It's vital in these days of lockdown and the 'new normal' to have good Wi-Fi. During the day you're joining Zoom calls; in the evening you're trying to stay entertained with Netflix and perhaps some online gaming. And for most people, a conventional Wi-Fi router will be able to handle things perfectly well: we round up the best Wi-Fi routers for Mac users in a separate article.
But every home is different, and those with awkward walls or lots of rooms may find that a conventional router leaves them with dead spots where the signal can't reach. In this article we look at one solution to this situation: a mesh networking system.
For our thoughts on the pros and cons of mesh, and whether mesh or another solution (such as a Wi-Fi extender or PowerLine adapter) is right for you, jump to our buying advice.
Linksys Velop AX4200 - Best For HomeKit
I'm appalled by the fact that Linksys' web site uses configurate as a verb, and its model numbering system is pretty confusing too, but the Velop AX4200 provides strong Wi-Fi 6 performance and is also one of the few mesh systems that currently supports HomeKit. That makes it a good choice for Mac users that want to really tighten up security for all the devices on their home network.
Like the original Velop - which is still available as a good, low-cost option for ye olde Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac) - the Velop AX4200 can be bought on its own for smaller homes, or as either a 2-pack or 3-pack kit in order to create a wide-ranging mesh network for larger homes.
A single AX4200 can cover areas of up to 3000 sq.ft and costs around £220 - and, miraculously, it currently seems to be slightly cheaper on the Apple Store than on other online retailers - while a 2-pack (6000 sq.ft) costs £350 and a 3-pack (9000 sq.ft) weighs in at £430.
That's not cheap, of course, but the Velop does provide strong performance, and some useful extra features along with its wide-ranging Wi-Fi coverage. Each router supports tri-band Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ax) with top speeds of 4.2Gbps, and has four Gigabit Ethernet ports - one for connecting to your existing broadband modem or router - with the remaining three available for devices such as a games console or Apple TV box that prefer a lag-free wired connection.
There's also a USB 3.0 port that can be used to connect a hard drive or other USB storage device so that you can share photos, music and other files with other people on your home or office network. We like the Linksys app too, which includes options such as the ability to create a schedule for your kids' Internet access, so they don't stay up all night watching TikTok videos.
D-Link Covr AX1800 - Affordable Wi-Fi 6
Mesh systems and routers that use the latest Wi-Fi 6 technology (aka 802.11ax) are still fairly expensive, but D-Link's Covr AX1800 is one of the more affordable Wi-Fi 6 options for people who have a new Mac, iPhone or iPad that uses Wi-Fi 6 (although, of course, new Macs and mobile devices will still work with older routers that use 802.11ac - aka Wi-Fi 5).
It might not be the fastest mesh system around, providing dual-band Wi-Fi 6 with a maximum speed of 1.8Gbps, but that should still be perfectly fine for streaming music and video, and a spot of casual gaming.
The 2-pack mesh system that we review here includes two identical, compact little routers, which can link together to cover an area of up to 4,500 sq.ft, so that should be enough to cover most medium size homes. This costs around £125, which is very competitive for Wi-Fi 6, but we have seen pricing vary quite a lot online too, so it's worth shopping around for the best deals before buying. And, for larger homes, there's also a 3-pack system that costs around £190, and can cover areas of up to 6,500 sq.ft.
Each router has two Ethernet ports on the back - one of which will be needed to connect to your existing broadband modem or router, so you still have one available to provide a wired connection for an Apple TV or other devices.
The Covr app for iOS and Android devices is a little basic - with limited parental controls, for example - so more experienced users might prefer a mesh system that provides additional features for fine-tuning your new home network. However, the app is quick and easy to use, so it's a good option for people who haven't set up a mesh network before.
Eero Pro 6 - Simple Setup
We liked the original Eero and Eero Pro routers that we reviewed last year, and those two models - which use Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac) - are still available online at reduced prices if you're looking for a low-cost and easy-to-use mesh system (you can read our review of that below).
The new Eero Pro 6 with Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ac) was announced earlier in 2021, but wasn't widely available in the UK. However, Eero is now owned by Amazon - which obviously wanted to grab a slice of the rapidly growing mesh market - and the tri-band Eero Pro 6, and the less expensive dual-band Eero 6, are now available via Amazon in the UK.
The Eero Pro 6 isn't the fastest mesh router around - or the cheapest either - simply offering tri-band Wi-Fi 6 running at 1Gbps, and covering an area of up to 2,000 sq.ft. A single router costs £183, but - rather oddly - there's no 2-pack option, so you either have to buy two single routers for £366, or step up to £479 for a three-pack for larger homes of up to 6,000 sq.ft.
However, the Eero app is quick and easy to use, so it's a good option for people who haven't used a mesh system before. It also supports HomeKit, providing extra security for HomeKit-compatible devices such as lights and speakers. And, hedging its bets a bit, the Eero Pro 6 also supports a rival smart-home technology, called Zigbee, which isn't as straightforward to use as HomeKit, but is widely used by many smart devices.
There's also a less expensive option, in the form of the dual-band Eero 6, which runs at a more modest 500Mbps, but costs just £139 for a single router, £196 for one router and one extender to help increase the range, or £279 for a router and two extenders.
Netgear WiFi 6 Orbi AX4200 - High End Design And Performance
Netgear is a bit like the Apple of the networking world - their products are seriously expensive, but they're always well designed and provide good performance. The Orbi AX4200 isn't even Netgear's top-of-the-range mesh system, but it still weighs in at a hefty £450 for the two-piece systems shown here. It supports tri-band Wi-Fi 6 running at 4.2Gbps, and can cover homes or offices of up to 4,000 sq.ft in size.
Like most mesh systems, it also provides a 3-pack for larger homes, but Netgear seems to think we all live in Silicon Valley mansions so it also offers a 4-pack as well, and even a 5-pack, which bumps the price up to a whopping £1,050 (mind you, if your home is 10,000 sq.ft in size then you can probably afford it).
Most mesh systems simply consist of two or three identical routers, but Netgear's Orbi routers take a different approach. The first unit - that connects to your existing broadband modem or router - is simply known as the Orbi Router, while the other units are referred to as satellites.
The Orbi router has one dedicated Gigabit Ethernet port for your Internet connection (WAN), and two additional Ethernet ports for wired network connections (LAN), and it's also possible to combine (aggregate) the WAN and LAN ports to provide twice the speed for super-fast fibre connections or office networks. The satellites also have two Ethernet ports for wired connections as well.
And, like Apple, Netgear never misses an opportunity to sell you some expensive add-ons too. The Orbi app is well designed and easy to use, but it's pretty basic and Netgear takes every opportunity to sell additional subscriptions for its Armor security system (one month free, then £85 per year), and its forthcoming Smart Parental Control service (£7 per month, or £50 per year).
Eero Pro - Compact and easy to use
We've looked at the standalone version of the Eero Pro router before, and although it's quite expensive it's still a good option for Mac users as Eero is one of the few manufacturers to make routers that support Apple's HomeKit software. This allows it to provide extra security for other HomeKit devices, such as smart lights and security cameras.
The Eero Pro can also work as a mesh router too - although the options here are a little complicated. Eero only sells a three-piece mesh system, which includes three Eero Pro routers for £430/$399, and is suitable for mega-homes of up to 6000sq ft. But, if you live in something a little more modest, then you can just buy two individual Eero Pro routers costing £179/$199 each. There's also a third option for customers in the US, using a less expensive add-on device called the Eero Beacon - although this doesn't seem to be available in the UK at the moment.
The Eero Pro is a tri-band router, running at 1450Mb/s - which admittedly isn't top of the range these days, but should still be more than adequate for most home broadband services. Our only real complaint is that the compact design of the Eero Pro (which is quite attractive) means there's only room for two ethernet ports, so you don't have a lot of options if you need a lag-free wired connection for devices such as games consoles or a smart TV.
The Eero app is easy to use, and includes some basic parental controls, but it's a little disappointing to see that additional security features require a monthly subscription to the company's Eero Secure service.
Netgear Orbi RBK20 - Great for speed
Netgear has one of the most extensive ranges of mesh systems, all gathered together under the Orbi brand name. The cheapest Orbi models start at around £130, but only provide dual-band Wi-Fi, so we reckon it's worth paying a little extra for a tri-band system that can cope with quite a few devices streaming online at the same time.
The RBK20 is a two-piece mesh system that includes a primary router and a 'satellite' that you can place in another room or out in a hallway to extend the reach of your mesh network. Both routers provide tri-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi with a total speed of 2200Mb/s, which should be more than adequate for most home broadband services.
This two-piece kit is designed to cover homes of up to 2600sq ft, and if you live in a mega-mansion out in the country there's a three-piece kit (RBK23) also available that covers twice that area.
Both routers also have two ethernet ports for wired connections - although one port on the primary router will be needed to connect it to your existing broadband router or modem in order to use its internet connection. There's no USB port for connecting a printer or hard drive, but that probably won't be a deal-breaker for most people.
Netgear's Orbi app is a bit of a mixed bag, though. It's very easy to use and quickly guides you through the initial setup process, but its parental controls are fairly basic and it relies on selling you a subscription to the Disney Circle service to provide more advanced controls.
If you live in a larger house - two or more floors, several bedrooms, maybe a nice big garden too - then you may find that the Wi-Fi signal from a conventional router can't cover the whole area. Smaller homes can have trouble with Wi-Fi too, especially in older buildings with thick concrete or brick walls. Even the ceiling that separates the ground from the first floor can cause problems.
These issues can lead to Wi-Fi 'dead spots' in the more peripheral areas of your home: an upper bedroom, perhaps, or out in the garden. In these places you'll find the Wi-Fi signal is too weak to be reliable, and what's the point of working from home if you can't chill out in the garden while you're checking your emails?
The dead zone
There are various simple fixes to improve your Wi-Fi signal, but the chances are that you'll end looking for a hardware solution.
The cheapest option to fix dead spots is to buy a Wi-Fi extender which, as the name implies, extends the reach of your router. An extender is the ideal solution if you've just got one room where the signal's a bit weak.
We're also big fans of PowerLine adapters, which provide a wired alternative to Wi-Fi by sending your internet connection along your mains electrical wiring to the power socket in any room in your home. If you ask me, that's the next best thing to magic.
Wi-Fi extenders and PowerLine adapters are a great option for fixing dodgy Wi-Fi in a single room, but it's more of a band-aid to patch up the occasional hole in your network than anything else. If you've got several rooms and areas that struggle to get a decent signal, it's worth upgrading your home Wi-Fi setup with a completely new 'mesh' networking system instead.
How many routers do I need?
Rather than having a single router that simply fires off a Wi-Fi signal in all directions and then just hopes for the best, a mesh network consists of two or three routers that you can place in different rooms or locations around your home in order to specifically focus on those tricky dead spots. For this reason, mesh networks often claim to provide 'whole home Wi-Fi'.
The first router is often referred to as the 'primary' router, and this needs to be connected to the existing broadband router or modem that provides your internet connection. The additional routers - generally referred to as 'secondary' routers, or sometimes as 'satellites' - are then placed in other rooms or locations throughout your home, perhaps with one on the ground floor, and another in an upstairs hallway in order to cover the entire upper floor.
As a rough guideline, smaller homes that are up to 1500sq ft in size will probably be fine with a single, conventional router. Medium-size homes up to 2500sq ft will need a two-piece mesh system (one primary router and one satellite), while larger homes up to 4500sq ft will probably need a three-piece system (one primary router and two satellites).
Most mesh systems also allow you to buy additional satellites too, so if you live in a mega-mansion out in the countryside - or you want to provide Wi-Fi for a large set of offices - then you can buy and integrate as many as you need.
Setup: Making a mesh
Each mesh router transmits its own Wi-Fi signal, and all those signals then 'mesh' together to create a more extensive mesh network with much greater range and reliability than the signal transmitted by a single conventional router.
The downside, of course, is that buying a mesh system that includes two or three routers is more expensive than buying a single conventional router. However, a mesh network may be the only practical solution for many homes, especially if you have lots of mobile devices, like laptops, tablets and smartphones that tend to wander around a lot of the time.
Having multiple mesh routers in your home also helps to improve Wi-Fi performance when lots of people are online all at the same time, with different family members using Netflix, Zoom, games consoles and other devices.
Mesh networks are also a little more complicated to set up than conventional routers, so it's important that the apps provided by the manufacturers are well designed and easy to use. Features such as parental controls for younger children also vary a lot from one manufacturer to another, so it's always important to think about the features you need from an app before making your choice.
Like conventional routers, the current-generation of mesh routers are mostly based on the 802.11ac version of Wi-Fi, but we are starting to see new mesh systems based on the latest 802.11ax technology - also known as Wi-Fi 6. But while Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh systems do provide impressive speeds, the emphasis with mesh systems is actually on range and reliability, so Wi-Fi 6 isn't essential for most homes at the moment.
Even so, the latest iPhone models do support Wi-Fi 6, and it's only a matter of time before iPads and Macs adopt Wi-Fi 6 as well, so it's worth considering Wi-Fi 6 if you think you're going to be buying a few new Macs or iOS devices in the coming months.