Do you lose your Wi-Fi connection more than you prefer? Or, is your home Wi-Fi excruciatingly slow–especially when everyone's home?
A Wi-Fi mesh system might be the solution.
Read on to learn how Wi-Fi works. Discover how mesh systems take Wi-Fi to the next level.
Table of Contents
- How Does Wi-Fi Work?
- Mesh Wi-Fi Systems Improve Transmission
- Wi-Fi Mesh Network Features
- Ubiquiti vs. Netgear Orbi
- Coverage Radius
- Bandwidth (Speed)
- Backhaul Options
- USB and Ethernet Ports
- Nodes and Antennas
- User Interface and Experience
- Installation and Setup
- Security Options
- Energy Consumption
- Unique Features
- Explore More Wi-Fi Mesh Systems
How Does Wi-Fi Work?
When you connect to the Wi-Fi at Starbucks, what's actually happening? Technically, you're logging onto Starbucks' wireless local area network (WLAN). This lets your laptop communicate with other devices in the network–including the Wi-Fi router.
WLAN and SSID
A WLAN exists within a wide area network (WAN). The internet flows in the WAN. A WLAN connects to the WAN with cables installed by an internet service provider.
Each WLAN has a Service Set Identifier (SSID). This lets the WAN recognize and locate the local network. The SSID empowers the WAN to direct the requested information to users in the network.
Wi-Fi systems transmit information in the form of radio waves. Regulators designate specific frequency bands to specific types of media. Wi-Fi systems use the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands.
Bandwidth determines internet connection speed. MBps and GBps are units of measurement that show how much information (in volume) you can transmit in one second through your free bands.
If a band has a high volume of traffic, the connection speed slows. Two information packets cannot occupy the same space in a band simultaneously. So, one must wait for another to pass.
Wi-Fi networks send information in information packets. Information packets include the payload and the control information.
Control information tells the system how and where to deliver the payload. The payload itself is the information intended for the end-user.
A Wi-Fi system encompasses five components. Each part works to read, transmit, and receive information.
The modem interfaces with the WAN. An internet service provider (ISP) connects cables to a modem. These fiber optic or Ethernet cables carry the internet (as electrical pulses) to the modem.
The modem receives internet. It sends the information to the router.
The router broadcasts the Wi-Fi signal. It transmits information with the appropriate frequencies.
The router directs information to the correct destination. It also receives information from user devices and access points. A gateway is a device that functions as both a modem and a router.
- Access Points
Access points receive and transmit information in a WLAN. If the access point is a range extender, it repeats the router's Wi-Fi signal.
- User devices
Smartphones, laptops, printers, and tablets are all user devices.
These devices primarily receive information as radio waves, then translate the packets into electrical pulses. This lets you see and hear the internet on a device.
That said, user devices also transmit information.
- Transmitters and Receivers
Transmitters direct information through the network in the form of radio waves. A receiver “catches” the information meant for the component it's a part of.
Then, it translates the packet into electrical pulses. Or, it sends the information along to its destination.
These parts might be antennas. Some devices use RF module transceivers.
Mesh Wi-Fi Systems Improve Transmission
A typical Wi-Fi system transmits information along a tree-shaped route. Information packets flow from the router to user devices.
A mesh Wi-Fi system transmits information dynamically. It can alter the specific path the information takes to get to the user device to maximize efficiency. It can create a path that navigates around barriers.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems can also choose to send information on one of two- or three-frequency bands. They choose the band with the lowest traffic. This maximizes speed.
Some systems enable manual overrides. You can tell the system to prioritize certain types of information. This makes the mesh automatically divert a certain amount of bandwidth to those types of information packets.
This way, you can make sure you have the bandwidth to download critical files. It grants bandwidth to those files regardless of who else logs onto the network.
A mesh Wi-Fi system might have a gateway that combines the router and modem. This speeds up communication. But, some systems still have separate routers and modem devices.
Smart Access Points (Nodes)
Smart access points are key to mesh Wi-Fi systems. Smart access points, or nodes, are like small routers unto themselves.
Each node can broadcast the Wi-Fi signal. This is not like a range extender.
The node doesn't merely repeat the signal. It broadcasts the signal again, at full strength.
And, smart access points make decisions. These nodes communicate with one another. Together, they decide to create and adjust the pathways for each information packet.
Mesh system nodes create routes to maximize bandwidth and avoid obstacles. If a node's signal is blocked, the other nodes easily pick up the slack. They route the signal on a new, efficient path that doesn't require that node.
Some access points include directional antennas. These let nodes transmit data along highly precise paths. This further circumvents obstacles that could disrupt the signal.
Wired vs. Wireless (Backhaul)
Backhaul is the system access points use to communicate with each other. It's like a “backbone” of communication pathways.
Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems utilize three frequency bands. These are 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz.
Typically, these systems' nodes dedicate one frequency band solely to talking to one another. They relegate information packets to the other two bands.
This way, nodes can communicate continually. Information packets will never interrupt conversation among nodes. This lets nodes make faster decisions.
Most Wi-Fi Mesh systems are not 6E. They do not have access to a third frequency band.
As such, the nodes use the same bands to send packets and talk to each other. This can interrupt the decision-making process. In this circumstance, you might create a wired backhaul.
A wired backhaul connects the nodes with Ethernet cables. The cables grant the nodes a third communication pathway. Thus, wired backhauls free up frequency bands and speed up nodes' decision-making process.
Wi-Fi Mesh Network Features
To decide which mesh network best meets your needs, consider each network's features. Features determine the mesh system's speed, radius, and functionality.
They also affect your qualitative experience of the system. How easy is it to install? Are the manual settings intuitive?
In this segment, we'll explore two mesh Wi-Fi systems: Ubiquiti Amplifi and Netgear Orbi. We'll overview the pros and cons. Then, we'll unpack each system feature by feature.
Ubiquiti vs. Netgear Orbi
Netgear is a company that builds systems. Launched in 1996, Netgear innovates in the communications network field. In 2019, Netgear released the Orbi Whole Home Tri-band Wi-Fi 6 Mesh system.
Netgear Orbi 6 meets IEEE's Wi-Fi 6 standards. Its nodes communicate through three frequency bands. This gives the Orbi system the highest possible bandwidth on the market.
Ubiquiti Inc. first launched its mesh system products in 2016. Today, Ubiquiti's Amplifi HD Whole Home line is one of the most popular Wi-Fi mesh systems. The company builds its systems around its patented UniFi access points.
Which of these systems is best? Let's compare them head-to-head.
Ubiquiti Amplifi Overview
The Ubiquiti Amplifi HD Whole Home system gained a reputation as the most user-friendly Wi-Fi mesh.
Users note its performance is fast and reliable. But, it offers no backhaul options. Also, there are fewer settings and configuration options.
In general, what you see when you open the box is what you get. Recently, Ubiquiti partnered with Nvidia and released the Amplifi HD Gamer's Edition. While this variant has similar specs, it offers more configuration options and is optimized for GeForce NOW.
Ubiquiti also has a cheaper model the AmpliFi Instant. It is a lot smaller and almost half the price of the HD model. The Amplifi Instant does not perform as well as the Amplifi HD. However, it is a solid router.
Netgear Orbi Overview
Netgear Orbi is built for configuration. Engineers designed this Wi-Fi mesh system to connect large spaces with many people.
The Orbi's tri-band capacity enables high speeds. And, you can easily enable multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output functions.
The Orbi's biggest downside is its cost. It's one of the most versatile Wi-Fi mesh systems. It's also one of the priciest.
The more nodes a Wi-Fi mesh system has the wider its radius. But, any barrier between nodes that disrupts their communication will limit the coverage area.
Ubiquiti Amplifi's coverage radius begins at 10,000 sq. ft. A higher-tier Wi-Fi 6 Ubiquiti router covers up to 20,000 sq. ft. Each additional node grants you 500 sq. ft. of coverage.
Netgear Orbi's baseline system covers a 4000 sq. ft radius. Each additional satellite (node) and router expands the radius by 2000 sq. ft.
Ubiquiti Amplifi's theoretical bandwidth is significant: 5.25 Gbps. That's gigabits per second. The router offers 1.75 Gbps bandwidth, as does each node.
Netgear Orbi creates a network with a bandwidth of 1.26 Gbps. But, the 5 GHz band reaches a 1.73 Gbps connection speed.
Ubiquiti Amplifi's access points have multiple ports. So, you have the option to install a wired backhaul into the system.
Netgear Orbi is a tri-band mesh. Engineers built a dedicated wireless backhaul band into the system.
The system uses one 5 GHz band solely to streamline access-point communication. Each access point also includes three Ethernet ports. You could enable a wired backhaul option.
MU-MIMO is a multiple-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology. MU-MIMO lets a router “talk” to multiple devices at the same time.
With MU-MIMO, information packets routed to different user devices don't get stuck in line behind one another. The packets can move forward, even when they're in the same frequency band. This averts slowdowns in high-traffic areas.
Ubiquiti's Amplifi mesh does not use MU-MIMO technology.
Netgear Orbi does incorporate MU-MIMO.
One study tested Netgear Orbi's MU-MIMO technology with three identical laptops. The laptops were MU-MIMO-equipped. Each laptop's wireless connection reached speeds of around 128 Mbps.
USB and Ethernet Ports
Ubiquiti's Amplifi HD mesh has no enabled USB ports. But, each access point has four LAN (Ethernet) ports.
Netgear Orbi includes one USB port on the router and one on each satellite. Each node includes four Ethernet ports.
Netgear's system also incorporates a single gigabit port on the router. Nodes include seven LAN ports altogether.
Nodes and Antennas
Ubiquiti Amplifi's gateway is a cube. The cube has six antennas. Three antennas direct the signal along with the 2.4 GHz band, and three work with the 5 GHz band.
Each additional Ubiquiti access point has one antenna. You can adjust the antenna to better direct the signal.
Netgear's Orbi mesh network directs signals with interior antennas. The router has six internal antennas. Each satellite (node) uses two internal antennas.
Netgear Orbi satellites are highly portable. Each node plugs into an electrical outlet.
Yet, you can unplug and move an Orbi satellite without rebooting it. It resumes connection automatically.
User Interface and Experience
Netgear Orbi's design tells you about the current connection and internet traffic. It uses a threshold light and advanced traffic meter to give you critical information.
Ubiquiti Amplifi's mobile app is user-friendly. Its sleek design makes it easy to adjust the network within the parameters it offers.
Installation and Setup
Netgear Orbi login enables easy installation. It takes roughly ninety seconds to run the Netgear Orbi setup wizard. That installs the firmware.
Then, it takes two minutes to plug in and boot up the satellites.
Ubiquiti Amplifi is also easy to install. As you set up each satellite, blue lights and chimes let you know if the connection is stable.
Netgear Orbi meets the latest security standard: WPA3. The mesh network also includes Denial of Service (DoS) attack prevention. And, it automatically updates the firmware with security patches.
Ubiquiti Amplifi uses the WPA2 encryption security protocol. But, its security features are limited.
Netgear Orbi meets the Wi-Fi 6E standard. This energy-efficient system doesn't use much power. When it's on, the Orbi router uses 6.1 W to 34.68 W. Each wall-plug satellite uses 5.2 W to 14.28 W.
Ubiquiti has not released information on Amplifi's energy use. It only meets the Wi-Fi 5 standard, which has no energy-efficiency mandate.
Netgear Orbi grants you many configuration options. These include options to:
- Configure the router as an access point
- Enable status routing
- Begin VPN service
- Configure port forwarding
- View system logs
- Commence IvP6 tunneling
The Ubiquiti Amplifi includes unique style options. Designers want users to display the router, which includes an LCD touch-screen. At a tap, the screen tells you:
- Current throughput speeds
- Upload and download speeds
- Your WLAN's SSID
- Your IP address
- The current date and time
Explore More Wi-Fi Mesh Systems
Netgear Orbi and Ubiquiti Amplifi are excellent mesh systems. But they aren't the only options.
Do you want to build the smart home of your dreams? Then read on, and connect your household with next-level networks.