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What is a mesh Wi-Fi router, and do you need one?

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router system? Mesh systems join two or more Wi-Fi access points together, creating and sharing a single, seamless Wi-Fi network that can be expanded and set up to cover even the largest of homes or buildings. 

If the Wi-Fi router that worked in your small apartment doesn't give you the wireless connectivity you want for a big house, then a mesh Wi-Fi router system may be the solution for you.

If you have a large home — at least 3,000 square feet — or one that has an unusual layout, rises more than two stories or has interior brick walls, then you probably will encounter Wi-Fi dead zones. This means your home could be a good candidate for a mesh system. 

Modern mesh Wi-Fi systems offer super-simple setup procedures, letting you wipe out dead spots and filling in the gaps in your home coverage. You can enjoy wireless internet access in every room, and even in the back yard or the garage. 

Here's everything you need to know about what the best mesh Wi-Fi systems do and whether one might be right for your home.

Unlike traditional home Wi-Fi routers, which create a single access point to broadcast Wi-Fi signals to a limited area, mesh networks link two or more access points, also called nodes. 

One access point acts as the router or base station and connects to one of the best cable (or DSL) modems to get internet access; the other nodes act as satellites, receiving their internet access from the base station and then rebroadcasting it to nearby devices.

All these units then share data back and forth and provide multiple sources of Wi-Fi signal. Unlike range extenders, they all share the same network, so you won't have to deal with the hassle of switching to a new network when you go from one room to another.

Several big names in consumer networking gear now offer mesh-router solutions. Google's Nest Wifi is our current favorite on our list of the best mesh routers, thanks to its excellent performance, easy setup and the addition of a Google Home speaker in each access-point unit, adding functionality throughout the house.

The Netgear Orbi line is a long-time favorite, delivering great performance across a growing ecosystem of products, from the latest Netgear Orbi WiFi 6e to the original Orbi RBK50 and the Orbi Voice add-on.

For value-friendly mesh networking, we really like the TP-Link Deco X20, which provides great Wi-Fi 6 speeds for the whole house, but without costing much more than a standalone unit.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Google)

With such a spike in popularity, you may be wondering whether a mesh router would work for you. If so, here's an overview of this twist in home Wi-Fi networking to help you decide if this solution could work in your home.

The basics of wireless mesh routers

At the center of traditional Wi-Fi networks is the router, the key piece of equipment that broadcasts the wireless signal to which your devices connect. 

A router, as its name suggests, seamlessly routes internet traffic between a connected modem and Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets such as computers or tablets. Most people completely forget about their routers — that is, until the Wi-Fi signal goes down.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: A Netgear Orbi unit. Credit: Netgear)

The main issue with traditional routers is that the reach of the signals they send out is limited. Large buildings that need internet access on multiple floors often have areas with limited or nonexistent service, sometimes called dead zones, when the main network uses a standard single-point router.

Mesh routers can help eliminate dead zones. Rather than broadcasting Wi-Fi signals from a single point, mesh router systems have multiple access points. One node links to the modem and acts as the router, while one or more other access points, often called satellites, capture the router's signal and rebroadcast it.

For those who aren't sure if they need a mesh system, or who anticipate moving into a larger home in the near future, you don't have to commit to a pack of two or three mesh units to benefit from the expandable coverage of mesh Wi-Fi. 

Many of the latest standalone routers can actually be set up as base stations for mesh coverage, letting you expand your Wi-Fi to larger areas by adding more nodes from the same manufacturer without ditching your current equipment.

The benefits of mesh routers

In addition to creating a strong, reliable Wi-Fi signal, mesh-router systems have a few other prominent benefits. Here are some of the biggest pros.

1. Easy network management: One main feature that distinguishes mesh-router systems from traditional routers is the easy network access they provide. Many mesh-router systems are totally automated, allowing for easy management through a mobile app, even when you're not at home. Setting up a mesh system with a smartphone app is far easier than plugging directly into a router and configuring a device through a browser dashboard.

Many mesh-router apps let users quickly scan their speeds, cut off Wi-Fi access to certain networks, create guest networks, test the quality between the various connection points and even connect to smart home devices. Some high-end traditional routers have similar features, but you'll usually have to be connected to the local network from a desktop web interface to turn them on.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Linksys' Velop mesh-router system. Credit: Linksys)

2. Streamlined connections: With traditional routers, devices known as range extenders are often used to repeat the signal so Wi-Fi can be accessed from long distances. However, even the best Wi-Fi extenders require you to create a separate network, with a separate name, for the range extender. This means you may have to switch Wi-Fi connections, sometimes manually, as you move around the house. 

A mesh-router system, on the other hand, doesn't require constant reconnection, even as you move from room to room. You also won't have to deal with as much lag, as the access points all broadcast the same signal, rather than having to route requests through multiple networks.

3. Tight security: Along with easy management, some residential mesh-router kits come with good security support. Thanks to the aforementioned easy network management, it's not hard to keep your router devices safe — many automatically check for, and install, firmware updates.

The drawbacks of mesh routers

Mesh-router systems, like most pieces of networking equipment, aren't without drawbacks. Here are a few of the bigger ones.

1. High costs: A good two-piece mesh-router kit will cost $200 or more, with add-on satellites costing $100 to $600 each.  The standalone models on our list of the best Wi-Fi routers generally range from $80 to $250, while range extenders run anywhere from $20 to $100. That's a big difference in price, even for the most basic mesh-router setup.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Google)

2. Wasted resources: In small homes and buildings, mesh routers generally present a bigger solution than is needed. Covering 3,000 to 5,000 square feet with a simple two-unit mesh network is overkill for many homes. 

If you don't regularly deal with Wi-Fi connectivity issues, or if you don't have extensive internet demands, mesh routers might be excessive. A few Wi-Fi dead zones can easily be remedied by using a range extender, by putting the existing router in a more central location or by upgrading to a better traditional router with a longer range.

3. More equipment: Although most mesh-router system access points are small and discreet, you may need several of them to take full advantage of their capabilities. This means finding places for multiple devices throughout your home — which could be problematic for users who prefer to keep networking devices limited to one or two inconspicuous locations.

What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

(Image credit: Eero)

Do you need a mesh-router system?

Many traditional routers won't cover large houses with multiple floors and walls that block wireless signals. Additionally, if you're interested in smart-home features, the easy remote management that mesh routers offer through their mobile apps is a huge plus.

On the other hand, if you live in a small home or apartment and only deal with dropped Wi-Fi every so often, you can probably pass on mesh routers. A simple range extender, or even a long-range router, would work just as well to patch dead zones.

You don't have to deal with slow internet speeds or gaping dead zones. If you're tired of constant router resets or antenna adjustments, now is a good time to upgrade to a new traditional router with longer distance capabilities, a mesh-router kit or a range extender — whichever product best fits your situation and budget. All are optimized to deal with home obstructions and can connect homes on numerous frequencies.

There are plenty of wireless networking products that can help boost a home Wi-Fi signal, so analyze your Wi-Fi needs to determine which solution is best for your home.

Adding mesh routers to your existing network

While most mesh Wi-Fi systems are sold in a package of two or three devices, with the option of adding additional nodes for wider coverage, a lot of newer routers and extensions are made to offer mesh capability. 

If you like your existing router, but want to get that same coverage across a larger area, you can sometimes do that by adding one or more mesh nodes, creating a mesh system without replacing the hardware you already have.

Many routers, like the Linksys Max Stream MR9600, can be doubled up with mesh nodes from the same brand to create a mesh network. It's a handy function that gives you the choice of of a single unit for smaller homes and apartments or a more expansive mesh system for larger homes.

Wi-Fi extenders traditionally aren't capable of creating mesh networks, but that's also changing, with products like the Netgear AX1800 Mesh Extender (EAX20) . When paired with other devices, it offers the same coverage and network, with no need to manually switch networks or bands when you move from one end of the house to another. 

The best part? It's not limited to Netgear products but works with any wireless router, including the combination modem/router gateway devices provided by many internet service providers.

Check out all of our home networking coverage:

Best Wi-Fi routers | Best mesh routers | Best Wi-Fi extenders | Best powerline extenders | Best cable modems  

  • Ashley_P
    I would suspect, that just like range extenders/repeaters, the mesh routers increase rebroadcasting signals, dropping (halving) throughput? I'm an advocate of powerline adapters (now up to 1000mbps), some models have a wifi secondary, which provide a range extender type functionality, but without the loss of speed of repeating. WDS also has been available on many brands for some time, providing mesh functionality. Another question would be how interoperable the brands are, is there a standard for mesh?
  • porsche_1
    The Amplifi does have parental controls.