Router vs. mesh networking: What's best for your home Wi-Fi network?

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It's easy to understand why mesh Wi-Fi has become so popular, with more and more of our daily lives relying on the internet connection at home. Mesh systems allow you to seamlessly blanket even a large home with Wi-Fi coverage, and setup is easier than ever with preconfigured systems that get the hard work out of the way before you even open the box. For most systems, you only need a smartphone with an app to get going. The only catch is the price. Mesh systems can be quite pricey, and really, many of us don't need them.

While mesh systems have gotten fast enough to keep up with the fastest internet connections, standard routers have also gotten a lot better, and some of them have even incorporated mesh capabilities into the software. Many people will get plenty of coverage even without those mesh abilities by upgrading to one of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers rather than moving to a mesh. Faster speeds and improved range are more than buzzwords when it comes to buying the latest Wi-Fi router, and you'll often find more advanced tools than a simplified mesh system offers.

That leads to the obvious question — should you upgrade your home network to a mesh system? Like most things, the answer isn't a simple yes or no. However, there are a couple of things you should consider before dusting off your credit card.

Router vs. mesh networking: Do you need to upgrade your Wi-Fi network?

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This is the first thing you should ask yourself. Ideally, a Wi-Fi network is something you should set up once and never have to think about it until it's time to replace it. When properly planned, a Wi-Fi router or mesh client device should run unattended for several years — at least until it's time to upgrade to a newer wireless standard for increased speeds and bandwidth.

Ideally, a Wi-Fi network is something you should set up once and then never have to think about it until it's time to replace it.

Of course, that's often not the case, and many of us know our router needs that weekly reboot or things start misbehaving. Even worse, maybe you aren't particularly savvy regarding network issues or gear or having to call your internet service provider for help. Waiting for a technician to arrive sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. is never fun. And neither is paying a monthly rental fee for the privilege of using your ISP's out-of-date tech.

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest wireless networking technology to work its way onto the front of router boxes, and for many people, it's a great option. Also called 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 6 is the follow-up to 802.11ac, and it brings with it some speed and coverage improvements. Adopting this new tech was a bit slow to start, but most new phones and computers to come out in the past year come with Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 is also backward compatible, so if you're ready for a new router, your older Wi-Fi devices will work like a charm.

Wi-Fi 6E routers, like the incredible ASUS ROG Rapture AXE11000, are also now available from several manufacturers. This evolution of Wi-Fi 6 adds support for 6GHz Wi-Fi bands though power levels haven't been fully unlocked, so coverage isn't as good as 5GHz for the time being. Still, Wi-Fi 6E-enabled mesh networks can use this 6GHz spectrum as a high-speed mesh link such as the TP-Link Deco XE75.

The 6GHz space, however, does have much more open space than you can find at 5GHz and even allows for up to seven 160MHz channels. While 160MHz is available at 5GHz, it's much more limited, leading most people to stick with 80MHz even with supported equipment. Still, a router with 160MHz is another way to get a little more speed from your network.

Router vs. mesh networking: Are you just trying to fix a dead spot?

This is a pretty common issue. For example, you have great Wi-Fi in the kitchen or living room, but the connection quality drops when you go downstairs or into the bedroom. If everything is working well in parts of your home that are close to the router or that aren't blocked by things not Wi-Fi friendly — the walls of your bathroom are notorious Wi-Fi signal blockers because of the special drywall used and all the copper pipes inside them — you could be the perfect candidate for a wireless extender instead of setting up a whole new network.

A Wi-Fi extender is a cheap way to fix a single dead spot in your Wi-Fi coverage, but there are drawbacks.

Wireless extenders do precisely what their name implies — they take your existing Wi-Fi signal and repeat the signal to extend its range. Usually, they're very easy to set up using a network cable or an online settings page, Wi-Fi extenders are also compact and only need a power connection. Luckily, some newer extenders will use the same Wi-Fi name and password as your primary router so you don't need to connect to a new Wi-Fi spot.

Some cheaper and older Wi-Fi extenders create a completely new Wi-Fi hotspot so you would have to switch your connection manually.

Another quirk of using a network extender is that it often cuts the available bandwidth in half. This means your Wi-Fi network can only run at 50% speed whenever you're connected through the extender (not your internet speeds, which are usually much slower than your actual Wi-Fi network). This is due to these extenders being dual-band and needing to share the 5GHz band between the source and your devices. Many mesh systems can use a dedicated band to connect the nodes, so they don't have this issue at all.

These drawbacks aside, a simple Wi-Fi extender is a quick and cheap way to fix a single dead spot and a great idea if the rest of your Wi-Fi network is working well.

Mesh networking with a standard router

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It's also worth mentioning that some mesh extenders will use the same Wi-Fi name as the main router with improved access point switching. TP-Link's OneMesh, for example, works as a mesh. You will need to make sure your router is compatible, or they will just act as normal extenders.

Some routers can even be configured into a mesh with software. This is the case with the AiMesh on ASUS routers and Velop on Linksys routers. While these routers won't be configured as a mesh out of the box, setup is pretty simple once you get into your router's browser interface. AiMesh is perhaps the most developed mesh ecosystem thanks to including the software on a wide range of routers and ZenWiFi mesh kits. ASUS makes it possible to pair compact ZenWiFi nodes with a high-end gaming router.

This is an excellent option for someone who wants as much flexibility as possible and is comfortable piecing together a practical set of routers but lacks the simplicity and elegance of a boxed mesh setup.

Router vs. mesh networking: When to choose a mesh network

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If you've decided you need to get rid of the gear, you have and set up a new network, or are setting things up in a new place, the choice between a mesh network and a traditional linear router-based network comes down to one thing — money.

A standard Wi-Fi router will still work for many homes and, in general, will be cheaper than a mesh system with comparable speeds. One of the biggest contributors to a mesh system's higher price is simply that they have multiple nodes each with a power supply, CPU, and PCB. Mesh systems tend to be delivered more as a service with automatic software updates, monitoring, and even add-on security services like TP-Link HomeCare or Netgear Armor.

If you need anything more robust than a simple router solution, mesh networking makes a lot of sense.

Meshes have been growing in popularity, and manufacturers have been quick to add more options. Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems with incredible speeds are now widely available. Whether you want to start with a mesh router under $100 like an eero or go all-in on crazy Wi-Fi 6E speeds with a router like the Linksys Atlas Max 6E, there are a ton of mesh options available.

I would only hesitate to use a wireless mesh network in favor of a linear router-based setup if you have equipment that requires a physical wired network connection. Even then, a simple switch could be added to a mesh network. If you have those sorts of networking needs, you're probably not looking for basic networking advice, and you understand exactly what we're talking about here.

Gaming on a mesh

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If you're a competitive gamer, you should stay as far away from Wi-fi as possible generally. Modern routers are faster and more reliable than ever, but they still won't beat the latency and consistency possible with a simple Ethernet cable. To add to that, buying a long Ethernet cable is reasonably cheap if you're willing to run it. Certainly cheaper than buying a new router.

When it comes to a gaming connection, you should try to minimize the number of hops your connection has to make. That means that if you can hook straight into your router or the mesh router that's hooked directly to your modem, you should. No matter how great the wireless cards are in your gaming PC or console, a physical wire is better. Something as simple as a microwave oven turning on between your console and router can cause a lag spike when you're connected via Wi-Fi.

That being said, a casual gamer may never notice any issues on a strong mesh connection and if Wi-Fi is the only option, a mesh may actually be more consistent than a weak connection to a router. Just be sure to check for device prioritization settings when setting up your system to make sure your traffic is first in line if you have a lot of devices.

Router vs. mesh networking: For the rest of us, mesh Wi-Fi is exactly what we're looking for

Two of the most significant drawbacks to wireless mesh networking are no longer an issue when using a consumer mesh setup like Nest Wifi — needing an advanced networking education to set things up and maintain them and a pocket full of money.

Consumer mesh products tackle the biggest problems with home networking — administration and cost.

A wireless mesh network is designed to handle high traffic volumes in a big area with no downtime due to equipment failures. New nodes are easy to add using the same app, and all traffic shaping and route handling are automatic, so you'll have no need for QoS scheduling when you want to play Call of Duty without lag or when you want to work while the kids are watching Netflix.

Mesh routers are small, don't look like leftover robot parts, and everything you need to connect to your modem is in the package. And anytime you need to expand your network, adding a station only makes the rest of the network better by offering another node to handle traffic from all points.

The easy administration and relatively low cost make adding a mesh network to your home (or place of business, where it can be even more important) something any of us can do. So whether you're upgrading your existing equipment or building a network in your new house, there are very few reasons not to make the switch.

When Samuel is not writing about networking or 5G at Android Central, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.