For many of us, the bog-standard, default router supplied by our Internet Service Provider (ISP) at the time we signed up for broadband was once enough.
However, in the past decade, the widespread adoption of mobile technology including smartphones and tablets, Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smart lighting and security cameras, and the popularity of streaming services — Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Spotify, to name a few — are now causing our old routers to creak under the strain.
Each device we connect to our router demands bandwidth. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the need for speed, capacity, and reliability in the home router space now we are faced with the added burdens of working from home and teaching our kids remotely — not to mention using the Internet for entertainment rather than venturing out of doors.
To keep our homes and remote work setups running smoothly now is the time to consider what type of router you need, for now, and in the future.
When you search for different options online, a plethora of features are available: Wi-Fi 5 / 6, mesh, voice-assistant supported, Ethernet and wired, mobile and LTE support, and more. While many features could be superfluous to your purposes, there are two main types of product to consider: a traditional router, or mesh network.
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What’s the difference?
Traditional Wi-Fi routers:
Mesh networking is a relatively new entry into the consumer market, so you would be forgiven to think it would automatically be ‘better’ than a standard router. However, a mesh network is an overkill for some.
A standard router acts as a central hub for Internet connectivity. Traffic and requests from devices granted permission to connect to the router — usually through a password — are funneled through one access point.
- Price: Standard routers are generally more affordable than mesh network products. While you still may expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a premium router, there are many options out there that are budget-friendly and both quick and stable enough to keep your home office running effectively without further input.
- Plug and play: In my experience, setting up a standard router is less of a hassle than a mesh network. For something that ‘just works,’ a typical router might be the best option. Set it up, make sure updates are automatically applied, and forget about it.
- Speed and wires: Many routers today, such as the Netgear Nighthawk and Asus ROG, are designed with heavy bandwidth and streaming requirements in mind — and have the technology inbuilt to facilitate it. Gamers and live streamers, for example, should generally stick with wired Ethernet connections that may perform better with traditional routers, instead of wireless-first products.
- Separating devices: You can set up guest networks on most modern routers, but if you also want to keep all of your IoT devices on a separate network in the interests of security, most routers will allow you to do this without much hassle.
- Coverage issues: As Internet access is distributed through a single point, this can mean that areas far away from your router will have slow or spotty connections that drop. However, range extenders can help remove this barrier and can still end up being cheaper than investing in a mesh network.
- Overload: Unless extenders or channel separation features are used, too many connections may result in overloading, bottlenecks, lag, and drops.
- Tweaking: If you want to tweak the more advanced settings on a router, this can often require annoying visits to a platform via desktop, rather than seamless mobile app connectivity we have learned to enjoy for many of our modern services.
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What about Wi-Fi 6?
It is worth mentioning Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. This is the next standard in wireless technologies and is designed to increase wireless device performance in comparison to 802.11ac. Some modern routers support this standard, and so could be considered when future-proofing your home office.
MU-MIMO (Multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output), too, should be kept in mind. Some routers use this technology to improve the speed of data transfer when multiple devices are connected simultaneously — but not all.
While traditional routers are singular, centralized access points, mesh networking devices are decentralized. Instead of a device connecting to a single gateway to the Internet, mesh networks are created from multiple nodes that all provide web connectivity. For example, you could have a central ‘hub’ in the kitchen and then have satellite nodes in the home office, kitchen, or bedroom.
When you are trying to access the web while in the kitchen, you would automatically connect to the hub, whereas you would jump on the node while you’re in your home office, and so on.
- Improved coverage: The main benefit of a mesh network is extended coverage. In larger properties with a lot of square feet, investing in a mesh setup will remove annoyances such as coverage blackspots.
- A boost in reliability: As your device will connect to the nearest satellite node rather than a central point of access, this helps ensure that no matter where you are on a property, you are less likely to experience drops in connectivity.
- Additional controls: Once a mesh network is active, many vendors will allow users to control their router through a mobile app. This could include keeping an eye on network traffic, rebooting, or even turning off the Internet entirely — perhaps an appealing prospect for those with children.
- Initial expense: In general, mesh devices require a more expensive outlay to setup. While a device’s hub and one satellite might not be too costly, if you want to take full advantage of what a mesh network can provide, you may need to buy more — and the cash required to do so can add up.
- More than one: Setting up a mesh network means you will need more than one power outlet. For each satellite you add, you will need to ensure there is a power supply and that you’re happy to have them dotted around your property, as attractively designed as they can be.
- Speed: Mesh means coverage over speed. In some cases, mesh networks — especially at entry levels — will not provide the same speeds you can expect from typical routers.
What is best for my home office?
You need to decide whether or not the outlay for a full mesh network is worth it. In larger homes with dead spots, mesh networking can provide a way to immediately improve signal strength and coverage.
However, it can be expensive to overhaul your existing router setup, and going for a full mesh may simply be described as overkill unless you consistently have multiple users and devices competing for bandwidth.
There are some mesh network systems out there, such as Google WiFi, Nest WiFi, and eero which are relatively cheap to set up — as long as you don’t need too many satellites.
Also: Best Wi-Fi router in 2021 | Working from home 101: Every remote worker’s guide to the essential tools for telecommuting
Before changing your setup, you should also consider your ISP package. If you’re subscribed to a low-speed offering, new equipment is not going to necessarily help. Instead, package upgrades could be a better option.
If you are a sole user and need a stable, powerful connection — such as for resource-hungry work applications or gaming — a traditional router may be all you need. Wired should be quicker than wireless, and so investment in a simple Ethernet cable, easily picked up for $10 to $15, could be enough.
Wi-Fi range extenders, too, could be considered as an alternative to mesh if you just need to boost coverage in some areas, and will likely be less expensive than purchasing individual mesh nodes. Some vendors also offer mesh ‘bolt-ons’ such as Asus’ AiMesh, which can connect up existing routers to create a mesh-like coverage network without ripping everything out and starting again.
However, mesh networking is here to stay and at a time when many of us are now in the home rather than traditional home offices, a mesh setup could be a future-proof investment. It’s not suitable for you if you rely on wired connectivity and speed, but if you need to make sure dead zones and drops do not impact your working day — and you don’t mind the potential expense — mesh systems are a worthwhile upgrade to your home equipment.
- Amazon brings Eero mesh Wi-Fi to ISPs
- Qualcomm revs reference design for next-gen home mesh network platform
- Best mesh Wi-Fi system for the office or home in 2021
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