Home WiFi – What’s Mesh and do I need it??

When it comes to home wifi, there are a few different options.  With words such as access points and extenders and mesh networks being thrown around, it can get pretty confusing.  I’m going to take a few minutes to explain the terminology in simple terms and shed some light on what is the best method for putting in your own home.

First off, the two types of setups.  The standard method, with all different combinations of router(s), access points, extenders, and even some wired components and the mesh network method.  The standard method has been the norm for a long time and is probably the hardest to explain and the most difficult to set up due to all the different pieces that can be used to make it work.  I’m going to get into some more detail about how it works and then I will explain the mesh network option.

Basic Components

Ok, so most internet comes through either Coax (a.k.a. TV Cable) or through the phone line when it enters the home.  Both require you to have a modem to convert it wired network cable (a.k.a ethernet cable or cat 5/6 cable).  From there you can do what you want with it. You can run it to a router and run more lines from it to your desktops and game consoles, you can run a line to a wifi router so you can connect to it with your phones and tablets, or you could even just plug a single device straight into the modem and skip the router all together, but most people have a lot more than one computer that they want to connect these days. There’s also fiber internet but it’s usually already converted to ethernet by the time it’s ran into your house. So that’s what the modem does, converts the signal to ethernet, now the router.  A router assigns addresses. Think of it like a little neighborhood. Every new house that gets added to the neighborhood has to get an address so it can send & receive mail. Every house needs it’s own unique address or the mail would get all mixed up with the other houses.  That’s what a router does.  Every time a new device connects, it gives it a unique address.  Every so often it checks if the device is still using that address and, if not, then it recycles the address to be used again.  It’s basically like the old timey operator that you saw on tv working a patch panel and connecting people’s calls. Most router have a few ports in the back for connecting some devices via cable and the majority also have a built in wifi antenna for connecting devices wirelessly as well.  There’s also a lot of info when getting into the actual wifi signals.  I’m not going to delve too deep into all that but I want to briefly touch on two things.  One, there are several different wifi standards. There’s a,b,g,n, and a/c.  In short, we started with “a” back in 1997 and then they found a way to make it faster and more efficient and that was called “b” and so-on and so-fourth and now we are at a/c although “n” is still widely used as well as other for different reasons like backhaul channels but you don’t need to know about all that. Two, there are 2 frequencies out there, 2.4GHZ and 5GHZ.  The first one can reach further but isn’t as fast, and the 5GHZ has a shorter range but is much faster. 

Standard Method

We already know that both methods require a modem (unless your using fiber then you might not) so that should already be there and unless you’re only hooking up on computer and it’s wired, you’re going to need a router.  Depending on the router, there is a huge difference in how much range you are going to get out of it, this usually correlates with the price of the router.  The more expensive routers have more antennas in them and operate on more frequencies to give you a better signal as your walk away from it.  One well-placed router with the right technology could, in fact, cover your whole house if your do it right but you’re reading this blog so I’m assuming you need more.  With the standard method people usually add extenders or access points to their setup.  An access point, or AP as we will refer to it from now on, acts like a signal repeater.  It’s like playing baseball where you are trying to throw the ball from center field to home plate and it’s too far away so you use the cut-off man.  The AP is placed as far away from the main wifi router as possible but still inside the range of what the main router can send/recieve signals.  It then re-emits the signal so it can reach farther throughout the house.  An extender basically does the same thing.  It’s usually a bit smaller in size and a lot of them plug directly in to the outlet and have an antenna or two sticking up.  You can sometimes change a few more settings on an AP than on an extender but for our purposes we will assume they perform the same function.  The main difference between the two is that some APs have one or more ethernet ports on them.  How many ports and what they are used for varies depending on the model.  Some of them have ports for connecting devices to them such as desktops or game systems.  So your wifi router emits the signal, the AP catches the signal and re-transmits it to wireless devices but also allowed to to hook up a wired device from across the house without running a long wire.  Some other models have an ethernet port for a different reason.  Let’s say you have your wifi router at one end of your house and you have a really ong house and want wifi at the other end but there’s no way the signal would make it there, even if you installed the AP in the middle of the house. Some models allow you to run an ethernet cable from the main router to the other end of the house and plug it in to the “input” port in the back of the AP and then the signal is emitted from the AP.   Typically the extenders don’e give you either of these options.  

In a nutshell, that’s how the standard method works.  Mix and match extenders of APs to your needs in locations where the signal is getting a bit weaker until you’ve got a good signal throughout your whole house.  There are some cons to this method.  Essentially, each time you set up a new extender you are creating a whole new wifi network.  When you go through the setup process on the extender it asks you which wifi network you want to connect to, the password for that network, and also what you want to name the extender.  Now, when you check for available networks on your wireless devices, you will notice your original wifi network as well as the one you named on your extender and so on and so on for as many extenders as you set up.  So what right?  Let’s revisit the neighborhood example we talked about earlier.  Having multiple networks in your house is no different then standing in the middle of a subdivision and seeing all the different houses’ wifi networks on your phone.  Even if you DID have all their passwords what would happen?  As you are walking away from one house and the signal gets too weak your phone will drop the connection and link up to the next house.  Same inside your home and that is why when you’re watching a Youtube video and walking from one end of the house to the other, your video stops.  Your phone got too far away from one signal, disconnected, connected to the next signal, and had to rebuffer the rest of the video.  

Mesh Network

Mesh networks have been around for a while now and over the past few years they have gotten very popular for larger homes.  The premise behind mesh networks is that you get one main unit (sometimes called a hub) and then you put up little extenders (called satellites) around your house to repeat the signal, much like you would with the standard method.  The difference here is that instead of dealing with a bunch of separate networks, you are working with a single, continuous wifi network.  This means you don’t drop the connection when you switch from satellite to satellite to hub.  Typically the setup is much easier as well.  You setup up the hub and then click the Add Satellite button.  The hub searches for and locates the satellite, passes along the info and credentials needed and you’re done.  A lot of the well-knows brands of mesh networks offer a kit that comes with a couple of satellites and you can buy more satellites as needed.  Mine even has an app for the phone so I didn’t have to use my PC to go through the setup wizard. 

So which option would I recommend?  Well, if you look up compare the amount of text I typed to explain each method, it’s clear which one is more complicated and, unless you are in need of some out-of-the-norm setup then I think a mesh network would make your life a lot easier.  Other than the obvious advantage of having one continuous network throughout your house, consider these couple of headaches when dealing with a non-mesh network:

  • When adding extenders or APs you have to make sure that they have the same frequencies and wifi standards as the unit before it or that part dies right there. eg. If your main wifi router has 5ghz & 2.4ghz but you add an extender with 2.4ghz only then that 5ghz signal won’t get repeated. eg 2. A lot of people buy a nice main router and then purchase a older, used extender from ebay.  The router may be using the latest “ac” standard but the older router might only have “g” so anything that’s connected to the extender is on a much worse network then those connected to the main router.  
  • If you decide to change your password, you have to sign in to the main router and do so. Then you have to sign in to each individual extender and update that password as well.  I’ve ran in to so many people that change their password and don’t realize they need update their extenders and can’t figure out why they don’t have signal anymore at the other end of their house.  
  • Firmware updates! All these things run on software and the companies are always fixing bugs or making other improvements.  Unless you have an option for the units to auto-update then plan on logging in to each of them once a month or so and checking for, and applying updates.
  • Your friends will hate you (ok, maybe not). When someone new comes over and you give them the info to connect to your wifi and they get online, they are fine…until they get out of range of that unit.  Then they have to look for the extender with the strongest signal and connect to that one, and then put in the credentials for it, even if the password is the same.  They have to do that once for every extender!

I’m sure that the mesh network has some quirks too but none that I can think of off the top of my head and certainly not anything that has made me want to go back to the old standard method.  I am currently using the Orbi system by Netgear.  It’s one of the more pricey packages but I have a 5400 sq ft house with a full  basement so I wanted to make sure that the entire house was covered and I didn’t want to be making returns until I found something that covered the whole house.  I spent the extra money and when with the better unit and am happy I did.  Samsung makes a good one and so does google but neither produce as good of a coverage are as the Orbi.  I actually tried the Samsung one first because I was impressed that it had the ability to control smartthings but I returned it within the first week.  Google’s solution seems good but the Orbi covers more area with each unit, has more physical ports to connect wired stuff, and has it’s own dedicated antenna to communicate with its satellites.

As you can see, there’s a pretty significant difference in the two methods and my “brief” explanation of how they both function is just the tip of the iceberg.  I highly recommend opting for a mesh network solution if you are looking to cover a larger home without a lot of trouble.  Here’s a few options to get you on the right path.  

I want to leave you with a few tips when setting up your system.  I hope this info has cleared up a bit of confusion for you and was just the thing you needed to help you take the plunge on setting up a wifi solution for your own home.

  • If using extenders with the standard method, name all the extenders the same name as your main wifi network.  When guests sign into the network, they will only need to do so once and their phone will auto connect to all extenders using the same info.
  • When using the standard method, make sure to go into the setting on each unit and set each one to use a different channel to avoid interference. 
  • When using either method, be sure to place the extenders or satellites in the most efficient locations.  They emit the signal 360 degrees. Placing the unit near an outside wall wastes half the signal.
  • If using the standard method, keep in mind that most standard wifi routers have an option to put them in AP Mode, turning them in to an access point so if you have an old one you are not using then you can save a little money and not have the need to purchase additional extenders.

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