Testing reveals the best performers and the best values
If, like me, you've run into a literal brick wall in trying to get a usable Wi-Fi signal into all parts of your home, you know that what a nightmare that can be. Whether it's because your house is large and/or sprawling, or that it's an older home made with denser wall materials (such as plaster), conventional workarounds often simply don't work. Relocating a router winds up as a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul; Wi-Fi extenders steal bandwidth, slowing things down; and powerline networking turns into powerline not-working in lots of homes, especially those with older wiring.
That's why the new generation of mesh Wi-Fi systems seems like a dream come true. Wi-Fi systems, also called mesh systems, are just what they sound like -- a "system" of satellite units that spread a high-speed Wi-Fi signal everywhere you want one. They can be a little -- or very -- pricey, but the payoff is that they are easy to set up and easy to use, even in situations where other solutions come up short. Not all Wi-Fi systems are created equal, of course, but the top ones typically get strong to rave reviews at many mainstream and enthusiast technology sites, such PCMag, CNET, Wirecutter, Reviewed, Tom's Guide, SmallNetBuilder and more.
Instead of a single access point (AP) as found with a conventional router, a Wi-Fi system consists of multiple access points connected in a mesh set up. In addition to providing a signal for devices in its range, each AP acts as a node in a net -- sort of like a large fishing net -- passing on the signal it gets from the previous node to the next one, and so on, also via Wi-Fi. The key difference between well-regarded, albeit more costly mesh networks and cheaper ones is that the better systems have a dedicated extra radio just for passing signals from one node to the next. Cheaper systems lack that extra radio, instead using the same two radios (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) that they use for broadcasting Wi-Fi to your devices, so speed is cut by about half. That's fine for most uses and users, but if you need or want every bit of broadband you are paying for everywhere in your house, you'll want to aim higher.
There are several Wi-Fi systems now on the market, and nearly all of them get kudos in at least some quarters. However, we see a consensus of opinion forming around the Netgear Orbi RBK50 (Est. $315) as the best option. It's an Editors' choice selection at PCMag, the recommended Wi-Fi system for most people at Wirecutter, and the "best mesh router that we tested" at Tom's Guide. User feedback is ample and strong -- 4.6 stars based on more than 2,500 reviews at Best Buy, for example. This a tri-radio unit, with a dedicated band just for passing on Wi-Fi from one unit to the next. "Thanks to its use of a dedicated backhaul band, throughput on the Orbi satellite module was nearly identical to that on the router," notes PCMag's John R. Delaney.
While performance is why you'll want to opt for the Orbi, it is also well-featured, including MU-MIMO (multi-user, multi-input, multi output) and beamforming technology to improve range. This configuration includes the parent (router) node and one satellite and is rated to cover up to 5,000 square feet. If you need more coverage, you can add an Orbi Satellite (Est. $220); each will cover around an additional 2,500 square feet. Systems that will cover a smaller area and packages with additional satellites are also available.
If cost is a concern, and you don't need to eke out every Mb of throughput from your Wi-Fi system, Google WiFi (Est. $130 and up) could make for an interesting alternative. Doug Ngo at CNET actually likes Google's mesh networking solution better than the Orbi, though only by the tiniest of margins. Still, that's enough for him to declare that "Google Wifi is the best Wi-Fi system on the market." Other reviewers give the system good feedback as well, though their praise is a little more restrained. PCMag gives it a rating of Excellent for being a "super-simple way to get Wi-Fi to every corner of your home." Users agree, and it earns a 4.5 star rating at Amazon.com based on more than 3,800 reviews.
This is a two-radio system, so performance, while good, isn't in the same class as the Orbi overall. As long as you don't mind Google's ubiquitous presence, set up and use is easy. However, either an Android or iOS mobile device is required for set up as there's no PC interface, and you'll need a Google account (free) as the system stays connected to Google at all times. At the end of the day, though, value is the big selling point. At $130 per unit, it sets a low bar for those who want to see if setting up a Wi-Fi mesh network will work for them. Each unit covers up to 1,500 feet. You can also opt for a three-node bundle, the Google Wifi System (Est. $300), which offers a bit of savings compared to the price of individual units.