What is a whole-home mesh Wi-Fi network, and do you need one?

With more people working, studying, gaming, and streaming from home today, it’s important to have fast, reliable Wi-Fi coverage at home. Regardless of the size of your home, a whole-home mesh Wi-Fi system is one of the best solutions to blanket your house with Wi-Fi.

Unlike a standard router, which broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal over a finite area, mesh networks are able to spread the signal to cover a large home or office. Also known as a whole-home Wi-Fi system, mesh networks came into popularity in 2014 with the launch of the original Eero. Though the idea of a mesh network has been around long before that and was widely used in office and public networks, its entry into the home in the mid-2010s radically changed Wi-Fi for consumers.

Linksys velop is a home mesh network that supports apple's homekit standard.

A mesh network is a single Wi-Fi network that consists of a main router, which connects directly to your home router, and a series of satellite units, called nodes, that are placed throughout the house. These nodes are designed to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal to devices — like smart TVs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices — that are placed throughout the home. Rather than connecting directly to the main router with a weaker signal from farther away, these internet-connected devices can instead connect to the node, which then is wirelessly connected to the router for the optimal signal or reception.

Smaller homes can be outfitted with a router and a single node, and larger homes can add additional nodes to scale up to cover larger areas. The beauty of mesh networks is that all the nodes and the router in the same system broadcast the same SSID and share the same password, and you can jump between nodes as you traverse your home without having to log in to a new network or enter a different password.

It’s as seamless as driving down the freeway with your smartphone and hopping between one cell phone tower to the next on your cellular network of choice. Your streaming, video call, or game session won’t be interrupted as you migrate between nodes.

Wi-fi in the home.
Image credit: Linksys

Depending on the model you get and the setup you choose — having more nodes can stretch your Wi-Fi signal farther away from the base station — mesh networks can blanket homes as large as 6,000 or 9,000 square feet, and systems designed for long-range can take that up to as wide as a 14,000-square-foot space.

For gamers, a mesh network can also provide convenient access to a wired Ethernet port even if the router is in a separate room. Mesh networks from manufacturers like Netgear, Linksys, TP-Link, and Asus have nodes that come with a number of Ethernet ports. This way, you can connect your gaming rig using an Ethernet cable to the node in your game room, and then the node will still be able to wirelessly connect to the base station, or router, for internet access. Even though this isn’t as ideal as connecting directly to the router via a cable, having a wired connection to the node can help reduce latency and improve connection reliability during action-packed games.

Why do I need a mesh network?

Amazon eero mesh wifi router extender 1 2 2

The simplest and most basic reason why you’d need a mesh network is to cover a large home with a reliable signal, but there are also other reasons why a mesh network will be beneficial, even if you have a smaller living space.

Depending on the construction of your home, objects like walls and shelves, especially if they’re constructed from concrete, metal, or brick, can be big obstacles for Wi-Fi signals to penetrate. If you have a traditional one-piece router at one end of the house, the signal can get degraded traveling through these dense materials to the other end of the home. With a mesh system, if you place a satellite node in the middle, then devices from the far end of the home can connect to a stronger Wi-Fi signal that’s broadcasted from the node, with the node connected wirelessly to the base router unit for internet access.

You can essentially think of a mesh network like a connected Sonos speaker system — you get your music from one source, and then all the speakers can play the same track in unison.

These nodes sound like Wi-Fi repeaters or range extenders. What’s the difference?

If you think that nodes in a whole-home mesh Wi-Fi network work like range extenders, you’re not incorrect. Both types of devices work to extend the range of Wi-Fi into the furthest stretches of your home. The main difference is that range extenders and repeaters are often designed to connect to the main router wirelessly, but when they re-broadcast the Wi-Fi connection to your tablet or laptop, they do so on a separate network.

This means that if you’re in the garage downstairs connected to a repeater, you’d be on one SSID and one password, and moving to the bedroom upstairs would require you to switch to the main router with its own SSID and password. This setup can be cumbersome for homes, especially if you’re moving around a lot.

Are mesh networks secure?

The dashboard to your vilo mesh network.

Most home mesh networks come with the latest security protocols. With an easy-to-use companion app, you can protect your home network by setting up secondary or guest networks if you need to. This way, visitors who need Wi-Fi access can access just the guest network, leaving your home traffic safely protected on its own network. More advanced mesh systems, in particular those designed for office use, can also have a dedicated network solely for connecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices to safeguard against IoT attacks and hacking.

Those with children accessing the network can also use parental controls. Depending on the mesh network system you choose, you can choose to limit internet traffic from select devices at specified times or block devices from the network altogether.

If you are concerned about security, most home mesh systems also come with optional subscription service upgrades that add even more control to your network. These packages could include antivirus software, optional ad-blocking filters, VPN access, and more.

Can I add a node to my existing router?

Whole home wifi intelligent mesh system wall plug in 02 1

It all depends on the router you have. The short answer is you can, especially if you have purchased a premium router within the last year or two. You’ll want to check with your router manufacturer to see if adding a node or connecting two of the same routers together to form a mesh network is possible. Manufacturers like Netgear and Asus have built node networking capabilities into some of their most premium gaming routers.

With these routers, you can create your mesh networking by either adding a satellite unit or a second router and connecting these devices to your main router through the app. You’ll have to contact the router manufacturer to see if this feature is supported by your router. If it isn’t, some mesh networks, like the Vilo Mesh Network, start at just $60 for whole-home coverage, making it an affordable solution to get started in the mesh networking space if you want to get your feet wet. More advanced systems can cost up to $1,500, like Netgear’s quad-band Orbi unit.

Can I connect my smart home to my router?

Amazon's ring alarm pro behind table.

Absolutely. Any device that connects to Wi-Fi will work with a mesh network. Some mesh systems even add smart home support, and devices that support standards like Zigbee, Z-Wave, Matter, or Thread will be able to connect to these devices. Samsung’s mesh system, for example, works with the company’s SmartThings platform and can connect with Z-Wave and Zigbee devices, while Amazon’s newest Ring Alarm Pro base station for the company’s home security system comes with a built-in Eero 6 Wi-Fi router.

Ultimately, even if you opt for a mesh system that doesn’t support various smart home standards, you’ll likely be able to connect a bridge to the router that will extend that support. For example, you can use Lutron and Hue bridges attached to an Eero 6 base unit to be able to control Lutron smart light switches and Hue lightbulbs.

More advanced mesh routers will also come with a dedicated network designed for IoT traffic. Netgear’s tri-band Orbi Pro Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, for example, can broadcast up to four SSIDs, allowing you to create separate work, family, guest, and smart device networks if you choose. The pricey system is designed for small businesses that need more robust control and security for traffic that goes through their network.

How easy is it to set up, manage, or maintain my network?

Eero 6 wi fi mesh router review 7 of 10

The good news is that a mesh network is in itself like a smart device — it can connect to the internet and it can be updated. Most mesh systems can perform an automatic update when you’re not using the network. These updates can include fixes for problems as well as security patches to keep your network secure.

If you’ve ever set up a basic home router, you’ll know how intimidating it could be for beginners. Most routers come with a browser-based interface that can be accessed by navigating to 192.168.1.1, and then all the controls happen through the browser. With a modern mesh network, those days are gone. Instead, you’ll download the companion app to your smartphone, and you’ll be greeted with a friendly user interface to set up your network, change your password, create a guest network, adjust your security preferences, and even set up the network to block traffic from specified devices.

The interface for the app will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it’s far less confusing and much more welcoming than the old days of the browser-based approach.

How fast are mesh networks?

Eero 6 wi-fi mesh router back ports
John Velasco /

That all depends on the network you choose and what standards and technologies your manufacturer chooses to implement. In general, choosing a Wi-Fi 6 system can give you speeds up to 9.6Gbps, but that will depend on your manufacturer.

By choosing a mesh network with Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E on board, you’ll benefit from less congestion, greater access to bandwidth, and improved range and speeds. These networks support Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA, which improves throughput and allows multiple devices to share the same channel simultaneously. Wi-Fi 6E networks can even allow devices to use the less congested 6GHz band, which can help improve your connection speed and performance.

When won’t you need a mesh router?

The nighthawk raxe300 joints the raxe500 in netgear's wi-fi 6e gaming lineup.

There are plenty of reasons to upgrade to a mesh system, especially if you’re already looking at upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router. However, there may be a few reasons why a mesh system won’t be the best solution for you.

First, if you live in a smaller apartment or home and have yet to experience Wi-Fi coverage or reliability issues, a mesh system is likely not needed. Most systems cover approximately 5,000 square feet, and that may be overkill for you if you live in a studio or smaller apartment.

Cost may be a factor as well when it comes to mesh adoption. While there are less expensive systems that rely on Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, newer Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E systems start at a few hundred dollars. A more robust multi-unit setup can cost more than $1,000.

Though some mesh systems, like Netgear’s latest quad-band Orbi RBKE96, can reach speeds up to 10.8Gbps, most home users are likely more limited by their home broadband plan than what their routers can deliver. Given that a majority of American homes still don’t have gigabit fiber access, anything in excess of 1Gbps may be wasteful. Offices with more robust broadband speeds are likely the beneficiaries of modern mesh network speed capabilities.

Which mesh network should you choose?

If you’re ready to upgrade your home Wi-Fi to a whole-home mesh network this year, we have plenty of recommendations! Be sure to check our guide for some of the best mesh networks available. If you’re looking at Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E routers, we also have some suggestions as well.

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