-4 if any of the satellites only supports 80MHz or doesn’t support this portion of the 5GHz band.
- When mixing a router of a newer Wi-Fi standard (such as Wi-Fi 6) with satellites of an older standard (such as Wi-Fi 5), use the latest hardware in compatibility mode. (Mixing Wi-Fi standards are always problematic, especially with wireless backhauling.)
3. Pick the proper hardware for the satellite nodes
In an AiMesh setup, you generally have little or no control over the satellite nodes’ features or settings. They only extend the network by providing additional Wi-Fi coverage or network ports.
There are two scenarios: wired and wireless backhauling. For wired backhauling, it’s best to use Dual-band hardware throughout.
If you mix hardware of different numbers of bands and use a Dual-band as the primary router, note that you won’t be able to use any of the satellites’ third or fourth bands — they are not available — unless you use the hardware in the AP mode as mentioned above.
AiMesh hardware with wireless backhauling: Important notes
Generally, this case is when things get complicated. Keep the following in mind:
- Use the primary router and satellite of the same Wi-Fi standards and tier(•). If that’s not an option, pick satellites with the same Wi-Fi standard (and tier) as the router’s backhaul band (5GHz).
- When mixing Tri-band (traditional or the new Wi-Fi 6E) and Dual-band hardware, we have two scenarios:
- If you use a Tri-band primary router, its dedicated backhaul band (5GHz-2) is unavailable to a Dual-band satellite, which will connect to the router’s 5GHz-1 (or 2.4Ghz) band as backhaul. (You can open the primary router’s 5GHz-2 band to clients.)
- If you use a Dual-band primary router, a Tri-band satellite’s second 5GHz band (5GHz-2) is not used at all. This band will not work as backhaul, nor will you be able to make it work for the client. The satellite will use its first 5GHz band (or the 2.4GHz) as a non-dedicated backhaul.
- Mixing Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E hardware: Consider the third band (5GHz-2 or 6GHz) as a common band in terms of management. But this combo is generally problematic in a wireless setup.
(•) If you use broadcasters of different tiers, keep in mind that your network’s Wi-Fi connection speed will generally be that of the lowest-tier broadcaster. For compatibility reasons, the system must support the lowest denominator.
Asus AiMesh combo: Bugs and firmware updates
Since there are so many possible AiMesh combos, mixing hardware, even when you do that right, likely will result in unexpected bugs. This is especially true when you use a fully wireless setup and after a firmware update.
Asus hardware and firmware updates
Asus regularly releases firmware updates, a Linux-based operating system called Asuswrt, for its routers. Many of these updates add new features to the hardware — they do more than patch security vulnerabilities.
Some updates may inadvertently cause a particular model to go haywire, likely because the company tries to do so much with its routers.
As a result, firmware is a tricky thing with Asus. When it comes to updating — especially in an AiMesh setup of mixed hardware units using wireless backhauling — keep the following three items in mind:
- Avoid the initial major release(*): This is the first firmware version of a model where the 3xx number changes, such as from 384 to 386 or from 386 to 388. Generally, the latest minor update of the previous major firmware release is always the most stable.
- Avoid using Auto-Update for firmware: You should update the firmware when you see fit instead of letting the hardware update itself.
- Version consistency (in a mesh system): Generally, it would be best to use the firmware version of the same major release for all AiMesh members. (Mixing hardware of different releases might produce mixed results.)
(*) How to read an Asus router’s firmware: As shown in the screenshot below, in a particular official firmware version, such as 220.127.116.11.386_47629, the 3xx number in the middle denotes Asus’s home-grown major release. The following number — often includes five digits, such as 47629 in the screenshot — indicates a minor update.
(A firmware version that starts with 9.x.x.x instead of 3.x.x.x is a beta release meant for testing purposes only.)
The part before that — 18.104.22.168 in the screenshot — is the Linux kernel version that will also change, albeit much less frequently. It’s even more significant and should also be taken into consideration.
On the one hand, moving between major releases might break your AiMesh setup or even your standalone router. On the other, new hardware comes with a specific initial version out of the box — you have no option to downgrade it — and some old models won’t get the latest release. So depending on the mesh combo, your luck will vary.
AiMesh started as an add-on feature with firmware version 384 in early 2018 — represented by the RT-AC86U — and was stable by the latest minor update of this version. In early 2020, Asus released version 386, buggy in the early stages, to add AiMesh 2.0 via the introduction of the ZenWifi product line. By late 2022, version 386 became fully mature, and Asus started releasing version 388, and the history repeated itself. So on and so forth.
As a rule, in a mesh system, it’s best to wait for a few minor updates of a major release before upgrading. Depending on the hardware combo, you might need to rebuild the system from scratch or reset and re-add a satellite node if you change the major firmware version (in one or all hardware units involved.)
To minimize issues, tread lightly with firmware updates and setting customization. Don’t rely too much on the Asus Router mobile app. Instead, opt for the web user interface.
With many hardware combo options and regular firmware updates, AiMesh has been up and down in terms of reliability. But that’s also the case with most Wi-Fi systems. They are all about nuance.
AiMesh is one of a few mesh approaches that allow for a flexible hardware combo. Consequently, picking the correct hardware combination is the first important step. The next step is to set up them properly.