Our Google WiFi rating: 5/5
In a home full of smart bulbs, voice assistants, cameras, streaming TV, music and more, a strong WiFi network is the backbone. This month, we made the jump from 3-year old “antennas and a black box” router to Google WiFi, a mesh network system. Yes, it’s more expensive up front than renting a modem/router from your ISP, but it’s an investment that instantly paid off in terms of reduced frustration and faster response times on all our smart home systems and high tech toys.
What is mesh networking?
A mesh WiFi network is like a router + repeaters. The “mesh” part refers to how the signal is spread further and more evenly throughout a space. Your device is automatically and seamlessly “handed off” from one WiFi point to another, so you’re always connected to whichever one will give you the strongest signal.
It’s still a normal WiFi network – you can name it, put a password on it, secure it, and your devices won’t be able to tell the difference.
Mesh networking equipment for the home has exploded in popularity (and plummeted in price!) over the last couple of years. These systems include Google WiFi, Eero, Netgear Orbi, Linksys Velop, and more. Prices range from a couple hundred to over $500 for a starter kit, but the general idea is the same. One “node” or “point” acts as your router, the rest exist to spread the signal further.
Mesh networking systems come with built-in QoS (quality of service – ie: sacrificing your PC’s download speed so your Netflix stream doesn’t buffer all night) and are designed for loads of devices making demands simultaneously. This innovation is well-timed, because home automation enthusiasts (like us) spent those same years packing their networks with Hue bulbs, smart speakers, voice-activated assistants, and streaming devices.
Why we switched to mesh
We just moved to a new house, an 1800-square-foot single-story house with the router at one end and all our computers and WiFi-hungry devices at the other end.
Network congestion and signal degradation with our not-that-old Netgear router made it so we couldn’t dim our lights if our Playstation was downloading updates, printer jobs randomly disappeared, our baby monitor camera took ages to connect to, and our voice-activated assistants (Echo and Google Home both) were having trouble communicating with WeMo and Hue.
Basically, our old router was no match for whatever our 1980’s-era walls are made of, and pretty much everything we own sits between our router and our WiFi devices.
It was time to get meshed up!
What is Google WiFi?
Google WiFi is a replacement for your home network’s router. Pick one of these (they’re all the same) and use it in place of your router. Place the other two elsewhere in your home (more on that later) to extend the signal.
The “satellite” nodes only need a power cord, no additional wires, to repeat the signal. Instead of multiple side-by-side networks like you get with WiFi extenders and many modern routers that split the signal into two bands, the Google WiFi network has one name. Both the 2.4ghz and 5ghz band are combined under one name, and devices automatically connect to a suitable band.
Each additional node you add to your “mesh” carries the signal further. By default, a single WiFi point can carry the signal about 1000 feet.
If you’ve dealt with flaky WiFi repeaters in the past, these are effortless by comparison. There are no antennas to point and setup is fast since the “extenders” are designed to be a part of the network by default.
Who is Google WiFi for?
- Homes with lots of “always on” devices such as Hue bulbs, Amazon Echo, smart thermostats, Google Home, etc.
- Homes with Philips Hue bulbs can take advantage of the on.here feature for easy access to lightbulbs on/off and colors
- Households streaming from multiple sources simultaneously
- Online gamers
- Parents who want to control when kids’ devices can access the Internet
- Huge houses – even the starter kit with 3 WiFi points is supposed to cover a 3000-4500 square foot home
Google WiFi installation and setup
Unboxing Google WiFi
Inside the hotdog-shaped box are three WiFi nodes, three power cables, one Ethernet cable, and one page of instructions.
Installing Google WiFi
Installation took us about 40 minutes. That includes opening the box, taking photos, removing the old router, putting the Google WiFi in its place, placing the two additional WiFi points, and patting ourselves on the backs.
Installation was easy.
Any node can become the primary WiFi point (the one that replaces your old router). Take the Ethernet cable that runs from your modem to your router and plug it into the Google WiFi point instead. Plug in the power adapter.
The power cables and adapters are one unit – alas, not USB (in case you have one of those nice USB power strips). However, the adapters are relatively slim and probably won’t hog too much space on your power strip.
There’s just one “outgoing” Ethernet port. We used it to connect to our Philips Hue Hub.
The rest of the installation takes place in the Google WiFi app, using a Bluetooth connection to the WiFi point. WiFi points are added by scanning their QR codes.
I was dreading a scenario in which we had to individually re-add every single Echo, Google Home, Philips Hue lightbulb, camera, etc. to our new Google WiFi network. That didn’t happen, because we used the same network name and password for our new network. Most of our devices hopped over on their own. The only devices that had to be manually re-connected to the network were the devices that had been set to only use the 5ghz band of the old network.
The overall design and attention to detail on the WiFi point hardware itself is excellent.
The units feel durable, with a good weight to them. They have thin rubber “feet” in two arcs on the bottom to help them stay in place. The power cords are generous in length – maybe 5 feet each.
The light strip around the center can be dimmed or completely turned off. With the lights turned off, our toddler doesn’t seem to notice them (which is a relief – she was fascinated by our old router and all its blinking lights).
On the back/bottom is a cut-out for wires, so you don’t end up with wires sticking out in every direction from your primary WiFi point.
How we arranged our Google WiFi points
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the WiFi points should be in a straight line through your house. We found that impractical for our house’s design, so we put ours in a triangle shape instead.
To give you a sense of how powerful a single point is, the Yi camera in the baby’s room keeps putting itself on the primary WiFi point in the living room. The primary point emits a strong enough 2.4ghz signal that the baby’s room WiFi point is unnecessary for the camera.
However, the Yi camera is a 2.4ghz device, not a 5ghz device. 5ghz is stronger, but doesn’t travel quite as far, so devices that can use the 5ghz network (such as our phones) still benefit from the node placed in the baby’s room.
Each point spreads its signal somewhere between 500 and 1000 feet, according to Google. Actual performance varies due to building materials, presence of walls, and other factors.
What’s improved now that we’re on Google WiFi
Here’s what got better for us:
- Stronger signal in the master bedroom
- Faster download/upload speeds in the master bedroom
- No more micromanaging which devices are on which network bands (2.4ghz or 5ghz)
- Instant connection to our Yi camera streams
- Hue bulbs don’t become “unreachable” while downloading – with our Netgear router, we often lost connection to our Hue bulbs while downloading game updates
- Devices no longer seem to be dropping off the network randomly
- Music streaming no longer cuts out randomly (this was a problem with both Spotify and Amazon Music)
- Better insight into which devices are using bandwidth, and how strong their signal is
- “on.here” URL lets anyone on our network control our Hue lights, even if they don’t have the Hue app (great for when the baby’s grandparents are over)
- 5ghz band everywhere! It used to taper off right around where we have our TV and computers
In the near future we’ll be setting up Google WiFi at my parents’ house, which is considerably larger, with 2 stories plus a basement. We will update this review after we see how it performs in their home.
The Google WiFi app is sweet, too
If you have an old-school router you’re probably used to going to 192.168.0.1 (or a branded URL or similar) to access your router, and then having to log in with credentials you forgot about 2 minutes after you set them up.
That’s all gone now – just open the Google WiFi app and there’s everything you need.
It’s easy to add other people as “managers” (through their Google account), too, so you don’t end up in a situation where only one person can (or knows how to) get into the router.
Here are just a few of the things that are easy to do in the Google WiFi app:
- Set a priority device for X hours
- View all the connected devices, by name (which you can easily customize)
- Pause WiFi access per device and/or by groups of devices
- Set up a Guest WiFi network so your grubby guests can be quarantined
- Perform a network test
- See “patch notes” from recent updates to the app and firmware
This meets our needs fine. If there’s any feature we miss, it’s being able to micromanage QoS (quality of service) by setting certain devices as higher priority than others. (This was a feature we liked on our ASUS Wireless-AC1900, the router we set up at our weekend place and our parents’ homes.)
Google WiFi’s advanced networking features
Google WiFi strives to be “set it and forget it” but it’s still got many useful “advanced” features, including:
- DNS – set to Google’s 126.96.36.199, your ISP’s DNS, or a custom DNS
- WAN – chose from DHCP, Static IP, and PPPoE
- LAN settings – set LAN address, subnet mask, DHCP address pool start IP and end IP
- UPnP (Universal Plug n Play) – toggle on or off
- IPv6 enable/disable
- DCHP IP reservations
- Port forwarding rules – add, delete
- Device mode – switch to Bridge mode to resolve a Double NAT problem, with some caveats
Device Sharing gives easy access to Philips Hue (and other systems)
The Google WiFi network comes with a neat feature called Device Sharing – just type on.here into your browser’s address bar on your phone or computer to get access to some home automation devices on your network.
Philips Hue is integrated with Google WiFi. You can turn lights on/off and change their color through this web portal, no additional credentials needed.
What doesn’t Google WiFi do?
Google WiFi is a powerful “set it and forget it” system, where features that we now expect (such as 2.4ghz and 5ghz bands) come standard, but with fewer micromanagement opportunities.
You no longer have to (get to?) pick between the 2.4ghz and 5.0ghz bands. Your devices will automatically choose which one to be on. If you want to be really strict about which device(s) go on which band, you won’t have that level of control with Google WiFi.
With Google WiFi, you can only set priority to one device – and it expires after 4 hours. We can’t set both our computers or PlayStations to be high priority devices at the same time. There’s no granular QoS exposed to the user.
On the bright side, since upgrading to Google WiFi we haven’t seen the QoS-related problems we were having with our Netgear router while simultaneously streaming music and downloading game updates.
A few more things: There’s no dynamic DNS or auto-renewing dynamic DNS with Google WiFi. There’s also no VPN (you’d have to get a separate piece of hardware to support VPN.)
The bottom line
The Google WiFi router-replacement system is excellent. We love it. It fixed our quality of service issues – no more Spotify cutting out, no more lost printer jobs – and brought WiFi to the far end of our house. Setup is a breeze and the WiFi points take up very little space. Best of all, we’ll never fiddle with router antennas again.