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No More Weak Wi-Fi

Date: December 1, 2016      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source:  Dong Ngo, CNET      Print:

The New Way to Make Your Home Network Powerful Everywhere

Your Netflix movie freezes. Your video chat breaks up. Or you simply can’t post your latest cat video onto Facebook.

The culprit: Your weak Wi-Fi signal.

Having a strong home Wi-Fi signal is especially important at a time when the number of Wi-Fi–enabled devices that use the Internet in our homes is growing, whether they are being used to stream videos or connect to devices such as thermostats or security systems.

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Good news: A new type of ­Wi-Fi system is available—a “home mesh network” that overcomes many drawbacks of the old-style routers that most of us have in our homes.

Because Wi-Fi signals degrade quickly over distance and are easily disrupted by walls and other obstacles, homes ­often wind up with dead zones. With a home mesh network, you can virtually eliminate this problem by drawing upon a fleet of smaller devices spread around the house that sync with one another. They even can work effectively in outdoor living areas such as a deck, a porch or around a backyard pool.

How They Work

A home mesh network consists of a kit that includes a router base plus one or more remote extenders. You manage the network through a free iOS (Apple) or Android app on your smartphone or tablet, and some routers also allow you to use a laptop or a desktop computer. These starter kits use the latest Wi-Fi technology to support high-speed Internet, and they typically provide strong coverage throughout homes of up to 4,500 square feet or possibly even more. If a starter kit doesn’t adequately cover your home, additional remote transmitters may be necessary to get a strong signal everywhere.

Setup typically takes less than 15 minutes, and in some cases, you are guided through the set-up by the app. You connect the base transmitter to your Internet modem via an Ethernet cable just as you do with a traditional router. The additional transmitters connect to electrical sockets elsewhere in the house. In some systems, the app instructs you on the optimal areas to position the transmitters.

The Best Devices

A home mesh network costs more than a traditional router—$350 to $500 for the starter kit and another $150 to $250 per transmitter if you need additional transmitters. All four of the following home mesh networks are fairly easy to set up, but there are differences in design, performance and features that will make each brand ­appeal to certain users…

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Best for performance: Netgear Orbi. This is the first Wi-Fi system that won’t incur any loss of signal. When other systems extend a Wi-Fi signal, about 50% of the signal is lost because the system uses a single band to both receive and rebroadcast the signal. The Orbi eliminates this problem by using a ­separate dedicated band for ­extending the coverage. Its Wi-Fi speeds are faster than the Eero and Luma ­described below. The Orbi system includes a $399 kit of two devices—one router and one satellite extender—that can cover 4,000 square feet. Additional satellite units cost $249 each. You can use up to three satellites in an Orbi system to cover up to 8,000 square feet.

orbi

Drawbacks: If your home is larger than 4,000 square feet, Orbi can be very pricey…and the app does not help with setup. Netgear.com

Best for ease of use: Eero, from the first company to start selling home mesh networks when it launched about a year ago. The device has hundreds of thousands of users and has earned high praise. In contrast, most other home mesh networks just started shipping in the past few months, so it is hard to tell how reliable they are. Eero also is the only system that automatically installs network software updates so that you never have to go to a website or an app and download and install updates yourself.

p_08_eero-lifestyle-bookshelf

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Eero transmitters have an Apple-like design—sleek, palm-size devices with a glossy white finish. There is no visible antenna, and they can lie flat on a shelf or table, powered by a cord plugged into an electrical outlet.

Drawback: Eero is pricey—a starter kit, including two extenders, costs $499. Additional transmitters cost $199 each or $349 for two. Eero is not the fastest mesh network listed here, but that won’t be a deterrent for many households because it’s enough to handle multiple computers streaming video and surfing the Internet at the same time with no slowdowns. Eero.com

Best if you want added security features: Luma, a start-up backed by ­Amazon.com, offers a home mesh network that is less expensive than Eero’s but that has similar download-speed capacity. A starter kit, including two extenders, costs $399, and additional transmitters cost $149. Luma’s extensive security features include the ability to scan connected devices for malware and built-in parental controls.

p_08_luma-orange-table

Drawback: The product just started shipping in June, but consumer response has been positive so far. ­GetLuma.com

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Least expensive starter kit, widest coverage and impressive speed: Amplifi HD offers maximum download speeds up to 10% to 20% greater than Eero and Luma, and it claims to cover areas up to 20,000 square feet with only a starter kit, although this can vary depending on the layout of your home and the thickness of the walls. The kit’s two remote transmitters are plugged directly into electrical sockets (no cords attached). As of late October, Amplifi HD had not yet started shipping, so I would wait until the product is more proven before buying. The starter kit is $349. Two less expensive Amplifi kits also offer great range, but they use an older, slower Wi-Fi technology that is probably no better than your old Wi-Fi router.

p_08_amplifi_5

Drawbacks: Amplifi HD has remote transmitters with 10-inch-long, paddle-shaped antennas that consumers may find cumbersome-looking plugged into their walls. Amplifi.com

A Simpler, Cheaper Alternative

You don’t necessarily have to buy a home mesh network to improve the strength and speed of your Wi-Fi signal. If you have a small-to-midsize home, you might just want to replace your current Wi-Fi router with a more advanced one-unit router. If your current router is more than two years old, it’s probably not delivering the best possible performance. Newer routers typically have more powerful internal radio equipment designed to improve range, and they have the latest Wi-Fi technology, known as 802.11ac, which is many times faster than the old standard, 802.11n.

Important: Your computer or laptop should be equipped with 802.11ac technology for a new router to make a difference in Wi-Fi speed. If you’re unsure, check with customer support for your machine.

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Recommended: The Asus RT-AC88U one-unit provides powerful hardware, easy set-up and excellent range. Cost: $185. Asus.com

Source: Dong Ngo, an editor at CNET, the ­consumer-electronics website that attracts 10 million visitors a month, and head of CNET’s San Francisco testing labs. CNET.com