It’s vital, now that so many of us are working from home at least some of the time, to have good Wi-Fi. During the day you’re joining Zoom calls; in the evening you’re trying to stay entertained with Netflix and perhaps some online gaming. And for most people, a conventional Wi-Fi router will be able to handle things perfectly well: we round up the best Wi-Fi routers for Mac users in a separate article.
But every home is different, and those with awkward walls or lots of rooms may find that a conventional router leaves them with dead spots where the signal can’t reach. In this article we look at one solution to this situation: a mesh networking system.
For our thoughts on the pros and cons of mesh, and whether mesh or another solution (such as a Wi-Fi extender or PowerLine adapter) is right for you, jump to our buying advice.
Linksys Velop AX4200 Tri-Band WiFi 6 – Best for HomeKit
I’m appalled by the fact that Linksys‘ web site uses configurate as a verb, and its model numbering system is pretty confusing too, but the Velop AX4200 provides strong Wi-Fi 6 performance and is also one of the few mesh systems that currently supports HomeKit. That makes it a good choice for Mac users that want to really tighten up security for all the devices on their home network.
Like the original Velop – which is still available as a good, low-cost option for ye olde Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac) – the Velop AX4200 can be bought on its own for smaller homes, or as either a 1-pack, 2-pack or 3-pack kit in order to create a wide-ranging mesh network for larger homes.
A single AX4200 can cover areas of up to 3000 sq.ft and costs around £229 – and, miraculously, it currently seems to be slightly cheaper on the Apple Store than on other online retailers – while a 2-pack (6000 sq.ft) costs £399 and a 3-pack (9000 sq.ft) weighs in at £495.
That’s not cheap, of course, but the Velop does provide strong performance, and some useful extra features along with its wide-ranging Wi-Fi coverage. Each router supports tri-band Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ax) with top speeds of 4.2Gbps, and has four Gigabit Ethernet ports – one for connecting to your existing broadband modem or router – with the remaining three available for devices such as a games console or Apple TV box that prefer a lag-free wired connection.
There’s also a USB 3.0 port that can be used to connect a hard drive or other USB storage device so that you can share photos, music and other files with other people on your home or office network. We like the Linksys app too, which includes options such as the ability to create a schedule for your kids’ Internet access, so they don’t stay up all night watching TikTok videos.
D-Link Covr AX1800 – Affordable Wi-Fi 6
Mesh systems and routers that use the latest Wi-Fi 6 technology (aka 802.11ax) are still fairly expensive, but D-Link’s Covr AX1800 is one of the more affordable Wi-Fi 6 options for people who have a new Mac, iPhone or iPad that uses Wi-Fi 6 (although, of course, new Macs and mobile devices will still work with older routers that use 802.11ac – aka Wi-Fi 5).
It might not be the fastest mesh system around, providing dual-band Wi-Fi 6 with a maximum speed of 1.8Gbps, but that should still be perfectly fine for streaming music and video, and a spot of casual gaming.
The 2-pack mesh system that we review here includes two identical, compact little routers, which can link together to cover an area of up to 4,500 sq.ft, so that should be enough to cover most medium size homes. This costs around £125, which is very competitive for Wi-Fi 6, but we have seen pricing vary quite a lot online too, so it’s worth shopping around for the best deals before buying. And, for larger homes, there’s also a 3-pack system that costs around £190, and can cover areas of up to 6,500 sq.ft.
Each router has two Ethernet ports on the back – one of which will be needed to connect to your existing broadband modem or router, so you still have one available to provide a wired connection for an Apple TV or other devices.
The Covr app for iOS and Android devices is a little basic – with limited parental controls, for example – so more experienced users might prefer a mesh system that provides additional features for fine-tuning your new home network. However, the app is quick and easy to use, so it’s a good option for people who haven’t set up a mesh network before.
Eero Pro 6 – Simple setup
We liked the original Eero and Eero Pro routers that we reviewed last year, and those two models – which use Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac) – are still available online at reduced prices if you’re looking for a low-cost and easy-to-use mesh system (you can read our review of that below).
The new Eero Pro 6 with Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ac) was announced earlier in 2021, but wasn’t widely available in the UK. However, Eero is now owned by Amazon – which obviously wanted to grab a slice of the rapidly growing mesh market – and the tri-band Eero Pro 6, and the less expensive dual-band Eero 6, are now available via Amazon in the UK.
The Eero Pro 6 isn’t the fastest mesh router around – or the cheapest either – simply offering tri-band Wi-Fi 6 running at 1Gbps, and covering an area of up to 2,000 sq.ft. A single router costs £183, but – rather oddly – there’s no 2-pack option, so you either have to buy two single routers for £366, or step up to £479 for a three-pack for larger homes of up to 6,000 sq.ft.
However, the Eero app is quick and easy to use, so it’s a good option for people who haven’t used a mesh system before. It also supports HomeKit, providing extra security for HomeKit-compatible devices such as lights and speakers. And, hedging its bets a bit, the Eero Pro 6 also supports a rival smart-home technology, called Zigbee, which isn’t as straightforward to use as HomeKit, but is widely used by many smart devices.
There’s also a less expensive option, in the form of the dual-band Eero 6, which runs at a more modest 500Mbps, but costs just £139 for a single router, £196 for one router and one extender to help increase the range, or £279 for a router and two extenders.
Netgear WiFi 6 Orbi AX4200 – High end design and performance
Netgear is a bit like the Apple of the networking world – their products are seriously expensive, but they’re always well designed and provide good performance. The Orbi AX4200 isn’t even Netgear’s top-of-the-range mesh system, but it still weighs in at a hefty £450 for the two-piece systems shown here. It supports tri-band Wi-Fi 6 running at 4.2Gbps, and can cover homes or offices of up to 4,000 sq.ft in size.
Like most mesh systems, it also provides a 3-pack for larger homes, but Netgear seems to think we all live in Silicon Valley mansions so it also offers a 4-pack as well, and even a 5-pack, which bumps the price up to a whopping £1,050 (mind you, if your home is 10,000 sq.ft in size then you can probably afford it).
Most mesh systems simply consist of two or three identical routers, but Netgear’s Orbi routers take a different approach. The first unit – that connects to your existing broadband modem or router – is simply known as the Orbi Router, while the other units are referred to as satellites.
The Orbi router has one dedicated Gigabit Ethernet port for your Internet connection (WAN), and two additional Ethernet ports for wired network connections (LAN), and it’s also possible to combine (aggregate) the WAN and LAN ports to provide twice the speed for super-fast fibre connections or office networks. The satellites also have two Ethernet ports for wired connections as well.
And, like Apple, Netgear never misses an opportunity to sell you some expensive add-ons too. The Orbi app is well designed and easy to use, but it’s pretty basic and Netgear takes every opportunity to sell additional subscriptions for its Armor security system (one month free, then £85 per year), and its forthcoming Smart Parental Control service (£7 per month, or £50 per year).
Eero Pro 6E – Affordable Wi-Fi 6E
It’s not often that we recommend Amazon products to Mac users but Eero – which is owned by Amazon – makes some of the most affordable mesh systems currently available, including the new Eero Pro 6E.
As the name suggests, the Pro 6E supports the latest Wi-Fi 6E standard – also now available on the new iPad Pro – which adds a new 6.0GHz frequency band to the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands used by Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-F 6. You can still use the Eero Pro with older devices that use those previous versions of Wi-Fi, but only newer devices like the new iPad Pro will be able to benefit from that high-speed 6.0GHz band.
You can actually buy a single Eero unit for $299/£349, and use it like a conventional router. Each Eero unit can cover areas of up to 2,000 sq.ft, so owners of larger homes can also buy a two-pack (4,000 sq.ft) for $499/£599, while the three-pack (6,000sq.ft) costs $699/£799. This is a mesh system that supports Wi-Fi 6E, but if you don’t need state-of-the-art Wi-Fi 6E then the original Eero Pro 6 (above) is available to provide a highly affordable Wi-Fi 6 upgrade.
The Pro 6E is rated as ‘AX5400’ which means that it supports a top-speed of 5.4Gbps. But, as always, that’s the maximum theoretical speed and Eero is at least up-front in admitting that in practice you’ll probably get wi-fi speeds closer to 1.6Gbps, along with 1Gbps for wired connections when using the two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the back of each Eero unit. Just remember that one of those ports will be needed to connect one of the Eero units to your existing broadband router.
The Eero app is quick and easy to use, so it’s a good option for new users who may not have used a mesh network system before. But, like many routers these days, it does try to sell you an additional subscription, with the Eero Plus service providing additional security features and parental controls for $9.99/£9.99 per month or $99.99/£99.99 annually.
Asus ZenWiFi XT9 – Best for larger homes
Asus is well-known as a manufacturer of Windows PCs, but it also makes a wide range of networking products, including its popular ZenWiFi mesh systems. The ZenWiFi XT9 is one of its latest high-end models, offering seriously fast Wi-Fi 6 performance for larger homes.
Available in black or white, the XT9 mesh routers are smartly designed, with a slimline, upright casing that will fit easily onto any convenient shelf or table when you’re setting it up. The XT9 provides tri-band Wi-Fi 6 with a top speed of 7.8Gbps, so it’s more than fast enough for most home broadband services, and can handle 4K streaming video and gaming with no trouble at all. You can buy a single XT9 on its own, and just use it as a conventional router, for $269.99/£234.99. A single router will cover small and medium homes up to 2850 sq.ft in size, but you can also opt for a full mesh system with two XT9 routers, covering 5700sq.ft and costing $499.99/£459.99.
As well as the speedy Wi-Fi, the XT9 also provides high-speed wired connections too. The main Ethernet (WAN) port that connects to your existing broadband router supports 2.5Gbps speeds for the latest cable and fibre connections. The routers also include three Gigabit Ethernet (LAN) ports to provide wired connections for devices such as a laptop or Apple TV. The Asus app can be a bit heavy on jargon at times, but it guides you through the set-up process without too much trouble. We were also pleased to find that Asus includes good parental controls and – unlike many of its rivals – provides content filters that block unsuitable material without requiring an additional monthly subscription.
Buying advice: Is mesh right for you?
If you live in a larger house – two or more floors, several bedrooms, maybe a nice big garden too – then you may find that the Wi-Fi signal from a conventional router can’t cover the whole area. Smaller homes can have trouble with Wi-Fi too, especially in older buildings with thick concrete or brick walls. Even the ceiling that separates the ground from the first floor can cause problems.
These issues can lead to Wi-Fi ‘dead spots’ in the more peripheral areas of your home: an upper bedroom, perhaps, or out in the garden. In these places you’ll find the Wi-Fi signal is too weak to be reliable, and what’s the point of working from home if you can’t chill out in the garden while you’re checking your emails?
How to fix your dead zone
There are various simple fixes to improve your Wi-Fi signal, but the chances are that you’ll end up looking for a hardware solution.
The cheapest option to fix dead spots is to buy a Wi-Fi extender which, as the name implies, extends the reach of your router. An extender is the ideal solution if you’ve just got one room where the signal’s a bit weak.
We’re also big fans of PowerLine adapters, which provide a wired alternative to Wi-Fi by sending your internet connection along your mains electrical wiring to the power socket in any room in your home. If you ask me, that’s the next best thing to magic.
Wi-Fi extenders and PowerLine adapters are a great option for fixing dodgy Wi-Fi in a single room, but it’s more of a band-aid to patch up the occasional hole in your network than anything else. If you’ve got several rooms and areas that struggle to get a decent signal, it’s worth upgrading your home Wi-Fi setup with a completely new ‘mesh’ networking system instead.
How many routers do you need?
Rather than having a single router that simply fires off a Wi-Fi signal in all directions and then just hopes for the best, a mesh network consists of two or three routers that you can place in different rooms or locations around your home in order to specifically focus on those tricky dead spots. For this reason, mesh networks often claim to provide ‘whole home Wi-Fi’.
The first router is often referred to as the ‘primary’ router, and this needs to be connected to the existing broadband router or modem that provides your internet connection. The additional routers – generally referred to as ‘secondary’ routers, or sometimes as ‘satellites’ – are then placed in other rooms or locations throughout your home, perhaps with one on the ground floor, and another in an upstairs hallway in order to cover the entire upper floor.
As a rough guideline, smaller homes that are up to 1500sq ft in size will probably be fine with a single, conventional router. Medium-size homes up to 2500sq ft will need a two-piece mesh system (one primary router and one satellite), while larger homes up to 4500sq ft will probably need a three-piece system (one primary router and two satellites).
Most mesh systems also allow you to buy additional satellites too, so if you live in a mega-mansion out in the countryside – or you want to provide Wi-Fi for a large set of offices – then you can buy and integrate as many as you need.
How to Setup a mesh network
Each mesh router transmits its own Wi-Fi signal, and all those signals then ‘mesh’ together to create a more extensive mesh network with much greater range and reliability than the signal transmitted by a single conventional router.
The downside, of course, is that buying a mesh system that includes two or three routers is more expensive than buying a single conventional router. However, a mesh network may be the only practical solution for many homes, especially if you have lots of mobile devices, like laptops, tablets and smartphones that tend to wander around a lot of the time.
Having multiple mesh routers in your home also helps to improve Wi-Fi performance when lots of people are online all at the same time, with different family members using Netflix, Zoom, games consoles and other devices.
Mesh networks are also a little more complicated to set up than conventional routers, so it’s important that the apps provided by the manufacturers are well designed and easy to use. Features such as parental controls for younger children also vary a lot from one manufacturer to another, so it’s always important to think about the features you need from an app before making your choice.
Like conventional routers, the current-generation of mesh routers are mostly based on the 802.11ac version of Wi-Fi, but we are starting to see new mesh systems based on the latest 802.11ax technology – also known as Wi-Fi 6. But while Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh systems do provide impressive speeds, the emphasis with mesh systems is actually on range and reliability, so Wi-Fi 6 isn’t essential for most homes at the moment.
Even so, the latest iPhones, newest iPads and new Macs models support Wi-Fi 6, so it’s worth considering Wi-Fi 6 if you think you’re going to be buying a few new Macs or iOS devices in the coming months.