Best mesh network 2018: get faster speeds and fewer black spots

Say goodbye to slow Wi-Fi frustration misery with the best mesh Wi-Fi systems to buy

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Router getting you down? Spending more time watching a buffering screen than old Bake Off episodes? It might not be your ISP’s fault, for once. Your router may not be able to hack the job of covering your whole house but the best mesh networks offer a simple and reliable solution.

What is the best mesh network?

There are a handful of elements a mesh network needs to nail to be truly great. And Google WiFi is the package that hits the right targets for most Wi-Fi nightmare sufferers we know. 

The first couple of points on the hit-list are obvious. It needs to extend your Wi-Fi all through your house, no dead zones allowed, and can’t peter out to 56k modem speeds at the far reaches of your second bedroom, even if that is mostly filled with cardboard boxes of clothes you don’t wear anymore. 

It also needs to look good and shouldn’t cost a bomb. We don’t want a flat that looks like it’s peppered with routers, and these things just extend Wi-Fi, not make your dinners, so let’s keep the cost sensible. 

For the real power users among you, there are faster options than Google’s. However, Google WiFi is fast enough for our use, looks great, is cheaper than some rivals and can also directly replace your current router rather than needing to be plugged into it. 

It’s also simpler to use than just about any other piece of networking hardware we can mention. Those who have spent evenings tinkering with their router, only for the internet to still not work will know: this is important.

How to buy the best mesh network

A mesh network is just one of the ways to solve problems with your home internet connection, alongside Wi-Fi extenders and Powerline adapters. The latter in particular have much to recommend, but right now, mesh networks are the hottest of the lot. 

That's because they’re reliable, often faster and setup stress won’t reduce your life expectancy. And they have the coolest name.

Mesh networks are made up of little Wi-Fi “nodes” that speak to each other. Each will communicate with the node offering the strongest signal, and spread your Wi-Fi far further than any normal router can. 

For the vast majority in the UK, a two-unit mesh network will do the trick, but if you have a larger house, you can continue to add additional units to kill off all black spots

Number of nodes aside, it’s the bandwidth of the hardware that gives you a rough idea of the speed on tap. You’ll see this written as ACXXXX, AC2200 for example

The AC bit means it supports the most recent, AC incarnation of Wi-Fi, and the big number is the theoretical maximum speed in Mbps. You’ll never reach it in real life, but it offers a guide at least.

These boxes transmit data over two or three wireless bands, and you’ll get that “AC” number by adding the speeds of these bands together. 

Mesh networks are fantastic range extenders, but as folk who have had to use all sort of networking gear over the years, we think their ease of use is just as important. You don’t have to spend a weekend setting them up, only to finally get them working by the tech equivalent of patching up a hole in a window with masking tape. 

They “just work”, and usually take less than 10 minutes to get up and running. 

You don’t have to worry about your health either. While, yes, mesh networks do flood your house with Wi-Fi much more effectively than a standard router, the energy of the Wi-Fi signal is way too low-powered to melt your brain. We promise. If you’re still scared, your local supermarket will usually have a good selection on tin foil on its shelves. 

Anything else to consider? We think 90% of you will be happy with 100% of the picks below, but you might want to look at the connections on the nodes of these units. They all have Ethernet ports to let you plug in devices for an even more reliable connection, and a few have USB to connect storage devices or printers. 

Because even in 2018, in the age of the mesh, some of us like printing off boarding pass and discount vouchers. 

The best mesh networks, in order

1. Google WiFi

Best mesh network for most purposes

Specifications
Connection: AC1200, dual-band
Reasons to buy
+Discreet, quite fetching boxes+So easy to setup+Works very well
Reasons to avoid
-Only two ethernet sockets per box

Everyone hates patchy home internet. But no-one wants a house with a router in every room. It’s not a good look. 

Google WiFi’s nodes look like pieces of smart home tech, not networking gear that really should be hidden in a box, behind a sofa. It’s also a lot cheaper than some alternatives. A 2-pack shaves around £100 off the cost of some of the competition. 

The real draw is how easy the Google WiFi is to use, though. Its app looks and feels great, and setting is up is a such a breeze; it’s the stuff only Apple fans used to get to boast about. You can do everything from you prioritising devices to blocking access from certain devices at certain times (ie: child controls), and adding limited guest access. Most enjoyably of all, you can roam the house checking speeds in every room. It's very addictive.

A Google WiFi replaces your router rather than just tagging onto it. And unless you live in a county manor, two of the little guys should be enough to flood your flat or house with wireless nectar. 

This is a product made for normal people tired of Wi-Fi nightmares rather than the elite class of PC master types with USB drives on their keyrings and a stack of old graphics cards in their cupboards, mind. 

The only real downside to Google WiFi over some of its arch enemies is that there’s a noticeable performance drop when you’re feeding off a satellite rather than the main unit. With AC1200 speed,  Google’s mesh network isn’t quite as specced-to-the-gills as some. That said, even the diminished speed from the satellites lit up our blackspots and bid adieu to our buffering.

Each unit has two ethernet ports to let you plug in your gear for an even more reliable connection. Some more ports would, to be fair, be nice.

Although if your modem is on a different floor to your PC, and you use data on your PC intensively, there are more powerful solutions than Google's. If you just want to power a Netflix-streaming TV, make sure your phone has Wi-Fi throughout the house, and keep your smart home and wireless audio products happy, it's nigh on perfect.

2. Netgear Orbi

Best mesh network for power users

Specifications
Connection: tri-band AC2200
Reasons to buy
+High speeds
Reasons to avoid
-High boxes

You’ll see the Netgear Orbi sold next to mesh networks, but it's actually something slightly different. 

The concept behind a mesh network is that its nodes can all talk to each other like a bunch of teenagers nattering in a WhatsApp group. The Netgear Orbi is more like a turbo-charged wireless extender. You have a main unit and a satellite box you put somewhere else in the house. These two talk to each other. However, add another one and it’ll only talk to the main unit. It’s what network nerds call a “hub and spoke” setup. 

Using a pair to cover the areas of the house where a normal router starts trailing off, the Netgear Orbi’s performance is excellent. There’s very little loss of speed when connected to the secondary box, although the range of one box on its lonesome didn’t quite match that of the Linksys Velop in our testing. 

Setup is also painless, if not quite as smooth and slick as that of Google WiFi and each satellite has a whopping four Ethernet ports and a USB, although that port is currently used to connect printers, not a way to add networked storage. 

The main stumble here is the design. The Orbi not only looks more like an aromatherapy dispenser than a router, it's also one of the largest network extender boxes around. 

3. BT Whole Home

Best mesh network for BT customers

Specifications
Connection: Dual-band AC2600
Reasons to buy
+Reasonably priced+Wide coverage
Reasons to avoid
-Adds to rather than replacing your router

BT’s mesh network is a bit different to the competition. And it makes this bundle a bit of a bargain. You get three satellites for £199, the price of a single unit elsewhere. 

How is this possible? Where other mesh setups replace your router, Whole Home sits alongside it. Of course, if you have optical fibre internet from a company like Virgin Media, you can’t get of your router box in any case as it has the modem inside too. 

BT has nailed the price. The design isn’t something we’re going to base our interior design around, though. These white dishes on little metal stands aren’t exactly ugly, but do look like networking aerials, and the clear BT logo in the centre really doesn’t help. 

Other solutions are a little faster but the sheer square footage you can cover with three receivers is mammoth. BT also sells the Whole Home with two units or just a single one these days, so there are solutions to suit just about any living setup.

4. Linksys Velop

Best mesh network for experts/patient users

Specifications
Connection: Tri-band AC2200
Reasons to buy
+Scorching speeds+Huge range+Looks perfectly alright
Reasons to avoid
-Can be a right pain to use

Put a Linksys Velop in front of 50 millennials and we’d bet at least half would peg this as a Bluetooth speaker rather than a networking tower. A small footprint makes this easy to discreetly hide behind a curtain. It looks decent enough to make this an option rather than a must, too. 

The Linksys Veloop usually comes in a bundle of two or three units, and one on its own has just about the best wireless range we’ve seen from one of these mesh setups. Even with just one satellite, you can cover a very wide area. 

Performance is also great. You’ll barely see any speed loss even with a fast 100/150Mbps optical fibre home internet connection. 

It’s a shame, then, that we had more setup problems with the Velop than any rival. Initially we got unexpectedly poor performance until a factory reset, and after that the satellite tower continually refused to play ball. 

You’ll get there in the end but if you’re unlucky like us, you’ll need patience. It made us miss Google WiFi, out it that way. 

Linksys Velop is also a bit lacking in extras unlike the similarly priced Netgear boxes – just two Ethernet ports on the bottom of each box, just like Google WiFi. However, you can set priority devices in the app, which is handy if your housemates keep on bogarting the bandwidth.

5. Ubiquiti Labs Amplifi HD

Best plug-in mesh network boxes

Specifications
Connection: Dual-band AC1750
Reasons to buy
+Very good performance+Interesting 'plug-in' satellites
Reasons to avoid
-Touchscreen on main box is a bit redundant

Mesh networks’ job is to spread something invisible so we don’t have to think about it. This is why the best setup is one you don’t notice. That’s not the Amplifi HD’s bag. 

This is a mesh network with real nerd cred, a colour touchscreen on the front telling you the current download and upload speed of your home internet. Just check out those fat pipes, dude. 

It’s a slightly surprise, then, that the Amplifi HD is also one of the smallest, neatest-looking mesh networks around. The main router is a 10cm cube that also doubles as a clock. “Don’t hide me”, the little thing screeches. 

The extra receivers are a different story. They’re little white sticks you simply jam directly into a plug socket. This might be a bit of a tester if you want to put them in a wall socket given how much they protrude, but in that strip multi-plug hidden under your telly, it's fine.

We’re yet to test drive and Amplifi HD’s range and performance, but in theory it should be sound and user reviews to date bear that out. This is 1750Mbps hardware, faster than Google WiFi if not quite up to the pace of Linksys Velop. 

The standard Amplifi HD comes with two extender sticks, but if you’re just in it for the funky little router with the screen on its front, you can buy that separately too.