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Friday, April 19, 2024

The Best Mesh Wi-Fi Routers

Mesh routers promise dependable Wi-Fi throughout your home, and most of them follow through, so it's not surprising to see them growing popular. Instead of a single router to wash your home in Wi-Fi connectivity, a mesh system combines the main router with one or more nodes that appear as a unified Wi-Fi network. Your devices will connect to the nearest option automatically to get the best speeds.

Most of us are stuck with placing a router in a less than optimal spot, depending on where the internet connection comes into the home. By placing a second or third node, you can extend Wi-Fi coverage where you need it. Whether you want to fix a dead spot, deliver a stronger signal into the back bedroom, or have great Wi-Fi in the backyard, a mesh system could be the answer. 

Before you dive into our line-up, it’s a good idea to consider whether a mesh system is right for you. Our guide on how to choose a router will help you answer that question and figure out what features you need. If you don't want to switch to a new system, we also have advice on how to upgrade your existing Wi-Fi and, as always, ways to secure it and protect your home network.

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Asus ZenWiFi AX XT8 (2-Pack)

Best Overall

The combination of speedy performance, impressive range, and lots of extra features earns the Asus ZenWiFi AX XT8 its top spot here. (It's a bit of a mouthful.) I tested the two-pack, and the straightforward setup through the mobile app took minutes, though you have to keep the node close by during setup and then move it. Available in black or white, these units are fairly large. But they're unobtrusive and look quite classy, with side vents to help dissipate heat. Each router offers three gigabit Ethernet ports, which is very generous, as well as a 2.5G LAN port and a USB 3.1 port.

At short, medium, or long range, the XT8 was consistently the fastest system I tested, and speeds never dropped. The inclusion of AiProtection Pro, which adds anti-malware and parental controls powered by Trend Micro, is very welcome, especially since it doesn’t require a subscription, unlike most competitors. I surprisingly like the parental controls too. You can set up and reuse profiles, schedule bedtimes, filter by age group, and review activity. The Quality of Service (QoS) option lets you prioritize activities like working from home, gaming, or streaming, and you can limit bandwidth for specific devices.

The mobile app has a wealth of options, and the web interface is even more in-depth. It’s easy to split bands or set up a guest network. I also found that the app recognized most devices correctly (sometimes it’s difficult to identify devices from the attributed hardware names in router apps). And there's support for AiMesh. which means you can easily add other Asus routers to expand your Wi-Fi system. The dedicated backhaul channel, the way the router speaks to its nodes and vice versa, is extremely fast, ensuring you get the full speed of your internet connection even from that node you placed near the backyard.

On the downside, my XT8 node initially refused to update its firmware, which took a couple of attempts to fix. I also had an issue with my Sonos speakers disappearing but managed to resolve it with a factory reset. Overall, using the XT8 has been a smooth experience. It’s easy enough for just about anyone to operate, but the depth of options will satisfy power users.

Asus ZenWiFi AX XT8 (2-Pack) costs $394 at Amazon and $450 from B&H

TP-Link Deco X20 AX1800 (3-Pack)

Best Value

This affordable package folds in parental controls and antivirus protection while delivering decent coverage and performance, making it ideal for an average family home. I tested the AX1800 three-pack and, and it was very easy to set 'em all up. The three routers are quite small and sport a cylinder design that blends in well. There are two gigabit Ethernet ports on each.

Coverage and speeds are OK, falling well short of the Asus XT8 but beating the Eero 6 (below). The app is straightforward, and it’s easy to set up a guest network. TP-Link’s Homecare is free, and it's what enables the antivirus protection powered by Trend Micro and robust parental controls. It’s a breeze to set up profiles with time limits and scheduled bedtimes, there are basic filters by age, and you can review activity on both the app and website.

The Quality of Service (QoS) feature lets you prioritize activities like gaming or streaming or set priority devices. Importantly, you can split 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands to show as two separate Wi-Fi networks. This is handy, as some smart home devices only operate on the former band. Similarly, there's a mixed-mode for WPA2 and WPA3 security. Only a few devices work with the newer WPA3 standard, and some routers force you to choose one or the other, which can lead to issues. This mode ensures all your gadgets are on a compatible standard.

The web interface is basic and doesn’t add much, so I preferred using the easy-to-use app. However, it’s a little slow to update, and settings are still limited. It didn’t recognize many devices and listed obscure hardware manufacturer names, making it tough to figure out which devices to add to my kid’s profiles. 

It wasn’t the speediest performer, but this system is fast and dependable enough for the average home. If you have a connection that's 500 Mbps or better, it might be worth upgrading to the Deco X60 AX3000 ($275)

TP-Link Deco X20 AX1800 (3-Pack) costs $220 at Amazon and $250 at B&H

Eero 6 (3-Pack)

Best for Simplicity

Amazon’s Eero 6 mesh system is one of the easiest to set up, offers fairly wide coverage, and delivers stable connectivity. It’s an elegant system with a main router and two small nodes that blend in on a table or shelf, though the compact design leaves no room for any ports (there are just two gigabit ports on the main router).

Although this was one of the slower systems I tested, particularly at longer distances, the speeds from the nodes were very similar to what I got from the main router. There were no drops, and it proved smart at sharing limited bandwidth. The mobile app is straightforward and gives you an overview of connected devices with the option to pause the internet and set up a guest network. I was also able to create schedules and set bedtimes. Unfortunately, content filtering and other parental controls, as well as advanced security, ad blocking, and activity insights all require an Eero Secure subscription at $3 per month or $30 for the year.

Eero is an Amazon company, and its routers come with Alexa support. Enable the Eero skill, and you can pause the internet with a voice command through your Echo device, which is very handy when your child won’t get off the computer to eat dinner. The Eero 6 router can also pull double duty as a ZigBee smart home hub in the same way Echo devices can, allowing you to directly connect some smart lighting, smart locks, and other ZigBee devices.

The simplicity will appeal to anyone who hates digging into settings, but there’s a cost. You won’t find any Quality of Service (QoS) features for prioritizing activities, and you can’t separate bands. If you like the sound of the Eero but want something a bit faster, then the Eero 6 Pro is an upgrade worth considering.

Eero 6 (3-pack) costs $279 at Amazon and Eero

Netgear Orbi AX4200 RBK753 (3-Pack)

Best for Large Homes

The enormous Netgear Orbi range has a strong reputation, but the company's many similar models make it tricky to choose the right one for you. The AX4200 RBK753 (I swear they're just mashing the keyboard at this point) mesh system I tested falls somewhere in the middle of the range and proved suitable for a large home. Setup was surprisingly tricky, taking more than an hour and several restarts to complete, as the app kept sticking on a loading screen. The router and nodes are large, but I like the curved design. I also appreciate the LED light turning off when things were working and displaying different colors to flag issues; every router should work this way. There are three gigabit Ethernet ports on the main router and two on each node.

Once up and running, the coverage, speeds, and stability proved to be worth the wait, and each node was able to deliver similar speeds as the main router. Speeds were a hair behind the Asus XT8, with some limitations at longer distances for individual units. But with two nodes, this system offers expansive coverage. The simple mobile app allows you to pause the internet entirely or by device or profile, see what devices are connected, check speed, analyze Wi-Fi (see the connection strength as you move around), set up a guest network, and a few more things. It’s very good at recognizing devices, which makes dividing them into profiles easier. You must access the web interface for advanced features.

The parental controls and Netgear Armor security powered by Bitdefender require a subscription, and it's pricey at $70 per year. This does include scanning for potential vulnerabilities on your network and the option to install Bitdefender on supported devices to prevent potential hacks. The parental controls are comprehensive and easy to configure. Unfortunately, I noticed Netgear Armor caused a slight lag when web browsing, and when new devices join the network it triggers an automatic scan and a notification on your phone, which gets old fast. These services start out free for 30 days, but you need to pay up afterward, which can be annoying. 

The mobile app is straightforward, but it often takes a few seconds to load. Settings are also limited; there’s no mixed mode for WPA2 and WPA3 security like on the TP-Link above, you can’t split bands, and there’s no option to prioritize traffic for specific activities or devices. This is also a pricey system with the need for a subscription on top if you want the parental controls and added security (though you don't need it). There is a free tier for parental controls, but it's severely limited.

Having said all that, the Orbi AX4200 does deliver fast, reliable Wi-Fi over a large distance, and I didn’t have a single connectivity issue or dropout while testing it.

Netgear Orbi AX4200 RBK753 (3-Pack) costs $432 at Amazon and $450 at Netgear

Vilo Mesh Router (3-Pack)

Best Budget Option

The Vilo Mesh Router is not a Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, and it’s not especially fast, but it is incredibly cheap: A three-pack costs just $60. Finished in curved white plastic, they are not the most stylish-looking devices, but they are relatively compact. Each Vilo unit is a router with three gigabit Ethernet ports. Setup is quick and easy with the mobile app.

This is a dual-band Wi-Fi 5 system, and it is by far the slowest system in this guide at any range, but that's reflected in the price. Three Vilo routers provide good coverage for an average home. If you have a 500 Mbps connection and you really work it, this is not the system for you. But if your connection is 100 Mbps or slower, and you are upgrading from an old router, or switching from the crappy router your ISP rents you, the Vilo could be the ideal way to dip your toe into mesh waters.

Free parental controls sweeten the deal, allowing you to schedule bedtimes and block specific websites. You can also create a guest network, review usage, and split bands if you need to. There's no antivirus option, and other settings are quite limited, but that's not a big surprise with a bare-bones system like this. 

The Vilo app is very clear, but it can be slow to update. I also found that devices would sometimes connect to a more distant node rather than the closest router. I also ran into the same issues with Sonos speakers disappearing as I did with the Asus XT8, but short of connecting the speakers by cable, I couldn't find a solution with the Vilo system.

Vilo Mesh Router (3-Pack) costs $60 at Vilo and $70 at Amazon

Things to Consider

Here are a few points to keep in mind when you are buying a new mesh Wi-Fi system.

  • Most of your devices likely don’t support Wi-Fi 6 yet, the latest Wi-Fi standard. (The best laptops and phones do, and it’s only growing more common.) Nearly all of the mesh routers here support this new standard, but they are backward compatible with older Wi-Fi standards. Our router shopping guide goes into more depth.
  • There are many ways to upgrade your Wi-Fi, but your internet speed is limited by your internet service provider (ISP). If your maximum speed is 100 Mbps, that’s the fastest possible connection that any router can provide.
  • The top speed that router manufacturers claim on the box is all of the bands added together, which is disingenuous, since you will only ever connect to one band at a time.
  • While it’s good to have an idea of a router’s coverage and speed, understand that your mileage may vary. The construction materials in your house, your neighbors’ proximity and Wi-Fi networks, the devices you have with wireless connectivity, and the position of routers and nodes in your home are just some of the factors that can impact the performance of your Wi-Fi.
  • Backhaul channels are reserved for one mesh router or node to talk to another. It’s common for mesh routers to have a fast backhaul channel, enabling the main router to provide speeds as close to your full internet speed as possible to any node. This is also important for local network speed and may impact the performance of network-attached storage (NAS) systems, remote console play, and how quickly you can copy a file from one wireless device on your network to another.
  • QoS, or quality of service, allows you to prioritize specific activities and their related apps. You can use it to ensure gaming, streaming, or video calls take precedence, which can be very handy in any household with limited bandwidth.
  • Ports and cables can help establish more stable connections. They may be essential if you have smart home hubs for lights and security cameras or network-attached storage that needs to plug into your main router. But they can also be useful on nodes to plug in streaming devices or game consoles and get the full benefit of any dedicated backhaul channel speeds your chosen system might offer.

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