- 1. What Is Mesh Wi-Fi?
- 2. How Is Mesh Wi-Fi Different Than Using Wi-Fi Extenders?
- 3. What Are the Benefits of Mesh Wi-Fi?
- 4. What Are the Downsides of Mesh Wi-Fi?
Mesh Wi-Fi platforms use a series of interconnected nodes, instead of one central access point like a traditional Wi-Fi router, to blanket your home with Wi-Fi coverage.
It’s time to replace your old Wi-Fi router, and you’ve heard a lot of good things about mesh Wi-Fi systems. Here’s what they are, how they work, and the benefits and downsides of using mesh over a traditional Wi-Fi router.
What Is Mesh Wi-Fi?
Mesh Wi-Fi uses several nodes rather than a single access point, like a traditional Wi-Fi router. Because multiple devices broadcast your Wi-Fi in different locations throughout your home, mesh Wi-Fi can provide a stronger Wi-Fi signal throughout your home.
First, let’s briefly talk about traditional Wi-Fi routers—Wi-Fi setups where a single device handles the Wi-Fi. Whether it’s a black box with some little antennas sticking out or sleeker looking white model with internal antennas, the all-in-one Wi-Fi, router, and oftentimes modem too, setup is a common one found in millions of homes.
With a traditional Wi-Fi router, the wireless experience is centered around a single point. If you’re near the router you have a better experience, and if you’re far away from the router you have a worse experience. You’re out of luck if you’re outside the router’s range, such as on the other side of the house or yard. Other than moving the router or bandaging the situation with a Wi-Fi extender, you’re left either using mobile data if you’re on a smartphone or without a signal at all if you’re trying to set up a smart TV or such.
Although it’s not a perfect analogy, it’s worth comparing Wi-Fi to a stereo system. If you’re near the stereo, the sound is very clear. If you’re a room or two away, it’s still fairly clear, but as you get deeper into the house (down into the basement or up into the attic) the sound is muffled and distorted.
If a traditional Wi-Fi router is like a stereo system parked in one location of the house blasting out music to the whole abode, then mesh Wi-Fi is more like a system of smart speakers set up around the house. Each individual speaker isn’t a powerful Hi-Fi stereo system unto itself, but the system ensures that no matter where you are in the house, the music is clear.
In mesh Wi-Fi lingo, the individual units (the smart speakers in our analogy) are called mesh satellites or mesh nodes. So how does mesh Wi-Fi work? One node acts as the base station, and you plug this base station into your internet modem just like you would plug in a traditional Wi-Fi router. In fact, the mesh system base station unit can serve as a stand-alone Wi-Fi router if you want the mesh platform features and easy future-proof scalability.
The other mesh nodes communicate wirelessly (or via wired backhaul) with the base station to effectively blanket your home with Wi-Fi coverage. Some mesh systems even have a whole band, a dedicated wireless backhaul, just for node-to-node communication.
Whatever the backhaul looks like though, each node talks to every other node, so whether you’re in the backyard, the basement, or all the way across the house from where the internet drop physically enters your home, you get a steady and stable Wi-Fi signal.
How Is Mesh Wi-Fi Different Than Using Wi-Fi Extenders?
If you’re familiar with Wi-Fi extenders (and given the popularity of the product category, we’re confident many of you are), you might be asking yourself, “What’s the difference between using a mesh system and just slapping a Wi-Fi extender on my network?” After all, there is some overlap between how Wi-Fi extenders and mesh networks function.
When a Wi-Fi extender is properly selected and configured, it can serve as a reasonable stop-gap measure to your Wi-Fi problems. If the extent of your Wi-Fi problem is something simple, like you have pretty good Wi-Fi coverage in your home, but the new smart sprinkler controller in your garage keeps dropping offline, then perhaps a cheap extender is all you need.
Overall though, Wi-Fi extenders deserve their bad reputation because while they do extend your Wi-Fi, they do so in a kludgy and inelegant way. The shortcomings might not matter much for low-bandwidth applications (like that sprinkler controller or a smart garage door opener), but for things like streaming movies, playing games, and so on, a mesh system is superior.
Unlike a Wi-Fi extender, which is effectively another Wi-Fi network layered on top of your existing Wi-Fi network, a mesh network is one unified network. All the pieces are from the same manufacturer, designed and optimized to work together, and unified through the same firmware, interface, and settings.
While Wi-Fi extenders can rarely communicate with each other or the main router (though there are few and far between examples of router companies releasing extender options), mesh nodes, by their very nature, are designed to do so seamlessly.
If you’re considering buying a Wi-Fi extender to solve problems with Wi-Fi coverage in your home, you should really be considering a mesh Wi-Fi system instead.
What Are the Benefits of Mesh Wi-Fi?
We’ve discussed what a mesh system is and why it’s different from a mishmash collection of Wi-Fi extenders. Let’s take a look at the benefits of mesh over a traditional router setup, which include improved Wi-Fi coverage, simple management, and easy scalability when you want more coverage.
Overall, we feel pretty confident recommending mesh Wi-Fi to just about everyone. For the vast majority of folks, putting a multi-node mesh Wi-Fi system in their homes will solve all their Wi-Fi woes, and even folks in small houses or apartments can benefit from using a single Google Nest Wi-Fi or Eero node as their router.
Improved Coverage: Wall-to-Wall Wi-Fi for Everyone
If you have a larger home, especially one with a sprawling design or a lot of Wi-Fi blocking elements, there’s no easier way to get wall-to-wall Wi-Fi coverage than switching to a mesh network.
Sure, you still want to place your mesh nodes optimally and avoid common mesh node placement mistakes, but overall it’s unbelievably simple to set up a mesh network.
The mesh network apps also usually include setup tips, notifications if you’ve placed the nodes too far apart, and other assistance in setting up your mesh network. You don’t get that level of guidance and help with Wi-Fi extenders, and you certainly don’t get first-party automagic integration.
Dead Simple Management: Mesh Platforms Are User Friendly
Speaking of mesh network apps, mesh platforms are unbelievably user-friendly. Easily pause Wi-Fi access for family dinner time? Parental controls just on the devices your kids use? Easy network-wide ad blocking, remote management, and smart home integration?
There’s just no comparing the ease of use you get with consumer mesh platforms to most traditional Wi-Fi routers. Mesh platforms are built, marketed, and maintained with non-techie people in mind.
The menus are clearly labeled, the options and toggles are presented in plain English to help you control your network, and most people will find the experience of using a mesh network’s interface far more pleasant than that of a traditional router.
Hassle-Free Scalability: Need More Coverage? No Problem
If you’re using a traditional router and you need more coverage, your options are to buy a new and more powerful router or bandage the situation with a Wi-Fi extender.
The neat thing about mesh networks is that the whole thing is just one big ol’ network of sophisticated Wi-Fi extenders that have been designed from the ground up to interact with each other in the most efficient way possible.
If you buy a 3-pack, put them around your home, and realize you need just a little more coverage to reach your detached garage or workshop, no problem. Skip buy a Wi-Fi extender and just buy another mesh node for the platform you already have. Or hey, even buy another 3-pack if it lowers your cost-per-node and then split the pack up to give to friends or relatives.
Once you have the extra node, just plug it in, add it to your mesh network, and boom, you’re done. There’s no janky Wi-Fi extender setup or hopping from one network to another based on where you are in the house. You have the exact same setup with expanded seamless coverage.
What Are the Downsides of Mesh Wi-Fi?
As great as mesh networks are, they aren’t without some downsides. They are often more expensive than traditional WI-Fi routers, they may be overkill for some smaller spaces, and they may not have as many power-user options. Although with each new generation of mesh platforms, the downsides become less pronounced as the market matures.
Cost: Mesh Networks Are Expensive(ish)
Historically, mesh Wi-Fi platforms were significantly more expensive than their traditional Wi-Fi router counterparts. When consumer mesh Wi-Fi emerged in the mid-2010s, it was commonplace for a 3-pack to run around $500. You can still spend that much on premium mesh Wi-Fi routers today but there are plenty of more economical options. For example, you can pick up a 3-pack of Wi-Fi 6 eero mesh nodes for $200 or less.
When you compare the cost of mesh Wi-Fi to low-end budget Wi-Fi routers, it seems expensive. But if you compare the cost of purchasing a mesh network to what you would spend on a more powerful and modern traditional router (plus, possibly, the expense of adding a nice Wi-Fi extender or two into the mix) you’ll quickly find that mesh networks are less expensive than they initially seem.
They Can Be Overpowered: Not Every Space Needs Multiple Nodes
While we’ve noted that using a single mesh node as a Wi-Fi router is great way to get access to the features of the mesh platform, not everyone needs a multi-node mesh system.
Just because mesh systems are great for many situations doesn’t mean they’re great for small spaces. If you live in a one-bedroom apartment, you don’t need a 3-node system. Even if you placed the nodes as far apart as possible, they’d still be too close to each other (and blasting half their signal strength into the adjacent apartments).
If you like the parental control features or smart home integration found on a particular mesh platform, pick up a single node for your small space instead of packing in 2-3 nodes that almost entirely overlap each other.
Not Power-User Friendly: Ease of Use Comes with Tradeoffs
We’ve talked a lot about user-friendly features and ease of use regarding mesh networks. And for most folks, user-friendly is what matters the most. If you don’t want to be an amateur network engineer, it’s nice to have simple and easy-to-navigate menus for common network tasks.
But if you’re a home network power user, you’ll likely quickly bump into the limitations imposed by the mesh system’s user interface and firmware. Most mesh platforms have a simplistic app-based interface designed for non-network-geeks to use with ease. Some mesh platforms, like the ZenWiFi system from ASUS, keep the traditional router interface for the mesh system.
If you like using advanced features like virtual LANs, manually adjusting band allocation and transmit power, or any number of options not available on mesh Wi-Fi platforms (usually because the platform auto-magically adjusts those settings for you) then
The Best Mesh Routers of 2023
Best Mesh Router Overall
ASUS ZenWiFi AX (XT8)
Best Budget Mesh Router
TP-Link Deco X20
Best Wi-Fi 6 Mesh Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX (XT8)
Best Wi-Fi 6E Mesh Router
ASUS ZenWiFi Pro ET12
Best Mesh Router for Gaming
Amazon Eero Pro 6
Best Mesh Router for Large Homes