Wi-Fi Mesh Systems

Reposting this as I never saw it come across the feed.

Now that my wife and I are ceasing our full time RV lifestyle and moving back into a real house…I need to build a more comprehensive LAN for the new house. I’m a retired sysadmin and long time computer guy so ease of use isn’t of primary concern to me. Internet access will be via Comcast and I’m sure that their router includes wifi but I’ll provably just disable that or put a strong password in it and not use it.

So…back until 2012 when we moved out of our house that had Verizon FIOS we just used the Verizon router with wifi disabled and hung a gigabit ethernet switch off of it with everything connected to the switch including an Airport in bridge mode…letting the Verizon router handle DHCP for those things on a dynamic IP and using it as the main firewall between inside and outside. Is this still the best option…or is putting my own router inside the Comcast router a better solution? That would require double NATing of course and there used to be some web sites that didn’t work right with double NAT configurations…but to the best of my knowledge that’s not a problem anymore…we’ve been double NATing in the RV for the past 8 years (our router inside the RV connected via wifi to the campground router which then goes out to whoever provides connectivity to them.

Second…Mesh WiFi really didn’t exist back in 2012 when we started…at least not to the extent it’s available today. We didn’t need it in the 350 square foot RV but in the new house will surely need it, particularly for 5 GHz in a concrete block 1800 foot house. Looking at wirecutter and various other tech comparison sites…Eero, Netgear Orbi, Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD, and Linksys Velop Tri-band appear to be the top recommendations…followed by Google Nest but I’m not really in Google having that much information exfiltrated from my house so they’re probably out.

Which of these systems is generally the best these days…or are there others I should be looking at? Alternatively…given the size of the new house (1800 ft)…am I better off trying something like wirecutter’s recommended TP Link Archer A20 first and only going into the mesh arena if necessary? The main living area of the house is pretty open plan and the farthest away bedroom will be the office which will get an ethernet cable run to it…so perhaps trying the non-mesh alternative first is the correct answer.

In case it matters…I envision that most of our devices will be wifi connected rather than by ethernet…kinda hard to run ethernet cables in a concrete block house on a slab although attic might be an option for running some cable. The TV, Apple TV and router/switch will be co-located with the TV where the cable comes in but laptops, iPhones, iPads, and the file server (currently a mini but likely to be replaced by an iMac once we have the space) will all be wifi connected…the sole exception might be the mini/iMac if I can get a cable run to it without too much trouble. Total of 3 Macs, 2 each iPhones and iPads, Apple TV, and the TV itself of course for streaming…along with a printer over near the iMac.

Thanks for any current real world advice…I used to be pretty expert on this stuff but then spent 8 years in the RV where we ran a WiFi Ranger router with it’s associated wifi and only the TV, Apple TV, and TV itself were wired…RVs are small enough that signal strength has never been an issue…and my current tech knowledge is a bit lacking.

I’ve been looking at mesh Wifi systems. Read the reviews. I haven’t found one system that doesn’t have scorchingly bad reviews about reliability due to not-ready-for-prime-time firmware, nodes that require daily rebooting and, generally, just crappy performance.

The problem I’ve seen (having purchased and returned a few different systems whose brands I don’t remember at the moment) is when one of the nodes drops the connection (even for a second of two). While it reconnects (mostly), that does not satisfy the security required of, let’s say, your bank or even an Amazon purchase; the connection was dropped and your secure session is gone so you have to re-login again…and again. We even had this issue with a local database server that would drop the connected clients and not permit continued access without a new login.

If all you’re doing is web-surfing or eMail, these mesh systems can sometimes re-connect by themselves (and permit reconnection to non-encrypted websites).

I have used a couple of Netgear WiFi extenders (each on either side of a centrally located router) and these were considerably more reliable. One might think of this setup as an alternative to a “mesh” system. It works. But there’s nothing better than Ethernet for connecting the “ends” of your house and then connect a couple of routers configured as simple WiFi access points (not using the WAN ports) and leaving DHCP and NAT to the central router.

Look hart at the Ubiquiti Dream Machine (I hate that name but…).

They combine a router, access point, and gig switch into a nice package about the size of an Airport Extreme.

How is it different?

It can route at or near a gig on the WAN side even with packet inspection.

It is a streamlined version of their Unifi business line. Literally 4 boxes into one with better performance.

Since it supports their business mesh APs you can extend your network to any level of robustness.

Plus the business software is fairly comprehensive. Multiple VLANs and LAN subnets to segregate your traffic. Up to 4 SSIDs per AP. ALL kinds of stats in readable formats. And so on.

Oh, yeah, management from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. And there’s an iOS and Android app to handle all the simple suff.

You can run a demo of the software at unifi.ubuquiti.com

And find the various Unifi line of products at ui.com

Great system for $300.

The Ubiquiti…this one…would not maintain a solid connection. (See my original post)

Regarding Comcast, I don’t think you ever need to use their modem, and you certainly don’t need to lease one. I recommend using Comcast’s web site (https://www.xfinity.com/support/devices/) to identify the models compatible with the service you’ll be getting and then buy one for yourself. By not leasing it, you’ll make up the purchase price in about a year, maybe less.

For the most flexibility, I would suggest buying a modem-only device and connecting it to your favorite make/model of router via a short Ethernet cable. In addition to letting you upgrade these two components independently, it lets you keep your router up to date with firmware upgrades. (If your router is built-in to the cable modem, then you’ll only be able to get firmware updates when Comcast pushes them via their servers, which doesn’t happen that often).

Regarding mesh networks, I don’t know much about them, so I can’t recommend a specific product.

Right now, I’m rolling my own (sort of) mesh. I have three Wi-Fi (non-modem) routers. One is attached to my cable modem. The other two are configured for bridge mode, making them dumb Wi-Fi access points. I use a powerline network (based on the HomePlug AV standard) to connect the three routers, which are positioned in the most distant corners of the house. I’ve found that if all the access points have their Wi-Fi configured for the same SSID and password, I seem to have no problem roaming from AP to AP as I move about the house. There’s sometimes a brief interruption when a device switches, but nothing more than that. I’m currently running about 30 devices (mostly Wi-Fi) on this LAN without any problem.

For the wired side of the network (about 6 devices in the room with the main router), I connected a 16-port GigE switch to one of the router’s LAN ports. I also connected my DVR (a Dish Networks Hopper) to the basement router/AP via Ethernet because its Wi-Fi transceiver is terrible.

I would suggest something similar for your home. If you have (or are wiling to run) Ethernet between the rooms, use that to bridge the access points. If not, I think powerline connectivity works pretty well. Just make sure you use transceivers based on HomePlug AV2, in order to get the maximum bandwidth over that link.

If you decide to go with a mesh solution, look for a product that lets you interconnect the nodes with Ethernet and use the same (Ethernet or powerline) wired network you would with a home-grown solution. Using Wi-Fi to link the APs is convenient, but I don’t think you’re going to get the most bandwidth with that solution.

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Interesting. That is from the true consumer line. Amplifi. Based on the same hardware and software but incredibly simplified.

And yes it may have been an issue with the equipment. Or it may have been an issue with placement. And a cm can make a difference. Say he from experience.

The Unifi line is a huge step up.

Also, multiple access points does not a mesh make. At all.

If there’s not a control setup somewhere that handles switching clients from AP to AP to keep the single strong you are missing out on the biggest advantage of a mesh.

The Amplifi should have done switching that but without an onsite analysis it would be hard to tell wheret the fault or faults lie.

And yes a mesh with APs that are wired back to the main router is way more robust than one that is wireless in it’s backhaul.

Wired when you can, wireless if you must.

Thanks David…I intend to buy my own modem already…no reason to lease or use theirs. My current top pick for router/wifi point is a TP-Link Archer A20 but I’m going to evaluate the Ubiquity Dream Machine as recommended by the other David. The TP-Link is wirecutter.com’s top recommendation but since the Ubiquity got a recommendation it is worth a look.

We’ve closed on our home and after some investigation with my laptop and an extra AirPort Extreme I have in the box over there…I hooked the Airport where the router/wifi will be and walked around with my laptop and NetSpot to get some signal strengths…all the rooms have good signal from the Airport except the office/computer room but I’ll be running cat-6 over there for the file server anyway so mediocre wifi there won’t be an issue. At worst…I’ll just put the Airport over there in bridge mode for another access point but at this juncture it doesn’t look like I’ll need to go the mesh route at all.

I did find an article on Engadget by a guy who tested a bunch of alternatives both mesh and not for his home and ended up with the Ubiquity…but the wirecutter article doesn’t even mention it. I’ll have to research the specs as the TP-Link has external antennas and see if there’s a significant difference in capability between the two or perhaps find comparison article on the web.

Thanks David…that looks like a pretty decent router. I have no need for the business stuff at all. My other finalist is the TP-Link Archer A20 which is wirecutter.com’s top recommendation. Other than the business stuff the specs are pretty similar so I wonder if for home use it is worth spending the extra $120 for the Ubiquity over the A20…plus the A20 has external antennas so I would guess maybe a little better antenna performance. Wirecutter didn’t look at the Ubiquity at all…probably because it seems to be more aimed at the business market rather than home market.

Do you have any thoughts on that…and are you using it at home or for business?

No one here seems to have suggested the Synology 2600/2200 mesh combo, which Wirecutter likes a lot. I have no experience with the 2200 (yet) but have had a 2600 for six months now and would certainly recommend it as a starter option.

Thanks. David L and I are the same person. Until you mentioned it I didn’t realize it was different in Disqus than here. There are some places on Disqus where I leave comments where I do NOT want my last name up.

Ubiquiti (non Amplifi) is business so it will get left out of many consumer reviews.

As I said, the control software is a dream in terms of features and ease of use. And you can initiate a support team chat 24/7. (Now the other day I did start one and was in queue slot 24. Oy vey)

I have just set up a guest hotspot in my home and others so I can let people in but they not see anything in my home and business offices networks.

Oops. No we’re not. Here on Disqus I’m David Ross. In another Disqus account I’m David L.

Let’s see. My son has one. A home client has one. My daughter has one, but we’ve not set it up yet in her home. (Very long story).

I have one in my home office. And I’ve been using Ubiquiti Unifi in my clients for a while. The Dream Machine is a consolidation of 4 separate Unifi bits into one box with new chips and cpus.

They (the Dream Machine) have only been available since about November.

While you don’t think you need the “business” features just one is great. You can setup a hotspot for house guests to use and they never see any of your stuff. Just the Internet.

Also you can easily (compared to consumer things) do things like add a wired or wireless Access Point in your back yard. They have both indoor only and indoor/outdoor APs.

Then toss in the metrics. You can see which of your various devices are having issues with their connections and such. I have a Ring chime unit I need to look at based on its terrible wifi connection stats. And a switch that drops off line
for a few minutes every day or few. All I would know without the Ubiquiti would be that something is not working at times.

Visit unifi.ubnt.com and play with the demo.

I hate it when that happens.

I will take a look at that one as well.

We have an Orbi mesh network spanning our house and studio. We live in a small village and have a wired connection of 45Mb down, 10Mb up, and since moving to the Orbi, a Wifi connection of 45Mb down, 10Mb up. Simple to install and while a tad on the large size for my liking, I have no complaints whatsoever. Bought a 3 unit version, the RBK50, hub and 2 satellites, on Amazon at a 100 off the retail price.

+1 on the Orbi. We have Google Fiber, and we get around 350-400Mb down and up to 500Mb up on WiFi.

I have the Eero system, based in part on @julio’s review of it in TidBITS, and it has been flawless and easy to use. The only problem is that shortly after I purchased it, Amazon bought Eero. I haven’t noticed any change yet, but given how hard Amazon works to sell us stuff, I might not have chosen Eero had I known.



@julio also wrote about the Linksys Velop system a while back:

I droped over $500 on Ring.com things just before the same thing happened. Same thoughts.

Another useful fact, if you’re not quite sure about whether to buy a mesh system, is that there exist standalone routers (well, at least one) that can later be used as a node in a mesh network.

I’m using a Linksys MR8300 router as the core of my home network. If I want to upgrade my wireless LAN to a mesh network, it can peer with Velop nodes. So I don’t need to discard a perfectly good router as a part of moving to a mesh solution in the future.

I’ve been using this router for about a year now and my only real complaint is that the initial setup and configuration must be done over Bluetooth using the Linksys mobile app. But once it is configured, there is a perfectly good web interface that you can use for more advanced configuration, so this is, for all practical purposes, a one-time annoyance.

Mesh.

To be a real mesh setup the APs need to switch you between APs as you move around based on how the signal is operating.

When you have just various APs on the same LAN you get into situations where performance can be terrible unless you manually turn off WiFi on the device you are using then turn it back on.

Jeanette Lee of Ruckus (I think) told us that the WiFi specs say that in the absence of a control system a client device should stay attached to an AP until it completely loses the signal. Which mean you could be next to a better AP and never “hook up” to it.