The Best Wi-Fi Mesh-Networking Kits for Most People

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Mesh-networking kits, which use multiple access points spread around your house, are a great alternative to traditional routers for large and troublesome homes where a single powerful router won’t cut it. After spending over 50 hours testing nine mesh Wi-Fi networking kits in a large, complicated, multilevel home, we’re confident the Netgear Orbi kit is the best choice for most people. Our testing, however, also showed that most people will still be fine with our current router pick.

Last Updated: April 25, 2017
After our tests of five more mesh-networking kits, our top pick and runner-up haven’t changed, but we have added Plume as an also-great kit due to its unique approach: It consists of a bunch of low-powered pods that create a stable, low-latency network across your entire house.
Expand Most Recent Updates
February 23, 2017: The maker of our runner-up pick, Eero, has cut the price of its three-pack of Eero units from $500 to $400, and its two-pack from $350 to $300. We’re currently working on a full update to this guide.
January 9, 2017: We’ve added the Linksys Velop and Asus HiveSpot to the What to look forward to section below.
Our pick
Netgear Orbi RBK50
The two-unit Orbi kit, the “muscle-car of mesh,” is the undisputed king of raw throughput—and it’s considerably easier to set up than any three-unit kit.

Thanks to a dedicated high-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection between the base and the satellite, the Orbi kit had the best throughput and range of the kits we tested, even with only two units to the other kits’ three. The simple “Put the router where the Internet is, put the satellite in the middle of your house” instructions are impossible to screw up, and the two-unit setup also means that your laptops or phones spend less time shifting from one access point to another—or, worse, not reconnecting when they should.

For the tech-savvy, Netgear’s Orbi is the only mesh kit we tested that provides the features of a high-end router, from port forwarding to static routing, along with plenty of Ethernet ports on both units; it’s also one of the few that don’t require an Internet connection to set up or control your network. Orbi is the mesh kit that’s most like a router-and-extender combo, without the drawbacks that usually come with that setup.

Runner-up
Eero
Less raw single-device throughput than our top pick, but it includes well-thought-out family features, an intuitive smartphone app, and greater expandability for really tough buildings.

If the Netgear Orbi RBK50 kit is sold out or too expensive, or if you have a very long house with the Internet connection at one end and you don’t want a Plume pod in every room, consider Eero. It’s not quite as fast or easy to set up as Orbi, but it blanketed our test environment in usable Wi-Fi and has improved much since we originally tested it in late 2016. Eero nodes are typically available in a three-unit kit, with each physically identical, inoffensively styled, low-profile node designed to sit flat on a shelf or desk. Each Eero node has two wired Ethernet ports and can connect in single-hop (“star”) or multi-hop (“tree”) topologies, or plug directly into your wired network if you have jacks available where you want to place them.

Also great
Plume
One of the least expensive and easiest kits to set up, Plume also looks attractive and offers advanced network topology that optimizes itself for your house.

A six-pack of tiny Plume pods is cheaper than an Orbi two-pack and covers about the same area, and a three-pack is fine for small spaces. Plume doesn’t offer Orbi’s overwhelming signal strength, and its throughput isn’t the fastest at short range, but it is consistent throughout an entire house, and its impressively low network latency is noticeable in day-to-day use. Plume also doesn’t have as many advanced networking features as Orbi does, but many people don’t need those. Setup is particularly easy: Put a pod in every room (or every other room, in bigger houses), and let Plume’s cloud optimizer figure out how to connect them together.

Skip Mesh, Save $$$

The Best Wi-Fi Router

The Best Wi-Fi Router

You may not need mesh. Our router pick is surprisingly strong.

Read More

If you have a single-story house that’s smaller than, say, 2,000 square feet, a mesh-networking kit might be overkill. For about a quarter of the price of most of the mesh offerings we tried, our router pick, the TP-Link Archer C7, will bathe the vast majority of houses or apartments in a good signal. In our testing, the Archer C7 performed as well as or better than even the best mesh kits in every location aside from our big problem areas in the half-basement, on the wrong side of a foundation slab.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

I’ve been professionally testing and deploying wired and wireless networking gear in homes and businesses for the better part of 20 years. I’ve also written feature articles on networking and storage for Ars Technica and Opensource.com.

For this guide, I supplemented my own observations with reviews from SmallNetBuilder and CNET, as well as calls directly to engineers or founders at Netgear, Luma, AmpliFi, Plume, and Eero. I also checked Amazon reviews and Reddit threads, and I solicited the opinions of a few other network professionals. Finally, I spent most of a day per kit testing for throughput, latency, features, and general user experience in a challenging physical environment that cries out for multiple-access-point networking to solve its issues.

Who this is for

In my experience, complaints about Wi-Fi come in two basic flavors: “Why does using the Internet stink in this room?” and “Why is it so slow to copy these files?” Both of those problems have more to do with coverage and latency (how long it takes for your inputs to reach the other end of the connection) than with raw speed—a solid 5-megabits-per-second connection with low, consistent latency will feel a lot faster and more reliable than an iffy, inconsistent 25 Mbps. Installing a mesh-networking kit will almost certainly solve both problems, but it won’t be the most affordable choice, and it won’t always be the best solution for a particular house.

You should consider a mesh-networking kit if you have a house that a single powerful router can’t cover, such as a large house (say, above 3,000 square feet), a small house with signal-killing interior walls (like lath-and-plaster, brick, or concrete blocks), or a house with a complicated layout. But before you toss everything out and get a mesh-networking kit, you should try moving your router to a central location. Or if you already have a good router that you like, and you need just a little more range in part of your house, you could consider adding a wireless extender, though the quality of those devices varies extremely widely. (We have a comprehensive guide to wireless extenders, which we’ll revisit later this year.) Finally, if your house is wired for Ethernet, you can run Ethernet cable to inexpensive wireless access points to get the benefits of the mesh-network kits we cover here, but at a much lower cost. Mesh doesn’t really start to shine until you don’t have wires, don’t want wires, and have lots of trouble spots (or one really big trouble spot) with poor or no coverage.

Mesh doesn’t really start to shine until you don’t have wires, don’t want wires, and have lots of trouble spots (or one really big trouble spot) with poor or no coverage.

Typically a mesh kit won’t make your network faster than a decent connection to an 802.11ac router—none of the mesh kits we tested outperformed the TP-Link Archer C7, our recommendation in our stand-alone Wi-Fi router guide, when we had a good connection to the router. However, mesh can offer better coverage in a wider area, which will make your connection feel faster because your devices aren’t grabbing at faint wisps of signal. A network with multiple access points, like a mesh, can also sometimes handle a large number of devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, and so forth) better than a single Wi-Fi router can—though very few homes or even small businesses will have more devices than a single good Wi-Fi router can handle.

Some mesh kits offer family-friendly features—such as Luma’s network filtering or Eero’s “family pause”—that are generally easier to use than similar features in traditional routers. Ease of setup is what really sets mesh apart from other Wi-Fi approaches. Adding a traditional network extender to your existing network might involve familiarizing yourself with the UI of a different brand than your current router, configuring it to work the way you want it to, and then praying that it does. Meanwhile, a mesh-networking kit promises to simply work, and the company behind it promises to support the whole thing if you have trouble.

How we picked and tested

In the future we may need to rule out kits by speed, specs, or price, but with so few home mesh-networking kits currently for sale, we’ve so far been able to test everything available (not just announced, in crowdfunding, or in preproduction, but actually available when we started testing). Our first round of testing included the Eero, Luma, and Netgear Orbi kits, as well as both the HD and (now discontinued) standard versions of the AmpliFi kit. For our current round, we added the Linksys Velop, Google Wifi, Amped Ally, and Plume kits, as well as a thorough retesting of the Orbi and Eero kits, both of which had received new firmware promising markedly improved performance since the first time we tested them.

A note on rated speeds

You shouldn’t get too excited about each device’s claimed speed class, such as AC3200 or AC1750. These ratings refer to theoretical maximum ceilings defined in the abstract specifications of wireless protocols, and they have less to do with real-world performance than the biggest number on a compact car’s speedometer does. Honestly, it’s even worse than that: Your Civic will at least break 100 mph, but your “AC3200” router won’t ever get close to a single gigabit per second, much less 3.2 Gbps.

Test environment

For the objective tests—coverage and performance—we set up each kit’s units in a challenging home environment. The two-story, 3,500-square-foot house we used is built into a hillside, and while its top floor opens onto the front yard, its bottom floor opens onto the backyard. What makes this such a tough house to cover adequately is the location of its network closet (where the Internet connection comes in), plus the foundation slab underneath half the top floor. For most of the bottom floor, a straight line to the base unit in the networking closet goes through the foundation slab—and in some cases, through several feet of packed earth underneath it—effectively killing any direct Wi-Fi signal.

We tested latency and throughput in each of the four corners in both floors, as well as inside a parked car in the driveway outside. Ideally, we’d like to see an average latency of 10 milliseconds or less and a peak latency of 25 ms or less at each test site. (For reference, a wired connection provides well under 1 ms latency, average or peak.)

For the three-piece kits, such as the AmpliFi, Eero, Google Wifi, Luma, and Velop offerings, we kept the base device in the network closet where the Internet connection was, sat the first satellite on a desk in the farther upstairs bedroom, and put the second satellite in the kitchen, just above the downstairs bedroom.

Illustration of multilevel house with labeled rooms and marked device locations

The 3,500-square-foot test environment, with test locations labeled in blue, network hardware (other than Plume pods) in red, and Plume pods in purple. Illustration: Kim Ku

During testing, we disabled the house’s existing wireless network, a professional-grade Ubiquiti setup featuring multiple managed access points each with their own direct-wired connection. However, we left several rogue signals in the house—including TVs, Roku boxes, and printers broadcasting their own ad-hoc networks—to do their usual useless and noisy things, just as they probably do in your home. The neighbors also kept their Wi-Fi networks going, which left somewhere in the vicinity of 30 to 50 SSIDs visible at any given time on the top floor.

Testing methodology

Most network-performance tests you’ll find are conducted with a tool called iPerf and recorded in megabits per second, as you see on speed-test websites and the bill from your ISP. I chose instead to measure using real-world network file sharing and to use megabytes per second—the numbers you’ll see when copying a file from one place to another.

I chose to buck the testing trend because I believe in measuring where the pain is. In my experience, most people complaining about the speed of their network are disappointed at how long it takes to copy files between devices (measured in MB/s—if you want the Mbps equivalent, just multiply by 8). Most people complaining about the quality of their network are complaining about latency or dropped signals: when it takes a long time for something to happen after a click or a tap, videos keep pausing to buffer, or nothing happens at all. For comparison, 25 Mbps is enough to watch a 4K video on Netflix, but on file transfers that translates to a glacial 3.1 MB/s—about a tenth of the speed of a USB 2.0 thumb drive.

In order to make sure our test equipment could outperform the network hardware, I shared a folder (from an SSD-backed ZFS file system on my desktop computer with inline LZ4 compression enabled) filled with 100 separate 1 MB files. On the client side, I used an Acer C720 Chromebook with a dual-band, dual-stream TP-Link Archer T4U 802.11ac USB 3 Wi-Fi interface. Reading those files across a Wi-Fi network simulated a big, fairly easy file-copy run, and ensured that in our real tests the bottleneck we were measuring would be the network, not the server or client. (If you copy files smaller than that, you’ll start seeing bottlenecks due to the network overhead of all the individual copy requests, so it’s not a fair measure of network performance.) As you can see in the graph below, when we performed our tests on the same computer, we got over 1 GB per second—more than fast enough for us to eliminate storage speeds as an issue when testing over the network.

We tested each mesh kit a minimum of three times at each location for both latency and throughput, and then we selected the median result by throwing out the top and bottom runs. This step was necessary, because wireless networking is lossy and inefficient: With a limited number of test runs, the inherent flakiness of Wi-Fi means you’re likely to get on occasion a wildly different result that skews the average—something as simple as your cat running across the room can visibly affect the numbers when you’re obsessively watching a throughput test. A wired Ethernet connection is like an intimate conversation at a quiet, candlelit table. Wi-Fi is more like two blue whales trying to communicate by bellowing at each other from hundreds of miles away.

We tested usability by browsing random selections from the front page of YouTube on a smartphone in each of the test locations for a few minutes. It’s hard to capture a subjective experience with numeric tests, but when your signal drops for five seconds at a time and the interface stops working or your video starts buffering, you know it—so we did this real-world test to make certain the kits we’d be recommending would work at the extremes of coverage.

A wired Ethernet connection is like an intimate conversation at a quiet, candlelit table. Wi-Fi is more like two blue whales bellowing at each other from hundreds of miles away.

Finally—new to our second round of testing—we paid close attention to roaming. I wrote a script that made my test laptop “BING!” every time it roamed from one access point to another, or from one spectrum to another, and I gave the devices as much chance to network-roam on their own as possible—though, if necessary, I did manually disconnect and reconnect in order to get decent test results where they simply refused to roam.

Our picks are below. If you’d like to skip down and read the test results first, you can jump to the Results and analysis section.

Our pick: Netgear Orbi

Two orbi devices on bookshelf with books

The Netgear Orbi router and satellite look like alien vases, but this kit is the easiest to set up and the most powerful among the mesh-networking kits we tested.

Our pick
Netgear Orbi RBK50
The two-unit Orbi kit, the “muscle-car of mesh,” is the undisputed king of raw throughput—and it’s considerably easier to set up than any three-unit kit.

Netgear’s Orbi RBK50 is the best Wi-Fi mesh kit for most people, because it covers all the bases in the simplest way. It ranked at or near the top of the pack for throughput in every location we tested, and it required far less of our time and effort than most of the kits we tested for it to do its best. It’s easy to set up and use, it has all the advanced features you might expect in a high-end router, it has plenty of Ethernet ports, and, unlike most mesh kits, it still works without an Internet connection. It’s also one of the only kits we tested with a dedicated backhaul band (a band reserved for communication between the router and the satellite unit). We tested the original, highest-powered Orbi kit, which Netgear now calls the RBK50 model to distinguish it from the RBK40 and RBK30 versions that launched while this guide was in process.

The Orbi base and satellite both look like small, oddly shaped, white-plastic vases, with a “halo glow” at the top that turns on only during setup and reboot. Each is classified as a tri-band AC3000 device, with 1733 Mbps, 866 Mbps, and 400 Mbps streams. (The 1733 Mbps number refers to the dedicated 5 GHz backhaul channel that the Orbi satellite uses exclusively for communicating with its base router; the 866 Mbps and 400 Mbps figures refer to the two-stream 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands the Orbi system uses to communicate with your devices.) You should not mistake these numbers for real-world speeds, but they do add up to a very respectable chunk of Wi-Fi bandwidth that’s carefully allocated to be just as usable on the satellite as it is on the base. (As mentioned above, we tested the original Orbi RBK50 kit; Netgear now also offers two smaller and less powerful kits, which we’ll test for a future update.)

Ease of setup is a pretty big deal with Wi-Fi mesh, because the placement of the units can be as important as which kit you buy. It might be easy to look at the two Orbi devices versus the three-device kits from other brands and think, “Well, I’m getting less for my money,” but that’s not the case. The fact that the Orbi kit has just two units instead of three, with dead-simple instructions to put the router where the Internet connection is and put the satellite in the middle of the house, will ease the technical anxiety of people who simply want to plug it in and get on with their lives. And as you can see in our testing results, the Orbi kit does more with its two units than other systems can muster with three.

If you truly need more hardware—say, you live in a very long house with the Internet connection in the center—you can add another Orbi unit. The add-on unit connects directly to the base unit, rather than to the other satellite, as the Orbi system isn’t currently capable of multi-hop topology. We need to stress, however, that very few homes will need a third Orbi unit. In fact, because of the way Wi-Fi devices are required to back off and wait if they sense competing signals, running an extra Orbi satellite can hurt, not help, as you then have two satellites competing for bandwidth on the dedicated backhaul. I experimented with a third Orbi unit in our test house, but the only moderately useful thing I could do with it was place it in the upstairs office, just inside the wall to the carport; this positioning resulted in a ridiculous crushing victory in our extreme-range car test, but it had no impact at all on any of our other test locations.

Back of Orbi unit showing empty ports and power cord

Each Orbi unit has four Gigabit Ethernet ports, though one of the base unit’s ports is reserved for the connection to your modem. The USB 2.0 port doesn’t do anything yet.

Orbi also keeps technophiles happy by offering four wired Gigabit Ethernet ports on each unit.1 (Eero units have only two ports each; Plume pods have one.) Orbi also has a familiar and complete Web UI containing all the technical features that Netgear’s high-end Nighthawk routers have been offering for years, including static routing, advanced port mapping, firewall rules, and backup. It even has MU-MIMO support for the few devices designed for that.

The Orbi kit is the only one we tested that we can thoroughly recommend to people with patchy, intermittent, or no Internet service.

The Orbi kit is the only one we tested that we can thoroughly recommend to people with patchy, intermittent, or no Internet service. The other kits lean heavily on cloud services and smartphone apps for installation and configuration, and you can’t set them up without an already-working Internet connection. In contrast, you can (and should) set up your Orbi system with a local Web interface; it works just fine with any Internet connection or even none at all. (If you’re allergic to the cloud for reasons of privacy, security, or even just plain grumpiness, Orbi is the easy pick.) Orbi can also use the same Netgear Genie app as other Netgear routers, but you don’t need that app, and for the most part you’re better off without it.2 You don’t really need the new Netgear Orbi mobile app, either; it’s there if you want it, but the Web interface is frankly better.

One last advantage for Orbi compared with most of its competition: Orbi is readily available from both Internet and brick-and-mortar retail outlets, inside the US and out. If I wanted to buy an Orbi kit, I could drive to the nearest Staples and grab one right off the shelf. (Velop is catching up to Orbi in easy availability, but it’s not quite there yet.)

CNET’s Dong Ngo reviewed the Orbi system in October 2016 and came to similar conclusions: It’s easy to set up, it performs well, and it provides good coverage. Tim Higgins at SmallNetBuilder posted a review in November 2016 that includes a complete (and pretty cool) physical teardown.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Compared with most Wi-Fi devices, the Orbi units are a bit large and … odd-looking. Their “alien vase with no flowers in it” design won’t offend delicate sensibilities as badly as the typical bristling-with-antennas router monstrosity, but it’s still not exactly beautiful. You also don’t want to put an Orbi unit anywhere somebody might spill their coffee on it, since the top of each device is largely an open vent—a drink spilled on the Orbi is a drink spilled in the Orbi.

The Orbi base unit and satellite each have a USB 2.0 port, but those ports don’t do anything yet. Most routers with USB ports let you use them to connect hard drives or printers, but unless Netgear enables the USB ports someday, the Orbi system can’t do that.

This is all really nitpicking. I like the Orbi kit. It was easy to set up, it worked right out of the box, it kicked butt, and it didn’t ask me to give up any of the features I’m used to with techie-oriented routers. Orbi’s only real flaw is that it uses the same channels for all three radios on the router and satellite(s). This approach maximizes your chance of congestion and interference between devices in different parts of your house, and is an indication that Orbi might not be the best choice for people with a large number of devices. (For those people, we really like Plume.)

Runner-up: Eero

Three Eero units on shelf by books

Each Eero unit is unobtrusive and interchangeable (until you set them up), and you can easily buy more to expand your network.

Runner-up
Eero
Less raw single-device throughput than our top pick, but it includes well-thought-out family features, an intuitive smartphone app, and greater expandability for really tough buildings.

Eero was the first, and is still the most famous, mesh-networking kit. The system is physically attractive, technologically flexible, and well-established—and it has improved since its launch, thanks to new firmware that greatly improves latency and how well it distributes multiple clients across the network. It’s a solid runner-up choice if Orbi is sold out or too expensive, or if you have a situation that needs multi-hop but you don’t want to try the relatively unknown Plume.

In our testing environment, Eero was reliable and easy to set up and use. Each identical unit has an attractive, sleek design that won’t look out of place in any decor, and the system offers good throughput and range, along with serious expandability.3 It also provides a family-friendly “Internet pause” feature that generated a lot of buzz in its initial campaign. The company is still evolving, via firmware updates, the list of things Eero does, so more may be yet to come.

Each Eero unit is a dual-band, dual-stream AC1200 router that features two Gigabit Ethernet ports you can use to connect client devices or to connect the Eero units together. (You’ll also find a USB port, which works only for diagnostics.) This design means that if you already have network wiring in your place, you can use the Eero hardware in whole or in part as a simple set of access points rather than as a fully wireless mesh—though if your whole house is wired for Ethernet already, you may be better off with cheaper Ubiquiti access points.

Each Eero unit has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, which you can use to connect them to each other or to your wired devices. (One port on one Eero unit needs to connect to your modem.) The USB port is only for diagnostics.

You can buy more Eero units and adopt them into your existing network, if your place is big enough and your pockets are deep enough to justify that. Additional Eero units are available individually or in two-packs, but at a higher per-unit cost than in the initial kit, or you can buy another three-pack just like your first one. (We’re not sure if the system has a theoretical maximum, but Nick Weaver, Eero’s founding technologist, told me that he has seven of them in his place.) This expandability makes Eero a great, if expensive, choice for very large houses that aren’t prewired for Internet, or homes with lath-and-plaster walls that block most Wi-Fi signals.

For extremely long buildings with the Internet connection on one end, you can set up your Eero system in a multi-hop configuration where the second unit relays its signal directly to the third unit, so the third unit doesn’t have to be in range of the base unit. When I tested the multi-hop configuration, latency was good, at less than 15 ms average and less than 40 ms peak, and the throughput of 20 to 25 Mbps was plenty for streaming video over the Internet. However, the Eero system’s raw speed won’t impress for local, high-speed tasks like sharing files larger than a few megabytes.

Eero’s intuitive app lets you enable an “Internet pause” feature that makes it very easy to shut off Internet access—instantly or on a schedule—to get the attention of unruly kids, spouses, or roommates (or just keep them offline at particular times). The Eero system is extremely well-documented, too, in a style that doesn’t scare off network novices yet still gives technically minded people all the details they want.

SmallNetBuilder’s Tim Higgins provided an exhaustive review of the Eero system’s physical innards and technical performance, and CNET’s Dong Ngo covered some of its pros and cons, ultimately preferring standard Wi-Fi gear.

After our first round of testing, Eero announced a firmware update that the company claimed could improve performance by up to 40 percent. When we retested the Eero kit with the new firmware, single-client throughput hardly improved at all, but the Eero system was much better at handing off our devices between mesh units and assigning devices evenly across available bands and access points; both aggregate and peak latency got faster, as well. I’m pleased to see companies like Eero providing updates that actually improve the user experience, rather than just targeting marketing-friendly big numbers.

For aesthetes, homes with lots of devices, and next-gen fans: Plume

Six rose gold Plume pods scattered on desk by books

Also great
Plume
One of the least expensive and easiest kits to set up, Plume also looks attractive and offers advanced network topology that optimizes itself for your house.

Plume takes a totally different approach to networking than Orbi does by prioritizing rock-solid, low-latency connections over high throughput—it’s definitely the most unusual wireless mesh kit I’ve ever tested. Plume is great for people with a lot of wireless devices that need solid Internet connections, as well as for people who don’t want a bunch of weird, techy-looking devices sitting on shelves. On the other hand, this system is not for people who do a lot of large file transfers between computers on their home network.

While every other mesh kit consists of two or three fairly high-power devices, each about the size and shape of a typical router, a Plume network consists of a bunch of tiny, relatively inexpensive, low-powered pods that plug directly into wall outlets. Plume’s cloud optimizer software automatically organizes the pods into a next-generation, spectrum-spreading multi-hop topology designed specifically for your house, its devices, and the current wireless (RF) environment. This more-complex topology, coupled with Plume’s best-of-breed low latency, should offer significant benefits for anybody with a large number of Wi-Fi devices (say, 10 or more) or a lot of signal-blocking obstacles in their house that demand complex paths back to the router. Plume’s approach and feature set are different enough from those of the other kits we tested that it’s not our main pick for most people, but I like it enough that I’ll be using it instead of my own Ubiquiti home network for the foreseeable future.

If you want to stand 5 feet away from the router and run speed tests from your laptop, you probably won’t be happy with Plume—individually, the pods are low-powered, and their extreme-close-range speed-test results aren’t impressive. That isn’t Plume’s focus, however. Instead, Plume focuses on delivering the best experience to an entire network, especially one that has multiple wireless devices functioning at the same time. I observed Plume handling an astonishing amount of overall throughput in the company’s test facility, delivering a good experience to multiple 4K streaming TVs, VoIP callers, and more, in setups where its competition couldn’t. (Disclosure: Although Plume invited me to the company’s test lab, I paid my own way, but I defrayed the cost by writing about the experience for Ars Technica.) We don’t directly test multiple-device throughput—yet—but Plume’s demonstration convinced me that we’ll need to start doing so soon.

Plume pod plugged into a wall outlet near floor

Plume’s pods are small and inoffensively designed, and won’t block an outlet on any side.

Despite a given pod frequently needing two or even three more “hops” to communicate with the router than units in competing kits required, the Plume system had the lowest latency of any kit I tested—it was almost as quick as my Ubiquiti UAPs, which have wired backhaul. That’s seriously impressive, and although gamers should opt for wired connections, if you like gaming on your laptop wherever you happen to settle, the consistent and extremely low latency might alone be enough for you to pull the trigger on a Plume kit. It also helps devices roam more easily and accurately than any other kit we tested: I did not need to manually disconnect and reconnect my laptop to get an optimal connection at any location, and in the majority of them, my laptop had already roamed to the best pod before I’d even started running any tests—my kids kept giving me funny looks as I walked around the house with my test laptop loudly going “BING! BING! BING!” as I walked from one room to another.

An illustration showing Plume’s topology.

An overview of Plume’s topology in my large home, showing seven deployed pods, including how each pod is connected both to other pods and to its client devices. Squiggly lines indicate a 2.4 GHz connection; straight lines indicate 5 GHz.

As with Orbi, you can easily set up Plume without worrying about optimal positioning. But while Orbi has you put the base unit where the main Internet connection is, and the satellite as close to the middle of the house as you can get it, Plume tells you to put a pod in every room, or close to that. In my large house, I had seven pods—roughly one Plume in every other room. Instead of spending a bunch of time and skull sweat trying to work out the exact, optimal position for three units, as you would with the AmpliFi, Eero, Google Wifi, Luma, or Velop kits, you just spread Plume pods evenly through the house and let the system’s cloud optimizer do the heavy lifting. Even naming the pods is easy and intuitive: You just hold your phone next to the pod you want to name, and the app identifies that pod and lets you rename it.

If you want to go nuts with port forwarding or triggering, static routing, or other advanced functions, you should plug the main Plume pod into your existing router.

(I’ve set up Plume for testing and torn it down again several times. When I initially set it up for this article, it “optimized” itself poorly, putting all seven pods on the same channel on each band. After I made a call to support, the reps determined that my poor result would be fixed by algorithm changes that Plume was pushing to production the next day. Sure enough, after the update to the cloud optimizer, everything shook into place.)

Plume’s smartphone-controlled interface is simple, intuitive, and sufficient for the typical home, but—like all the smartphone-controlled mesh kits we tried—it doesn’t go deep into the technical details. If you want to go nuts with port forwarding or triggering, static routing, or other advanced functions, you should plug the main Plume pod into your existing router; a couple of taps in the admin interface puts the kit into bridge mode, which lets your router do the routing, including the advanced features Plume might not be offering.

As with all kits using identical devices, I recommend adding physical labels to the pods—doing so will make life easier if you ever end up unplugging them. (Similar to the way the Eero system works, once you’ve set up the Plume system, it matters which pod is which.) The back of the pod has room for the label, if you don’t want to ugly it up by putting the label where everybody can see.

Lance Ulanoff at Mashable likes Plume, his review focusing largely on its low cost and simple setup. CNET’s Dong Ngo is decidedly less enthusiastic, but I think in his review he’s clinging to the idea that each device should cover a lot of area, which just isn’t how Plume is designed. John R. Delaney at PCMag dings Plume for middling throughput and a lack of features to twiddle in the app, including device prioritization (to make your Xbox a higher priority than your spouse’s tablet, for instance), access scheduling (to, say, turn the Internet off automatically at dinnertime) and “basic Wi-Fi security settings.” Fair point on the prioritization and access scheduling, but I’m not sure what he’s missing for security settings—in 2017, being able to choose anything older than WPA2 is decidedly a bug, not a feature.

Results and analysis

The TL;DR

I’ve organized the testing results by location below, and if you’re curious, you’ll want to look at the location-specific results to understand how each kit dealt with the challenges of our test house. If you want only the overview, the following stacked graphs show aggregate performance for each kit across all of our test locations.

Orbi was the clear heavy hitter in simple throughput here, with Velop, Google Wifi, and Eero close behind. But Orbi is our pick for more than just the absolute biggest throughput numbers. One significant factor: Orbi posted those numbers with only two devices, not three. It can be surprisingly hard to properly situate a three-piece kit for best results, and Orbi keeps you from having to deal with that. Having fewer units also means having fewer chances for roaming to go wrong.

When it comes to performance, both average latency and peak latency are important, as the numbers tell you different things about the consistency and variability of the network connection. Average latency gives you an idea how responsive the network is in general. Peak latency—which indicates the longest delay you might experience—tells you how bad it’s likely to get every now and then. Peak latency might be more important than average latency when it comes to understanding the feel of using Wi-Fi, because it’s a measurement of those unexpected hitches and glitches that can really get frustrating.

In our tests, Plume came very, very close to the Ubiquiti UAPs in this regard. This is a big deal, because the UAPs have wired backhaul, whereas Plume was two or even three wireless jumps away from the Internet connection for most of our test locations. Our main pick, Orbi, lagged behind Plume here, but led the rest of the pack.

You might be wondering about the Amped Ally kit, which posted even better average-latency numbers than the Plume system did. Alas, the Ally kit didn’t do nearly as well in peak latency. The numbers in these tests match my overall experience with the Ally system: When it’s good, it’s good, but it isn’t always good. In peak latency Plume once again wound up at the top of the mesh-kit pack, ranking less than half a millisecond below the UAPs despite the UAPs’ wired backhaul. Orbi nipped at Plume’s heels, while the rest of the pack fell well behind.

Ground floor

The closer upstairs bedroom and the upstairs office were both slam-dunk sites from the network closet. The office has a clean line of sight, with no walls or doors (other than the hollow-core door for the closet itself), from about 25 feet away, and the near bedroom has a straight 20-foot shot with two perpendicular internal walls. When you’re that close to the Internet connection, with such a clean angle, your device can (and should) connect directly to the base unit.

It’s a bit of a mystery why Velop did so much worse in the upstairs office than it did in the bedroom—they’re roughly the same distance, and the bedroom even has an extra wall in the way. The office location clearly didn’t bother any of the other kits very much, but Velop’s throughput nearly halved; the difference was consistent across all three runs in each location (only the results from the median runs are represented in the chart above).

We used the farther upstairs bedroom as both a test location and a satellite-placement site. It’s about a 40-foot shot from the network closet, with a few interior walls and cabinets at odd angles to line of sight along the way. For the three-unit kits—AmpliFi, Eero, Google Wifi, Luma, and Velop—I placed the first satellite on a writing desk against the back wall to provide a good, clean angle around the foundation slab to the downstairs test sites. (I didn’t place Orbi’s single satellite here; I followed Netgear’s installation instructions and put it as close to the center of the house as possible.)

Any reasonably powerful access point in the network closet provides a good signal to this location—and for the most part, the graph here represents a list of the kits from the most to least powerful transmitter. Some exceptions are AmpliFi HD, which has a powerful transmitter but is hampered somewhat by the need to plug into a wall socket at floor level (which adversely affects range because of the additional obstacles at floor level), and Plume, which had the lowest-power transmitters in our test group but still came in solidly in the middle of the pack. Plume also has to plug into a wall socket, but it didn’t need to get all the way from the distant bedroom to the network closet in a single hop—this bedroom’s Plume pod connected to the living room TV pod on 2.4 GHz channel 11, and from that pod to the network closet on 5 GHz channel 40. This is a great example of the payoff from Plume’s combination of advanced topology and a large number of cheap pods.

An illustration showing Plume’s topology.

We’re in Jane’s Room, which is a long stretch from the network closet with several walls in between. Plume did very well here despite the distance, because it could route traffic efficiently through the living room TV pod along the way to the network closet, instead of having to get there in a single shot.

For every kit, I gave my laptop a few moments to try to roam spontaneously to the best access point, and then I ran a “throwaway” test or two to give it another chance. Plume immediately connected my laptop to the best access point in nearly all locations, and did so within 10 seconds of throughput testing in a couple; Eero did nearly as well. Velop and Google Wifi did pretty well with spontaneous roaming, but with those systems my laptop occasionally needed me to manually disconnect and reconnect Wi-Fi to connect to a more-sensible access point. On Orbi my laptop rarely roamed at all—though it rarely needed to, with Orbi’s simpler two-unit topology—and Orbi did do a good job of switching my laptop over to the satellite downstairs where the router couldn’t reach. With Ally my laptop roamed effectively between access points but did not roam at all between bands—all tests ran at 2.4 GHz, because for whatever reason that’s the frequency my laptop consistently decided to connect on. (Ally’s team clarified in an email that Ally doesn’t support band steering yet, so this behavior was basically a combination of whatever my laptop felt like doing and sheer luck of the draw. The Ally reps suggested setting up its 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radios on separate SSIDs, but I did not test that way—all the other mesh kits offer reasonably effective band steering, so it’s not reasonable to expect people to manage it themselves.)

Our tests had to be a meaningful reflection of real people’s experiences, and that meant living with good but not perfect satellite locations.

I avoided placing satellites in locations that had excellent signal but that I would never consider for day-to-day placement in a home I had to live in. At the end of the day, our tests had to be a meaningful reflection of real people’s experiences, and that meant living with good but not perfect satellite locations. Our experience highlights the Orbi system’s biggest real-world appeal, thanks to its two high-power units and simple instructions that work extremely well: You just put the satellite in the middle of the house and let the rest take care of itself.

Outside the house

The long-distance shot to a car parked in the carport was a difficult test. The car was about 55 feet from the network closet, with two interior walls, some furniture, a brick exterior wall, and a parked minivan in between. To make the test even tougher, I ran the test sitting inside the car with the engine running and with music streaming from my phone to the car stereo on Bluetooth.

In our testing, the three-piece kits offered devices the option of connecting either to the base unit in the network closet or to the satellite sitting in the kitchen—a mere 40 feet, one interior wall, and one exterior wall away. Our devices seemed equally likely to pick either satellite or base, with no real difference in performance. The Luma system was only intermittently visible by its SSID, and it was completely unable to connect for actual testing.

As with the distant-bedroom test above, you might expect these test results to be a list of the competitors from the most to least powerful transmitter. But in reality, band steering (or a failure to band-steer) created some interesting anomalies. AmpliFi HD seemed determined to connect on the 5 GHz band, even though 2.4 GHz is a better fit for such a remote location because of its greater range—much-lower-power systems that connected on a 2.4 GHz channel left the AmpliFi HD kit in the dust.

Not having to mess around with Orbi to get it to do what we needed it to is the biggest reason we made it our top pick.

Among the mesh kits, Orbi had the strongest performance in this test. But Plume’s second-place performance here is a testament to why I like it. Even though the aggregate numbers make it look weak next to heavy bandwidth hitters like Orbi or Velop, it’s consistent. The real message here isn’t “Look how Plume got great numbers at the car,” it’s “Look how consistent Plume’s numbers are, no matter where we tested.”

(The TP-Link Archer C7, our pick for the best traditional router, really demonstrated its range and power on this test: On the 5 GHz band it pushed nearly 9 MB/s to the car. Throughput isn’t everything, though, and you’re better off connecting at 2.4 GHz at such distances, even with the C7—although it achieved bigger numbers on its 5 GHz band, I spent a good five or six seconds staring at no throughput at all before it lurched into gear. At 2.4 GHz, the Archer C7 produced less than half as much throughput, but it was immediate, solid throughput, and the C7 sustained that throughout the test.)

Downstairs

Moving to the downstairs bedroom, you can start to see why this house needs mesh. Connecting to our high-power Archer C7 router sitting in the network closet required about a 40-foot shot through a couple of interior walls, some furniture, and a floor/ceiling at a nasty oblique angle—though we did at least manage to miss the foundation slab here. As a result, the C7’s 5 GHz band was completely obliterated, while its 2.4 GHz band managed to deliver a solid, surprisingly reliable 2.4 MB/s.

This test was much tougher for the Orbi system than for the three-device kits, since even the signal from Orbi’s satellite atop the island in the living room needed to clear 25 feet, some furniture, a still-pretty-oblique floor/ceiling angle, an interior wall, and some closet space to get downstairs—the three-device kits could take advantage of their extra unit to create a more-direct shot. Yet the Orbi system still managed to clobber the competition with a result of 10.8 MB/s.

Getting a signal to the downstairs office from the network closet required going through a concrete foundation slab, so I was frankly astonished to see the Archer C7 manage to provide a 2.4 GHz connection—on this test, every other traditional router I’ve tried has been lucky to get its SSID to show up on my laptop, much less let me connect and move data. That said, the Archer C7’s approximately 400 KB/s connection wasn’t usable; it suffered from several periods of 10 seconds or more of dead air and reconnection. I wouldn’t even have bothered to let it finish the test, if I hadn’t been so impressed that it could finish the test at all, however unusably.

The Luma system did oddly well on this test. When my laptop was in the upstairs bedroom right next to Luma’s upstairs-bedroom satellite, I couldn’t get my laptop to connect to it for the life of me; the laptop invariably chose to connect to the base router or the kitchen unit instead. Down here in the office, though, it connected—eventually—to the upstairs-bedroom satellite, and the connection was reasonably good afterward. What doesn’t show in the numbers, however, is that it required several attempts to connect to the network in the first place.

The tri-band Orbi and Velop systems stole the show here, with a combination of high power and good placement options. Plume was perfectly usable but ranked lower on the list here than in most other locations—my theory is that the optimizer connected to the office pod, one hop farther away from the network closet than it needed to be.

Hugging the edge of the top floor’s foundation slab, the downstairs bathroom was another torture test. Any shot from the network closet to this room required punching through the slab plus a few feet of earth. Once again, the TP-Link Archer C7 router shocked me by managing to get a 2.4 GHz signal through and—however painfully—eventually completing its test run.

Most of the mesh kits made it look as if we were really supposed to have Wi-Fi in here, with the Orbi kit again performing significantly better than everything else. Unfortunately, the Luma system failed miserably. Plume’s position near the top of the pack in this difficult location, again, says less about “big numbers from Plume” than it does about “consistent numbers from Plume throughout the entire house.”

Multi-hop (satellite-to-satellite connection)

The top row in this graph is Eero with version 2.1 firmware in single-hop mode, provided for reference. We recommend avoiding multi-hop mode with Eero unless you really need it.

So far we’ve looked only at the placement of satellites with direct Wi-Fi connections to the base router. Most of the kits (Orbi is a notable exception) now also have the ability to connect in a multi-hop configuration, with one satellite connecting to the base device through another satellite—an arrangement that’s useful in long buildings with the Internet connection at one end, or with solid walls that block Wi-Fi signals.

The challenge with this kind of setup is that it requires additional communication between units, and thus creates additional network congestion. Whenever any two devices need to transmit on the same band within “earshot” of each other, you get a lot of back-off-and-retry as packets collide, limiting you at best to half the throughput you could otherwise get. And with multi-hop, you have at least three devices communicating simultaneously: the client, the access point it’s connected to, and the access point that access point is connected to, which then connects to the router.

Eero‘s third unit connected effortlessly when I moved it from the kitchen upstairs to the downstairs office, almost directly beneath the unit in the upstairs bedroom. And the experience was very smooth and reliable. However, my client devices connected only at 2.4 GHz—which I assume was by design, to allow the second satellite to communicate with the first at 5 GHz without having to worry about a client “talking over it.”

The connection was very reliable and solid—latency was good at less than 15 ms average and less than 40 ms peak, and the throughput of 20 to 25 Mbps was plenty for streaming video over the Internet—but the raw speed wouldn’t impress for any local, high-speed tasks like file sharing. If you need to move more than a few megabytes at a time, you’d be better off dragging your files to a portable hard drive and then walking them to the other computer.

Because of those results, I don’t recommend placing Eero devices where they would need multi-hop communication unless you absolutely must. The Eero system works much better when all satellites can connect to the base unit. Eero uses the same 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz channels on all three (or more) Eero devices, which means that if your communication has to go from laptop to Eero to Eero to Eero, two of those three links of the chain will be on the same channel, competing with each other.

Plume, on the other hand, is designed for—and absolutely embraces—multi-hop. In the downstairs bathroom and bedroom, my test laptop connected to the pod in the den on 5 GHz channel 153. While in the office, it connected to the Jim’s Office pod at 2.4 GHz on channel 1.

The test runs connected to the pod in the den turned out great, because the chain of communication from laptop to router went channel 153 → channel 11 → channel 40, so two devices never had to talk on the same channel at the same time.

In theory, Plume should still have been rocking hard on the connection to the pod in my office, communicating via channel 1 → channel 153 → channel 11 → channel 40. In practice, with four legs in the chain of communication, this is where Plume finally ran into a wall. I strongly suspect my nearest neighbor’s Wi-Fi network might have seen a lot of activity while I was running these tests, since she’s also using 2.4 GHz channel 1.

Wired versus Wi-Fi

As exciting as all this new, high-power Wi-Fi tech is, a Wi-Fi network can’t offer anything close to the performance of a wired connection. Even in the absolute best conditions for Wi-Fi, a standard wired connection is in a completely separate league.

Our wired connection was more than five times faster than the highest throughput any wireless alternative achieved at any location during this round of tests. Or if you have a flair for the dramatic: It was faster than every other option put together.

The picture doesn’t get any prettier when you look at latency. Avid Internet gamers, take note: The absolute best Wi-Fi connection you can manage, with the absolute best Wi-Fi gear you can find, will significantly increase your ping time.

The spread between average and maximum latency is also worth a look. When you see a big difference between the two bars, that means your connection is unpredictable—in other words, the dreaded “lag spike” is happening before you even leave your network. The wired connection, on the other hand, deviated by only 0.04 ms between average and worst-case latency in our tests. Your gaming reflexes are definitely not that good.

The message here should be clear: If you really care about maximum performance, you need a wired connection, no matter how good your Wi-Fi gear is.

What about Ubiquiti?

If you’re a more technical sort, you might be wondering how this stuff compares against a more traditional multiple-access-point stack such as Ubiquiti’s UAP line of devices. Unlike the mesh kits we tested, each UAP unit connects to the network through a wired Ethernet port and provides a Wi-Fi signal in its physical area. Technically, this arrangement is a much simpler option than mesh, as you don’t have to worry about a signal to the access points, just the signal each one provides. You also don’t need to worry about broadcast chatter in between the access points, or any of a host of other potential problems; you just plug a unit in (to both power and the wired network) wherever you want some more of that sweet, sweet signal.

If you can run Ethernet cables and use standard access points instead of a mesh kit, you should consider it.

Aside from the Ethernet cabling, the only real downside to Ubiquiti’s UAPs is the need to install the nifty UniFi controller application on a connected computer; PC, Mac, and Linux are all supported, and you’ll need it only for setup. (You’ll still need a router, too, since the UAPs are just access points, but your current router will work fine for this purpose.) UniFi lets you adopt and place all of your UAP access points, see who’s connected to them (and boot them off individually for grins, if you feel like it), and more. It’s not really that hard to use, but it definitely feels techy enough to scare off some less-technical people.

Our test house was already wired for Ethernet, and its Wi-Fi was (and still is) being provided by a several-years-old pair of the original wireless-n Ubiquiti UAPs. One access point sat in the network closet upstairs, and the second one resided in the downstairs office. The UAP units in the house were originally priced similarly to their current-model replacement, the $80 UniFi AP AC Lite. Unlike the dual-radio AC Lite, though, our original-model UAP units are simpler, 2.4 GHz devices—which doesn’t keep them from doing a really good job. As you can see in the charts throughout this article, the two Ubiquiti UAPs did surprisingly well despite being limited to 802.11n and 2.4 GHz only: They ranked in the top three for throughput in all downstairs locations.

But throughput doesn’t tell the whole story. Latency still tends to be a better measure of how your Wi-Fi network feels in the seat of your pants, and in latency the two UAP units beat the Orbi system (and every other mesh kit we tested) in every location but the car, where Plume’s advantage of having a pod some 30 feet closer weighed heavily. The only place average latency climbed higher than 5 ms was our long-distance torture test to the car, and even then it was less than 10 ms.

The shape of the peak latency graph is almost identical to that of the average latency graph, though the actual numbers are of course larger. We were still under 5 ms almost everywhere, and even in the car test we remained under 25 ms.

Subjectively, you really feel this difference in heavy use. The UAP system delivers a very smooth and reliable experience with no frustrating pauses or dropped signals. In our tests, even in the car, where throughput was only a third what it was in the house proper, it connected rapidly and transferred data smoothly and consistently. You feel like you’re supposed to be connected to it, as opposed to feeling as if you just managed to connect to it.

Our original UAP units cost about the same as the newer UAP AC Lite units, making the pair of them about $160. As mentioned earlier, you do need an actual router (wired or wireless) behind them, but we won’t count the cost of that here, since whatever you’re already using will work fine. Even if you add the cost of labor for a professional to run an Ethernet cable from, say, your router to the downstairs office, the total cost is still well under $300. Eero and Plume are capable of using a wired connection to any or all of their satellites, as are most of the mesh kits (Orbi’s satellites and AmpliFi HD’s mesh points being the exceptions), but they’re all considerably more expensive than Ubiquiti access points.

Long story short: If you can run Ethernet cables and use standard access points instead of a mesh kit, you should consider it.

What to look forward to

New mesh-networking kits are launching all the time; we’ll test new systems as quickly as we can. For the next update to this review, we’ll test TP-Link’s Deco M5, Asus’s HiveSpot, and Netgear’s new, less powerful Orbi kits. We’ll also test some newer Ubiquiti access points to see how they do in a more fair fight.

The competition

Linksys Velop

Velop nodes, shaped like tall computer speakers, on desk

Velop’s nodes look pretty boring at first glance, but maybe that’s a feature. Power and network cords are nicely hidden by cable-management features in the bottom of each unit.

Linksys’s Velop is a strong competitor, but it shares Orbi’s few failings, introduces a couple of additional ones, and costs $100 more. Although it didn’t make one of our top slots, it sits firmly at the top of the rest of the pack, with room to improve via firmware updates.

Like Orbi, Velop uses a three-radio design, with two 5 GHz bands and one 2.4 GHz band available. Unlike Orbi, Velop exposes both 5 GHz radios directly to client devices. For the most part, Velop connects devices on one 5 GHz radio and uses the other for backhaul to the router, avoiding the back-off-and-retry problems that cripple performance when a client device, satellite unit, and router are all trying to talk at once. However, Velop uses the same pair of 5 GHz channels for the radios in each Velop node on the network—presumably to allow for better multi-hop performance, in which one satellite talks to another satellite, which then relays to the base unit—and occasionally it connects a client device to the same radio it’s using for backhaul.

Velop’s app gets the job done, but with overproduced, soulless “watercolor” graphics and off-note, overly informal text that I found grating, not to mention actual frame drops during the transitions between UI pages. It also felt like most things just plain took too long, especially during the initial setup.

In single-client throughput, Velop came in near the top of the pack, though it didn’t beat Orbi. Its three units, versus Orbi’s two, mean that you need to worry more often about roaming (which was decent, but definitely not perfect, in our tests), and the system requires more careful thought during setup—it’s much easier to screw up placement with a three-piece kit than with a two-piece system. Finally, Velop ranked down near the bottom of the pack for latency.

CNET isn’t particularly impressed with Velop, and neither is SmallNetbuilder. I do think Velop’s performance has the potential to improve with future firmware updates, though, and it will be worthwhile to retest the Velop kit in a multiple-client environment later, where the system may look better than it did in this round with single-client tests only.

Google Wifi

three Google Wifi nodes stacked in a pyramid on desk by books

Google Wifi nodes look like makeup jars designed by whoever came up with the idea for KITT’s iconic light strip. Each node has two wired Ethernet ports, which can handle wired backhaul or connect to wired-only client devices.

Like Eero and Velop, Google Wifi is an extensible mesh-networking kit with an intuitive app. Google Wifi came in just behind Velop and ahead of Eero in our raw throughput testing, but its latency results were middling. Google Wifi also offers a bunch of extra functionality in its app, in the form of Material Design “cards” (immediately familiar to any Android user) that can assist with everything from device prioritization to managing home-automation devices. (I didn’t test the latter feature.)

Engadget and CNET both really like the Google Wifi system—but neither reviewer seems to worry about Google’s history with abandoned projects, and both sites posted their reviews before the Google Accounts hiccup that factory-reset thousands of devices, including mine. If that doesn’t bother you, Google Wifi is a strong option; it’s just the fourth or fifth down the list for us.

The rest

AmpliFi HD router displaying changing speed on small screen

The AmpliFi base router looks like a Star Trek: The Next Generation prop.

AmpliFi HD

The AmpliFi HD system produces a more powerful signal than the Eero kit at a significantly lower cost, and unlike Eero, it comes from a company with a long pedigree in enterprise mesh networking. Like Eero, AmpliFi HD has a polished and functional smartphone app. This system should have been great, but its odd satellite design makes the units hard to position well within a house—and prone to tampering when you do.

The AmpliFi HD kit consists of a small, cube-shaped AC1750 base unit with a digital display plus two tower-shaped, magnetized satellites that look like something the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew might have used. The satellites—which contain dual-band, three-stream AC1750 Wi-Fi radios—offer no wired ports. They also have no power cords: These components plug directly (and awkwardly) right into the power outlet.

AmpliFi HD pieces coming together via magnetic pull

Poonk.

Aside from the potential problems of someone wandering off with half the satellite while the other half stays plugged in (see the animation above), the baseboard-level placement of most power outlets means that the satellites have to punch through every obstacle—including furniture—on the way to your laptop, tablet, or phone. This situation has a very real impact on the quality of your Wi-Fi when you’re connected to a satellite instead of directly to the base unit. Finally—and oddly—the AmpliFi satellites are directional, as the front side of the antenna module (the side with the LEDs) provides a significantly hotter signal than the rear, top, or bottom. This might sound like a feature, but in reality it means that you have to fiddle with the positioning to get it just right, and due to the magnetic coupling and shin-level positioning, it’s too easy to knock the antenna out of position afterward.

Amped Ally

Ally is a two-piece kit from Amped Wireless, billed as a router-extender combo rather than a true mesh system. In our tests it had fairly consistent range and throughput, and okay latency, but you can’t add extra satellite units, and its networking security features are overhyped. Its official app is also hard to find and has a confusing developer name, making it hard to know whether you’re downloading the real thing.

Luma

Like Eero, Luma is a still-evolving three-unit mesh-networking kit. Typically, a three-pack of Luma units is considerably cheaper than a three-pack of Eero nodes, or even a six-pack of Plume pods, but the Luma system is more complicated to set up and less reliable, and in our testing it offered worse performance than either competitor. Its software needs some work to live up to its advertised features, too.

(Photos by Michael Hession.)

Footnotes:

1. You must connect one port on the base unit to your Internet modem via Ethernet, leaving three ports available on that unit. Jump back.

2. Netgear Genie has a “network map” that’s kind of neat and shows you which clients are connected to which Orbi, but it isn’t a necessity. The only feature that requires the Genie app is Netgear’s OpenDNS sort-of integration for content filtering, which isn’t that great: It’s awkward to use, and you can get better filtering by installing free apps directly on your phones, tablets, and computers. Jump back.

3. Eero units are physically identical, but after you set them up, it does matter which one is which—particularly which one you connect directly to your ISP’s modem or router. So while you name your Eero units in the smartphone app during setup, I highly recommend physically labeling them to match. If you don’t do so, you’ll be in for a hassle if they ever get unplugged and moved around. Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Dong Ngo, Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi System review, CNET, October 8, 2016
  2. Tim Higgins, NETGEAR Orbi Reviewed, SmallNetBuilder, November 1, 2016
  3. Dong Ngo, Eero Wi-Fi System review, CNET, February 23, 2016
  4. Tim Higgins, eero Home Wi-Fi System Reviewed, SmallNetBuilder, March 16, 2016
  5. Dong Ngo, Your router isn’t as fast as you think it is. Here's why, CNET, June 23, 2016
  6. Jim Salter, 802.eleventy what? A deep dive into why Wi-Fi kind of sucks, Ars Technica, March 4, 2017
  7. Lance Ulanoff, Plume is turbo-charged Wi-Fi on a budget, Mashable, December 13, 2016
  8. Dong Ngo, Put one of these Plume pods in each room to blanket your home in Wi-Fi, CNET, December 5, 2016
  9. James Trew, Google WiFi review: A hassle-free router comes at a price, Engadget, December 6, 2016
  10. Dong Ngo, Google Wifi review: The best way to blanket your entire home with Wi-Fi, CNET, December 6, 2016

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