Do you need to upgrade your home wireless network? With a mesh router, you place out several smaller routers over your entire home that “talk to” each other so that you have the best possible coverage. We have tested mesh routers and designate the Netgear Orbi RBK50 as our best mesh router of 2020, with a good range and fast connection.
We tested the mesh routers’ functionality and performance under normal and high load in the network, together with their range and their user-friendliness during installation and use.
The mesh routers were tested in a domestic environment, in a flat with several rooms and thick concrete walls. Five units were used during the test, positioned in different parts of the flat: a desktop computer and a laptop, a tablet, an iPhone and an Android phone.
The first mesh router unit was positioned in a wardrobe where the internet connection was located. Unit number two was positioned in the office and connected with a cable to the desktop computer, while unit number three was positioned on the balcony.
During the test a 4K video was streamed from YouTube to the two computers and the same video was streamed in Full HD to the other units. At the same time that these five video clips were being streamed, a large test folder of 11 GB (containing a large number of folders and files) was moved from a NAS (connected via cable to the mesh router) to the desktop computer and the internet speed was measured using the Bredbandskollen internet speed testing tool a dozen times (simultaneously on the desktop and laptop computers). We also carried out a test in which we moved our large test folder without simultaneously measuring the internet speed.
The range and handover between the mesh router’s different units was tested when the five video clips were streamed by taking the laptop out to the courtyard outside the building and checking the stability of the 4K video, at measurement points 15 and 20 m from the balcony respectively.
Fast and stable with dedicated channels
Specifications: AC3000 Tri band Wi-Fi System Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 1 x Gigabit WAN, 3 x Gigabit LAN (router), 4 x Gigabit LAN (satellite) Beamforming: Yes Tri-band: 2.4 GHz up to 400 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 866 Mbps plus 1733 Mbps (for backhaul) Antennas: 6 pcs: 4 for connection between router and satellite, 2 antennas for connected products Wireless encryption: WPA, WPA2-PSK Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: Yes Miscellaneous: MU-MIMO and 256 QAM
The Netgear Orbi RBK50 gives a good range and really fast speeds, despite the standard kit only consisting of two units.
The Netgear Orbi RBK50 is unlike the majority of other mesh routers in that their system consists of a router and a satellite, and one of the two 5 GHz channels is dedicated to just communication between the router and satellite, or satellites if you choose to expand the system. As well as the RBK50, which is aimed at normal consumers, Orbi also has a sister model in the business segment, called Orbi Pro SRK60. The two units are almost identical. The consumer version RBK50 can be set so that it has two networks, for example for you and guests, while the corporate version Pro SRK60 can have three networks. Otherwise they differ in that the Orbi RBK50 has USB outlets on router and satellite, but thus far the functionality is not activated – something that may happen in a future software update. The RBK50 also has “Circle with Disney” built in, where you can control and time limit your children’s use of apps and the internet.
When we test file transfer, we actually achieve speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, which is unusual amongst the products we tested. For example, our large test folder of 11 GB takes 11 minutes to move wirelessly, which is really quick.
Netgear’s system is also really quick when it comes to internet speed, with speeds in excess of 500 Mbps – 618 Mbps down and 505 Mbps up to be exact – when the network is under a heavy load.
Despite the fact that Netgear’s system contains two units and other tested systems contain three units, this one stands up to the competition really well. At greater distances, streaming 4K video to a laptop works well, but about 15 m away from the flat it starts to stutter and the internet speed is then measured at 14 Mbps.
We didn’t run into any installation problems – everything went smoothly when we followed the instructions. The satellite occasionally lost contact with the router, but found it automatically again within a few minutes. That’s the only negative comment we have. When it comes to range, the Netgear Orbi RBK50 isn’t quite as good as the best systems with three units, but if you invest in one more satellite it’ll probably be really excellent. With top class performance combined with its ease of use, we designate the Netgear Orbi RBK50 as our best mesh router of 2020.
NETGEAR Orbi Tri-band Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi System with 3Gbps Speed (RBK50) – Router & Extender Replacement Covers Up to 5,000 sq ft (460 sq m) , Pack of 2 Includes 1 Router & 1 Satellite
Netgear Orbi Ac3000 Simultaneous Tri-Band Wifi Broadband Router Kit (3000Mbps Ac)
Netgear Orbi RBK50 Whole Home Wi-Fi AC3000 Tri-Band Router and Satellite Kit
Easy to use, fast wi-fi
Designation: 3 Pack Dual band AC1200 Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 1 Gigabit WAN/LAN, 1 Gigabit LAN Beamforming: Yes Dual band: 2.4 GHz up to 300 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 867 Mbps Antennas: 5 pcs: 2 x dual band antennas and 1 x Bluetooth antenna Wireless encryption: WPA2-PSK Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: Yes Miscellaneous: MU-MIMO
Google Wifi is an easy to use system with extremely good performance
Google Wifi was one of the first mesh systems for the consumer market.
It’s easy to install and operate, and the network is amongst the quickest we tested. Moving 11 Gb takes 23 minutes. What distinguishes Google Wifi from other mesh routers that reached the same speed with normal load on the network is that Google Wifi didn’t lose as much speed when we loaded the network more. The average speed was measured as 64 Mbps (with the network loaded both normally and hard).
We measured internet speeds of around 300 Mbps with a bigger load on the network, and the five streaming video clips were stable the entire time.
What we felt was a little strange is that the coverage outdoors wasn’t very good even with three units connected. It started to stutter at a distance of around 15 metres outdoors, despite the fact that the third unit was positioned on the balcony, and the speed was then measured at 13 Mbps. But Google Wifi stands up well to the competition, with easy operation and a really stable connection even under higher loads. Google Wifi is a good system if you don’t want to have to fiddle with settings too much, but simply install and run it without having to worry.
Stable system with reasonable range
Designation: 3 Pack Tri band AC2200 Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 2 x Gigabit WAN/LAN Beamforming: Yes Tri-band: 2.4 GHz up to 400 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 867 Mbps (x2) Antennas: 7 pcs: 2 Tri band antennas and Bluetooth Wireless encryption: WPA2 personal Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: Yes Miscellaneous: MU-MIMO and 256 QAM
Linksys Velop gives you a stable network with reasonable speed and range.
The Linksys Velop is straightforward to install using the app and Bluetooth, but it took a few minutes longer per unit than several of its competitors. During installation, we were forced to create an account and enter an email address, but the promised verification message never turned up via email, which was a bit strange.
The Velop gives a stable network and we never noticed any stuttering in the streaming video clips. However, we did notice on several occasions that the file transfer speed had dropped to zero when we ran the Bredbandskollen speed check on the computers. The average speed was measured at 53 Mbps under normal and heavy load on the network, and our file transfer test took 28 minutes.
The range is similar to that of many other mesh systems. It started to stutter at a distance of 15 metres outdoors, and the speed was then measured at 1 Mbps. It’s a little odd that you can’t do a factory reset on the units. The help section about this even states that it’s unnecessary.
The Linksys Velop is a stable mesh system that’s easy to operate, with reasonable performance and range. The system isn’t a bad choice, and it will suit the majority of people even if it’s not actually top class.
Linksys WHW0301 Velop Tri-Band Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi System (AC2200 Wi-Fi Router/Extender for Seamless Coverage, Parental Controls, Compatible with Alexa, Covers up to 2000 sq ft, White, Pack of 1)
Linksys Velop Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi System (Pack of 1)
Linksys Velop Tri-band Whw0301 Ac2200 1pk
Good range but can’t take high pressure
Designation: 3 Pack Dual band AC1750 Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 1 x Gigabit WAN/LAN plus 1 x Gigabit LAN Beamforming: Yes Dual band: 2.4 GHz up to 450 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 1300 Mbps Antennas: 7 pcs: 3 x dual band antennas and 1 x Bluetooth antenna Wireless encryption: WPA2-PSK Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: Yes Miscellaneous: MIMO
The Asus Lyra Trio has good range and performs well under low and normal loads on the network, but under high loads the performance becomes uneven and less convincing.
The Asus Lyra Trio is installed via the app and Bluetooth between your phone and the router. Everything went well with the first unit when we followed the instructions. However, we couldn’t find routers number two and three before the third attempt with the app. We should probably have waited for a while before trying to add an additional unit, but that wasn’t clear. Everything was fast and straightforward once we’d found the units.
There was a certain amount of stuttering on the laptop when we streamed 4K video and we found that the speed was rather variable. When we ran the Bredbandskollen speed check, we got very variable results. But when we changed down to Full HD, it ran fine the entire time. The speed during file transfer went down to 1 Mbps in our heavily loaded test, but it never stopped completely as certain systems did. The speed is (together with Google Wifi) the second highest in the test under normal load in the network, with 82 Mbps, but under a heavy load the speed drops to 32 Mbps (while Google Wifi only drops to 53 Mbps). The file transfer took 32 minutes.
Outdoors, the laptop rapidly changed to the router on the balcony and we could stream stable 4K video even at a distance of 15 metres. At 30 metres it worked reasonably well, but stuttered quite a bit, and we measured a speed of 10 Mbps.
One clever function is AiMesh, allowing the Asus Lyra Trio can be expanded with other Asus routers (even older models), which are upgraded with new software, if you need to cover more areas in your home.
Slow but with good range
Designation: Mesh Kit MK-2 AC1200 Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 1 x Gigabit WAN plus 3 x Gigabit LAN on the main unit, 1 x Gigabit LAN on satellites Beamforming: No Dual band: 2.4 GHz up to 300 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 900 Mbps Antennas: 2 pcs: 1 x Dual band antenna Wireless encryption: WEP, WPA, WPA2-PSK Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: No (only web interface) Miscellaneous: MU-MIMO. Satellites are connected directly via electrical outlet. USB outlet on the main unit.
The Dovado WiFi XL has very good range but relatively low network speeds – and the interface feels old fashioned.
During the installation of the Dovado WiFi XL, we followed the instructions and tried to log in with a mobile phone, but were met with a “Website cannot be reached” message. We then connected the router to a computer, using the password on the back of the router, and accessed the router’s homepage, where we could change to the SSID and password we wanted. To begin with there was no internet connection, but after popping the network cable in and out it worked. This installation process wasn’t as straightforward as a number of others we tested, but more like how things used to be a few years ago.
In terms of simplicity, the Dovado system isn’t anywhere near the other test participants, but in their web interface you can access and alter a number of different parameters in the network – which you can’t with other apps. A knowledgeable user will probably be happier with the Dovado system, while beginners will probably prefer their competitors’ apps.
This was the only system where the streamed 4K video began to stutter on the desktop computer, probably because the system simply can’t cope, but if we shifted to Full HD instead of 4K it became stable again.
The file transfer speed fell but never stopped completely during the heavy test, which gave quite varied results during the Bredbandskollen checks. Moving 11 Gb of data took 34 minutes, which is an average speed of 43 Mbps – and this is really slow.
Outdoors, the laptop quickly changed to the router on the balcony and streaming 4K worked fine here, even a little bit further away than other routers. Streaming of 4K video was stable at 15 metres distance, and it worked reasonably well up to 30 metres too, although it began to stutter there (and the speed was measured at 3 Mbps). In other words, the Dovado WiFi XL has amongst the best range we found in the mesh routers tested, but left a lot to be desired otherwise.
Wants to do a lot but doesn’t manage it
Designation: 3 Pack Hybrid – 1867 Mbps backhaul, with power-line Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Ports: 3 x Gigabit WAN/LAN Beamforming: No Dual band: 2.4 GHz up to 300 Mbps, 5 GHz up to 867 Mbps Antennas: 5 pcs: 2 x dual band antennas and 1 x Bluetooth antenna Wireless encryption: WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK Ethernet backhaul: Yes Installation and admin via app: Yes Miscellaneous: MU-MIMO. Support for power-line Gigabit backhaul.
The Huawei WiFi Q2 has a number of neat refinements but the network speed is low and the range short.
When we begin to install the router by scanning the QR code according to the instructions that accompany the Huawei WiFi Q2, we immediately get a warning message that the connection isn’t private. Which isn’t a very good start. When we instead choose to install the Huawei SmartHome App direct from Google Play, which is where the QR code ultimately led, it works better. After downloading the app, the installation process was fast and problem-free.
Under a heavy load in the network, the 4K playback on the laptop began to stutter, and we had to go down to 480p to prevent this. Moving 11 Gb of data took 30 minutes.
During the outdoor range test with streamed video, the Huawei system performed significantly worse than many others in the test. After just a few metres, the video began to stutter, which is really poor for a mesh system.
Like all systems in the test, the Huawei WiFi Q2 supports Ethernet backhaul, which means you can connect routers to each other with a network cable to get better performance in the network. Huawei also supports backhaul via power-line (in other words, via the mains grid). However, Huawei have chosen to hide this function outside the app, which means we didn’t test it.
The Huawei Wifi Q2 lags some way behind when it comes to both performance and range. Although the system has a number of clever functions built in, including power-line support, the execution of these isn’t perfectly implemented either, and could be significantly more logical to access and set.
You can find a router in the majority of homes these days, and they mean that several products (computers, tablets and smartphones) can use the home’s internet connection via the wireless network.
Routers have developed over the years, from being wired to wireless via Wi-Fi, and the speed has also increased both through new Wi-Fi standards and because the routers are equipped with more antennas and work on several different frequency bands simultaneously. Today it’s most common that a router is dual band, which means it works on the frequency bands 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Tri band routers are becoming increasingly common, and these have one transmitter/receiver on 2.4 GHz and two on 5 GHz.
Network speeds have also increased in recent years, but when it comes to coverage there are still limitations to what can be achieved with a single router, not least because a higher frequency band means higher speeds but also a shorter range – in other words 5 GHz is faster than 2.4 GHz but has a poorer range.
One common solution for improving coverage has been to install repeaters in the network. The disadvantage of this is that when you install repeaters to increase the existing router’s range in your home, you create several networks of units to be connected, while the connected units simultaneously reduce the total speed of the wireless network (because the router has more products to communicate with). And because the different networks have different SSIDs (Service Set Identifier, an alphanumeric key of up to 32 characters to identify a wireless network. Quite simply, the network name.) the way it works is that, for example, when you come home your phone automatically connects to the network, but then when you move around your home it doesn’t automatically reconnect to a repeater’s network – even if you’re standing only a metre away from the repeater and far from the router – because as long as there is the tiniest little signal from the router your phone stays on that connection. In other words you have to manually connect to a repeater instead of the router unless the wireless connection disappears completely.
The major advantages of a mesh network are that the router and other units (often simply called routers or satellites) have the same SSID (network name), which means that all products connected to the network automatically communicate with whichever of the two, three or more routers (or satellites) is giving the strongest signal at that particular moment. So for example if you’re moving through your home with your smartphone, it moves from one router (or satellite) to another without you noticing anything. This means you can achieve much better coverage than what’s possible with just a single router.
Wireless networks in the form of Wi-Fi have been standard in our homes for a number of years now, and the demands on them are becoming ever greater – not least given the rate at which streaming video is increasing. Video streaming today represents around three quarters of the world's total internet traffic, according to the Cisco VNI Annual Report.
The number of products connected wirelessly both in the home and outside is increasing, and we’re at the start of the development of the IoT (Internet of Things), which will increase the number of connected products even more. This places greater and greater demands on our wireless networks.
The optimal solution is to position a router exactly at the centre of the home, but this is rarely possible in reality because the router is normally located where the internet connection is – often in the cellar or right by the entrance to the home. The great thing about a mesh network is that you can place a mesh router exactly where you have your traditional router today (in other words, probably in a non-optimal position) and then place another mesh router optimally (for example right at the centre of your home) and both units form part of a single network, with the same SSID (network name), which means that all units connected to the network automatically communicate with the mesh router that gives the strongest signal at that particular moment. And if you have more than two mesh routers, you can put the third in a position where you get the most benefit from it.
Mesh networks aren’t a new discovery – they've existed via professional products (for example at airports and hotels) for a number of years, but they’ve now begun to break through on the consumer market too.
2009 saw the arrival of the 802.11n standard, which exploits the 2.4 GHz band, has a band of 40 MHz and uses 64 QAM modulation. The maximum speed is 150 Mbps with one antenna and 450 Mbps for products with three antennas – and with dual band technology the maximum speed is 900 Mbps. Even if this sounds a lot, this is only theoretical maximum performance, which is affected by many factors. It isn’t something you can play games or stream high-resolution films with, but it’s enough to get online and use YouTube.
In 2013, the 802.11ac standard arrived, which contains the previous standard’s technology (and is therefore fully backwards compatible) but also adds exploitation of the 5 GHz band, with a bandwidth of 80 MHz and 256 QAM. This gives a maximum speed of about 2.3 Gbps. By this point Wi-Fi reaches really usable speeds and works well with online games and high-resolution films.
In 2015, the first tri band routers arrived on the market, and these exploit the 2.4 GHz band, and the 5 GHz band x2. The maximum speed is about 3.2-4.3 GHz per second depending on the technology used. By using more antennas, both traffic and connected units can be divided better, which means that every user gets a better experience.
This doesn’t mean you can directly obtain this 4 Gbps speed between a product and the internet (or between two products in the network), but instead that it provides three networks in a single router. The advantage is that the router can “talk to” many products simultaneously, using Multi-User Multiple Input and Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, and divide the data traffic between the three networks so each product gets as a high a speed as possible.
In 2018 the names of Wi-Fi technologies were simplified, and they’re now called simply “Wi-Fi 1”, “Wi-Fi 2” and so on. You can find more about the differences and what they mean in the glossary below.
Asus has its own version of the mesh router. While you can obviously buy a complete mesh system, many of us have slightly older routers already in our homes. AIMesh is part of the software for many Asus routers – even older ones – and means you can create your own mesh network with normal routers. You can also connect together an old Asus router, for example with their Lyra mesh system to add an additional satellite. Asus provides more information about the technology and which routers are compatible.
A handy bit of technical magic that gives you a faster and more stable connection. To put it concisely, the signal from the antennas is aimed directly at the connected units rather than simply “radiating out” as is otherwise the case. It’s a bit like watering a tomato plant directly rather than using a sprinkler over the whole vegetable plot.
Not many mesh routers today have separate wireless connection to communicate with each other – instead it’s often shared with normal traffic. But most systems have what’s known as Ethernet backhaul. This means that you link the different satellites in the mesh system together using a standard Ethernet cable.
In this way all of the traffic between the satellites and out to the internet travels separately via cable without being affected by other wireless signals. Of course this means more work for you when installing it, but it’s ultimately a faster and more stable network.
Of course you know that you need a password on your network to prevent unauthorised people from accessing it. As a user, in practice, you only see this when you’re first connecting a product to a network, but of course there’s a whole load of science behind it and a number of different techniques. Here’s a quick overview:
WEP, Wired Equivalent Privacy. One of the first encryption technologies. Still in use, but not recommended as it’s easy to break.
WPA, Wi-Fi Protected Access. Improved encryption technology that arrived in 2004 and is still in use.
WPA2. The latest encryption technology for Wi-Fi networks, which is essentially meant to be impossible to eavesdrop on.
PSK, Pre-Shared Key. PSK isn’t an encryption technology in itself, but a way of simplifying things for the user. You’ve probably encountered very long Wi-Fi passwords when you’re connecting to some routers, while in other cases you only have to use a relatively normal password to connect. PSK is the normal password, and after it’s been approved the WPA technology takes over and deals with the underlying identification.
WPA, Wi-Fi Protected Setup. A way of simplifying connection without a password. Activate WPS on the router and the product to be connected and they pair automatically. Often this is a separate button on the router. A simple alternative, but also a potential safety hole you can switch off if you want a bit more security in your network.
Megabits per second. Quite simply how much data can be transferred per second. Here it’s important to distinguish between bits and bytes, and between megabits and megabytes. Bytes are the normal units used for RAM and hard disks in computers, mobile phones and tablets – kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and so on. Bits are the term we use when we talk about transfer speeds in both wired and wireless networks.
There are eight bits in a byte. So if you want to convert it, for example, a router that can deal with 1000 Mbps equatest to 125 megabytes per second. If you can’t be bothered to do the calculation in detail, you can divide by 10, which means that in the example above you get a bit more than 100 megabytes per second.
MIMO stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output. This is a way of increasing speed between a router and a unit that supports this technology. Instead of simply using one channel for transfer it uses several, which results in higher speeds.
The first version of MIMO is also called SU-MIMO, where SU stands for Single User or one user/unit. And MU-MIMO is Multiple User – in other words, more users. MU-MIMO currently supports four simultaneous users instead of one, assuming that both the router and connected units support it.
A technology for transferring network signals over the mains grid. The idea is that you insert a small unit with a network outlet into a normal wall socket and then use the mains electricity network to “talk to” the router.
This technology has never really taken off like traditional wired networks or Wi-Fi. Even though many technical obstacles have been overcome and transfer speeds have improved over the years, this technology lives in the shadow of the bigger network technologies. Wi-Fi technologies
You've undoubtedly encountered Wifi 802.11a/b/n/ac or similar impenetrable characters, but what do they mean? And isn’t there an easier way to talk about this stuff?
The figures 802.11 are the technical term for what we generally call Wi-Fi or wireless network.
In late 2018, the different Wi-Fi technologies were simplified significantly, even though the old letter combinations are still common. We’ll go through both simultaneously here:
Wi-Fi 1, previously 802.11b: Released in 1999 and is a now obsolete technology with slow speeds and short range. Maximum speed of 11 Mbps.
Wi-Fi 2, previously 802.11a: Also released in 1999, and paradoxically now called Wi-Fi 2. Now an obsolete technology with both short range and relatively slow transfer speeds. Maximum speed of 54 Mbps.
Wi-Fi 3, previously 802.11g: Released in 2003 and was broadly better than its predecessors, but still had a maximum speed of 54 Mbps.
Wi-Fi 4, previously 802.11n: Released in 2009 and made possible connection to both the 2.4 GHz band (like previous technologies) and 5 GHz. The maximum speed is 150 Mbps, but SU-MIMO has also been introduced here, giving maximum speeds of 450 Mbps.
Wi-Fi 5, previously 802.11ac: Released in 2014 and is almost standard in Wi-Fi units now. The standard speeds are 433 or 866 Mbps, but MU-MIMO has also been introduced here and quicker sub-versions of the technology, which can increase the speed to a maximum of 3500 Mbps.
Wi-Fi 6, previously 802.11ax: Released in 2019 and is the latest technology for Wi-Fi. MU-MIMO is standard here, instead of an add-on as it was in previous generations. The speed (to begin with) is 9600 Mbps. But the speed is only part of it. Here it’s as much about better range, better stability and even more resource efficiency so that your Wi-Fi connected units draw less current.
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