Mesh networking works……..it really does. And it’s a great alternative for large or oddly-configures locations where one router doesn’t seem up to the task. Our test focused upon three mid-priced mesh networks: Netgear’s Orbi, Plume and Google Wifi. All of them cost under $200 (Two Orbi units were on sale at Costco for $150) and seemed quite effective, we recommend two of them as lower-cost ways of improving your wifi coverage. Unfortunately, our experience with Plume was problematic.
PLUME: Promising but Disappointing
Four tiny Plume pods is appeared to be cheaper, although not by a lot, than Orbi two-pack and covers over 3000 sq. ft. Plume pods are very tiny and one can easily fit in the palm of a hand. They’re just 2.5 inches across and 1.5 inches deep. Plume’s technology focuses on reducing network latency over high throughput, rather than serving as a repeater. It’s a relatively ingenious approach that keeps the cost low. Plume’s cloud optimizer software automatically organizes the pods into a complex topology, which should offer significant benefits for anybody with a large number of Wi-Fi devices or signal-blocking obstacles in their house. Plume receives Wi-Fi parameter data from pods (signal strength between pods, interference, number of devices connected to each pod, signal levels, etc.) and manages the user’s network over the cloud. So rather than packing a lot of technology in the pods, they provide the service — for free — over your Internet connection. Their ability to monitor the system in real time also made troubleshooting much easier. We had one glitch getting the mesh online but the customer service was quite responsive (and available immediately…..even on a weekend). Sweet.
We have 90 mbps service and most all of our area now enjoys service at no less than 45mbps, which is a triple-fold improvement over the performance of our router. Moreover, all of the “dead spots” are gone. Plume also doesn’t have as many advanced networking features as Orbi does, but many people don’t need those. Setup was fairly easy but not trouble-free. We put a pod in three locations and they synched over a period of about 24 hours. The improvement in coverage was noticeable immediately and improved further over the following weeks.
However, over the period of a year, we began to notice odd things occurring with our computers and the networks. Our connectivity began to get spotty and we occasionally noticed that one or more of the pods were offline. We contacted Plume’s troubleshooters and were informed that there was some undefined interference in our network. We asked for a history of each of the pods so that we could sleuth the interference issue. The Plume rep assured us that they’d email us the log, but later indicated that the logs were not available. As it turns out, all of the connectivity issues could be traced back to the Plume network.
ORBI: To The Rescue
Netgear’s Orbi Wifi-system is a highly rated wifi network solution. It was among the more expensive solutions but recently, Netgear has begun discounting their router-satellite system. In our case, we found two units on sale at Costco for $160. In order to solve the mystery of Plume’s mysterious “interference”, we bought and installed two Orbi units. In a matter of minutes, our network speed doubled and all of the connectivity issues disappeared. Our three desktop computers returned to normal operation and in the two weeks that we’ve had the Orbi operating, we’ve witnessed no repeat of the goblins that plagued the Plume-driven network.
Moreover, we’ve found that the Orbi network range is superior to the four Plume pods — in some cases, appreciably so. We wanted very much to like the Plume network, but its performance pales to that of the Orbi network. Additionally, Plume has now instituted an annual maintenance fee ($60) for purchasers of the Plume pods. In contrast, Netgear has no such fee.
GOOGLE: Unspectacular, but Steady
Then there’s always Google. Google Wifi is an extensible mesh-networking kit with an intuitive app. Google WiFi uses built in software, called Network Assist technology, that works behind the scenes to deliver the best possible WiFi connection. When you’re walking around the house, Network Assist seamlessly transitions your device to the closest WiFi point for faster connection. It also automatically connects your device to the fastest available band based on your location. Two Wifi disks are supposed to be able to cover over 3000 sq. feet and, indeed, they did. Very capably. Two disks costs about $250 but they’ve been going on sale and we found two of them for under $200 on eBay. A three-pack is currently available for about $200 at a number of online outlets.
The Google WiFi app makes setup very simple. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll have to scan the QR code on the bottom of the WiFi point, which creates a secure connection between the device and your phone. Unfortunately, the WiFi system can only be set up and controlled via the Google WiFi mobile app. A Google account and a mobile device are required for setup and management. An added extra: Google offers some extra functionality in its app called Material Design “cards” that can assist with everything from device prioritization to managing home-automation devices. In our test, the mbps speeds were uniform throughout our location with no seeming drop-off in speed. Impressive.
In short, you can get serious improvements in your wifi coverage without having to buy a new, more powerful router for under $200. At the moment, Orbi is impressing us the most, but all of them will likely be better than your conventional router.