We’re all depending on our home Wi-Fi networksthese days, and few things are more frustrating than having areas around the house where you just can’t connect. The good news is that you can solve the problem by upgrading your router to a that uses range-extending satellite devices to decimate dead zones.
A good mesh setup will automatically “route” your connection as you move through your home, steering you from band to band within a single, unified Wi-Fi network. It’ll also decide when to route your connection through a satellite device and when to send your signal straight to the main router. That’s better than what you’ll get from a, and it makes for close-to-seamless home internet, with more consistent speeds in each room.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems are a lot more expensive than, and typically more expensive than single-point, stand-alone wireless routers, too — but the cost has come down quite a bit in the last year or so, thanks to a new wave of options.
Chief among those are new systems from being bought by Amazon in 2019
, as well as new and offerings. Mesh systems like those regularly sold for as much as $400 or even $500 a few years ago, but now all of these manufacturers and others offer multipoint mesh router systems — including the main router and the satellite devices, or nodes — that cost less than $300, if not less than $200. I’ve even seen entry-level mesh systems selling for as little as $99, provided you can catch the right sale.
We’ve still got lots of routers and mesh systems we’d like to try out — including a Wi-Fi 6 technology
to promise better performance and faster speeds. Mesh routers that support , which means they can access a newly unlocked mass of bandwidth in the 6GHz band
, should start to arrive in early 2021. But with plenty of speed and coverage tests already under our belt, we’re ready to make a couple of recommendations for anyone who wants to upgrade now.
To help you choose the best mesh Wi-Fi network system to meet your needs, here’s a rundown of how your top options stack up against the competition, as well as our most up-to-date speed test results. Expect regular updates to this post in the coming months as more new Wi-Fi mesh routers come to market.
A few years ago, the Google Wifi became a breakout hit thanks to its easy setup and its ability to spread a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection throughout your home for all of your connected devices. Now, there’s the Nest Wifi, a second-gen follow-up that adds in faster top speeds and a better-looking design, plus Google Assistant smart speakers built into each range extender. The price is a little lower this time around, too — $269 for the two-piece setup above, with roughly the same area of Wi-Fi coverage as a three-piece, $300 Google Wifi setup from a few years back.
On average, the Nest Wifi notched the fastest top speeds that we saw from any Wi-Fi 5 mesh router (and faster speeds than the newest Linksys Velop system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 and costs more than twice as much). Plus, the two-piece setup offered enough signal strength to provide sufficient coverage at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home. It also aced our mesh tests, never once dropping my connection as I moved about my home taking speed tests. I never caught it routing my connection through the extender when connecting directly to the router was faster, either.
The lack of Wi-Fi 6 support might seem like a missed opportunity, but the Nest Wifi does include support for modern features like WPA3 security, device grouping and prioritization and 4×4 MU-MIMO connections that offer faster aggregate speeds for devices like the MacBook Pro that can use multiple Wi-Fi antennas at once. It’s also fully backward-compatible with previous-gen Google Wifi setups, which is a smart touch. All of it is easy to set up, easy to use and easy to rely on, making it the most well-rounded mesh router pick of the bunch, and the first one I’d recommend to just about anyone looking to upgrade their home network.
It was a little surprising that we didn’t wee a Wi-Fi 6 version of Nest Wifi here in 2020, but that might have been a savvy move on Google’s part — a mesh router will get the most out of Wi-Fi 6 if it adds in a second 5GHz band for dedicated traffic between the router and its satellites, and tri-band designs like that get expensive fast. Among dual-band mesh routers, I’d much rather have a top-of-the-line Wi-Fi 5 system than an entry level Wi-Fi 6 system. Even among new competition in 2020, Nest Wifi fits that bill.
Best for large homes
Eero Pro 6
Eero was an early pioneer of the mesh networking approach, and in 2019, it got scooped up by Amazon. Now, in 2020, we’ve got two new versions of the Eero mesh router: the Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6, both of which add in support for — you guessed it — Wi-Fi 6.
Each system is priced at a value, netting you a three-piece setup with two range-extending satellites for about as much as some competitors charge for a two-piece setup. That’s great if you live in a large home and you need your Wi-Fi network to cover a lot of ground — the additional extender will make a big, noticeable difference in your speeds when you’re connecting at range.
But between the two of them, I strongly prefer Eero Pro 6, which costs $599 for a three-pack. Unlike the regular Eero 6, which disappointed in my tests with poor band-steering, the Eero Pro 6 setup I tested worked like a charm, spreading fast, reliable speeds across my entire home. Plus, it features a tri-band design with two 5GHz bands, which is key for optimal mesh performance. It’s also a great pick for Alexa users thanks to a built-in Zigbee radio that lets you pair things like smart locks and smart lights with your voice assistant without need for any extra hub hardware.
$599 isn’t inexpensive by any stretch, but it’s about as good a price as you’ll find for a three-piece, tri-band mesh router with full support for Wi-Fi 6. That makes it a worthy and sensible upgrade for large homes.
At a retail price of $700 for a 2-pack, the newest, brawniest version of the Netgear Orbi is too expensive to recommend outright — but if you just want the fastest mesh router money can buy, look no further.
With full support for Wi-Fi 6 and a second 5GHz band that serves as a dedicated backhaul connection for the router and its satellites, the powerful system was downright impressive in our tests, with top speeds of nearly 900Mbps at close range in our lab. That’s one of the fastest numbers we’ve ever seen from a mesh router in that test, and it only fell to 666Mbps at a distance of 75 feet — which is still faster than we saw from Nest Wifi up close, just 5 feet away.
Things got even more impressive when we took the Orbi AX6000 home to test its performance in a real-world setting. With an incoming internet connection of 300Mbps serving as a speed limit, the system returned an average speed throughout the whole home of 289Mbps, including speeds at the farthest point from the router that were 95% as fast as when connecting up close. That’s an outstanding result — no other mesh router I’ve tested in my home comes close.
Again, the problem is the price: $700 is simply too expensive for most folks, especially given that you’ll need a connection of at least 500Mbps in order to notice much of a difference between this system and others we like that cost less than half as much.
Still, if the Orbi AX6000 ever goes on sale, I know I’ll be tempted. In the meantime, know that Netgear just quietly released a less expensive AX4200 version of the Orbi mesh system that costs $450. It’s still a tri-band router that supports Wi-Fi 6, but you don’t get the multigig WAN port that comes with the AX6000 model here. We’ll keep an eye on that one and update this space once we’ve tested it out.
It isn’t quite as fast as the Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi listed above, but the Editors’ Choice Award-winning Asus ZenWiFi AX came awfully close — and at $450 for a two-piece system, it’s a lot easier to afford.
In fact, the ZenWifi AX offers the same multigig WAN ports as the Orbi 6, the same dedicated backhaul band to help keep the system transmissions separate from your network traffic, the same ease of setup and steady mesh performance and the same strong performance at range. It even comes in your choice of white or black.
I also appreciated the depth of controls in the Asus app, which lets you manage your network and customize that backhaul as you see fit. The price of $450 is still a lot, but this system is strong enough to feel like a worthy upgrade pick for those willing to spend. And, if $450 is a bit too much for your budget, know that there’s a new, smaller version of this system called the Asus ZenWiFi AX Mini. It isn’t as high-powered, but it comes with three devices that all support Wi-Fi 6 for $300, which makes it pretty interesting. We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve had a chance to test it out for ourselves.
I did a double take the first time I saw the price tag for the slimmed down, dual-band version of the Netgear Orbi mesh router system. At $200 for a three-piece setup (or less, if you catch it on sale), it’s a clear value pick — and a dramatic turnaround from the original Netgear Orbi, which was way too expensive at $400 for a two-pack.
Netgear brought the cost down by sticking with Wi-Fi 5, ditching the built-in Alexa speaker that comes with the Orbi Voice and skipping the tri-band approach and the dedicated 5GHz backhaul band that other Orbi systems use to connect each device in the mesh. I wonder if Netgear missed an opportunity by not branding this system as “Orbi Lite.”
It all makes for a less robust mesh system than other Orbi setups, but I hardly noticed in my tests. Among the Wi-Fi 5 systems I’ve tested, the dual-band Netgear Orbi actually notched the fastest top speeds at close range, it kept up with the Nest and Eero in our real-world speed tests and it offered excellent signal strength in the large CNET Smart Home.
Netgear’s app isn’t as clean or intuitive as Nest’s or Eero’s, and the network didn’t seem quite as steady as those two as it steered me from band to band in my tests, but those are quibbles at this price. If you just want something affordable — perhaps to tide you over until you’re ready to make the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 — then the new Netgear Orbi definitely deserves your consideration.
As I said, we’ve already run a good number of speed tests with these systems. When we Netgear Orbi 6
, the and the performed well, too, each with top speeds comfortably north of 800Mbps at close range. No surprise there, as those all support Wi-Fi 6, the fastest version of Wi-Fi yet.
Behind those came the, which holds the top spot in this test among Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers. The budget-friendly, AC1200 version of the impressed us, too — it was even faster than the Nest at close range.
Just know that these top speed tests take place in our lab. We wire each router to a MacBook Pro ($824 at Back Market) that acts as a local server, then download data from it to another laptop on the router’s Wi-Fi network. That lets us see how fast each router can move data without the variables and limitations that come with downloading data from the cloud .
Top speed tests are one thing, but it’s important to also take a close look at how well these mesh routers perform when you add in the range extenders and pull data from the cloud, the way they’ll be used 99% of the time. So, I took each one home, set it up on my 300Mbps AT&T fiber network, and spent quite a bit of time running speed tests in order to find out.
It’s worth noting that, unlike our lab-based top speed tests, I run my at-home speed tests on a laptop with previous-gen Wi-Fi 5 hardware. I’ll likely make the jump to Wi-Fi 6 at some point, but for now, it’s a good opportunity to see whether these new Wi-Fi 6 routers can make any sort of noticeable difference in a Wi-Fi 5 home like mine.
And, as it turns out, they actually do. Specifically, I could see better performance at range, with speeds that didn’t dip as much in that master bedroom and back bathroom. With the top-performing Netgear Orbi AX6000 system, speeds hardly dipped at all. Connecting near the satellite in that master bedroom and back bathroom was almost as good as connecting near the router itself in the living room.
That likely stems from the fact that the router and the satellite are able to use Wi-Fi 6 to relay signals back and forth more efficiently, and at faster speeds. The system also dedicates an entire 5GHz band to the backhaul transmissions between the router and satellite, which also makes a big difference.
Just know that adding an extra band to the mix really brings the price up. The Asus models I tested each cost about $400 or so, while the Linksys Velop MX10, AmpliFi Alien, Arris Surfboard Max Pro and Netgear Orbi AX6000 systems each cost about $600 or $700 for a two-pack. Of them all, I like thethe best — that one finished my performance tests in a very close second behind the Netgear Orbi AX6000, and at $450, it costs about $250 less than that top-of-the-line system.
Eero Pro 6 is another strong option with a tri-band design and full support for Wi-Fi 6. That one costs $599 for a three-pack, which is still expensive, but less than just about any other system like it charges for a three-piece setup.
Most recently, I’ve started testing the Linksys Velop MX5, which costs $400 for a single, tri-band router that you can build upon with additional Velop satellite devices. I’ll have more data once we’re able to test it out as a mesh in a larger environment, but in my single router speed tests here at home, where I test out a mesh router with no additional satellite devices, it finished second in overall average download speeds. A promising start, for sure.
I also tested themesh WiFi system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 but doesn’t include an extra backhaul band. That means that your network traffic has to share bandwidth with the transmissions between the router and the satellite, but it also brings the cost way down. At $230 for a two-pack, it’s pretty tempting, but the performance was too shaky for me to recommend it.
It’s also worth remembering that your router can only pull data from the cloud average download speed in the US currently sitting around 100Mbps or so, there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to push a Wi-Fi 6 router to its full potential anytime soon — though you will see slightly higher speeds to . The list of devices like that is growing, including flagship smartphones such as the .. With the
Quality of coverage
Speed tests are all well and good, but a mesh router system is overkill in a 1,300-square-foot home like mine. So, for our next test, we headed to the CNET Smart Home, a four-bedroom, 5,800-square-foot house on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky. Our goal: to determine which system provided the strongest signals and Wi-Fi access across the entire place.
To do this, we mapped out the home’s upstairs and downstairs floor plans, then fed that data into NetSpot’s free software for measuring signal strength. We chose the most sensible spots for the routers and range extenders, along with dozens of specific points from which to measure each network’s signal strength, both inside the home and out.
Then, we set up each router we were testing and spent a day taking measurement after measurement after measurement. What resulted was a colorful set of nifty-looking heat maps showing us just how strong the signal is from room to room.
A couple of things about those heat maps. First, to keep things fair, we measured a two-piece setup for each system — one router and one extender. We may do additional tests with two extenders in play if the system includes one, as was the case with the 2019 Eero system we used, but for these heat maps, we wanted to give you a good comparative look at how these systems perform.
Second, know that we placed each router and extender in the exact same spot for each test — the software approximates their location, which is why it looks like they’re in slightly different places from map to map.
Finally, it’s worth reiterating that these maps show you the aggregate signal strength of each system throughout the house, and not their actual download speeds. That said, better signal strength means better wireless speeds. My partner-in-testing Steve Conaway summed it up thusly: “Yellow means you’re in heaven, green means good enough, and blue means WTF.”
The first big takeaway from our coverage tests is that the Netgear Orbi AC1200 did an impressive job of spreading a strong signal to the basement, even with both the router and the range extender located upstairs. That lines up with our speed test data, where the Netgear consistently kept up with the Nest and Eero at range. These coverage tests suggest that in a large-enough home, the Netgear might actually outperform those two systems outright.
Those three — the Nest, the 2019 Eero and the dual-band, AC1200 version of the Netgear Orbi — are our top Wi-Fi 5 systems. But what about the Wi-Fi 6 systems we tested?
Well, take a look for yourself. As you can see, there isn’t a huge, across-the-board improvement in signal strength — but the AX6000, Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi was a standout, registering especially strong signal strength near the router and extender. The latter might help explain why it was able to do so well in our tests, where wireless speeds near the extender were practically as fast as if I were connecting near the router itself.
That’s a better result than I’ve seen from any other system I’m tested, and it’s a big reason why a $700 two-piece Orbi 6 system is the only pick in that high-end class of expensive tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh setups that I’m currently comfortable recommending.
I’ve highlighted the other key takeaway in the adjacent GIF, which shows the coverage for the full, three-piece Eero setup. No huge surprise, but that three-piece setup provided noticeably better coverage than the two-piece Nest and Netgear setups, because we were able to add an additional range extender down in the basement.
Translation: If you’ve got a large home that’s 4,000 square feet or more, then you should prioritize getting a setup with more than one range extender. Last year’s Wi-Fi 5 version of Eero is a good value pick at $100 less than a three-piece Nest Wifi kit, which costs $349 — in fact, for Black Friday, you can get that three-piece Eero setup for just $174.
Even better? Check out my top overall pick for large-sized homes, the three-piecesetup. At $599, it’s definitely more of an upgrade pick, but it nets you a fancy triband design with full support for Wi-Fi 6.
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