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.
1. 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.
2. TP-Link Deco E3 - The affordable option
TP-Link has several mesh systems in its Deco range, including some new Wi-Fi 6 models that use the latest 802.11ax Wi-Fi technology. But while Wi-Fi 6 is super-fast, it's really not essential for the more modest speeds provided by most home broadband services, so we're happy to stick with its more affordable 802.11ac models.
You could argue that the Deco E3 is a little bit of a cheat, as it consists of a cylindrical primary router and a rectangular 'satellite' that looks more like a basic range extender than a proper mesh router. However, the satellite unit is specifically designed to work with the Deco mesh systems, and rather than simply boosting the Wi-Fi in one room it can add a whopping 1600sq ft to your Wi-Fi coverage, allowing the E3 to cover medium-size homes of up to 2500sq ft.
The E3 is also one of the most affordable mesh kits we've seen so far, costing just £69/$80 for this two-piece kit. It's not the fastest mesh kit around, boasting only dual-band Wi-Fi with a top-speed of 1200Mb/s, but that should still be fine for most domestic broadband services, and this is a good, affordable option for homes where the Wi-Fi can be a little erratic.
It's easy to set up and use too, with a helpful app that guides you quickly through the installation process, and includes parental controls, a guest network and other features. And, if you ever need to upgrade or extend your network even further, you can buy additional satellite units for about £40/$50 each.
3. Linksys Velop - Versatile and reliable
You can't say Linksys doesn't give you plenty of choice with its Velop mesh routers. You can buy one, two or three Velops as required for the size of your home, with either dual-band or tri-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi - with new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) models coming soon as well.
Of course, if you want a mesh system to reach any tricky spots at home then you'll need a two- or three-piece kit, with prices starting at around £121/$149.99 for a kit with two dual-band routers (or 'nodes' as Linksys prefers to call them). That should cover homes of up to 3000sq ft, and larger homes can opt for a kit that contains three nodes for a very competitive £150/$229.99.
The 'nodes' themselves are fairly conventional, offering dual-band 802.11ac with a speed of 1300Mb/s (some of Linksys's technical details are a little confusing at times, as they seem to imply that two nodes provide a total speed of 2600Mb/s, and three nodes provide 3900Mb/s, but that's not really how it works). In any event, most homes don't have broadband as fast as that, and the Velop will handle Netflix video, Spotify streaming and some online gaming without breaking a sweat.
Each node also provides two ethernet ports for wired connections - although one port on one of the nodes will be needed to connect it to your existing broadband modem or router. And, if you prefer to step up to a tri-band mesh system then you can buy a two-node kit for around £215/$299.99, or three nodes for £250/$329.99.
4. 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.
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.