Does Size Matter?
When drooling over buying a new Wi-Fi router for your smart home network, are you obsessed with size and power? Do you look at price tags thinking the biggest, baddest router must be the most expensive one on the shelf? Do you have “router envy” for one of those cool looking sleek black boxes with a zillion antennas sticking out in every direction like a demented spider?
Sorry, no! The age of the mega-router is over. Although there are a few specialized situations where a souped-up high-performance Wi-Fi router is the right solution, for almost all of us the new generation multiple access point (AP) mesh solutions are a much better choice.
Retail sales stats say that the new mesh Wi-Fi products, only a few years old, are now generating over 40% of all retail sales. There’s clearly a router revolution happening and I’m going to try and guide you through some of the important things to know.
Wi-Fi Is Really Just A Radio
Did you know that Wi-Fi is just a silly marketing slogan? It may not even really stand for “wireless fidelity” which is about as meaningless technobabble as it gets. Fortunately, we all know it means wireless networking equipment that is widely using in homes and business to avoid the cost and trouble of running actual wires everywhere to connect devices together.
Sometimes lost in all this Geek-speak is that Wi-Fi is a radio technology. Meaningful data is transmitted across open space using electromagnetic radio waves. Transmission of anything by radio requires a transmitter and a receiver. Because radio waves can be fairly weak, antennas are used to grab the signal and send it along to the rest of the radio hardware for transmission or reception.
Antenna “Hide And Seek”
The thing that is overlooked is that both the transmitter and receiver need antennas. Most of us have seen the antennas on the router - those black things that stick up at different angles and can be adjusted to point in different directions, but have you seen the antenna on your smartphone, tablet, or computer?
Probably not - the antenna for most consumer electronics is inside and not visible. Often, the antenna is just a small engraved copper wire on part of the tiny circuit board inside the device. And that’s the root of the problem!
When your smartphone (or any other device) is communicating with the router, it is both sending and receiving radio signals. Sure, it can receive a strong signal from the Wi-Fi router (because those huge external antennas put out a nice strong signal), but when the smartphone answers back, it is transmitting a radio signal from a tiny internal antenna so that signal is going to be much weaker.
Like having a conversation with someone with a sore throat that can barely whisper, if one half of the communication can’t be heard, the entire conversation won’t succeed. Doesn’t matter if you have a megaphone on your end, you still won’t be able to hear the other person trying to answer back to you.
Many Hands Make Light Work
John Heywood’s quote from the 15th century is very appropriate for fixing Wi-Fi problems. The best way to fix network coverage and signal strength/speed problems with your wireless network is to use more than one Wi-Fi access point (AP).
Commercial Wi-Fi networks have always used a collection of AP’s. These are simply multiple Wi-Fi devices connected together with a wired Ethernet cable. This provides overlapping radio coverage and when arranged properly even the largest home or office can be bathed in high speed wireless data everywhere.
Historically, multiple AP’s were not used in home network for two reasons - the individual cost of each AP was fairly expensive and it was difficult, or sometimes impossible, to run the Ethernet wires to connect them all together.
Many homes have used a range of building methods including brick, concrete, stone, and other materials that are difficult to retro-fit with new wiring. To work around these limitations, companies began selling mega-routers with multiple antennas, frequency bands, and the maximum radio power allowed by the FCC.
Chewing Gum and Baling Wire
If a manufacturer takes an access point and modifies the software so it uses the Wi-Fi radio to both communicate with computer devices and also establish a link back to another AP, then the need for a wired connection is eliminated. Although this technique of “wireless backhaul” works in theory, in practice this shortcut has resulted in a lot of “Wifi Extenders” being sold that are problematic. Most Wi-Fi Extenders are notoriously unreliable, they drop their radio connection and stop working until they are reset by unplugging the power cord and restarting them.
Wi-Fi Extenders are relatively inexpensive and some don’t even have external antennas. Unfortunately, the acne-infested teenage clerk at the local big box store will steer customers towards these devices when asked for something to “fix my Wi-Fi problem”. (Well, not completely true, first they’ll try to sell you that overpriced mega-router and if you resist, they point to the Wi-Fi Extender as the only other solution.)
For the technically minded, Wi-Fi Extenders have a big design flaw - a single radio. Even if they don’t drop the connection, they are using one radio for two purposes - communicating with your smartphone, tablet, or computer and also linking back to another access point. When it does manage to work, the Wi-Fi Extender cuts your speed in half or even more. (It’s like those one-lane tunnels on a country road - traffic has to take turns alternating in direction and that slows everybody down even without any other traffic jam.)
It’s Broke, Gotta Fix It
We are fortunate that the evolution of technology for ever newer products that are faster, better, cheaper provides an excellent solution to these problems. The new generation of multi-access point Wi-Fi systems are Mesh Wi-Fi Routers. Mesh products take the concept of the Wi-Fi Extender and overcome their limitations by adding more than one radio (and much better internal software). With additional radios, the mesh access point uses one radio to communicate with your devices and a separate, dedicated radio to link back to the other access points. Voilà - problem solved!
Mesh Wi-Fi routers are often sold in 3-packs or pairs. The design of the software is sophisticated so that all the units are identical. The first AP you install becomes the master or primary AP and connects directly to your dsl line or cable modem. The additional units configure themselves as wired or wireless extenders but without the limitations of the older products.
Most mesh Wi-Fi routers include one or two wired Ethernet ports so you can still interconnect them using wired Ethernet if you have the luxury of being able to run actual wires between them. This is still the ideal configuration and will give you the best performance and reliability. Some of the newest mesh systems have three radios instead of just two - this adds more capacity and throughput which can be helpful if your home network has a lot of wireless devices or covers a large physical area.
I Feel The Need - The Need For Speed
So in summary, if your smart home Wi-Fi network is slow, has dead spots, or just isn’t working for you anymore, don’t rush out and buy that mega-router you see on the big box store shelves. Spend a little time reading up on the new Mesh Wi-Fi systems and invest in a network upgrade that will really make a difference. At least please don’t be a sucker and buy a problematic old-school “Wi-Fi Extender” - they barely work, are very unreliable, and will cut your speed at least in half!
For my clients, I usually install Eero Mesh Wi-Fi networks, but there are several other great products too.