What to look for in a mesh Wi-Fi system
If you’re rearing to head out into the brave new world of mesh Wi-Fi systems and find an option of your own, look for details on each system’s square-foot coverage, Wi-Fi standards, and the number of bands.
Wi-Fi coverage is the whole reason to go for a mesh Wi-Fi system in the first place. If your house is sprawling, oddly shaped, has a lot of levels, or has brick, metal, or thick walls—mesh networking will make your life easier.
When you buy a mesh Wi-Fi system, consider how much ground each mesh router and mesh satellite can cover.
Some devices have a lot of coverage, so just two devices will support most homes. Devices that come in three-packs aren’t usually as strong, but if you have a thin three-story house, a three-pack system might be precisely what you need.
If you have your heart set on a specific mesh router, but the pre-built packs can’t cover your square footage, don’t despair. Most brands sell additional satellites, which you can add to your mesh network to extend the range.
In 2019, 802.11ax debuted as the new Wi-Fi standard with speeds up to 10 Gbps (theoretically, in a lab, and with optimal conditions). That’s about 30% faster than the previous standard, 802.11ac, could ever dream of being.
Along with faster speeds, 802.11ax brought about a lovely change in naming conventions. It’s the sixth generation of the 802.11 wireless standards, so the Wi-Fi alliance dubbed it Wi-Fi 6, and retroactively numbered the previous generations.
Right now, most routers you’ll find on the market are still Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), but some early adopters use Wi-Fi 6 tech.
If you love high speeds and want to be ready for any advances in internet network technology, there are plenty of super-fast Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems out there right now. Try the Asus ZenWiFi AX (XT8) on for size.
But if you’re a pragmatist, either Wi-Fi tech is capable of supporting the download speeds that internet service providers offer today—just be sure to check that the router you buy advertises that it supports the internet speeds you already pay for.
Number of Wi-Fi frequency bands
For traditional routers, two Wi-Fi frequency bands can do the job just fine. You’ve probably run into these when you’re trying to connect to your internet and see one Wi-Fi connection with the router’s typical name, and one with that name plus 5G.
The connection with no number in the name is a 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency, which can support speeds only up to 600 Mbps, but works great as a dedicated connection for your smart home devices.
The connection with the 5G in the name is a 5.0 GHz frequency, which supports speeds up to 1,300 Mbps on high performing Wi-Fi 5 routers. The 5.0 GHz connection works best for your phone, TV, and computer.
Tri-band routers take your connection one step further by adding a second 5.0 GHz frequency band.
In mesh systems, this second 5.0 GHz band (third total) plays an important role because it is dedicated solely to sending your internet data between the satellites and routers in your house without interfering with your current connection’s speed.
While dual-band routers can work just fine for slower internet plans, your tri-band router will be perfect for supporting gigabit mesh Wi-Fi. If you have gigabit speeds (1,000 Mbps) in your large home, make sure you go for a tri-band mesh system to get all the speeds you’re paying for.
Combine your knowledge: Wi-Fi performance names vs. actual speed
Routers often include performance names like AC1800—that’s a Wi-Fi 5 router which can theoretically, in a lab, reach 1,800 Mbps.
But since those theoretical speeds vary from the actual way your router will perform in your home, it’s tricky to nail down which Wi-Fi performance number will support the speeds you pay your internet service provider for.
A Wi-Fi 6, tri-band router with high theoretical speeds is best suited to support a gigabit-speed internet plan. It can use one of its two speedy 5.0 GHz bands specifically to send information from your satellite nodes to your router hub without slowing down your internet performance.
But if your internet plan doesn’t reach gigabit speeds, a superfast router won’t give you faster home Wi-Fi than you pay for. Check below for our recommended router performance benchmarks to match your internet plan.
*based on the fastest internet plan speed for best performance
To get the most of your internet speeds, reserve the smaller capacity 2.4 GHz for your smart home devices so you can use all the higher speeds from your 5.0 GHz frequency for your phones, tablets, TVs, and computers.
And, as we always harp on here at CableTV.com, an Ethernet cable is still the best way to get all the speeds you pay for. Being wired down is less elegant than home Wi-Fi, but if you need all your bandwidth for a big download, dig an Ethernet cable out of your closet.