EDITORS’ C H O I C E Nov 2021
If you're reading this, it's probably because you're in the market for a mesh router, or you're curious about them. You aren't alone. The pandemic-borne work-from-home age has pushed our home networks to the limit, and mesh routers that use multiple devices to spread a more reliable Wi-Fi signal from room to room will offer the clearest, most noticeable home networking boost in most households. Add in the arrival of faster Wi-Fi 6 speeds, and it's no wonder so many people are looking to make the upgrade.
Upgrading to a mesh router with support for that new Wi-Fi 6 standard would seem like the logical choice, but the ones that really feel like an upgrade are expensive (like, a couple of car payments expensive). Just last year, I was commending Asus and Eero for bringing the cost of full-featured, tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers down to around $400 or so -- a nice step in the right direction, but still too much for most folks. Meanwhile the entry-level options I've tested have left me largely underwhelmed.
Now, there's a new mesh router on the market: the TP-Link Deco W7200. With a tri-band design (which is essential if you want to get the most out of a mesh router) plus full support for Wi-Fi 6, the W7200 checks all of the boxes that I'd be looking for in a mesh router upgrade if it were me buying. And then there's the cost: $229 for a two-piece setup. That's less than Nest Wifi, a two-year-old dual-band system that doesn't support Wi-Fi 6 at all. Consider me fully whelmed.8.7
It gets better. Apart from making a breeze out of the setup process, with satellites that automatically join the mesh as soon as you plug them in, the W7200 performs like a champ. In my at-home tests, the system delivered fast, consistent speeds across my entire house, and never once dropped my connection or got tripped up as I moved from room to room running speed tests.
In fact, the W7200 managed to outperform other tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers that cost a lot more, including the AX6600 version of the Arris Surfboard Max and Amazon's Eero Pro 6. And while it likely wouldn't win if you were clocking its true top speeds in a lab, in my home, where my fiber connection caps my downloads and uploads at 300Mbps, the Deco W7200 performed nearly as well as the AX6000 version of the Netgear Orbi mesh router, a top-of-the-line system that sells in a 2-pack for $700. TP-Link gets you there for $229.
That makes this the easiest mesh router for me to recommend, ever, and a clear Editors' Choice-winner here on CNET. If you've been waiting for the right time to make the upgrade to mesh, or waiting for the right time to buy in on Wi-Fi 6, wait no longer. The time is now, and the router is the TP-Link Deco W7200.
The TP-Link Deco W7200 sticks to the same, basic design as TP-Link's previous Deco devices, most of which are cylindrical or puck-shaped pieces of white plastic. They aren't ugly, but they aren't exactly eye-catching, either -- I've seen cheap, no-name routers from the bargain bin that look more inspired.
TP-Link pitches that they're built to blend seamlessly into your home's decor, but the bulky, bland-looking build might lead some owners to stash them in closets or behind TVs, where they won't perform as well. It's a relatively minor quibble, but a more distinctive, aesthetically minded design would have gone a long way here.
If the first impression falls flat, it's the second impressions you'll form as you set the system up that save the day. For starters, the Deco app is a clean, tidy-looking interface that makes simple work of guiding you through the setup process -- but my favorite bit comes once you've set the first device up as your main router and the time comes to add in the second device as a satellite extender. Just plug the thing in. It'll automatically find its way onto the mesh and start boosting your signal, no network scans, QR codes, IP addresses, button presses or taps in an app needed.
The two Deco devices are identical, so you can use either one as the main router or as an extender. Together, the two can cover up to 5,500 square feet, TP-Link says, though I'd recommend budgeting one Deco device per 2,000 square feet for a stronger connection at range. And don't let the W7200 branding fool you -- these are AX3600 devices, with the "AX" designating support for Wi-Fi 6 and the "3600" designating the combined top speeds of each of the system's three bands. You can only connect to one band at a time, so the true top speed isn't 3,600Mbps, but rather, 1,802Mbps, which is the top speed of the faster of the two 5GHz bands. With the W7200 moniker, TP-Link is basically doubling down by multiplying the already misleading 3600 part of the speed rating by the number of routers in the box. That's patently ridiculous, but I digress.Now playing:Watch this: Which router upgrade is right for you?9:01
Each Deco device keeps it simple, with just two Ethernet jacks and a power port in the back. I would have liked to have seen a USB port there for people who need to plug in a printer or external storage, and a third Ethernet jack would have been nice, too. You'll need one of those jacks to connect the main router to your modem, so if you have multiple smart home dongles, media streamers, gaming consoles or other devices that require or would benefit from a wired connection to your network, you might need to pick up an Ethernet splitter. Still, most mesh routers these days are ditching the USB port, and some mesh routers don't have Ethernet jacks on the extenders at all, so it could be worse.
I'll also note that all of those Ethernet jacks cap the incoming wired speeds at 1Gbps. That's plenty by today's standards, but we're already seeing multiple ISPs offer internet plans as fast as 2Gbps. A more future-proofed design would have been great, though it's an understandable omission in a system that's priced as aggressively as the W7200. For now, you'll still need to sprig for a system like the Asus ZenWifi XT8 if you want multi-gig Ethernet jacks equipped for connections yet to come.
All quibbles with the design and the inflated speed rating aside, it's time to talk about performance, and that's where the W7200 truly shines. The graph above shows you the average room-by-room download speeds from my at-home speed tests, where my fiber connection is capped at 300Mbps. The Deco W7200 (red) exceeded that number in every room I tested in, and finished in a very close second to our top performing mesh router to date, the AX6000 version of Netgear Orbi (blue). That system costs more than three times as much as the Deco W7200.
On top of that, the Deco outperformed two other tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers that cost more, the Eero Pro 6 and the AX6600 version of the Arris Surfboard Max. Both of those cost at least $150 more than what TP-Link's asking. And, with its tri-band design, the W7200 leaves most dual-band systems that lack a dedicated backhaul in the dust, including the regular Eero 6 and TP-Link's own Deco X20.
I would also expect the Deco W7200 to easily outperform the dual-band version of the Netgear Nighthawk mesh router and also Nest Wifi, which doesn't support Wi-Fi 6 at all. That said, I tested both of those systems before upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 testing equipment here at home, so I'll save the direct, numerical comparisons until I've had a chance to re-test them.
Average speeds are all well and good, but if you really want to understand how a mesh router is performing, you need to dig a little deeper. To that end, the graph with the dots here shows you the results of each of the individual speed tests that comprise those averages. I run multiple rounds of speed tests across multiple days during morning, afternoon and evening hours, so there are lots of dots in that graph -- but it's difficult if not impossible to see all of them because of how closely they overlap. That's consistency -- I was hitting the same, impressive top speeds test after test, with very little variance save for the hallway bathroom and the master bedroom, where the system needed to decide whether to direct my traffic straight back to the living room router, or to route it through the bedroom extender. Even then, the variance made little to no difference in the quality of my connection.
That overall consistency includes testing rounds where I started my connection close to the router (in the living room) and then worked towards the back of the house, and also an equal number of testing rounds where I did the opposite, connecting far from the router (in the back bathroom) and working towards the front. That approach will often cause a mediocre mesh to trip over itself and get confused about which device to route my connection through, or which band to steer my traffic onto, but that wasn't the case with the W7200. Whether I started my connection up close or from afar, it always managed to optimize my connection and deliver the fastest speeds possible, with an overall front-to-back average of 350Mbps and near-identical back-to-front average of 352Mbps.
I run the majority of those speed tests on a laptop that supports Wi-Fi 6, but I also make sure to run multiple sets of tests to a Wi-Fi 5 device, too. Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible, so the W7200 and other Wi-Fi 6 routers like it can still connect with older devices like that, but those devices won't be able to take advantage of the new features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster and more efficient. In some cases, that can mean that speeds from a Wi-Fi 6 router to your Wi-Fi 5 devices will be as much as 30% slower than the speeds you'll see on a Wi-Fi 6 device.
With the W7200, however, the difference was minimal. My overall average with a Wi-Fi 6 device was 351Mbps, compared to 337Mbps with a Wi-Fi 5 device. That's only about 4% slower.
If the W7200 has a weak spot with regard to performance, it'd be the upload speeds, which were slightly slower on average than I've seen with other, similar mesh routers. My home's fiber connection is symmetrical, so the uploads are capped at 300Mbps, same as the downloads. Across all of my Wi-Fi 6 tests, the W7200 finished with an average upload speed of 249Mbps -- still fast, but notably lower than the averages I saw from the Netgear Orbi AX6000 (342Mbps), the Eero Pro 6 (296Mbps) and the Arris Surfboard Max AX6600 (261Mbps). Even the Asus ZenWifi XT8, another router I tested back before I was using Wi-Fi 6 gear here at home, finished with overall average uploads of 265Mbps.
Mesh routers promise a fast, reliable connection throughout the majority, if not the entirety of your home. The TP-Link Deco W7200 makes full use of Wi-Fi 6 and a tri-band design to deliver on that promise, with performance that's about as solid as I've seen from a mesh router. At $229 for a two-pack, it offers outstanding value. The only router I've tested that beats it in my tests outright costs more than three times as much.
The W7200 is a great system if your home is lucky enough to have gigabit speeds or a dedicated fiber connection, but if you're living with download speeds of 100Mbps or less, then the W7200 is probably more than you need right now. That said, the W7200 really doesn't cost that much more than the budget systems you might consider in its place, and that makes it easy to recommend for just about everyone. It's my new top pick in the mesh category, and one that isn't likely to fall until the competition figures out how to offer value that's as strong as this.Wi-FiNotification on Notification off Internet Routers