You don’t need to think back too far to remember a time when routers were clunky, complicated to set up, and not necessarily reliable, even with high-end hardware.
But regarding hardware, what’s your best option for home or office WiFi networks? Standard routers are better than ever, but mesh WiFi systems represent big innovations on multiple fronts.
What is the truth about mesh WiFi systems versus standard routers, how do they differ, and which one is best to meet the needs of your network?
Let’s examine all the main points you need to know, starting now.
Mesh WiFi vs. Router Basics
If you need a refresher on the foundations of WiFi networking and how these technologies work on a basic level, start here.
Gateway to the Internet
Whether you plug in a standard router or set up a huge mesh network across multiple floors, the ultimate goal is the same – connect your devices to the internet without the burden of cables, cords, or wires.
Wireless internet is made possible by technology that converts wired connections into radio signals, which are broadcasted across the intended area to be picked up by devices of all kinds. Add all those components together, and you’ve got a local area network.
So, when comparing hardware such as standard routers and mesh WiFi systems, keep in mind that they are more similar than they are different.
As we’ll discuss, the differences between these technologies are in the implementation, capabilities, and other factors like cost, convenience, and controls.
Key Performance Metrics
If you’ve followed WiFi from the beginning, you’ll know that not all networks are equal in how they perform. But what metrics determine performance, and how does this apply when comparing mesh networks to standard routers?
Here are the three key metrics you should consider when looking at any type of wireless network technology for the home, office, and beyond.
Speed: Bandwidth and streaming requirements have increased drastically in a few short years, with the rise of video chat, gaming, and live content, and more.
While the speed of your wireless connection is mainly determined by the internet service you pay for, routers also have an impact on transmitting that data without compromising network speed.
That’s why you should always ensure a new router is engineered to handle the top-range speeds you expect from your internet service – otherwise, bandwidth may go to waste.
Stability: With dozens of devices connected to a network at a given time, it’s critical that connections remain strong and consistent throughout the day.
A lack of network stability can result in dropped connections, inconsistent speeds, and unpredictable service due to bottlenecks and traffic. When you can’t rely on your network, router issues are typically to blame.
The best routers and mesh network hardware is designed to keep connections stable and consistent, even under heavy demand.
Coverage: Every router has its limits for how far it can transmit its radio signal, and on the outer limits of that range, connections tend to slow down or suffer from instability.
The dreaded “dead zone” is an issue for even the most powerful standard routers, and why people use hardware like wireless access points, range extenders, and mesh networks.
Coverage is at the core of the mesh vs. standard router debate, and we’ll explain how mesh has a distinct advantage over traditional routers in this key category.
Cost and Convenience
For many consumers looking to set up WiFi in the home, they’re not interested in spending a fortune or wasting hours trying to configure a complicated maze of hardware and software.
That’s why cost and convenience must always be considered when comparing network technology head to head.
Since mesh WiFi has only been widely accessible since 2015, it follows that this technology was originally more expensive upon release, with a slightly more complex setup.
However, advancement has been rapid in the mesh WiFi space, and now prices are comparable to standard routers, along with streamlined and simple setup processes.
Of course, the more units that come with a mesh WiFi kit, the higher the overall cost of the system. Today’s mesh devices are available in pairs, sets of three, and even more.
You’ll find that prices vary across the board for these technologies, and shoppers must account for the value of proprietary software, performance, and other features.
Traditional Router Pros and Cons
There are plenty of advantages to using a standard, traditional router to achieve your ideal network. Here are some pros and cons to think about when looking at these products.
Simplicity and Setup
Modern routers should be commended for speed of implementation and an easy-to-follow process. However, this isn’t to say that mesh network systems are always more complicated to set up. Intuitive networking is made possible with clear instructions and native apps.
As you’ll see, the latest mesh WiFi hardware is equally intuitive and hassle-free, making this point of comparison less relevant as it once was.
Overall, standard routers do offer more of a “plug-and-play” advantage, simply because there is less hardware to work with and fewer variables to address.
The main caveat here is that to attain broader coverage, users may need to add components like network extenders and signal boosters to the network, which is often less intuitive than the streamlined setup of a mesh WiFi system.
Ideal for Smaller Spaces
If you’re in a smaller apartment, condo, dorm room, or office space, a single, standard router is likely a better option than a multi-faceted mesh network.
That’s because on average, a standard router will cover around 1,500 square feet of space with a strong signal – more than enough to serve a typical 2-bedroom apartment in most countries.
For individuals who have fewer than 10 devices connected at once, a standard router will usually do the job, as well. Some enterprise-grade routers are designed for greater capacity, but these aren’t needed for most home setups.
Coverage and Management Issues
Things get more complicated, of course, when coverage requirements go above that 1,500 square foot range, and a standard router is pushed beyond its limits. This is where stability and speed may be compromised, or dead zones could emerge.
There is also the issue of obstacles in an environment (concrete slabs, appliances, electrical panels) that can interfere with a signal from one router. It’s never a guarantee that a signal will perform flawlessly despite being in range.
Finally, a router’s performance must be considered from a device management standpoint. Not just the number of devices that can be connected at once, but also how traffic is directed and prioritized based on location and bandwidth demands.
Mesh Network Pros and Cons
Mesh networks are newer and more refined than standard routers, with a few distinct and advantages and downsides. Here are the main points to consider regarding mesh WiFi hardware.
The main upside of mesh network technology is the high level of performance across the three main categories – speed, stability, and coverage.
The best mesh systems can support speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps – usually the top-range speed offered by most internet service providers.
Stability is also benefitted by a seamless mesh network that maintains an equal level of service across the entire space, not inhibited by obstacles or interference from other devices.
Of course, mesh networks are the big winner when it comes to pure coverage. This is the driving force for mesh WiFi technology, highlighted by strong, seamless networks thanks to multiple satellite units.
Compare this to the network extender devices which re-broadcast a weaker signal, reducing the level of performance in favor of more range – not a great trade-off.
The technology to showcase here is dual-band – or in some cases, tri-band – signals that communicate between satellite units, as well as dozens of devices at a time.
Other compelling tech innovations include MU-MIMO, an acronym that stands for multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output, and antenna beamforming.
These features allow mesh routers to direct traffic more effectively in real-time, while also altering the signal direction and strength depending on the immediate needs of the network.
Better Network Management
Managing a WiFi network sounds like a daunting task, but with mesh network technology, anyone can do it. That is thanks to centralized applications that give users all the transparency and control they need.
Now that networks are handling dozens of devices at unprecedented speeds and volume, streamlined network management is vitally important, even at home.
Rather than logging into a convoluted web portal to manage networks and configure settings, mesh WiFi systems allow users to perform all these key tasks from one user-friendly interface.
This also goes for adding new satellite units and expanding the range of the mesh network – far easier than installing any network extender or booster device.
Extra Features and Controls
Transparency into the WiFi network is great, but what about the next level of security and control that many people want in the current era of the internet, especially related to digital parenting?
Best-in-class mesh WiFi systems deliver just that: network-level security features that protect all connected devices, plus strong parental controls that allow parents to set boundaries, time limits, and enforce other rules as they see fit.
Not all mesh WiFi devices are built with these features, so look for products that support proprietary applications and controls for the new generation of connected parents and kids.
How Much is Too Much?
Here’s the pressing question when looking at mesh network systems – is all that coverage and performance necessary for the requirements of your network, especially in smaller environments with fewer devices?
The honest truth is that an expansive, multi-unit mesh network is probably excessive if you’re in a 1000-square foot apartment or a small office with just a few coworkers.
But as we’ll discuss next, you can still benefit from mesh WiFi equipment without using satellite units or wasting coverage you don’t need.
Best of Both Worlds
Is it possible to set up the perfect wireless network with all your favorite features without overspending or compromising on performance? Absolutely – here’s how.
You no longer have to choose between standard routers and mesh networks, thanks to the next generation of advanced routers.
These cutting-edge routers can function perfectly as standalone units, and instantly be upgraded to a mesh system when another unit is added to the network.
No more worrying about completely overhauling your WiFi hardware if you move homes or offices to a bigger location – just add extra satellite units as needed and set up seamless networks in an instant.
Future Proofed for WiFi 6
WiFi 6 was released this past year, making it the perfect time to upgrade to a next-level router. These protocol updates don’t happen often, but are necessary to manage more devices, reduce stability issues, and handle the demands of constant high-bandwidth activity.
Not all routers are designed with the WiFi 6 standard in mind, so keep an eye out for these devices if you’re considering an upgrade.
The Internet of Things Era
Now, we’re living in a WiFi golden age, with coverage and performance leveling up significantly each year.
With work-from-home, online school, social media, and gaming, the Internet of Things (IoT) is no longer a theory – it’s real, and it’s here!
Whether you choose a standard router, a mesh network, or a single router with mesh capabilities, plan to connect far more devices in the near future.
Next-Gen WiFi is Here
Innovation is happening at a rapid rate, and WiFi technology is still a leading indicator.
Your devices, your security, the demands of digital parenting, even the comforts of home – it all hinges on the hardware that forms the backbone of your network.
Choose wisely, and refer back to this guide as you decide.
Mesh Networking vs. Traditional WiFi Routers | ZDNet
Mesh Router vs. WiFi Range Extender | CNET
Router vs. Mesh System | Trusted Reviews