The Nest Wifi seamlessly combines mesh Wi-Fi and smart speaker functions, but other wireless solutions are faster and more versatile
Pros Slick and easy to set upFaster than last-generation hardwareWorks with older unitsCons Limited Wi-Fi featuresNo Ethernet on the remote nodeNo 802.11ax
We were big fans of the original Google Wifi mesh system when it first appeared in 2016, deeming it “mesh Wi-Fi done right”. Since then, however, a whole market of competitors has emerged, challenging Google on price, performance and features.
Now Google has responded, launching an updated mesh Wi-Fi platform with faster hardware, a rebranded name and a built-in voice assistant. Is it enough to restore Google as the king of mesh? Let’s find out.
Google Nest Wifi review: What you need to know
The Google Nest Wifi is a dual-band 802.11ac mesh wireless system that’s designed to replace your existing router, although it can also operate a separate subnet connected to a primary router if need be. It works in the same way as the original 2016 model but it’s been upgraded with faster radios and 4×4 MIMO on the 5GHz band, up from 2×2 on the first-generation hardware.
The new system also introduces remote access points that double up as smart speakers with built-in microphones allowing you to access the Google Assistant. The new units are fully interoperable with first-generation units, so if you want to refresh or expand an existing Google Wifi setup, you’re free to mix and match.
Google Nest Wifi review: Price and competition
The standard Google Nest Wifi pack contains the main hub and a single remote node with an integrated microphone and speaker. This provides a claimed coverage of up to 210m2 and costs £239.
For that price, there are plenty of other options. For example, you could buy a three-node BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system and partner it with a Google Nest Mini for a cheaper total outlay. Or you could opt for one of the new Google Nest Audio speakers and beat it on performance and sound quality for not much more.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi, Pack of 3 Discs, Mesh Wi-Fi for seamless, speedy (AC2600) connection, Wi-Fi everywhere in medium to large homes, App for complete control and 3 year warranty, White
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If you prefer the Amazon way of doing things, you should also check out the Netgear Orbi Voice, a high-end mesh system that includes an Alexa smart speaker. At around £340 it’s quite a bit more expensive than the Google Nest Wifi, but it has some significant advantages, including a tri-band design, better wired connectivity and a much bigger speaker unit that’s better for music.
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Google Nest Wifi review: The hardware
The Google Wifi twin-pack contains two bulbous, largely featureless white units. They look similar to one another, but not identical: the hub is slightly larger, standing 90mm tall with a diameter of 110mm. The speaker node is 87mm high, with a circular footprint of 102mm and a perforated speaker grille around the base.
At the rear of each you’ll find the power socket. The old Google Wifi units were powered via USB Type-C, but these new ones use more mundane slim-barrel plugs. The hub’s socket is recessed, with a Gigabit Ethernet socket on either side: one connects to your modem, while the other lets you connect a single wired client. At the back of the speaker node there’s a privacy switch to disable the microphone but, where the last-generation Wifi nodes had two Gigabit Ethernet ports each, the new one has none.
Aside from that, all there is to see is a few discreetly embedded lights. A small LED set into the front of the hub unit glows white when you’re connected to the internet, while the speaker unit has encircling downward-facing lighting that indicates when the Assistant is listening. Two touch zones on the top also light up when tapped, allowing you to manually nudge the volume up and down – the base light illuminates at varying intensity to indicate the volume level – and dotted around them are four small microphone apertures providing 360-degree listening.
In all, the Nest Wifi units are impeccably tasteful but the shortage of Ethernet provision feels like a minimalist step too far. There are still plenty of home devices that require or benefit from a wired connection, yet these can only be connected to the hub (or to an older satellite) and if you want to hook up more than one of them you’ll need to use an external Ethernet switch.
Google Nest Wifi review: Getting set up
Google’s first-generation mesh system worked with the standalone Google Wifi app, but the new one is integrated into Google Home. Once you’ve plugged the hub in, you simply open the Home app and hit “add new device” to have it detected. You’ll then be prompted to scan the QR code on the bottom of the unit to confirm the connection. Finish up by picking a name and password for your new network, and you’re away.
That’s the idea, anyway but, for me, the Home app stubbornly refused to detect the unit. No problem, I thought: the hub has a default SSID and password stamped on the bottom, so I’ll connect from my laptop and set it up from a web browser instead. Unfortunately, with Google Wifi this isn’t an option: there’s no web portal, just a holding page that tells you to install the app.
In the end, uninstalling and reinstalling the Google Home app did the trick and from there on the process was impressively friction-free. The installer even recognised my hub as part of a two-pack, prompted me to plug in the second node once the first had been set up and automatically tested the strength of the connection between the two.
Google Nest Wifi review: Software features
Once the system has been registered, a new “Wifi” button appears at the top of the Home app, and when you tap on it you’re transported to the Nest Wifi dashboard page. This is nicely clean and clear: from here you can check your internet status at a glance, see how many mesh points and clients are connected, and optionally give access priority to one device.
You can also play with various functions that used to live in the Google Wifi app, such as setting up parental controls. The options aren’t exactly extensive but you can assign devices to custom groups and enforce schedules and SafeSearch on a per-group basis, as well as suspending internet access for selected groups with a single tap.
At the bottom of the dashboard you’ll find the option to enable the guest network. It’s off by default, but you can give it a name and password, and – a nice touch – choose which specific devices will be visible from the guest network, so you can (for example) let guests connect to your printer but not your desktop PC.
Tap the Settings cog in the top corner and a few slightly more technical settings come up, including the option to turn on WPA3 for secure authentication from compatible clients. You can also choose to optimise traffic for Google’s Stadia platform – or, rather, you can choose not to, as this switch comes cheekily pre-flipped.
For the rest, there’s an “Advanced Networking” link that, unexpectedly, bounces you into the old Google Wifi app (or dumps you at the download page if you don’t already have it). This is hardly elegant, but one assumes it’ll all be migrated into the Home app in due course. For now, the Google Wifi app is where you’ll find the serious administration tools, allowing you to do such things as changing DNS settings, setting up your DHCP pool, reserving IP addresses and creating port forwarding rules. You can also nominate other members of your household as co-managers, which is good to see.
What you won’t find is any proper QoS or other traffic-management settings, nor router-level support for either incoming or outgoing VPN connections. Perhaps most frustrating is the complete absence of configurable wireless options: among other things, this means you can’t split up the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. The Nest Wifi keeps the two permanently combined, so you get no direct control over which band each device connects to, and while this simplifies administration, it can hinder performance when a client latches onto a strong 2.4GHz signal rather than a weaker – but still faster – 5GHz one.
Google Nest Wifi review: Google Assistant
If your home is as overfilled with gadgets as mine, you’ll love the idea of combining two of them into one. In practice, though, it can be hard to work out where best to locate a voice assistant that’s also a Wi-Fi node. In my case, I had hoped to put the smart speaker in the kitchen, but this didn’t deliver the best Wi-Fi signal; to achieve that, I had to move it to the utility room, where I have much less need for a Google Assistant device. It’s an issue worth thinking about before you invest and, remember, the smart speaker capabilities are only built into the satellite, and not the hub.
Still, once I started talking to the Assistant, I was impressed by how well it managed to make out my voice, even over background noise – and the output quality is pretty good too. Although the Nest Wifi’s 40mm speaker driver is only the same size as the one in the Google Home Mini, it has a lot more warmth and depth. That’s especially evident when you push the volume up: the Home Mini becomes harsh and distorted, while the Nest Wifi goes just as loud, but remains much better balanced. It’s not as rich-sounding as a full-sized speaker, but as long as you don’t demand an audiophile-quality experience it’ll satisfactorily fill a medium-sized room.
Google Nest Wifi review: Performance
The original Google Wifi units had an AC1200 speed rating, representing a maximum throughput of 400Mbits/sec on the 2.4GHz band, plus 867Mbits/sec at 5GHz. The new Nest Wifi boast a much higher AC2200 rating: Google hasn’t confirmed how that divides up but I suspect the 5GHz radio has been doubled in speed to 1,733Mbits/sec. The MIMO capability on that band has also been beefed up, from 2×2 to 4×4.
To test the practical effect of this, I tested the system in my usual way. I started by setting up the main hub in the living room, and (as mentioned above) placed the remote node in the utility room at the opposite end of my home. This is a fairly long way for the backhaul signal to travel, and some other mesh systems I’ve tested have warned that it’s too far for optimal performance but the Google Home app assured me the connection between the two units was “great” so I pressed on.
I then took my Microsoft Surface Laptop, with its 2×2 Marvell Avastar 802.11ac wireless adaptor, to various parts of my home and measured upstream and downstream file copy speeds to a NAS appliance, connected to the hub via Ethernet. Here are the results I saw, along with speeds recorded from the two-node Netgear Orbi Voice kit and the three-node BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system for comparison, plus the first-generation Google Wifi kit:
|Speeds over 802.11ac (MB/sec)||Netgear Orbi Voice upload||BT Whole Home Wi-Fi upload||Google Wifi (2016) upload||Google Nest Wifi upload||Netgear Orbi Voice download||BT Whole Home Wi-Fi download||Google Wifi (2016) download||Google Nest Wifi download|
One thing that’s immediately clear is that the old Google Wifi system can’t keep up with modern mesh hardware. Short-range connection speeds were decent, but as soon as I wandered further afield it fell well behind. The benefit of the upgraded radios in the newer iteration is clear.
Even so, we can’t call the Nest Wifi a winner. Upload speeds were strong but, like its forebear, it only delivered fast downloads at short range. Elsewhere in the house it merely vied with the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi system, and couldn’t get close to the speeds delivered by the Orbi Voice.
This likely has a lot to do with the Nest Wifi’s dual-band design. The Orbi Voice has a third radio dedicated to ferrying backhaul traffic between the remote node and the hub, whereas with Google Wifi both backhaul and client communications have to share a single channel. That compromises the available bandwidth and the effect will only become more pronounced the more devices you have connected. Google claims you can connect 100 clients to each Nest Wifi node but I suspect performance would suffer horribly if you were to actually try it.
There are a few other performance-related issues that we need to talk about, too. First, the connection remained on the 5GHz band throughout my tests but when I tried moving the remote node to the kitchen, connections from the rear of the house switched to the 2.4GHz band, slashing speeds by around half. Although the Nest Wifi doesn’t support band-splitting, I was able to force the issue by tweaking my laptop settings to disable its internal 2.4GHz radio, after which I got transfer speeds similar to the above.
The real elephant in the room, however, is Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax). As 2019 draws to a close, we’re seeing growing numbers of routers and devices that support the new wireless standard but Google Nest Wifi only supports current-generation 802.11ac. Depending on your intended usage this may be perfectly sufficient for you. According to Netflix, a downstream connection of about 4MB/sec is more than enough to stream 4K content and Google Nest Wifi easily delivered more than double that to every part of my home.
Give it a year or two, however, and most new routers and devices will be supporting 802.11ax, offering double and triple the download speeds of a typical 802.11ac connection, not to mention better penetration, which may well render a domestic mesh system obsolete. If you’re someone who likes to get the best from their wireless network, it might not be long before you’re looking to move on from the Nest Wifi.
Google Nest Wifi review: Verdict
The new Nest Wifi is clearly designed with a focus on simplicity and, on those terms, it’s a big success. The units look as uncomplicated as you could ask for, they neatly combine two roles into one, and they require very little setup and maintenance. That will be music to the ears of many potential customers and, on that note, the smart speaker doesn’t sound at all bad either.
There are quite a few compromises here, however. While the Nest Wifi is certainly faster than the old Google Wifi system, the dual-band design holds it back from achieving peak performance. As and when you buy new 802.11ax-enabled devices, the Nest Wifi won’t give you the benefits of the faster, smarter networking standard. The dearth of Ethernet connectivity is a frustration too and, while it seems like a good idea to combine a Wi-Fi access point with a smart speaker, you may have to trade-off performance against convenience.
For all those reasons, it’s hard to give the Nest Wifi a general recommendation. Non-technical customers with straightforward Wi-Fi and voice assistant needs might find it perfect, but £239 is a lot to pay for a system with limited features and which is neither especially fast nor especially future-proof.