Explained: What is Mesh WiFi? vs Extender, Router?

John Lister's picture

Ask online about ways to improve the Internet connection around your home, and you'll often come across users recommending that you use a "mesh WiFi" system. So, what is mesh WiFi? Is mesh WiFi better than regular WiFi? What about mesh vs an extender, or mesh vs a router? How does mesh compare to Google Nest? How do you set up a mesh Wifi network?

We'll answer those questions and more below.

What is Mesh WiFi?

Mesh WiFi is a way to combat poor wireless reception, particularly in houses with multiple floors, thick walls or an unusual shape.

It's also aimed at houses and offices where a router needs to be put in a particular place (such as by a phone or cable socket) that isn't centrally located in the home, which would be the ideal location for evenly distributing the WiFi signal.

The basic idea of mesh WiFi is not to rely on the power of the router to reach everywhere in the home or office, but rather to create a mini network of WiFi "nodes" that spread the signal evenly so that there are no dead spots.

Is Mesh WiFi better than regular WiFi?

Not necessarily. But, that also depends on who you ask, the budget involved, the purpose of the network, and the restrictions (layout) of the building.

Hands down, the best possible throughout and bandwidth performance is achieved through multiple hard-wired routers configured as access points with DHCP disabled. This means that mesh won't give you the best performance, unless you can hard-wire each mesh beacon. But, most people aren't looking for hard-wired mesh beacons - they want the ability to extend their wireless network using wireless beacons, which is what mesh does best because it's easy to set up. This ease-of-setup translates to considerably more cost up front ($200-400 typically for 1 mesh router + 2 nodes) compared to a WiFi extender ($35 and up per node) or a secondary router ($20 and up per node).

Below we'll also compare some other ideas, such as mesh vs a wifi extender, while elaborating on mesh vs routers.

Mesh vs Extender

A WiFi extender is a device that extends a wireless network using power lines (cables) that run through walls of a building. Click here to see a picture of a WiFi extender.

Most WiFi extenders today plug into the back of the existing router, then transmit the signal at a power outlet in another room.

Here's how it works: the WiFi Extender is made up of two parts. One part plugs into the router directly, and also a power outlet in the same room as the router. Network data is then sent from this device through the power lines in the home / building / office to another power outlet in another room. A second device receives the signal in the other room, then wirelessly transmits data as a repeater.

In contrast, mesh doesn't work through power lines - but, it does use power from the wall to operate. It gets its signal from another mesh WiFi beacon or the mesh router, rather than sending its signal through the power line (cable). Some mesh WiFi beacons can also be set up with a hardwire (Ethernet cable), but that depends on the device specifications.

Generally speaking, WiFi extenders are more expensive than adding a secondary router to extend the WiFi network. That said, WiFi extenders (around $45ish) also cost much less than a mesh beacon (approximately $150ish per beacon at the time of writing).

WiFi Extender Caveats

Based on this author's experience, extenders don't work that well compared to adding a second router (especially if the router is hard-wired), and rarely ever achieve their advertised speeds. That said, if a WiFi extender is your only choice, it's better than nothing.

Price wise, extenders usually cost around $30-50 USD on Amazon. If you need help setting up a WiFi extender on your network, you can contact Dennis on this website and he can set it up for you using his remote desktop support service.

Mesh vs Router

Compared to a mesh network, adding another router to the network to extend wireless signal requires manual configuration to make things work properly.

For example, the secondary router would have to be configured to disable DHCP (as the main router would provide this). Preferably, the secondary router would be connected using an ethernet wire to reduce network latency and throughput.

Another option is to use the secondary router as a wireless bridge or repeater - but only if the device supports the feature. Currently the TP Link AC1750 ($57 at the time of writing via Amazon) is an excellent choice which offers these features.

Extending your network with secondary routers can be repeated as many times as needed.

The main benefit of using a router vs mesh or even an extender is that the router costs significantly less (ranging from $20 and up, versus $45 or so for a WiFi extender, and compared to $150ish for each mesh / beacon added). Another main benefit to purchasing a secondary router (vs mesh) is that replacing the unit - if it breaks - won't break the bank.

Router Caveats

Once again, adding a secondary router is going to require some technical know-how. Price and performance wise, this type of setup can't be beat, especially if you're using ethernet from each access point. This will always be faster than adding an extender or a mesh network.

If you need help setting up a secondary router to your network, you can contact Dennis on this website and he can set it up for you using his remote desktop support service.

WiFi Streaming, Parental Controls and Priority Settings

In terms of WiFi streaming, parental controls, and priority settings, the mesh network has many useful features and is easily accessible with a smartphone app (usually).

The mesh system is designed to automatically take into account of where you are using WiFi and how it is being used - for example, whether you are streaming video or browsing web pages. Technically speaking, routers can also set streaming priorities automatically, but mesh does a better job with it.

Some mesh systems include easy-to-use features such as a guest mode, in which visitors to your home or office can obtain online access. The guest network is usually always on a completely separate subnet (network); in this case, the guest network is secure in that it cannot connect to other devices (PCs, laptops, printers) on the main network.

In comparison, most routers today also offer a guest network. If not, you can simply enabled DHCP on the secondary router and it will be on its own subnet. WiFi extenders on the other hand simply repeat the signal from the main router, so these are not independently configurable.

Another benefit to using mesh is its parental controls. This allows the administrator to shut off or restrict WiFi access to devices (such as those operated by children) at certain times of the day. These features are usually often lacking in standard or bargain-priced routers. (Source: linksys.com)

How do you Set Up a Mesh WiFi network?

Let's talk more about how the mesh network operates.

A mesh WiFi system usually begins with a base router. This either replaces your current router, plugs into a modem, or plugs into the back of the existing router. In the latter case you will need to disable WiFi on the existing router so you can use the new WiFi provided by the mesh system.

Once this is established, you can begin populating the network with a new "WiFi node," otherwise known as a "WiFi beacon".

Extending the Mesh Network

The number of nodes you need for your network depends on the size and layout of your home or office, and whether or not the WiFi signal is weak in certain areas. In most cases, you can buy extra nodes later on if you need them.

Adding a node to the network is easy. You just add the node wherever you want in the home or office, press a button to have it connect to the network, and it will automatically configure itself.

When you walk throughout the home, your device should connect to the strongest WiFi point automatically and seamlessly.

If you used a secondary router or extender, the network SSID (name) would work the same way, though the secondary router could also be configured to run on a separate network. For example, you might segregate your WiFi access points depending on location, such as: "WiFi Basement" and "WiFi Upstairs".

Is Mesh WiFi the same as Google Nest WiFi?

Nest WiFi is the official name for Google's WiFi that uses the mesh technology. It works in the same way as most mesh systems, though with the latest models, the "nodes" also double up as miniature smart speakers along the lines of what used to be called the Google Home mini.

Google's Nest WiFi should not be confused with Google Fiber. That's a broadband service that delivers the Internet to your home, and is designed to be a competitor to local cable services or fiber services that offer Internet.

Mesh WiFi Caveats

When reading reviews of mesh WiFi, check to see if there's any mention of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

Most WiFi equipment today works over both frequencies. As a rough rule, 5 GHz has faster transmission speeds, are less likely to suffer interference from other equipment, has faster transmissions speeds, but the range is significantly less than 2.4 GHz. In fact, 2.4 GHz does a much better job of getting through walls which can degrade WiFi signals significantly.

The mesh WiFi system should work seamlessly with devices on either frequency, as they are technically all part of the same network and use the same password (unless configured differently). In any case, always read the reviews carefully about the particular brand of mesh WiFi you are thinking about buying, as some brands don't work as well as others - especially in the case of streaming media (example: to chromecast from your phone to your television).

By far the biggest disadvantage to using mesh or even Google Nest is the cost. A typical system might cost around $200 to $400 dollars, compared to adding a few secondary routers (at the cost of $30 each) to extend signal.

Once again, if you need help setting up a secondary router or wifi extender to your network, you can contact Dennis on this website and he can set it up for you using his remote desktop support service.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you use mesh WiFi? If so, how well does it perform? If not, is it something you'd consider and how much would you pay?

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Average: 5 (4 votes)

Comments

DavidInMississippi's picture

EVERY new technology is very costly when it first comes out. I remember when 500 MB (not GB) hard drives for PCs cost upwards of $5,000. Now you can get 2TB for <$100.

As I understand it, Mesh technology is 5G-ready, whereas most others are not, and will have to be replaced when you want to convert to 5G in your home/workplace.

Also, there is no question that the cost of this technology will plummet once (a) more consumers demand it; (b) manufacturers ramp up production; (c) there are more competitors selling Mesh products; and (d) manufacturing processes become more efficient. That's the power of the free market economy.

Early adopters can jump on Mesh now. For the rest of us, we shall bide our time.

Jim's picture

I have a Linksys Velop mesh system. While it works ok, I wonder whether it would be an improvement to hardwire each node via ethernet, rather than let the nodes use the wifi backchannel to communicate with each other and the base unit. Each node does have an ethernet port, but the documentation isn't 100% clear about whether or not the nodes would actually use ethernet for backchannel communication if they were plugged in. Running the cables throughout my house would take the better part of a weekend, and I don't really want to do it if it would only get me a small improvement in network throughput. Any thoughts Dennis?

Dennis Faas's picture

As the title suggests, any time you can add hardwire (Ethernet) to a node / beacon / secondary router / repeater / bridge / access point, you are better off.

Why? The reason is that each wireless node has to repeat the signal from another node in order to pass on the signal wirelessly to the next, and eventually to the destination. This causes latency - so much so, that your throughput will be cut in half every single time it is repeated / passed on. This is a well documented fact, which you can also read here.

Quote:

"In a mesh network, every link, or 'hop,' between routers will decrease the bandwidth by half."

Jim's picture

That was an interesting article, thanks for the link. While I'm sure there will always be some signal degradation in the backhaul, I'm not sure it would be 50% with the Linksys because it utilizes a dedicated channel for backhaul (therefore, can receive and transmit at the same time....I think???)

Linksys' website shows that the satellite nodes can use ethernet for backhaul but shows a direct ethernet connection between the satellite and the base (https://www.linksys.com/us/support-article?articleNum=217442), which would make for some very cumbersome wiring. I utilize strategically-placed gigabit switches in my home to minimize that, and it's not clear that that would work. Poor documentation!

blite's picture

If two secondary routers, with DHCP disabled, are hardwired to the Ethernet base, should the secondary SSID's be unique, or could/can they be named the same as the primary router's SSID?

Dennis Faas's picture

If you are feeding off the main router with a hardwired ethernet connection then the secondary router will use a unique SSID. If you are extending / repeating (wirelessly) then it almost always uses the same SSID as the main router. If bridging wirelessly then it is usually a unique SSID for the bridge (example: Access Point A [your house] and Access Point B [house across the street]).

Most wireless devices these days will automatically select the strongest signal strength, so having different SSIDs is not really an issue. Even if your device connects to the wrong access point (example: upstairs instead of downstairs), you can always manually select which one you want.

Jim's picture

So just as a followup to my own question...I ran an ethernet cable from my basement Velop node to an unmanaged gigabit switch, and then logged into the router and checked the network. The basement node immediately switched from wireless to ethernet. So all is well.

Now I just have to decide how motivated I am to run ethernet to the other two nodes which are much less accessible. Fishing cables to the kitchen and upstairs hallway nodes will be a mission. :(