Has the fu­ture of Wi-fi just ar­rived?

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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 (­sue415), Devolo’s Gi­ga­gate in Is­sue 417 (­buser417) and BT Whole Home Wi-fi in Is­sue 419 (­sue419). 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.

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