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Best mesh routers of 2020: Asus, Orbi, Eero, Google Nest and more – CNET

We’re all depending on our home Wi-Fi networks more than ever these days — and few things are more frustrating than dead zones where the signal drops or you just can’t connect. If you’re looking to eliminate issues like those, your best bet is to upgrade your home’s router to a mesh system that uses range-extending satellite devices to better spread a speedy signal from room to room. 

A good mesh system will automatically “route” your connection as you move through your home, steering you from band to band within a single, unified Wi-Fi network. It’ll also decide when to route your connection through a satellite device and when to send your signal straight to the main router. That’s better than what you’ll get from a simple range extender, and it makes for a more seamless home internet experience with more consistent speeds in each room and fewer dead zones, if any. 

Mesh Wi-Fi systems are a lot more expensive than range extenders, and typically more expensive than single-point, standalone wireless routers, too — but the cost has come down quite a bit in the last year or so, thanks to a new wave of options.

Chief among those are new systems from Eero, which popularized mesh networking before being bought by Amazon in 2019
, as well as new offerings from Netgear Orbi and Google Nest. Mesh systems like those regularly sold for as much as $400 or even $500 a few years ago, but now all of these manufacturers and others offer multipoint mesh router systems — including the main router and the satellite devices, or nodes — that cost less than $300, if not less than $200. I’ve even seen entry-level mesh systems selling for as little as $99, provided you can catch the right sale.

Read more: The best Wi-Fi routers in 2020

We’ve still got lots of routers and mesh systems we’d like to try out — including a growing number of new mesh options that use Wi-Fi 6 technology
to promise better performance and faster speeds. Mesh routers that support Wi-Fi 6E, which means they can access a newly unlocked mass of bandwidth in the 6GHz band, should start to arrive in early 2021. But with plenty of speed and coverage tests already under our belt, we’re ready to make a couple of recommendations for anyone who wants to upgrade now.

To help you choose the best mesh Wi-Fi network system to meet your needs, here’s a rundown of how your top options stack up against the competition, as well as our most up-to-date speed test results. Expect regular updates to this post in the coming months as more new Wi-Fi mesh routers come to market.

Read more: The best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody

Chris Monroe/CNET

A few years ago, the Google Wifi became a breakout hit thanks to its easy setup and its ability to spread a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection throughout your home for all of your connected devices. Now, there’s the Nest Wifi, a second-gen follow-up that adds in faster top speeds and a better-looking design, plus Google Assistant smart speakers built into each range extender. The price is a little lower this time around, too — $269 for the two-piece setup above, with roughly the same area of Wi-Fi coverage as a three-piece, $300 Google Wifi setup from a few years back.

In fact, as of writing this on Aug. 17, the two-piece Nest Wifi setup is on sale for $199, which is about as inexpensive as multipiece mesh routers get.

On average, the Nest Wifi notched the fastest top speeds that we saw from any Wi-Fi 5 mesh router (and faster speeds than the newest Linksys Velop system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 and costs more than twice as much). Plus, the two-piece setup offered enough signal strength to provide sufficient coverage at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home. It also aced our mesh tests, never once dropping my connection as I moved about my home taking speed tests. I never caught it routing my connection through the extender when connecting directly to the router was faster, either.

The lack of Wi-Fi 6 support might seem like a missed opportunity, but the Nest Wifi does include support for modern features like WPA3 security, device grouping and prioritization, and 4×4 MU-MIMO connections that offer faster aggregate speeds for devices like the MacBook Pro that can use multiple Wi-Fi antennas at once. It’s also fully backwards compatible with previous-gen Google Wifi setups, which is a smart touch. All of it is easy to set up, easy to use and easy to rely on, making it the most well-rounded mesh router pick of the bunch, and the first one I’d recommend to just about anyone looking to upgrade their home network.

Read our Nest Wifi review.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Eero was an early pioneer of the mesh networking approach, and last year, it got scooped up by Amazon. Now, with the online megaretailer’s backing, there’s a new Eero system that costs about half as much as before — $249 for a three-piece setup that promises to cover up to 5,000 square feet. That’s a terrific price (and about $100 less than a three-piece setup from Nest).

Eero wasn’t the fastest mesh system we tested — in fact, it came in dead last when we looked at the top speeds for a single device from each system. Still, you won’t notice much a difference in your speeds compared to Netgear or Nest or any other system unless your home’s internet connection is 500 megabits per second or faster.

What you will notice is that third device extending your network’s range, especially if you live in a larger-sized home, where the difference between a mesh system with a single extender and one with two or more extenders can be pretty significant. Eero nets you a dependable system with two extenders for less money than most, and additional Eero devices cost $100 each, which is $50 less than Nest. That makes it less expensive to expand upon, too. Couple that with reliably sturdy mesh performance between devices, an excellent, easy-to-use app and a good company track record of support and security updates, and Eero fits right in as one of our top recommendations, particularly if you’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

That said, you might be wise to wait a few weeks before buying in. Faster versions of Eero and the higher-end Eero Pro systems that support Wi-Fi 6 appear to be nearing release, potentially as soon as this month (Amazon has a habit of announcing new hardware in September). I’ll keep an eye out for those and update this space once I know more.

Read our Eero review.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At a retail price of $700, the newest, brawniest version of the Netgear Orbi is too expensive to recommend outright — but if you just want the fastest mesh router money can buy, look no further.

With full support for Wi-Fi 6 and a second 5GHz band that serves as a dedicated backhaul connection for the router and its satellites, the powerful system was downright impressive in our tests, with top speeds of nearly 900Mbps at close range in our lab. That’s one of the fastest numbers we’ve ever seen from a mesh router in that test, and it only fell to 666Mbps at a distance of 75 feet — which is still faster than we saw from Nest Wifi up close, just five feet away.

Things got even more impressive when we took the Orbi AX6000 home to test its performance in a real-world setting. With an incoming internet connection of 300Mbps serving as a speed limit, the system returned an average speed throughout the whole home of 289Mbps, including speeds at the farthest point from the router that were 95% as fast as when connecting up close. That’s an outstanding result — no other mesh router I’ve tested in my home comes close.

Again, the problem is the price. $700 is simply too expensive for most folks, especially given that you’ll need a connection of at least 500Mbps in order to notice much of a difference between this system and others we like that cost less than half as much. Other Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems coming in 2020 will cost a lot less, too — it definitely makes sense to wait for those if you can. 

Still, if the Orbi AX6000 ever goes on sale, I know I’ll be tempted. In the meantime, know that Netgear just quietly released a less expensive AX4200 version of the Orbi mesh system that costs $450. It’s still a triband router that supports Wi-Fi 6, but you don’t get the multigig WAN port that comes with the AX6000 model here. We’ll keep an eye on that one and update this space once we’ve tested it out.

Read the Netgear Orbi 6 review.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It isn’t quite as fast as the Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi listed above, but the Editors’ Choice-winning Asus ZenWiFi AX came awfully close — and at $450 for a two-piece system, it’s a lot easier to afford.

In fact, the ZenWifi AX offers the same multigig WAN ports as the Orbi 6, the same dedicated backhaul band to help keep the system transmissions separate from your network traffic, the same ease of setup and steady mesh performance, and the same strong performance at range. It even comes in your choice of white or black.

I also appreciated the depth of controls in the Asus app, which let you manage your network and customize that backhaul as you see fit. $450 is still a lot, but this system is strong enough to feel like a worthy upgrade pick for those willing to spend. And, if $450 is a bit too much for your budget, know that there’s a new, smaller version of this system called the Asus ZenWiFi AX Mini. It isn’t as high-powered, but it comes with three devices that all support Wi-Fi 6 for $300, which makes it pretty interesting. We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve had a chance to test it out for ourselves.

Read the Asus ZenWiFi AX review.

Ry Crist/CNET

I did a double take the first time I saw the price tag for the slimmed down, dual-band version of the Netgear Orbi mesh router system. At $129 for a two-piece setup or $200 for a three-piece setup, it’s a clear value pick — and a dramatic turnaround from the original Netgear Orbi, which was way too expensive at $400 for a two-pack.

Netgear brought the cost down by sticking with Wi-Fi 5, ditching the built-in Alexa speaker that comes with Orbi Voice and skipping the triband approach and its dedicated, 5GHz backhaul band that other Orbi systems use to connect each device in the mesh. I wonder if Netgear missed an opportunity by not branding this system as “Orbi Lite.”

It all makes for a less robust mesh system than other Orbi setups, but I hardly noticed in my tests. Among the Wi-Fi 5 systems I’ve tested, the dual-band Netgear Orbi actually notched the fastest top speeds at close range, it kept up with the Nest and Eero in our real-world speed tests, and it offered excellent signal strength in the large CNET Smart Home.

Netgear’s app isn’t as clean or intuitive as Nest or Eero’s, and the network didn’t seem quite as steady as those two as it steered me from band to band in my tests, but those are quibbles at this price. If you just want something affordable — perhaps to tide you over until you’re ready to make the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 — then the new Netgear Orbi definitely deserves your consideration.

Read our Netgear Orbi review.

Wi-Fi 6 systems from AmpliFi, Arris, Netgear and Asus led our top speed tests, while the Nest Wifi router had the fastest average download speeds of the Wi-Fi 5 systems we tested (it even outperformed the Wi-Fi 6 version of Linksys Velop). Meanwhile, a single Eero device doesn’t perform well at range when used on its own.


Ry Crist/CNET

Top speeds

As I said, we’ve already run a good number of speed tests with these systems. When we clocked the top wireless transfer speeds for a single Wi-Fi router from each system, it was the AmpliFi Alien, the Arris Surfboard MaxNetgear’s Orbi 6, the Netgear Nighthawk and the Asus RT-AX92U that led the way with top speeds comfortably north of 800Mbps at close range. No surprise there, as each one supports Wi-Fi 6, the fastest version of Wi-Fi yet.

Behind those two was the Nest Wifi, which took fourth place for fastest average speeds across all distances. The Nest Wifi doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, but it still managed to finish one spot ahead of the newest Linksys Velop system, which does. The new, budget-friendly, Wi-Fi 5 version of Netgear Orbi impressed us, too — it was even faster than the Nest at close range.

Meanwhile, a single Eero device registered a top wireless transfer speed of just under 500Mbps at close range. At a distance of 75 feet (23 meters), the Eero’s speed plummeted to 45Mbps.

That’s a noteworthy result (and it jumps right out at you in that graph above), but keep in mind that most mesh systems feature dedicated router devices that are slightly different than the Wi-Fi extenders. With Eero, any device can act as a Wi-Fi router or a range extender. Each one is designed to build the best mesh possible, not necessarily to ace a standalone speed test like this one.

And remember also that these top speed tests take place in our lab. We wire each router to a MacBook Pro ($900 at Back Market) that acts as a local server, then download data from it to another laptop on the router’s Wi-Fi network. That lets us see how fast each router can move data without the variables and limitations that come with downloading data from the cloud via your internet service provider.

Here are the average download speeds by room for each Wi-Fi 5 system we tested in a small, 1,300-square-foot home with a 300Mbps internet connection. The Netgear Orbi Voice and Nest Wifi had the highest averages overall, though the Nest Wifi provided a much more reliable connection. Note that you won’t see much of a difference in speeds from system to system in such a small environment.


Ry Crist/CNET

Real-world speeds

Top speed tests are one thing, but it’s important to also take a close look at how well these mesh routers perform when you add in the range extenders and pull data from the cloud, the way they’ll be used 99% of the time. So, I took each one home, set it up on my 300Mbps AT&T fiber network, and spent quite a bit of time running speed tests in order to find out.

Read more: Best internet providers in 2020

With a single range extender relaying the signal from each router, all three of our top-recommended Wi-Fi systems were able to register a whole-home average of about 200Mbps across a minimum of 90 speed tests each, all of them conducted at different times on different days and in different spots throughout my 1,300-square-foot house. In the room farthest from the router, each one clocked in with an average speed of about 150Mbps, which is a strong result.

Here’s a glimpse at the spreadsheet I use to record speed tests in my home, with my results from the Netgear Orbi Voice tests. Note the little red, orange and yellow blips — those are all points at which the mesh messed up, sometimes dropping my connection outright.


Ry Crist/CNET

Same goes for the previous-gen Netgear Orbi Voice, which also performed well in this test as far as speeds are concerned. However, the system did a poor job of optimizing my connection as I moved throughout the house, often routing my signal through the extender when it would have been better to connect directly to the router, or vice versa. I didn’t have problems like that at all with the Nest or Eero.

Of those four Wi-Fi systems, the Eero netted the fastest average speeds at close range, while the Nest and Orbi Voice were slightly ahead at range, but none of the average speeds for any of the rooms I tested in were noticeably different from each other. 

That sort of indistinguishable performance is a strong argument in favor of the new Netgear Orbi, since it’s the cheapest. But there are two reasons why it isn’t my top overall pick. First, the app controls are clunkier and less helpful than the Nest or Eero. Second: Though the issue wasn’t as frequent as I experienced with the Orbi Voice, there were multiple points during my Orbi tests at which I lost my connection to the router as I moved about the house with my laptop. The Nest and Eero never dropped me as they automatically steered me from band to band within a single network for the best possible connection.

The Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I tested in my home were each able to perform noticeably better than previous-gen systems at range (the master bedroom and back bathroom). Even if your home uses Wi-Fi 5 gadgets (like mine does, where I run these tests), your network will still benefit from that Wi-Fi 6 connection between the router and the satellite.


Ry Crist/CNET

What about Wi-Fi 6?

I’ve tested seven mesh systems in my home that support the new, faster Wi-Fi standard — though it’s worth noting that I run my speed tests on a laptop with previous-gen Wi-Fi 5 hardware. I’ll likely make an upgrade here in 2020, but for now, it’s a good opportunity to see whether or not these new Wi-Fi 6 routers can make any sort of noticeable difference in a Wi-Fi 5 home like mine.

And, as it turns out, they actually do. Specifically, you can see better performance at range, with speeds that don’t dip as much in that master bedroom and back bathroom. With the top-performing Netgear Orbi 6 system, speeds hardly dipped at all. Connecting near the satellite in that master bedroom and back bathroom was almost as good as connecting near the router itself in the living room.

That likely stems from the fact that the router and the satellite are able to use Wi-Fi 6 to relay signals back and forth more efficiently, and at faster speeds. The system also dedicates an entire 5GHz band to the backhaul transmissions between the router and satellite, which also makes a big difference.

Just know that adding an extra band into the mix really brings the price up. The Asus models I tested each cost about $400 or so, while the Linksys Velop, AmpliFi Alien, Arris Surfboard Max Pro and Netgear Orbi 6 systems each cost about $600 or $700 for a two-pack. Of them all, I like the Asus ZenWiFi AX the best — that one finished my performance tests in a very close second behind the Netgear Orbi 6, but at $450, it costs about $250 less than that top-of-the-line system.

I also tested the Netgear Nighthawk mesh WiFi system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 but doesn’t include an extra backhaul band. That means that your network traffic has to share bandwidth with the transmissions between the router and the satellite, but it also brings the cost way down. At $230 for a 2-pack, it’s pretty tempting, but the performance was too shaky for me to recommend it.

It’s also worth remembering that your router can only pull data from the cloud as fast as your internet connection allows. With the average download speed in the US currently sitting around 100Mbps or so, there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to push a Wi-Fi 6 router to its full potential anytime soon — and aside from a few key flagships like the iPhone 11 ($699 at Amazon) and the Samsung Galaxy S10 ($459 at Back Market) and Note 10 smartphones, there aren’t many client devices that can take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 yet, either.

All of which is to say that unless you’re lucky enough to live with a high-speed, gigabit internet connection, you’re probably better off waiting for a particularly good sale. If you can hold off until Black Friday, great. In the meantime, I’ll continue to test new systems as they arrive, and will update this post regularly as I gather new data and publish additional reviews. The next Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I plan to test include new options from D-Link, TP-Link and Arris, so stay tuned for those results.

cnet-smart-home-promo-pic-2017.jpg

A mesh router system makes the most sense in a large environment — like, say, the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Quality of coverage

Speed tests are all well and good, but a mesh router system is overkill in a 1,300-square-foot home like mine. So, for our next test, we headed to the CNET Smart Home, a four-bedroom, 5,800-square-foot house on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky. Our goal: determine which system provides the strongest signals and Wi-Fi access across the entire place.

To do this, we mapped out the home’s upstairs and downstairs floor plans, then fed that data into NetSpot’s free software for measuring signal strength. We chose the most sensible spots for the routers and range extenders, along with dozens of specific points from which to measure each network’s signal strength, both inside the home and out.

Here’s the signal strength for each of our top three Wi-Fi 5 systems in the CNET Smart Home with a single router broadcasting the signal to a single extender, both of which are located on the main floor. Yellow is great, green is good and blue is bad. All three systems provided comparable coverage here, though Netgear impressed us with how strong the signal stayed in the basement.


Steve Conaway/CNET

Then, we set each router up accordingly and spent a day taking measurement after measurement after measurement. What resulted was a colorful set of nifty-looking heat maps showing us just how strong the signal is from room to room.

A couple of things about those heat maps. First, to keep things fair, we measure a two-piece setup for each system — one router and one extender. We may do additional tests with two extenders in play if the system includes one, as was the case with Eero — but for the purposes of these heat maps, we want to give you a good, comparative look at how these systems perform.

Second, know that we placed each router and extender in the exact same spot for each test (the software approximates their location, which is why it looks like they’re in slightly different places from map to map).

Finally, it’s worth reiterating that these maps show you the aggregate signal strength of each system throughout the house, and not their actual download speeds. That said, better signal strength means better wireless speeds. My partner-in-testing Steve Conaway summed it up thusly: “Yellow means you’re in heaven, green means good enough, and blue means WTF.”

Here’s how the signal strength looks with the Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers we’ve tested. The AX6000 version of Netgear Orbi was a standout here, but for the most part, things aren’t dramatically better than what you’ll get with Wi-Fi 5.


Steve Conaway/CNET

The first big takeaway from our coverage tests is that the Netgear Orbi did an impressive job at spreading a strong signal to the basement, even with both the router and the range extender located upstairs. That lines up with our speed test data, where the Netgear consistently kept up with the Nest and Eero at range. These coverage tests suggest that in a large enough home, the Netgear might actually outperform those two systems outright.

Those three — the Nest, Eero, and the dual-band, AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi — are our top Wi-Fi 5 systems. But what about the Wi-Fi 6 systems we’ve tested?

Well, take a look for yourself. As you can see, there isn’t a huge, across-the-board improvement in signal strength — but the AX6000, Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi was a standout, registering especially strong signal strength near the router and extender. The latter might help explain why it was able to do so well in our tests, where wireless speeds near the extender were practically as fast as if I was connecting near the router itself.

That’s a better result than I’ve seen from any other system I’m tested, and it’s a big reason why a $700 two-piece Orbi 6 system is the only pick in that high-end class of expensive triband Wi-Fi 6 mesh setups that I’m currently comfortable recommending.

I’ve highlighted the other key takeaway in the adjacent GIF, which shows the coverage for the full, three-piece Eero setup. No huge surprise, but that three-piece setup provided noticeably better coverage than the two-piece Nest and Netgear setups, because we were able to add an additional range extender down in the basement.

All three systems provided comparable coverage in a big space like the CNET Smart Home — but Eero’s $250 starter kit adds in a third device. We placed it in the basement, where signal strength tends to be weak, and it made a big, noticeable difference.


Steve Conaway/CNET

Translation: If you’ve got a large home that’s 4,000 square feet or more, then you should prioritize getting a setup with more than one range extender. I think Eero is your best option at $250, and a better value than the three-piece Nest Wifi kit, which costs $349

Then again, a three-piece Netgear Orbi mesh kit is now available for $200, and it’s just one of a number of other new options this year. If you’re buying right now, I’d recommend spending the extra cash on Eero for the steady performance and the superior smartphone app. That said, testing out that three-piece Orbi setup is pretty high on my to-do list, so expect an update to this space once we have fresh data for you.

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A new, less expensive version of the Arris Surfboard Max Wi-Fi 6 mesh router is expected to arrive this year.


Arris

What’s next in 2020?

It’s been a busy year for the router beat. Here’s just a sampling of some of the new routers that debuted at CES in early January:

All of those systems support Wi-Fi 6 — and note that three of them don’t cost any more than current top pick Nest Wifi, which only supports Wi-Fi 5. Another new system, the Asus ZenWiFi AX Mini, is a three-piece mesh Wi-Fi router that costs $300, the same price as the new Wi-Fi 5 Eero debuted at last year. 

Needless to say, I’m mighty interested in testing those new systems out, so expect to see fresh speed tests just as soon as we can get our hands on them. Do stay tuned.

We’ll also continue hunting for good values among Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers, as well. One that I’m currently testing while sheltering in place at my home is the TP-Link Deco M5, a three-piece mesh system similar to Eero or the Netgear Orbi AC1200. I won’t be able to run my top speed or signal strength tests until we’re back at the office, so that review is on hold for now — but so far, its performance seems to be about on par with with the dual-band Netgear Orbi, perhaps with slightly lower top speeds. Originally priced at $299, that three-piece TP-Link system is currently available for just $170. It might make it worth a look if you just want a functional system with two range extenders from a major manufacturer that’s as affordable as possible.

More internet and computing recommendations   

Source
CNET.COM

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