With the explosion in popularity of smart home devices and countless streaming media services like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify, whole-house Wi-Fi coverage has become a must. Many of the latest wireless routers can provide strong coverage to most rooms of a typical medium-size house, but larger homes and dwellings with dense walls, multiple floors, metal and concrete substructures, and other structural impediments may require additional components to bring Wi-Fi to areas that the router can’t reach. Range extenders do a good job of filling in dead zones, but typically provide only half the bandwidth that you get from your main router. Access points offer more bandwidth than range extenders, but require a wired connection to the main router. And both solutions typically create a new network SSID that you have to log in to as you move from one area of the house to another.
If all this sounds too complicated, consider installing a Wi-Fi system instead.
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What Is a Mesh Wi-Fi System?
Designed to blanket your home with wireless coverage, Wi-Fi systems are a hybrid of sorts, made up of several networking components. There’s a main router that connects directly to your modem, and a series of satellite modules, or nodes, that you place throughout your house. They are all part of a single wireless network, and share the same SSID and password. Unlike range extenders, which communicate with the router via the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio bands, most Wi-Fi system satellites use mesh technology to talk to the router and to each other. Each node serves as a hop point for other nodes in the system. This helps the nodes farthest from the router to deliver a strong Wi-Fi signal as they are talking to other nodes and not relying on one-to-one communications with the router. Not all Wi-Fi systems use mesh networking, however; some use a dedicated radio band to communicate with the router and with each other. As with mesh, the dedicated band frees up the standard-use 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for client use.
Easy Setup and App-Based Network Management
Setting up and maintaining a traditional wireless home network can be daunting, even if you’re tech-savvy. Wi-Fi systems, on the other hand, are geared toward users with little or no technical knowledge and can be installed in minutes. They typically come with a user-friendly mobile app that walks you through the installation process with easy-to-follow illustrated instructions. The app tells you where to place each node for maximum coverage and chooses the best Wi-Fi channel and radio band for optimal throughput performance, so you can maintain a strong wireless connection as you move about the house. Wi-Fi systems are easy to expand (with no current limit on the number of nodes you can add) and manage using your smartphone, allowing you to disable Wi-Fi access to specific devices with the press of a button and give certain devices network priority without having to log in to a complicated network console.
Design and Features
Wi-Fi systems look nothing like a traditional setup with a router and range extender. The router and nodes use internal antennas and are almost always tastefully designed so you can place them out in the open rather than in a closet or under a desk. (Don’t expect to find a lot of flashing LED indicators—these systems are designed to blend in with your home’s décor.) They usually have at least one LAN port for connecting to devices like TVs and gaming consoles, but USB connectivity is a rare feature at this point.
See How We Test Wireless Routers
Wi-Fi systems are multi-band networking devices that operate on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands and use 802.11ac wireless technology. Some models offer support for Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, which streams data to multiple compatible wireless clients simultaneously rather than sequentially. Most Wi-Fi systems use band steering to automatically select the least-crowded radio band for the best performance and offer easy-to-use parental controls, guest networking, and device prioritization options. While designed for ease of use, they usually let you configure port forwarding and wireless security settings but lack the advanced networking management options such as individual band control, firewall settings, and wireless transmission rate settings that you get with a traditional router. Nor can you use third-party WRT firmware to customize the system for enhanced performance and network monitoring.
Wireless Mesh System vs. Range Extenders: Which Is a Better Solution for Whole-Home Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi systems range in price from around $130 for a single-node system to as high as $500 for a three-piece system like one of our Editors’ Choice picks, the Linksys Velop, which, in the 3-Pack iteration we tested, covers 6,000 square feet. In most cases, they’ll cost you more than you’d pay for a similarly powered router and range extender solution. But remember: Wi-Fi systems are all about ease of use. They’re a snap to set up and manage, offer whole-house coverage via a series of attractive nodes, and they provide seamless room-to-room roaming over a single network. If you want total control over your network and require the best possible throughput performance and connectivity options, stick with a traditional router solution. If you don’t want to deal with things like assigning radio bands and logging in to different networks as you move throughout your home, however, a Wi-Fi system makes sense.
For more about the differences between these two technologies, check out our explainer, Wi-Fi Range Extender vs. Mesh Network: What’s the Difference?
Click through below to the full reviews of the best Wi-Fi systems we’ve tested. Need some more help getting all your devices up and running their fastest? Check out our tips for troubleshooting your Internet connection. And once you’ve picked out the best product for your home, read our primer on how to set up a mesh Wi-Fi system.
Pros: Easy to install. Solid throughput in testing. Dedicated backhaul band. Built-in malware and virus protection. Robust parental controls. Controls numerous smart home devices. Alexa and IFTTT compatible.
Cons: Expensive. Lacks Z-Wave support. Cannot separate radio bands.
Bottom Line: The TP-Link Deco M9 Plus Mesh Wi-Fi System is an excellent performer that offers a robust feature set, including the ability to serve as a home automation hub that controls numerous smart home devices.
Pros: Speedy throughput performance. Excellent management interface. Lots of I/O ports. Easy to install.
Cons: Expensive. Lacks anti-malware tools.
Bottom Line: The Netgear XRM570 Nighthawk Pro Gaming WiFi Router and Mesh WiFi System pairs a powerful gaming router with a tri-band range extender to deliver excellent overall performance.
Pros: Very good 2.4GHz and 5GHz throughput in testing. Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) enabled. Simple installation. Strong parental controls. Built-in malware protection.
Cons: Middling MU-MIMO range performance. Only one LAN port on extender node. Additional nodes not yet available.
Bottom Line: The Amped Wireless Ally Plus uses two components to deliver solid Wi-Fi performance as far as 5,000 feet. It’s a snap to install and use and offers comprehensive parental controls.
Pros: Solid throughput performance in testing. Stylish design. Easy to install. Built-in Google Assistant voice technology.
Cons: Lacks dedicated backhaul band. No anti-malware tools. Advanced settings require a separate app. No USB ports.
Bottom Line: The Google Nest Wifi is a user-friendly 802.11ac mesh system that uses sleek components to deliver Wi-Fi to all corners of your home.
Pros: Good throughput performance in testing. Easy to install. MU-MIMO enabled. Excellent parental controls. Built-in anti-malware protection. User-friendly app.
Bottom Line: The Gryphon Smart WiFi Mesh System is a solid performer that offers extensive parental controls and comes with built-in anti-malware protection and an intuitive mobile app.
Pros: Easy to install. Solid performance. Lots of basic and advanced settings. Robust parental controls. Includes malware protection. Dedicated backhaul band.
Cons: Only one LAN port. Uninspired design.
Bottom Line: The Synology MR2200ac is a tri-band router that can be used as a single unit, or paired with other nodes to form a mesh network. It’s a solid performer and offers a host of advanced management and customization features.
Pros: Solid throughput performance. Robust parental controls. Built-in virus and malware protection. Easy to install. Well-designed mobile app.
Cons: No web interface. Does not support dedicated band control.
Bottom Line: The TP-Link Deco M5 Wi-Fi System is a stylishly designed Wi-Fi system that delivers solid throughput performance and supports MU-MIMO streaming. It’s also a breeze to install and its feature set is robust.
Pros: Easy to install. Impressive performance. Four Gigabit Ethernet ports. USB connectivity.
Cons: Expensive. Bulky components. Lacks anti-malware tools. Short on parental controls.
Bottom Line: The Linksys Velop AX MX10 is a two-piece Wi-Fi 6 mesh system designed to bring speedy wireless connectivity to all corners of your home.
Pros: Easy to install. Doubles as a home automation hub. Supports MU-MIMO data streaming. Strong close-range throughput performance.
Cons: Most settings require switching to the Plume app. No QoS settings or anti-malware tools. Middling MU-MIMO performance.
Bottom Line: The Samsung SmartThings WiFi is a combination mesh system and home automation hub that will bring speedy close-range Wi-Fi to all corners of your home.
Pros: Easy to install. Good close-range throughput. Built-in parental controls. User-friendly mobile app.
Cons: Lacks malware protection. Middling long-range performance.
Bottom Line: The Trendnet TEW-830MDR2K is a tri-band mesh system that is simple to install and manage and offers solid close-range performance, but it isn’t a standout among Wi-Fi mesh kits.