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The start of the pandemic saw a massive , with millions of Americans transitioning to and , not to mention the uptick in traffic used for , with friends and with loved ones. Now, more than two years later, it doesn’t look like these new habits will be going away anytime soon — and that means it’s more important than ever to have a strong and reliable internet connection at home.
One of the best moves most households can make is to upgrade from a traditional router to a mesh system. With multiple devices spread throughout your home, a mesh router is like a team of routers that can relay your wireless traffic back to the modem better than a traditional router, especially when you’re connecting at range. And there are lots of new, next-gen options on the market, so it’s a prime time to make the switch.
Several years ago, became a breakout hit thanks to its easy setup and its ability to spread a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection throughout your home for all of your connected devices. Now, there’s the Nest Wifi, a second-gen follow-up that adds in faster internet speeds and a better-looking design, plus Google Assistant smart speakers built into each satellite extender.
The price is a little lower this time around, too — $269 for the two-piece setup above, with roughly the same area of Wi-Fi coverage as a three-piece, $300 Google Wifi setup from years back. That’s less of a good deal now than it was when the system first launched, but there’s still plenty of reason to consider the Nest Wifi if you catch it on sale.
On average, the Nest Wifi notched the fastest top speeds that I saw in my tests from any Wi-Fi 5 mesh router (and faster speeds than some of the Wi-Fi 6 systems I’ve tested, too). Plus, the two-piece setup offered enough signal strength to provide sufficient coverage at the 5,800-square-foot . It also aced our mesh tests, never once dropping my connection as I moved about my home running speed tests, and I never caught it routing my connection through the extender when connecting directly to the router was faster, either.
The lack of Wi-Fi 6 support , but the Nest Wifi does include support for modern features like WPA3 security, device grouping and prioritization and 4×4 MU-MIMO connections that offer faster aggregate speeds for devices like the that can use multiple Wi-Fi antennas at once. It’s also fully backward-compatible with previous-gen Google Wifi setups, which is a smart touch. All of it is easy to set up, easy to use and easy to rely on. Among dual-band mesh routers, I’d much rather have a top-of-the-line Wi-Fi 5 system than an entry-level Wi-Fi 6 system — even among new competition, the Nest Wifi mesh router fits that bill.
It isn’t quite as fast as the AX6000 version of the Netgear Orbi listed above, but the Editors’ Choice Award-winning Asus ZenWiFi AX (model number XT8) came awfully close — and at $400 or less for a two-piece system, it’s a lot easier to afford.
In fact, the ZenWiFi AX offers the same multigig WAN ports as the Orbi AX6000, which is a great piece of future-proofing that you don’t always get in this price range. The tri-band build means that it also boasts the same dedicated backhaul band to help keep the system transmissions separate from your network traffic, and it offers the same ease of setup, the same steady mesh performance, and the same strong speeds at range, too. All of that makes it a future-ready upgrade pick at a fair price. It even comes in your choice of white .
I also appreciated the depth of control in the Asus app, which lets you manage your network and customize that backhaul as you see fit. If $400 is a bit too much for your budget, know that there’s a smaller version of this system called the . It isn’t as high-powered and it isn’t a tri-band system like its big brother, but it comes with three devices that all support Wi-Fi 6 for $250, which makes it pretty interesting. There was also a new dual-band ZenWifi system last year called the — it performed quite well in our tests, but it only costs slightly less than the XT8. Between the three of them, the XT8 is the one I’d be looking to buy first.
The AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi is a smaller, simpler version of the popular mesh system. It doesn’t offer blazing-fast speeds, but the performance is consistent, and it costs a whole lot less than other, fancier Orbi builds. In fact, you can get a 3-piece system for just $99, which is a steal.
Netgear brought the cost down by sticking with Wi-Fi 5, ditching the built-in Alexa speaker that comes with the and skipping the tri-band approach and the dedicated 5GHz backhaul band that other Orbi systems use to connect each device in the mesh. I wonder if Netgear missed an opportunity by not branding this system as “Orbi Lite.”
It all makes for a less robust mesh system than other Orbi setups, but I hardly noticed in my tests. Among the Wi-Fi 5 systems I’ve tested, the dual-band Netgear Orbi actually notched the fastest top speeds at close range, it kept up with the Nest and Eero in our real-world speed tests and it offered excellent signal strength in the large-sized .
Netgear’s app isn’t as clean or intuitive as Nest’s or Eero’s, and the network didn’t seem quite as steady as those two as it steered me from band to band in my tests, but those are quibbles at this price. If you just want something affordable — perhaps to tide you over until you’re ready to make the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E — then the most budget-friendly Netgear Orbi definitely deserves your consideration.
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At-home speed tests
Router manufacturers make a lot of big claims about top speeds, or at least confusing when you’re shopping for a new one. I’m more interested in knowing the ins and outs of how they’ll perform in people’s homes, where incoming speeds might be limited and multiple devices might be competing for bandwidth.
To find out, digitalblenders I test all of the routers I review out of my home, a one-story, 1,300-square-foot house in Louisville, Kentucky, with incoming fiber internet speeds of 300Mbps, upload and download. Up until 2020, I ran the majority of these at-home tests using a Dell XPS 13 laptop that uses Wi-Fi 5. Then, once Wi-Fi 6 became available, I started running two separate sets of tests: one to measure speeds to that Wi-Fi 5 laptop, and another, separate set of tests to measure speeds to a client device that supports Wi-Fi 6. That means that there are some routers listed in this post that were tested before we were able to run our at-home tests to a Wi-Fi 6 device (I’ve starred them in the leaderboard graph below).
The biggest names that are still waiting for Wi-Fi 6 speed test data are the Nest Wifi mesh router and the Asus ZenWifi XT8, both of which performed well when I tested them with my old Wi-Fi 5 laptop. The latter is a tri-band router with support for Wi-Fi 6, so it would likely be a spot or two higher on that leaderboard (and potentially higher than the dual-band ZenWifi XD6) if we had tested it with a Wi-Fi 6 device.
I’ll update this post when I’m able to add those results, and I’ll also continue to run tests on both types of client devices in order to get a good sense of how well these routers perform with both current- and previous-gen hardware. You can check out my full reviews for more information on that breakdown.
The short version is that newer client devices that support Wi-Fi 6 will typically be able to hit sustained speeds that are noticeably faster than what you’ll get with older, Wi-Fi 5 devices — but previous-gen devices like those can still benefit from a mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6.
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Specifically, my data shows better performance at range, with speeds that didn’t dip as much in the back of my house. With the top-performing Netgear Orbi AX6000 system and others like it, speeds hardly dipped at all. Connecting my old laptop near the satellite in that master bedroom and back bathroom was almost as good as connecting near the router itself in the living room.
That likely stems from the fact that the router and the satellite are able to use Wi-Fi 6 to relay signals back and forth more efficiently and at faster speeds. The Orbi AX6000’s tri-band design does some heavy lifting here, too, as that allows the system to dedicate an entire 5GHz band to the backhaul transmissions between the router and satellite.
Just be aware that adding an extra band to the mix really brings the price up. The Asus ZenWifi XT8 and Eero Pro 6 each cost about $400 or so for a two-pack, while the Linksys Velop MX10, AmpliFi Alien, Arris Surfboard Max Pro and Netgear Orbi AX6000 systems each cost about $600 or $700 for a two-pack. Meanwhile, our top pick, the TP-Link Deco W7200, only costs $229 for a two-pack.
If you live in a large home and need more than one satellite extender, the Eero Pro 6 is worth considering. At $599 for a three-pack, it’s expensive, but it still costs less than most other tri-band three-packs with support for Wi-Fi 6.
If you’re living with a slow ISP connection and you don’t need Wi-Fi 6 or a fancy tri-band build, then there’s nothing wrong with skipping those upgrades and going with something simpler in order to save some money. I’ve tested a number of bargain picks like that — among them, , currently available , is my top recommendation, with the right balance of performance and value. If you really want to get dirt cheap, you could opt for a system like , which costs just $20 per device, plus shipping. It’s the slowest mesh router I’ve ever tested, which wasn’t surprising, but it was still functional and able to maintain average download speeds above 100Mbps in that back bathroom of mine.
CNET Smart Home tests
After suspending most of our tests from the lab and the CNET Smart Home during 2020 and 2021, we’re picking up where we left off in 2022. For starters, I’m running an entire, separate set of tests for every mesh router I review at the CNET Smart Home, a 5,400 square-foot multistory home located in the rural outskirts of Louisville, where we’ve got a fiber internet connection with upload and download speeds of up to 100Mbps.
For those tests, I run multiple rounds of speed tests across eight rooms: Four on the main floor, where the router lives, and four in the basement, where I place a satellite extender. I complete this process three separate times — once to an Apple iPad Air 2 from 2015 that uses Wi-Fi 5, again with a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop that supports Wi-Fi 6, and a third round of tests to a Samsung Galaxy S21 that uses Wi-Fi 6E to connect over the 6GHz band. Routers that don’t support Wi-Fi 6E will still work with devices like that, but they’ll treat them like regular Wi-Fi 6 devices, meaning that the 6GHz band won’t be in play.
So far, the only Wi-Fi 6E mesh router I’ve tested at the CNET Smart Home is the , a quad-band system that costs a staggering $1,500 for a three-pack. It performed admirably in those tests, maxing out my speeds to all three devices across the entirety or near-entirety of the house, but with the internet speeds capped at 100Mbps, it didn’t offer a noticeable speed boost to my Wi-Fi 6E device, and it wasn’t noticeably better than systems that cost less, including some that cost more than $1,000 less.
The rest of the models we’ve tested so far here in 2022 have all been top-performing models, and none of them has struggled to deliver maxed out download speeds throughout the entirety of the house. You’ll see more differentiation in the upload speeds, but for the most part, our top picks all perform pretty closely to one another in a real-world environment, which is a big reason why the least expensive of these top performers, the , is our top pick overall.
It’s also worth pointing out that our Smart Home data shows a clear, across-the-board benefit in upload performance to Wi-Fi 6 devices as opposed to Wi-Fi 5 devices. As more and more of the devices in our homes start using Wi-Fi 6, having a Wi-Fi 6 router they can take advantage of will become even more of an advantage than it already is.
Mesh routers worth skipping
Router recommendations are all well and good, but what about the mesh routers I don’t recommend? Glad you asked — let’s run through the ones I’d pass on save for a good sale.
Let’s start with the dual-band mesh Wi-Fi system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 but doesn’t include an extra backhaul band. That means that your network traffic has to share bandwidth with the transmissions between the router and the satellite, but it also brings the cost down. At $230 for a two-pack, it’s tempting, but the performance was too shaky for me to recommend it.
Another dual-band option is the TP-Link Deco X20 mesh router. Currently available with full support for Wi-Fi 6, the Deco X20 is similar to Amazon’s standard, non-Pro Eero 6 system, but it did a better job in my at-home tests of steering me to the right band, which raised its overall speeds. It’s a decent pick if you want a Wi-Fi 6 system with two extenders and you don’t want to spend too much, but a two-pack of the top-recommended Deco W7200 tri-band system costs just $30 more. Even without a third device, I’d rather have that tri-band two-pack than the X20’s dual-band three-pack.
Speaking of the standard Eero 6 system, it was a disappointment when I tested it out, with weak, inconsistent speeds between my various rounds of testing. Specifically, I saw a night-and-day difference in my speeds depending on whether or not I started my connection in the same room as the router. If I connected from afar, the system would keep my connection on the slower 2.4GHz band even after moving closer to the router. The issue is much, much less severe with the new Eero 6 Plus, which scored much higher in my tests, so go with that newer system instead.
Among the other routers I’d pass on are fancier models that actually finished pretty high on that leaderboard. For instance, I was impressed with the Asus ZenWifi XD6, a dual-band mesh router that managed to keep up with the tri-band models I’ve tested, but the upload speeds were a bit weak, and with a price tag that’s pretty close to what you’d pay for the fancier, tri-band ZenWifi system, the value isn’t especially strong. I’ve seen it marked down closer to $300 for a two-pack, which is pretty tempting, but I can’t quite recommend it at full price.
The Arris Surfboard Max AX6600 was another strong performer that I’d skip. It aced my Wi-Fi 6 tests, finishing with the third-best average download speeds in my home of any system I’ve tested, but performance was much less consistent with Wi-Fi 5 devices, which makes it hard to recommend at its full price of $400 for a two-pack.
Setup, security, features and other considerations
Performance and value are probably the first things you’ll look for as you shop for a mesh router, but there are other factors worth taking into consideration as well. Take features, for instance. Mesh routers typically don’t come with very many unique bells and whistles, but there are some standouts. The mesh router from Ubiquiti is a good example — apart from a unique-looking build, it features touchscreen controls on the front of each device, along with a feature called Teleport that lets you establish a VPN-style connection to your home network when you’re traveling. That’s a useful trick that lets you make use of your home network’s security capabilities when you’re connecting to a public Wi-Fi network.
Speaking of security, if you’re buying a new router, then it’s worth looking for one that supports the latest encryption standards. Most of the new models released in the last year or two support for stronger defense against things like brute-force hacking attempts — I’d want a model like that if it were me making the upgrade.
There are a number of other factors that we take into consideration whenever we test a mesh router. Latency is a good example. I run each of my speed tests to the same, stable server on the other side of Kentucky, which gives me a good, comparative look at how quickly each one is able to send and receive data. Most of the mesh routers I’m testing these days do just fine, with average latency usually coming in between 15ms and 20ms per ping, but some systems will see latency spikes when they’re routing your connection through an extender.
We’re also planning to resume testing signal strength at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home this year after putting those tests on hold during the pandemic. Using , we’re able to make a map showing the signal strength of each device in the mesh, which gives you a good indication of the system’s range and the quality of the connection.
It’s worth pointing out that those maps show you the aggregate signal strength of each system throughout the house and not their actual download speeds. That said, better signal strength means better wireless speeds. My partner-in-testing Steve Conaway summed it up thusly: “Yellow means you’re in heaven, green means good enough and blue means WTF.”
The main takeaway from those tests is that you’ll want to prioritize getting a system with more than one extender if you live in a home as large as our Smart Home — in most cases, those additional extenders will make a much more noticeable impact in the strength of your connection at range than an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 or a tri-band design will.
What about Wi-Fi 6E?
Wi-Fi 6E is a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices that are equipped to send transmissions in the 6GHz band, which is something routers couldn’t do until recently, after the Federal Communications Commission . The 6GHz band offers and there aren’t any older-generation Wi-Fi devices using it, so the pitch is that it’s sort of like an exclusive, multilane highway for your internet traffic.
There are already a handful of routers that support Wi-Fi 6E available for purchase. Among them is the mesh system, which — at $900 for a two-pack, or $1,200 for a three-pack — is one of the most expensive mesh routers you can currently buy.
Wi-Fi 6E routers like that are certainly impressive pieces of hardware, but . Remember, the only devices that can connect over 6GHz are other Wi-Fi 6E devices and, aside from the and a handful of others, there are hardly any of those on the market yet.
Even if you do own a device like that, you’ll likely be better off on the 5GHz band than on 6GHz. Seriously. In most cases, both will top out at whatever max speeds you’re paying for from your internet provider, but the 6GHz band has noticeably weaker range than 5GHz.
Just take a look below at my at-home test-data for that Atlas Max setup. I ran a full set of speed tests for each of the router’s three bands using a Galaxy S21, with the main router hooked up in my living room and a single extender placed in my master bedroom. The router performed well — but it’s the green 5GHz band that performed the best. The 6GHz band, shown in yellow, saw its speeds dip as I moved away from the main router. They rebounded a bit as I neared the extender, but the speeds on 5GHz were faster overall and I didn’t notice any appreciable difference between the bands in terms of latency, either.
That weaker range also undercuts the notion that the 6GHz band will improve mesh systems by serving as the backhaul band for the router and its satellites. With less range, you won’t be able to spread those satellites out quite as much throughout your home if you’re using the 6GHz band as the backhaul. That means you might need to buy an additional satellite to cover the space — and with Wi-Fi 6E, that’s an expensive proposition. Perhaps tellingly, still uses a 5GHz band as the backhaul.
That’s not to say that Wi-Fi 6E is a meaningless upgrade. It’s just too early to buy in. With so much available bandwidth and so much less interference from other devices, the 6GHz band might prove ideal for next-gen, high-bandwidth connections — things like wireless VR headsets, which need to move a lot of data at relatively close range with as little interference as possible. But that isn’t a good argument for buying in now, before those devices even exist and when Wi-Fi 6E costs an arm and a leg. If you’re in a crowded public venue like an airport or a stadium, a 6GHz network might be a real luxury with its relatively fast speeds, room for everyone’s traffic and fewer devices competing for bandwidth. But that’s an argument for getting a Wi-Fi 6E phone or laptop, not a Wi-Fi 6E router.
I’ll continue testing Wi-Fi 6E systems as they hit the market, so stay tuned. When I have more data to share on 6E, I’ll post it here, but for now, don’t rush out to spend big on a Wi-Fi 6E router, mesh or otherwise.
Mesh router FAQs
Got questions? Look me up on Twitter () or send a message straight to my inbox by clicking the little envelope icon . In the meantime, I’ll post answers to any commonly asked questions below.
Is a mesh router better than a regular router?
With multiple devices working together to spread a strong, usable connection across a larger space, a mesh router is usually better than a single, stand-alone router, especially in medium to large homes. In a home or apartment that’s smaller than 1,500 square feet or so, a mesh router might be more hardware than you need.
Still, even small homes have dead zones, and mesh routers will help address problem spots like that better than regular routers. My home is 1,300 square feet, and a good example. With an average, single-point router like the one provided by my ISP, my 300Mbps fiber speeds typically plummet to double or even single digits in the back rooms farthest from the router. With a mesh router, I can still hit triple-digit speeds in those back rooms, which are about as fast as when I’m connecting closer to the router.
Does mesh Wi-Fi replace your router?
Yes — a mesh router will replace your existing router.
To set one up, you’ll need to connect one of the devices in the system to your modem using an Ethernet cable, just like your current router. From there, you’ll plug in the other mesh devices in the system elsewhere in your home, so they can start boosting the signal and relaying your traffic back to the modem-connected device whenever you’re connecting from more than a few rooms away.
What are the disadvantages of a mesh network?
Mesh routers are good for offering consistent speeds throughout your entire home, and the best of the bunch are capable of hitting gigabit speeds. But single-point, stand-alone routers usually cost less than mesh routers with comparable specs, so they’ll typically offer better top speeds for the price.
Mesh routers often have fewer ports than single-point routers, too. Some lack USB jacks, and others limit you to only one or two spare Ethernet ports for wired connections to media streamers, smart home bridges and other common peripherals. Some mesh routers feature no additional ports whatsoever on the satellite extenders.
You might also experience a very slight increase in latency when the system is routing your connection through one of the satellite extenders — in my tests, it usually translates to a small-but-noticeable bump of a few extra milliseconds per ping.
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