Since they first hit the scene a few years back, mesh Wi-Fi systems have changed the look and feel of home networking. In place of an unsightly router that you would normally tuck away in a closet or somewhere else out of sight, mesh systems typically use smaller components, called nodes, that are designed to be more attractive because they’re meant to be displayed in your house. But the real attraction of mesh systems for most home users is that they usually come with free mobile apps that make it easy to install and manage the network using a phone or tablet. Since all of the nodes use a single SSID and password, you can roam from room to room without having to log in to an extended network.
Mesh systems are popular because they’re all about ease of use, with their chief selling points being quick and simple installation as well as seamless home Wi-Fi coverage. But even with their added ease of use, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind when selecting and installing your mesh network. Read on to find out how to set up your new mesh system to blanket your home with glorious, strong Wi-Fi.
What Is a Mesh Wi-Fi System?
Typically purchased in packs of two or three components, Wi-Fi mesh systems usually consist of one device designated as the main router that connects directly to your modem. Then there’ll usually be one or two satellite modules, or nodes, that you place throughout your house, each generally requiring only an electrical hook-up. If this initial set of two or three mesh devices isn’t enough to blanket your home with a strong Wi-Fi signal, you can purchase more nodes and they’ll simply integrate seamlessly into the mesh.
The “mesh” refers to the wireless network these nodes create among themselves, not only passing wireless traffic between them but also keeping signal strength smooth and strong throughout the network. When configured, all these devices will be part of a single wireless network sharing the same SSID and password. This means, you won’t have to switch networks and passwords as you move from room to room like you do with an older, though admittedly usually cheaper, wireless range extender.
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.
How Much Coverage Do You Need?
Since more coverage usually means more nodes, before you go out and buy a mesh Wi-Fi system, you’ll need to figure out how much wireless coverage you’ll require. To start, figure out the square footage of your home and any outdoor areas that you want to cover, and don’t forget to factor in the distance between floors for multilevel homes.
Coverage varies from system to system, so make sure you check the specs before plunking down your hard-earned cash, and keep in mind that all homes are different. Structures such as walls, doorways, and flooring will affect wireless signal transmissions, as will interference from other wireless devices such as microwave ovens and portable phone systems. As mentioned, almost all mesh systems are expandable, so if you find that your system doesn’t quite reach certain areas in your home, don’t worry: You can easily add another node after the initial installation.
Most Wi-Fi mesh systems will require you to download a mobile app and have a working internet connection for setup. That sounds like an oxymoron since you’re usually configuring the Wi-Fi network in order to get an internet connection, but remember that your cable modem will have already been set up by your internet service provider (ISP). Your mobile device’s cellular network also counts.
Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll have to create an account and an administrator password. Be sure to remember the password to avoid having to reset your system later on. It’s also a good idea (and recommended by most companies) to unplug the modem or router that you’ll be connecting your mesh system to so that it can reset itself and assign a valid IP address to the mesh router node. To begin setup, open the app and follow the instructions for connecting the mesh router to your modem and adding satellite nodes.
One of the most important things to consider when setting up your mesh network is where to position each node for optimal Wi-Fi coverage so you no longer have any dead zones in your home. The main router node, which provides internet connectivity to all of the other satellite nodes, should be installed in close proximity to your cable modem or existing router as it will be connected to it using a LAN cable. The router node should also be placed out in the open (not in a closet or cabinet) and within reach of an AC wall outlet.
The app will search for the node and let you know when it’s discovered, at which point the node will acquire an IP address. Before moving on to the satellite node placement, you’ll have to give your new network a name and password that will be used by all connecting clients. It’s worth noting that most Wi-Fi mesh systems use automatic band-steering and will create a single SSID for both radio bands, but some will let you split the bands, in which case you’ll have to create separate names for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.
Satellite node placement varies with each system: Depending on their specs, some nodes provide more square feet of coverage than others. A good rule of thumb is to place the second node halfway between the router and the dead zone as you would with a range extender, but limit the distance to no more than two rooms, or about 30 feet. If you’re using more than one satellite, follow the two-room rule. Place each node close to a power outlet, out in the open and off the floor on a bookcase or table top. The same goes for multistory homes: Try to limit the distance between upstairs and downstairs satellites to no more than 30 feet or so. Thankfully, many systems offer an in-app signal test or a physical LED on each node that will let you know if you’re too far away from the main node or the previously installed node. If this is the case, reposition the node and perform another signal test. Check out how PC Labs tests wireless routers for a more in-depth explanation of both throughput and signal strength testing.
When positioning your nodes, you should also consider how you’ll connect to things like gaming consoles, TVs, and other entertainment components. These devices are almost always better off using a wired connection as it offers faster speeds without interference from other wireless devices. Most mesh nodes are equipped with at least one LAN port that lets you use a wired connection, so try to place nodes within cable distance (6 to 10 feet) of any devices that would benefit from a wired LAN connection.
Wired or Wireless Backhaul?
Backhaul refers to the process of transmitting data from satellite nodes back to the main router and the internet. By default, mesh Wi-Fi systems are configured for wireless backhaul, which is where the mesh design comes in. Some systems use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands for backhaul, intelligently managing data over both, while others use a dedicated 5GHz band for this purpose.
However, some systems can also use Ethernet cabling for wired backhaul, which can offer optimal performance and tighter security. If your home is wired for Ethernet connectivity, you can probably improve overall network performance by connecting your nodes via LAN cable to provide wired backhaul to the main router.
Parental Controls and Device Prioritization
Once your Wi-Fi mesh system is installed, it’s time to take advantage of its features. Because they’re purpose-built for home users, many of these systems offer parental controls that let you create profiles for each family member, limit access to certain websites, and automatically turn off network access during specific times of the day such as bedtime and dinner time. Almost all Wi-Fi systems give you a pause button in the app that lets you disable internet access with the touch of a button, and some systems offer age-appropriate parental controls, too. For example, a child preset will deny access to social media, gambling, and adult-oriented websites, while a teen preset will be slightly less restrictive, and an adult preset will offer unlimited access. You can apply these controls to a family member’s profile and then to every device used by that person, and you can create custom controls to suit your family’s needs.
If you have any online gamers in the house, or use your mesh system to stream video, use the QoS (Quality of Service) settings to allocate bandwidth where it’s most needed. These settings typically let you drag and drop devices into High, Medium, and Low priority boxes so that gaming consoles and devices that stream video can be given the lion’s share of bandwidth without having to compete with other devices on the network. The more user-friendly systems have QoS presets for things like gaming, streaming, surfing, and chatting and will let you prioritize both devices and applications.
Another new feature that might become popular as part of Wi-Fi mesh systems in 2021 is direct access to smart home devices. This comes as a new feature in Amazon’s Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6 Wi-Fi mesh systems announced in late 2020. These devices are not only significantly cheaper than many of their competitors, they also have a Zigbee smart home device hub built into the main router, which means things like smart light bulbs, appliances, locks, and more will be able to connect directly to your wireless network without the need for an additional hub device.
Once your mesh Wi-Fi system is set up and running smoothly, it’s a good idea to make periodic checks on network usage, visited websites, and client lists. Most systems worth their salt will send a push notification when a new client joins the network, allowing you to deal with unwanted clients immediately. Many systems offer embedded anti-malware utilities that protect against viruses and other malicious content, so make sure to keep an eye on network attack logs and quarantine any client devices that have been flagged as infected. Finally, make sure your firmware is up to date, as the latest versions often boost performance, add new features, and provide security fixes.
If you live in a smaller house or apartment, check out our roundup of the best wireless range extenders, which can also quickly and easily spread your Wi-Fi to additional areas of your home, albeit with a few more configuration hurdles than a typical mesh system. Or if you’re simply ready to upgrade your traditional Wi-Fi router, we’ve rounded up the top-rated performers. And once you have your system set up, you can test your internet speed with Ookla Speedtest.
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