New mesh systems make whole-home WiFi easier

Linksys Velop nodes spread the WiFi you need, all around the house. And look pretty, too. A set of three will set you back about $500.

You pay plenty for high-speed internet and a powerful modem/router. But FaceTime video calls still drop and streaming music pauses on the tablet or smartphone as you move about your abode. Dead spots appear, causing web pages not to load.

What to do? Consider investing in one of the new whole home WiFi “mesh network” systems such as the top-rated Linksys Velop we’ve been testing. Chances are good, but not guaranteed, that this tech can cure what ails you.

How we got here. When setting up your internet, the installer probably terminated your line at a modem/router in your home office zone, thinking the gear should be near your home computer for easy wiring, fastest performance and quick rebooting. Also, so the installer could make a quick exit.

But the technician likely didn’t warn that such a setup at one end of the house (or, worse, in the basement) was a dumb place to plant the signal-spreading router. Think about it. Broadcast signals spread in a radius and drop. That’s why TV and radio stations seek high ground for antennas.

Fixes past. Other work-arounds have existed before the whole home WiFi mesh network idea was introduced to consumers last year, first from Eero. (Also new in the game – the well-regarded Netgear Orbi and DFS-band-exploiting Portal Mesh 2.0,  Google Wifi,  Amplifi Wifi from Ubiquiti Networks and Ally from Amped Wireless, among others.)

You likely tried an old school wireless signal extender. When put within 30 feet of a router, these things can amplify the signal, but with a big drop in data speed.

Recently, there’s been a push for routers with multiple antennas and “beam pointing” that theoretically push most of the WiFi signal where it’s needed most. Haven’t been that helpful in my three-floor setup, but I hear they give great coverage in apartments.

Better — but more complicated — are hard-wired WiFi extenders that you plant upstairs or the zoned access beamers (Ubiquiti is a popular provider) often installed in office ceilings. These solutions have issues, too. The extenders demand that users manually reconnect to a different WiFi setting when moving from one coverage zone to another. Access points are costly to install and need programming savvy.

Best of all worlds: The new generation of WiFi mesh network rigs presents DIY solutions with a mostly positive payback. Deploying two or more of these networking “nodes” (repeater routers), a signal passing mesh system spreads the original WiFi signal even hundreds of feet away from the base. And no “choose a network” reconnecting is needed on a smartphone, tablet or computer as you roam the premises.

Gizmo Guy has spent time with an Eero Smart WiFi system ($399.99 for three pieces) that my buddies John and Elayne installed in their East Mount Airy house. And have devoted lots of time testing a trio bundle of Linksys Velop nodes ($499.99).

Both are small and pretty. As easy as pie to install (assuming you know how to make a pie), both systems' mother “node” is wired to an Ethernet port on your modem, with a companion app loaded on a connected tablet/phone/computer. Just a few button pushes and light cues later, and your second and third nodes can be fully connected, too, each covering 1,000-1,500 square feet (3,000 with Portal). Even with a couple false starts, the setup takes less than an hour.

With their older home’s solid construction, John and Elayne could “barely get any signal in the kitchen before,” even though their Verizon FiOS modem/router was just a room away. Now with the Eero base transmitter connected to the FiOS modem, they can reach the internet “just fine at the kitchen table, and upstairs, too, where a second Eero is located,” John said. “We haven’t even seen the need to install the third unit that came in the kit.”

In my tests, a “mother” Velop was connected to an Xfinity modem (inputting service at 200 Mbps) on the first-floor end office of a 20x85-foot house. Two more Velops were then plugged into AC outlets on the second floor, helped by the app's  placement tool. That supplied full coverage of the third floor, too, with fairly uniform downstream signal strength (as measured by Speedtest) of about 75 Mbps.

Previously, I’d felt lucky to score 40-50 Mbps (down) with my Xfinity router and ActionTec extender.

Tweak we can’t. The downside with fully automated WiFi mesh systems (Netgear Orbi is an exception) is that tweakers can’t readily change the settings without the reluctant help of tech support. I didn’t feel the need when web surfing, watching YouTube videos or streaming music on a tablet, laptop or phone. The Linksys Velop auto channel scanning and switching worked fine in my densely populated area, competing with as many as 14 other WiFi networks!

But all that jumping about of signals wreaked havoc on the stability of a multi-room Bose SoundTouch streaming music system, causing the music to start and stop several times before calming down. The channel hopping also disturbed Netflix streaming through an LG ultra high-definition TV set. The picture quality of ultra high-definition movies kept shifting between 4K grade resolution (requiring 25 Mbps) and 2K (needing 15 Mbps).

After consulting with a Bose tech wizard, I convinced an upper-echelon Linksys adviser to help me lock the Velop system onto a single 2.4 Ghz “Static IP” channel while keeping the 5 Ghz selection free-floating. Since that fix, my multiroom music and video streaming have stabilized, for the most part.

Depending on neighborhood traffic/time of day, Speedtest samplings now show Velop’s downstream delivery ranging from 43-89 Mbps, all around the house. I can live with that.