Updated 9/29/17: Inside section added
It's been almost a year since the first Mesh Wi-Fi Mashup and the follow-on review that added NETGEAR's original Orbi. A lot has changed since then. The industry seems to have settled on "Wi-Fi System" as a better way to refer to this new breed of products designed to blanket your home with fast, seamless Wi-Fi. But, more importantly, a slew of new products have appeared, all aiming to unseat NETGEAR's original Orbi, which currently sits at the top of the market share heap.
So, it's time for a long-overdue look at four new Wi-Fi Systems, including NETGEAR's two Orbi "minis", eero's second generation trio and TP-Link's Deco M5 first mesh-based effort. To provide some context, I also retested Google Wi-Fi, because, as the low-cost leader, it's putting the most sales pressure on Orbi.
At some point, I hope to go back and do individual reviews. But with the backlog that has built up while the kinks were worked out of the Wi-Fi System test process, that may not happen any time soon. So here's a quick rundown of key product features.
Because their feature sets are very different from conventional wireless routers, I've created a different product category for Wi-Fi Systems. So they have their own Charts, Ranker and Finder. The feature tables below are taken from the Finder, which has more information than I've chosen to highlight here. Although there are two main types of Wi-Fi system—mesh and extender—both are treated the same in the Charts and Ranker.
You may notice eero Beacon is not included in this test because eero sent only one Beacon along with the three-node Pro. I'd prefer to test a one-Pro, two Beacon configuration, so will arrange that for a future test.
First, let's focus on what's the same about this group of products. All use multiple mini dual-band 802.11ac access points, that can themselves connect via Wi-Fi, to cover more area with higher bandwidth than a conventional single-point router, or at least that's the plan. Three of the five use a mesh architecture, in which APs (aka mesh nodes), can connect to each other to get back to the one node (the "root") that's connected to your modem. The Orbis use a more familar router / extender (aka "satellite") approach, where satellites can connect only to the router.
The advantage of mesh systems is that they can reach farther by having each node relay your data until it reaches the root. The disadvantage is that each relay point (aka "hop") usually reduces the bandwidth available to the devices connected to the farthest node.
Although the marketing folks have played the usual games with class designations, these are all 2x2 systems. Both flavors of the "mini" Orbis, which NETGEAR would prefer I call the Orbi WiFi System AC2200, adding RBK40 for the version with the desktop satellite and RBK30 for the version with the wall-plugged satellite, still have 2x2 client-facing radios. But the Original Orbi's dedicated 5 GHz backhaul radio has been downgraded from 4x4 to 2x2 to enable the mini's lower cost.
The takeaway here is to not let the difference in numbers fool you, all the products in this group connect to your devices with maximum link rates of 867 Mbps in 5 GHz and either 300 Mbps for Google Wi-Fi or 400 Mbps for the others in 2.4 GHz.
WiFi System Product features
The key difference in this group is in backhaul, or the way they connect among themselves to get back to the one node that's connected to your modem via Ethernet. The Feature table above shows eero, TP-Link and Google nodes can be connected via Ethernet, while the Orbis can't. Yes, yes, NETGEAR says Ethernet backhaul is on Orbi's roadmap, but they've been saying that since the original Orbi launched and have yet to provide a definite timeframe. By the way, if you have Ethernet where you want to place system nodes, you should perhaps be looking building a less expensive system using conventional access points, like Ubiquiti's UAP-AC Lite or PROs...
Another backhaul difference is how it is managed. Orbi does this locally, while the other three products require a companion cloud service to do the heavy lifting. eero Gen 2, Deco and GWiFi can all continue to operate if the cloud service temporarily goes away (eero originally couldn't, but they fixed that). But each cloud service is an essential part of its product, making the products not very useful without it.
Assuming Ethernet backhaul isn't an option, the more significant difference is in wireless backhaul options. Both Orbis and eero Gen 2 have a third 5 GHz radio, for a total of one 2.4 GHz and two 5 GHz. Both Orbi and eero dedicate one radio to the 5 GHz low band (channels 36 - 48) and the other to the high (channels 149 - 165). However, Orbi dedicates the 5 GHz high band radio to backhaul; clients can't connect to it. eero has a more flexible arrangement; devices can connect to any of its three radios.
WiFi System Wireless Features
Note all the products are based on Qualcomm silicon, although not all use Qualcomm's Wi-Fi SON's mesh software platform. Google Wi-Fi is perhaps the furthest away from Wi-Fi SON, using a variant of ChromeOS and 802.11s compliant mesh routing. eero is rumored to have a descendant of the open mesh B.A.T.M.A.N. advanced protocol beating under its off-white shell.
Another glance at the Wireless table above shows all products in this group except eero support band-steering between the radios in a mesh node and node-to-node AP steering. But eero is the only one to implement 802.11r fast-transition, which makes for faster and smoother moves when a device decides it's time to look for a better connection. TP-Link and NETGEAR support 802.11k and v and Google Wi-Fi supports no roam-assistance protocols. See the articles linked from this SNBForum thread for help figuring out the differences among the three roaming assistance standards.
It's important to note that older devices don't support 802.11r and some may have problems interpreting the extra information it includes in Wi-Fi management frames. This is why other manufacturers may have shied away from implementing it. The Pal test device, which uses a Qualcomm chipset not commonly found in wireless devices, in fact could not connect to eero's 5 GHz radios. Fortunately, eero was able to disable 802.11r on my network so that I could complete testing. octoScope is looking into the incompatibility.
Wi-Fi System routing and firewall features are intentionally simplified and won't satisfy anyone who either likes a lot of router knobs to twiddle or needs routing features beyond reserving DHCP addresses or opening a few ports through the firewall, either manually or via UPnP. But in an effort to provide another reason to look their way, both eero and TP-Link's Deco have added features designed to keep you out of trouble on the internets.
These features are indicated by the Content Filtering, Rogue Device Block and Threat Protection attributes in the table below. Threat Protection means devices are blocked from accessing known-bad IP addresses/domains. Rogue Device Block means compromised devices that start showing abnormal behavior are taken offline. An example would be a smart plug that suddenly starts sending a lot outbound traffic, which would be sign it could be a slave bot in a DDoS attack.
WiFi System Firewall / QoS Features
It's tough sorting through the marketing-speak, but both eero's Plus and Deco's HomeCare both have Threat Protection and Rogue Device Block features. Deco's Trend Micro-based HomeCare also includes category-based website filtering. TP-Link includes three years of HomeCare in the Deco M5's cost, while you need to pay $10/month or $99/year for eero Plus.
QoS features are usually limited to Device Priority, which enables setting one device at a time as a "high priority" device that gets first crack at available internet bandwidth. But Deco also supports automatic application-based QoS. Orbi supports neither.
I probably should have mentioned up top that Wi-Fi Systems typically use iOS and Android apps for setup and management. A Bluetooth connection is also typically used during the "onboarding", i.e. setup, process, with a switchover to management over Wi-Fi thereafter. While Orbi has an app for setup and management, you don't need to use it. You can do everything you need to do via web interfaces for both router and satellite.