Its interesting when you get the same question from completely unrelated people twice in one week. Pretty sure when I answered it the first time the price was a shock. Learned my lesson the second time. The question of the week: my router is old and I don’t have good WiFi all over the house. Should I upgrade my router, and how do I fix my WiFi?
I’m not a network engineer, so I’ll explain the options hopefully in a way that makes sense.
Different Wifi Networks
Single Access Point
Probably the most common home scenario is one modem/router combo providing WiFi coverage. The router sits at the center of the green area, and any device in that area has access to the network. As the device moves further from the router the signal becomes weaker, resulting in lower quality connections until at some point it moves completely out of range.
While a nice pretty circle is easy to explain, it doesn’t account for the fact that the WiFi signal is also negatively affected by any material it has to pass through. Metal, as can be predicted, as well as any dense material (think Hardie board siding) will drastically reduce the Wifi signal. It’s when the signal has to pass through several obstacles that you start seeing dead spots in the home.
To solve dead spots a range extender (or booster, or repeater) can be added. These devices usually plug in to a regular wall outlet and amplify the existing wireless signal. While this sounds like a good idea in principle, in practice this is not an ideal setup. Here’s why:
- A range extender creates a new network. Even if you set up the same WiFi broadcast name (SSID) on this network, it is still a distinct WiFi network. If you only have stationary devices that never move, this is okay. However, for mobile devices you would have to manually disconnect and reconnect to the available network as you move.
- Some extenders (dual band extenders) can mitigate network speed reduction. However, for the most part devices on the extender will have reduced speed because the repeater is having to both receive and transmit on the same band. This can reduce speeds by up to 50% in some cases.
That being said, range extenders tend to be relatively low-cost. They can be a good option if you have a small area to cover with a stationary device that cannot have a wired ethernet cable dropped to it.
Mesh/Access Point Network
Finally, a mesh/access point WiFi network is also common. Typically mesh networks have been seen in automation (Z-Wave, Zigbee devices), but in the last few years the market for mesh WiFi networking has dramatically expanded. The advantage with this type of network is that you have one WiFi SSID for the entire network and devices seamlessly hand off between access points to maintain the highest quality signal.
Mesh versus AP?
The difference between a true mesh network versus an access point network depends on the method of node connection. In a mesh network the router may be the only device directly connected to the internet. The satellite nodes will find the best signal path back to the router; that path can either be through another node or directly to the router. Access points, on the other hand, are usually wired directly in to the home network and always have a direct connection back to the router.
Mesh networks also typically self-heal. For example, if a node loses connection to the router it will try to see if another node still has a good connection. If it can find a node with a connection, it will continue to pull data through that node until the original path to the router is restored. Signal is maintained to the devices attached to that node. Usually when an access point loses connection the devices attached to the access point will reconnect to another access point, albeit with lower signal.
Some hardware allows for a hybrid setup. Unifi APs, for example, can act as a simple AP and mesh with other APs to maintain connectivity if one AP loses connection to the router. You get the best of both worlds. The reliability of a hardwired access point and self-healing mesh. Linksys Velop (and other consumer mesh systems), also allow for a wired backhaul and a self-healing mesh.
What’s right for me?
I’m biased; I like using a mesh network or access points. I’m likely to take a hammer to an extender if given one. That being said, extenders are typically cheaper than mesh/AP systems and will work fine if you have a smaller home with an isolated dead spot. There are also many different mesh network systems available now, and all are easy to set up. Let’s look at some considerations and then get into some of the options out there.
How big of an area am I covering?
First consideration: how big is your house? Square footage is going to determine how many nodes or APs you will need, or if you will only need a single router. This also depends on the system, as some systems require less nodes, some require more to provide access to the same area.
Where do I need coverage?
Do you need coverage only inside? Or do you have a massive patio you also want covered? Some systems have specific options that are outdoor-rated; many don’t. This is not a common scenario, but if a complaint is you can’t browse by the pool…
Is your home wired for ethernet?
If you have wired ethernet ports throughout the house, choose a system that allows for a wired backhaul. If present, a wired connection to the router will be used. Wired connections are more reliable and will typically result in improved network performance. However, in the event the wired network connection fails a mesh system will switch to the wireless backhaul through a node with a good connection. Most newer mesh systems have a separate, dedicated bands for transmitting and receiving data.
What is the means of internet delivery to your home?
To translate, do you have cable internet, DSL, fiber, or direct ethernet? In general, most ISP options will work with the current mesh systems available. However, if you are renting your equipment from your service provider it can cause some issues. Consider the following:
- You will need to be able to put one router or the other in bridge mode to avoid what we call double NATting. In this scenario both routers are trying to assign IP addresses to devices and you end up with two networks. If you cannot put the ISP’s modem in bridge mode make sure you can put your mesh system in bridge mode or you can substitute the mesh router for the ISP router.
- Make sure that you can disable the WiFi on the ISP router. Almost all ISP routers allow you to do this.
- If you have a modem/router combo and cannot place the ISP router in bridge mode and want to use the mesh router as the DHCP host, you’ll need to buy a separate modem.
- Typical ISP equipment is built for the masses. This usually means less capabilities versus units you purchase yourself. A router provided by your ISP will not hold a candle to a $700 Netgear Orbi mesh router.
How much control do you want over your network?
Are you an amateur that just wants plug and play? Or are you a network enthusiast that prefers to have total network control? Most people will fall in the former category. Consumer models of routers and mesh systems are typically designed to work with minimal input. If you want more control over your network or advanced networking, you’ll need to go with a “prosumer” network (i.e. Ubiquiti Unifi). This usually gets you VPN, VLAN, and multiple SSID functionality.
Which system makes sense?
Most homes under 1500 square feet are going to be perfectly fine with a single router. As long as your router is centrally placed and not stashed in a cabinet, wifi won’t usually be a problem. This will be the least expensive option since you only have to buy one piece of equipment.
For long, single level homes or multi-level homes with an isolated dead spot adding a range extender may do the trick. Just remember that you will have to manually reconnect if you need to switch the WiFi network. Truthfully, I’d probably spend a little extra money and get a 2-node mesh system.
If your home is larger than 1500 square feet or you have multiple dead spots, access points or a mesh system is the way to go. Mesh systems can be expensive, starting at $160 for a two-node Eero system. A brand-new WiFi 6 Netgear Orbi system will set you back at least $700.
Diving into the options
Going with a mesh wifi network? Or are you going with a single router? Let’s look at some of the options available and why (or why not) they are a good choice.
When looking for a router you need to look for several features. First, check that it meets the latest WiFi standard (currently WiFi 6). Wifi standards change fairly often, so you want to make sure you are not out of date as soon as you open the box. Second, make sure your router is backwards compatible with your devices. Most are, but you want to check. Third, get a router that supports MU-MIMO. Essentially this means the router can handle more devices competing for the WiFi antenna at one time.
You’ll find plenty of good router reviews online. Personally I’ve always liked PC Mag reviews since they are pretty easy to understand. I will, however, usually go through several comparison articles and user reviews before settling on a router. The only advice I have is don’t get the $20 router unless you want $20 performance and security.
For general, high quality network performance you’ll usually see Netgear, Linksys, or TP Link as solid choices. For high bandwidth gaming or streaming, Netgear has a dedicated product line (Netgear Nighthawk) that is top notch. ASUS ROG routers constantly recieve top marks for serious gamers (expect top prices too). For a solid router with good features and quality, expect to pay $70-$100.
Range extenders are again, in my opinion, only a good option if you have one dead spot needing beefed up and you don’t want to replace the router. For the price you will pay for an extender, I’d get a mesh system. That being said, PC Mag has a few options ranging from $26-$189. Like a router, expect $26 performance from a $26 extender. I will point out Netgear does make one of the few extenders capable of mesh networking. Again, for the price I’d just replace the router with a mesh system unless you already have a mesh capable Nighthawk router.
Finally, on to the mesh systems. Again, check out PC Mag for some good reviews of the big names out there. I personally have used the Linksys Velop system and found it to provide very good speeds, but it was a but flakey and would drop off the network occasionally. That being said, the big three I usually see on forums that people like are TP Link, Netgear Orbi, and Eero. A bonus for some of these systems (TP Link Deco M9 for example), is the inclusion of Zigbee and Bluetooth radios. Adding a home automation hub opens up fun possibilities (and can be addictive).
Of note with the mesh systems: they’re not cheap. Typically expect to pay $79 and up per node. With higher cost often comes more features. For example, as stated before, the TP Link Deco adds a home automation hub. Netgear Orbi offers several node options that include Alexa and speakers. Most systems include robust parental controls as well as integrated smart home security. The trade off, though, is that the end user typically has less control over their network settings. For complete control you would need a prosumer system (Ubiquity Unifi or PF Sense for example). That being said, consumer mesh systems will do the job for almost any scenario.
Another consideration is checking with your ISP. Xfinity in particular has a proprietary mesh system. The drawback is that you will have to rent the system from them and deal with the restrictions placed on your network. However, this is not a bad option if you can’t do the upfront costs associated with buying your own mesh.
Wrapping it up
Regardless of which way you go, I’m going to recommend you head over to my post on some very basic network security do’s and don’ts. Several years ago you could go out and pick up a cheap router and never think twice about it. Now, with an ever increasing number of connected devices, getting the right router for your specific need is important. COVID-19 has, in particular, really placed some emphasis on having both a secure and reliable home network.
Hopefully this gives you a good jumping off point and explains some of the different ways you can go. Feel free to drop a comment if you want more info or have your own experience to chime in.