Maintaining smooth Wi-Fi performance and throughput for gaming, video streaming, and smart home devices is important, but now that so many folks are working from home, you also need to consider important work applications and different modes of work communication, especially video conferencing. This is where whole-house coverage becomes more than a nice-to-have.
Many of the latest wireless routers can provide strong coverage to most rooms of a typical medium-size house, but larger homes and dwellings with dense walls, multiple floors, metal and concrete substructures, and other structural impediments may require additional components to bring Wi-Fi to areas that the router can't reach. Range extenders do a good job of filling in dead zones, but they typically provide only half the bandwidth that you get from your main router. Access points offer more bandwidth than range extenders, but they require a wired connection to the main router. And both solutions typically create a new network SSID that you have to log in to as you move from one area of the house to another.
If you're new to networking, you might be worrying that all of the above will leave you sitting on the floor surrounded by a lot of router documentation and questioning your life choices. Fortunately, there's another alternative: consider installing a mesh Wi-Fi system instead.
Also known by popular brand names like Google Nest Wi-Fi, mesh systems are designed to blanket your home with wireless coverage. These systems are a hybrid of sorts, made up of several networking components. There's a main router that connects directly to your modem, and a series of satellite modules, or nodes, that you place throughout your house. They are all part of a single wireless network, and they share the same SSID and password. Unlike range extenders, which communicate with the router via the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio bands, most Wi-Fi system satellites use mesh technology to talk to the router and to each other.
Each node serves as a hop point for other nodes in the system. This helps the nodes farthest from the router to deliver a strong Wi-Fi signal as they are talking to other nodes and not relying on one-to-one communications with the router. Not all Wi-Fi systems use mesh networking, however; some use a dedicated radio band to communicate with the router and with each other. As with mesh, the dedicated band frees up the standard-use 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for client use.
Setting up and maintaining a traditional wireless home network can be daunting, even if you're tech-savvy. Wi-Fi mesh systems, on the other hand, are geared toward users with little or no technical knowledge and can be installed in minutes. They typically come with a user-friendly mobile app that walks you through the installation process with easy-to-follow illustrated instructions. The app tells you where to place each node for maximum coverage and chooses the best Wi-Fi channel and radio band for optimal throughput performance, so you can maintain a strong wireless connection as you move about the house.
Wi-Fi mesh systems are easy to expand (with no current limit on the number of nodes you can add) and manage using your smartphone, allowing you to disable Wi-Fi access to specific devices with the press of a button and give certain devices network priority without having to log in to a complicated network console.
Wi-Fi mesh systems also look nothing like a traditional setup with a router and range extender. The router and nodes use internal antennas and are almost always tastefully designed so you can place them out in the open rather than in a closet or under a desk. (Don't expect to find a lot of flashing LED indicators—these systems are designed to blend in with your home's décor.) They usually have at least one LAN port for connecting to devices like TVs and gaming consoles, but USB connectivity is a rare feature at this point.
Similar to modern standalone routers, mesh systems are multi-band networking devices that operate on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands. Some models offer support for Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, which streams data to multiple compatible wireless clients simultaneously rather than sequentially. Most Wi-Fi systems use band steering to automatically select the least-crowded radio band for the best performance and offer easy-to-use parental controls, guest networking, and device prioritization options. While designed for ease of use, they usually let you configure port forwarding and wireless security settings but lack the advanced networking management options such as individual band control, firewall settings, and wireless transmission rate settings that you get with a traditional router. Nor can you use third-party WRT firmware to customize the system for enhanced performance and network monitoring.
Wi-Fi 6 is an evolution of 802.11ac technology that promises increased throughput speeds (up to 9.6Gbps), less network congestion, greater client capacity, and better range performance courtesy of several new and improved wireless technologies, including Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). OFDMA improves overall throughput by breaking Wi-Fi channels into sub-channels, allowing up to 30 users to share a channel at the same time. Additionally, 802.11ax takes advantage of previously unused radio frequencies to provide faster 2.4GHz performance and uses MU-MIMO streaming, too. Some Wi-Fi 6 devices can also communicate on the less-crowded 6GHz band, which was recently opened for Wi-Fi and is known as Wi-Fi 6E. For more on the benefits of the 802.11ax protocol, check out our speed tests and primer What Is Wi-Fi 6?
If you're worried what these systems might cost, don't sweat it; aside from a few pricey contenders, most mesh systems are only slightly more expensive than a router/range extender combination. Wi-Fi systems range in price from around $150 for a single-node system to around $500 for a multi-node setup.
The pricing looks higher with these systems because, in most cases, you're paying for at least two devices, the router and a router node that forms the mesh. Most systems, in fact, come with two nodes, so you're buying three devices in total. If you break it down per device, you'll most often find that they cost only a little more than you'd pay for a similarly powered router and range extender solution. That's especially true now that we're seeing prices coming down on mesh systems, even the newer models compatible with Wi-Fi 6.
Also remember: Wi-Fi systems are all about ease of use. They are a snap to set up and manage, offer whole-house coverage via a series of attractive nodes, and provide seamless room-to-room roaming over a single network. If you want total control over your network and require the best possible throughput performance and connectivity options, stick with a traditional router solution. If you don't want to deal with things like assigning radio bands and logging in to different networks as you move throughout your home, however, a Wi-Fi system makes sense. (For more about the differences between these two technologies, check out our explainer Wi-Fi Range Extender vs. Mesh Network: What's the Difference?)
Click through below to the full reviews of the best Wi-Fi systems we've tested. Need some more help getting all your devices up and running their fastest? Check out our tips for troubleshooting your Internet connection. And once you've picked out the best product for your home, read our primer on how to set up a mesh Wi-Fi system.