Most homes, whether they're houses or apartments, have to deal with Wi-Fi dead zones. Trying to pick up a signal is almost impossible when your router has to punch through multiple rooms, walls and doors.
Wi-Fi repeaters, boosters and extenders have been the solution for some time and work by extending the coverage area of your network. However, they can be fiddly to set up and don't always provide an integrated solution.
That's where wireless mesh networks come in. They provide 'whole-home Wi-Fi coverage' by using multiple nodes (also known as satellites) that have their own dedicated connection to the router. They can plug almost any black spot by creating what is essentially a Wi-Fi dome around your house.
A home mesh network uses a router and a series of satellites to increase your Wi-Fi signal.
Wireless mesh networking is a relatively new technology that follows the same principles as Wi-Fi repeaters, boosters and extenders. It uses a series of satellites that work together to supply a wider-reaching wireless network that a typical router can't do on its own.
Each satellite can communicate with the base unit, which needs to be plugged into your existing wireless router or modem, in order to distribute an internet connection.
The idea is to place your router in the middle of your home, with the satellite units either side of it at far-flung areas where your original router may have trouble providing a useable signal.
Mesh networks vs powerline adaptors vs wireless extenders
Powerline adaptors and wireless repeaters or extenders also help provide a more reliable internet connection, but they work slightly differently to a mesh network.
A powerline adaptor uses your home's electric wiring to take your data from your router and send it to other adaptors. It requires two units: one is placed near and plugged into the router, the other is placed in the room where you'd like the router's reach to extend to. It's not always a reliable solution as it can depend on the configuration of the wiring phases in the home.
A wireless repeater or extender simply plugs into a power outlet and takes care of all the signals to and from the router wirelessly. A repeater or extender should be placed in a location where the router's signal is still strong, so that it can extend that signal out.
Mesh kits usually include a wireless router and at least one or two satellites (you can easily add more satellites to the system if needed). The main satellite of a mesh network plugs into the existing router or modem and creates its own wireless network, which is then broadcast by all the satellites in that network.
Mesh nodes (or satellites) distribute Wi-Fi around your home.
This is different from a wireless repeater, which identifies a signal from the router, then rebroadcasts it. This weakens the signal, especially when you add more repeaters to the chain and get further and further away from the main router.
Mesh kits, however, can retain signal strength because they form their own network using the internet service you pay for. They don't amplify your existing network. Because of this, it might be worth turning off your existing wireless network so the mesh one is the only network present. They won't interfere with each other but it helps keep things tidy.
Setting up a mesh network
You don't need in-depth networking knowledge to set up a mesh network. Most come with an app or set-up wizard that identifies satellites, automatically connects them to the network, and helps you find optimal placement to ensure the strongest signal.
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No more network name confusion
When set up, most wireless repeaters, adaptors and extenders will create a new network with a different name (sometimes with _EXT appended). Mesh networks take away any confusion by broadcasting the original name you gave the network.
Mesh networks also have a feature called band steering, which gives you a single network name to connect both 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices. It also improves performance by automatically steering your connected devices to the most efficient band and satellite as you're moving around, so portable devices such as smartphones, tablets and small laptops can access optimal speeds.
So, a mesh network is more or less a 'set and forget' solution.
Of all the ways to improve home Wi-Fi, mesh networks are the most expensive option. The base cost is typically quite high as you need a few bits and pieces to get going and extra satellites don't come cheap either. The models in our most recent mesh networks test start at $85 and go all the way up to $949.
Some manufacturers offer an ad-hoc solution that combines particular (qualified) routers and/or extenders which can be added together to form a mesh network. An example of this is AiMesh, which is a feature that can link together many ASUS wireless routers. This lets you extend your mesh coverage gradually, and it usually costs a little less.
Wireless mesh networks are one of the most convenient ways to spread Wi-Fi around your home, but whether or not you need one depends on your household needs.
Reasons you may need a mesh network
- You live in a sizeable apartment/house with multiple storeys, or an old building with thick walls that blocks the modem/router signal and creates multiple dead zones.
- You use a number of portable devices (smartphone, tablet etc.) and connect most of your tech to Wi-Fi rather than ethernet.
- Your devices are spread around the house.
- You or your family/housemates have demanding network requirements (e.g. simultaneous video streaming).
- A number of bedrooms are occupied and each requires internet access.
- You have a large backyard that stretches far away from the modem/router.
Reasons you may not need a mesh network
- Most of your devices are in one or two rooms close to the modem/router.
- You can connect most devices via ethernet.
- You live in a small house/apartment and only need to boost the signal in a small portion of the house, like your bedroom.
- You live alone or with one other person, which won't put a strain on the network.
- You already have a powerful wireless router that can cover most of the house easily.
In these cases, a simple repeater, adaptor or extender can cover a room or two and will end up costing a lot less money.