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

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Mesh Wi-Fi systems are popular among those that value network reliability above all else. Mesh systems use multiple routers spaced around your home to seamlessly blanket every room in Wi-Fi coverage. Mesh routers are often smaller and sleeker than standard routers since they'll need to be placed in more rooms around the house. For many people, the simplicity of a mesh kit in a box is worth a higher price, compared to piecing one together yourself.

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 any of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers rather than just looking at mesh systems. Standalone routers have also mostly caught up when it comes to simple app controls without getting rid of the more advanced features we've come to expect.

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 mostly unattended for years — at least until it's time to upgrade to a newer wireless standard with better speeds.

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 to many of us, a weekly router reboot has become the norm. Even worse, maybe you aren't particularly savvy regarding network issues or gear or have 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 locked-down tech.

Wi-Fi 6 has been with us for a few years now but it's still the most sensible solution for many. 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 AXE16000, are also now available from several manufacturers. This evolution of Wi-Fi 6 adds support for 6GHz Wi-Fi bands though coverage has proven to fall short of the bar set by 5GHz once you move to another room. 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 without any overlap. While 160MHz is available at 5GHz, it's much more limited, leading most people to stick with 80MHz even with supported equipment.

Even so, some newer Wi-Fi 6 routers have adopted new UNII-4 rules which allow for more versatile 160MHz coverage at 5GHz. The ASUS GT-AX11000 Pro, for example, uses this extra spectrum to deliver dual 160MHz bands without dipping into the much more fickle DFS bands.

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 your devices can connect to them without registering a new Wi-Fi hotspot.

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.

Router vs. mesh networking: Mesh networking with a standard router

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If you want the flexibility of a standard router but need the improved coverage of a mesh, you have a few options. TP-Link's OneMesh extenders, for example, can act as a mesh when paired with a compatible TP-Link Archer router. 

Some routers can even be configured into a mesh with software. This is the case with many ASUS, Linksys, and even Synology routers. While these routers won't be configured as a mesh out of the box, setup is pretty simple once you get into the setup app or web page. AiMesh is perhaps the most developed mesh ecosystem thanks to compatibility being included on a wide range of ASUS, ROG, and ZenWiFi routers. ASUS makes it possible to pair compact mesh-focused 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. Still, there's a lot to love about the simplicity of a system like eero 6+.

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 HomeShield 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 a Wi-Fi 6E mesh like the quad-band Netgear Orbi RBKE963, 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 serious competitive gamer, you should stay as far away from Wi-fi as possible, generally speaking. The fact of the matter is that a decent Ethernet cable will be faster and more reliable than Wi-Fi in most situations. A long Ethernet isn't even that expensive with 50-foot options, like this Mediabridge Cat 6 cable, often costing less than $15. There are also pricy Wi-Fi 6E solutions like the Arris Surfboard Thruster that work great and don't require drilling a single hole.

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, running a wire across the house simply isn't realistic for many people. If you must game on a mesh, a system like the ROG Rapture GT6 uses the best Wi-Fi 6 tech, including UNII-4 spectrum, to deliver the best gaming experience possible on Wi-Fi. It also has software that keeps gaming traffic first in line to minimize lag spikes. Finally, I've personally gamed on a wide range of mesh systems and have found that outside of high-intensity FPS games, I don't notice much of a difference on modern WI-Fi 6 systems.

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

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 Valorant without lag or when you want to work while the kids are watching Disney+.

Mesh routers are small, don't look like leftover robot parts, and everything you need to connect to your modem is in the box. 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.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.