Finally, Home WiFi That Doesn’t Suck

A new generation of networking gear finally banishes dead spots

Mesh networks can prevent infuriatingly inconsistent WiFi quality at home.

Mesh networks can prevent infuriatingly inconsistent WiFi quality at home. Joel Beukelman

Unreliable internet service, WiFi router configurations, range extenders and dead spots—I’ve spent countless hours of my life researching solutions, experimenting with gear and generally succumbing to frustration when it comes to home networking.

Now, a new generation of hardware has arrived, using a different strategy to provide connectivity throughout the house. I’ve recently adopted one such system, from a company called Eero, and so far I’m pleased with the results. Though expensive, it appears to have solved several of the problems that have vexed me for years. Now more such systems are hitting the market, with names like Luma and Orbi. Even Google has one.

This new generation differs from traditional routers that are attached to, or in some cases built into, the box from the cable or phone company that provides your Internet access. In a small house or apartment, these routers may work just fine. But in a larger home, or one with lots of walls and other impediments, the signal can become attenuated, creating spots in the house with slow, spotty, or nonexistent service. Trying to troubleshoot these problems can lead you into a complicated and confusing world of extenders and protocols better left to corporate IT departments.

The new systems, by contrast, are smaller, simpler, and designed to work in sets to blanket your home with swift, stable service through what’s called a mesh network. In my case, Eero replaced a collection of Apple devices I’d been using throughout my good-sized California house: a recent-model Airport Extreme router plus two Airport Express stations and a Time Capsule.

Despite the array of gadgets, we still suffered with dismal performance in some rooms. My Comcast cable Internet service, about 170 megabits per second (Mbps) coming into the router in the garage, customarily dwindled to less than 10 Mbps in the family room upstairs—too slow to stream a movie without endless buffering. If too many of the 32 WiFi devices in the house were in use, the speed could dip below 1 Mbps, which is too slow to accomplish anything other than rage at the Internet gods.

I started with a $499 three-pack of Eeros. Setup was easy. Following the directions in its free smartphone app, I plugged one unit directly into my cable modem in the garage, where it functions like the router it replaced. I then set a name and password for the new network, opting to keep the same ones I had used with the previous Apple gear so I wouldn’t have to re-enable those 32 WiFi devices.

Still following the app’s instructions, I placed the other two Eeros upstairs, on either side of the house, with one of them just a room away from the problem-plagued family room. Using Ookla’s invaluable Speedtest app, I conducted a room-by-room tour of the house to compare download times pre- and post-Eero.

The results were striking. One room increased from 10 Mbps to 42. Another went from 12 to 64. Most significant, the problem-plagued family room increased from five to 25, allowing us to stream video through an Apple TV without a problem. After trying out different locations for the upstairs Eeros, I eventually added one more unit ($199) and placed it in the family room itself.

I now consistently get download speeds there above 35 Mbps, depending on the time of day and the load on the rest of the network. That’s plenty of speed, and I’m still experimenting with various locations to make things even faster. Just as pleasing as the speed has been the stability: There are no more wide variations and mysterious outages.

Eero also knows some neat tricks. You can use the app to turn off its indicator light, for example. And it integrates with Amazon’s Echoconnected speaker so that if, for instance, you misplace your phone in the house, you can tell Alexa to have Eero locate it.

The biggest problem I had wasn’t with Eero itself, but rather with my Sonos multi-room music system, which uses its own mesh network. The Sonos controller app would only sporadically connect to the speakers, and music would sometimes stop in mid-stream. With the help of Sonos’s tech support team, I modified the music network and moved it to another channel; things seem OK now.

So, what’s Eero’s biggest downside? That’s easy: the price tag. Even if you buy a multi-pack, it’s a good deal more expensive than traditional gear; you can now buy a number of 802.11 ac routers on Amazon for less than $100. In my case, Eero was more expensive even than the Apple gear it replaced—it’s not often that Apple is the budget solution for anything.

On the other hand, as more competitors adopt the mesh-network technology, prices have already begun to come down. The new Google WiFi system, which arrived in stores last month, costs only $129 per unit, or $299 for a set of three.

If you’re happy with your current WiFi setup, there’s no reason to change. If you’re not, mesh networks in general, and Eero in particular, offer an elegant solution for speed, stability, and simplicity.

Rich Jaroslovsky is an Observer technology columnist and vice president of SmartNews Inc. Reach him at richj@observer.com or @RichJaro on Twitter.

Finally, Home WiFi That Doesn’t Suck