Why you don’t need mesh WiFi, especially Google’s offering

Image courtesy of Amazon

At the beginning of this year, I bought a couple of Asus-produced Google OnHubs on the cheap.  You may be wondering why I purchased a router that Google was already phasing out in favor of the Google WiFi “pucks” that had already been released, and the answer is simple: OnHubs were updated to run the same Google WiFi mesh software that the pucks run, they had stronger antennas, and they were frequently on sale for a fraction of the price ($99 each).  Smart purchase, right?

Well, maybe not so much.

First, as a quick refresher on what exactly mesh WiFi is, I should mention that these systems are basically all compromised or two or more independent access points (most systems seem to have three, but two is also pretty standard) that all simultaneously share and broadcast the same WiFi connection.  This is different from a range extender, which doesn’t broadcast the same WiFi connection, but actually takes your existing WiFi network and rebroadcasts it as a new network.  These devices typically have very poor throughput and introduce a whole host of other issues (way more wireless interference, for example) that mesh WiFi systems don’t suffer from, or suffer from at a dramatically lower degree.

A lot of mesh WiFi systems also aim to solve the problem that “WiFi is hard to setup and administer,” which I’m not entirely sure is a real problem these days.  True, I wouldn’t expect my mom to be able to setup a WiFi network with a traditional router, but I am confident the results would be the same if she tried with a more “consumer friendly” mesh WiFi system.  Similarly, I think if you can setup a WiFi network with Google WiFi, you can probably also go grab any random Linksys router produced in the last couple of years and set it up just as easily.

Now, I am not intimately familiar with all mesh WiFi systems, but I do know that many are similar to Google WiFi in that they do not offer a web admin page.  This was something I knew when I bought the device, and was hoping that once I got past the initial setup, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  If you’ve read my articles before, you’re probably aware that even though I like to tinker, I also tend to appreciate devices that “just work.”  That is, those that trade off showing a lot of what’s under the hood in favor of being simpler to use.

Google WiFi is not one of those devices.  The app is a pain to use and is extremely limited.  It requires that you login with an account (a Google account in this case), as do some others like Eero, which requires you to have an Eero account.  This seems innocuous enough, but in reality, it was a Google Accounts system bug that caused Google to accidentally wipe a large amount of Google WiFi systems this February.

Let me repeat that again – Google remote wiped my WiFi system in February, as well as the routers of many others.  I woke up that morning and had to scramble to setup my old router so that my wife could work that day.  It wasn’t until I checked the news that I found out what had happened.  This is shameful enough, but to make matters worse, the Google WiFi app doesn’t allow you to make a backup of your settings.  You’d think Google would have some sort of way to back your settings up to the cloud, but uh…nope.  I had to set everything back up from scratch.  My DHCP reservations, NAT settings, the mesh network itself…all of it.  Thanks, Google.

My list of complaints with Google WiFi doesn’t end there, but I’ll spare you.  I’ve had numerous other issues that boil down to the simple fact that the app just isn’t powerful enough, but one issue I never had with the system was the WiFi coverage.  It was night and day compared to my previous router, the TP Link Archer AC1750.  The TP Link was fine in my previous house, a single story of about 1450 square feet, but when we moved into a temporary, 2-story house rent house that wasn’t even that much bigger (around 1700 square feet), things started to go bad with the WiFi, and I thought mesh was the solution.  When we got around to buying another house (another 2-story, but bigger than the rent house), the Google WiFi mesh system was still a champ at providing total coverage, including the back yard and well down the street, but everything else about it was utter garbage.

One day, I got so frustrated with the Google WiFi that I unplugged them, tossed them into a corner, and plugged the TP Link router back in.  Coverage was…considerably worse, so I started researching other mesh WiFi systems, only to end up frustrated that they all seemed to suffer from similar issues that the Google WiFi did – companies had a way to remotely update, and thus remotely wipe your devices, systems had no admin web sites, offered mesh at the cost of some overall speed due to no dedicated backhaul, save for the Netgear Orbis, and they were all incredibly expensive.  Frustrated, I reached out to Twitter, and a friend recommended a Netgear Nighthawk.  I began researching similar products, and found that maybe I just needed a better normal router instead of mesh.

Image courtesy of Amazon

I finally landed on the D-Link DIR-882.  This router has more antennas, better range, and newer technology like beam-forming that, despite it being 802.11ac like my old TPLink router, allow it to cover the entire house, backyard, and also down the street.  So, yeah, I never needed mesh WiFi.  I just needed a good, traditional router, and I suspect the same applies to most of you.

And I have never been so happy to see a web admin page.

If you are having WiFi issues – coverage or anything else – and you happen to stumble across this article, please, before you blow $300-500 on a mesh WiFi system, try out a D-Link DIR-882 or a Netgear Nighthawk R7000P.  Either one of these cost a fraction of the price of a mesh system and will almost definitely suit your needs just as well or better.

For the record, most range extenders are garbage.  I highly recommend upgrading your router rather than buying a range extender that will only introduce more issues.  I have bad memories of unplugging a range extender and tossing it into a bin after it messed up my Skype call for the umpteenth time in so many days.