GOOGLE WIFI TESTED
Has the future of Wi-fi just arrived?
If you’ve been following our reviews in recent issues of Web User, you’ll have noticed the arrival of ‘mesh’ Wi-fi routers, which use two or more devices to create a better spread of coverage around your home – and it looks like they’re here to stay. We reviewed Netgear’s Orbi in Issue 415 (bit.ly/issue415), Devolo’s Gigagate in Issue 417 (bit.ly/webuser417) and BT Whole Home Wi-fi in Issue 419 (bit.ly/issue419). All these devices use multiple base stations to create better Wi-fi where you need it.
Google Wifi, however, is different for a number of key reasons. First, it uses the 802.11s mesh Wi-fi standard, which Google says isn’t being used by any of the other residential mesh routers. This is something Google has been working on with the IEEE standards body since it began the Google Wifi project some four years ago, and it brings with it a number of benefits over the proprietary systems employed by other vendors.
The most important advantage is interoperability. As yet, no other manufacturer is using the 802.11s standard, so only Google’s Wifi boxes work with the system, which means they include a degree of future-proofing: if you buy Google Wifi now, you may be able to upgrade your network by adding less expensive devices later on.
Further advantages come from Google’s machinelearning, which it incorporates into its units. By using a dedicated sensing radio to scan your local network environment, Google Wifi can send information about signal strength and congestion back to Google’s servers, which in turn analyse the data and send back information to the units about how and when to hop channels to maintain a strong signal.
This is all very clever but on a more fundamental level, if you want the best coverage, you need to have the right number of devices. On that front, Google Wifi offers good value for money, costing £229 for a twin pack and £129 for each single box thereafter. That may seem expensive in comparison to regular routers, but it’s competitive with its
The app is brilliant and takes you step by step through the setup – the entire process should take less than 15 minutes
rivals, being a slightly cheaper starter option than the BT Whole Home Wi-fi, which is £250 for a three-pack on Amazon, and better value than the Netgear system (£369 for two).
You also need to bear in mind that each of the units in a Google Wifi system is a fully fledged router in its own right. They don’t have a broadband gateway built in so you’ll still need a modem or router to bring your connection from the wall socket, but you get dual-band 802.11ac connectivity with theoretical speeds of up to 1,200Mbps over 5GHZ, along with a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports built into the base of each cylindrical unit.
Setup and app
Unlike regular routers, Google Wifi can’t be administered or set up via your browser; you have to use either the Android or the IOS app. Fortunately, the app is brilliant and takes you step by step through the setup, starting with connecting the first unit to your existing router or modem, through to setting up any additional devices.
You may find that you have to restart your modem or router but the entire process should take less than 15 minutes. The setup analyses your network as you go to make sure you’ve placed the devices in the best possible position, and uses the status LEDS wrapped around each unit’s circumference to indicate the strength of the connection to the rest of the network.
After setting up your mesh, you only need to open the app if you want to use the additional tools. Parental controls, or “Family Wifi” as Google calls it, lets you block devices or groups of devices on a schedule. It’s also possible to pause internet access manually if you want to immediately cut someone’s connection.
By default, guest networks are kept completely separate from your main network, so visitors can’t access file shares or network storage, but Google’s clever system can provide access to devices such as Chromecasts and wireless speakers with a single click.
You can also use the app to access more advanced settings such as port-forwarding, custom DNS (Domain Name System) and setting the network mode, although there’s no way to separate the 2.4GHZ and 5GHZ bands, with Google Wifi taking control of connecting your devices to the most appropriate one. It also uses another technique called “client steering” to ensure laptops, phones and tablets connect to the unit with the strongest signal.
The most important thing to recognise about Google Wifi is that if you have enough units, you’ll always get a strong Wi-fi signal, no matter where you are in your home.
Signal strength and speed
We tested Google Wifi in a narrow Victorian terraced house that spans three storeys and has rooms divided by thick brick walls. Two units were enough to provide a solid signal in all parts of the house at the full 38Mbps offered by the existing Sky Broadband connection.
However, this isn’t the fastest mesh Wi-fi system around. The BT Whole Home Wi-fi system, for instance, has faster speeds at both close and long range, as does the Netgear Orbi. That’s not surprising, though, as those systems offer tri-band connectivity and are able to transfer data at higher rates between devices.
One thing we should point out, though: don’t just buy a single Google Wifi unit with a view to adding more later because you’ll almost certainly suffer a downgrade in long-range connectivity and throughput. We tested a single unit from a kitchen extension at the rear of the house and it provided a usable but slow 5Mbps download throughput to our test laptop.