New home Wi-Fi systems based on wireless mesh technologies keep coming out of the woodwork. That’s a good thing, because being able to compare different systems, seeing what works and what doesn’t, should spur innovation. While most people want a system that you just set up and forget (until the kids complain), I like having a system that you can tweak or obtain data from. But yeah, easy setup also makes it worthwhile.
Enter the AmpliFi wireless mesh system, courtesy of Ubiquiti Labs (the new consumer arm of Ubiquiti Networks). This system includes a cube-shaped router with two satellite units - vertical rectangles attached to a magnetic sphere with a power outlet (more on that later). The router includes an LED screen that displays data about your Wi-Fi network, as well as four Ethernet LAN ports and a USB port (reserved for later use). The company offers three models - the basic system ($199) includes a router and two satellites; the LR system ($299) stands for Super Long Range, and the HD system ($349) supports high-density environments. For this review, I tested the HD system.
Like most of these mesh-based systems, setup is done through an app you download to your smartphone or tablet (iOS and Android supported), but this system also adds the option to set up via a web browser. The router unit connects to a broadband modem, and then booting the system up lets you designate a Wi-Fi name (aka SSID) and password. After a few minutes, the system will let you know whether everything is working or not (luckily in our tests, it was). You could stop right there, as the router itself provides its own Wi-Fi coverage.
But of course, this being a mesh system, there are two additional units to set up - the satellite devices. The design of these is very cool - the top rectangular part features the antenna and an indication of your signal strength. The bottom part, which plugs into a power outlet, features a magnetic sphere that the top part connects to. This lets you rotate the top part in a different direction to obtain a better signal (in theory, you would point the satellite antenna towards the router).
This design does have a drawback, however. Clearly, these are designed to plug into a power outlet on a wall, which then lets you rotate the antenna to the left or right. In testing one of these satellite units, the only power available to me was on a power strip on the floor - not the most aesthetically pleasing setup option. The other two mesh systems I tested - from eero and Luma - offered units that would connect to power via a power cord, letting you place the units on an end table, cabinet or other location. It would be great to see an option from AmpliFi that lets you connect the satellites to a magnetic base station that then connects to an outlet via a power cord.
Like the router setup, connecting the satellites takes a few minutes - the satellites will beep once the network is correctly connected. I also had to do a firmware update for all three devices, but this was also handled through the app.
One other quick note - the design of the AmpliFi system suggests that you place the router in the middle of your house, with the two satellites on the opposite ends of the house (left and right). This then helps eliminate potential multi-hop slowdowns, which occurs when your network traffic needs to jump from one satellite to the other. The system does support multi-hop, I just found it interesting that the manual gave the warning about potential slowdowns if you install the router on one side of the house. In many cases (mine included), the broadband router is placed in a non-central location (one side of the house, basement, etc.), so if you want to avoid the multi-hop scenario, this could involve re-locating the placement of your broadband modem in addition to the router.
Once the network is up and running, the router offers users many helpful data points. The screen is cute, giving you a clock and calendar so you’ll always know what time and day it is. When you tap on the display, other screens appear, giving you information such as total data uploaded/downloaded, the IP addresses for your router and gateway, and real-time upload/download speed settings. On the app, a brightness setting for the displays includes the ability to turn on “Night Mode”, which turns the display’s lighting off at night (you can choose the start and end time for the lights going off). This can help if you’re placing the router in a bedroom and don’t want a bright blue glow to keep you awake.
Advanced settings for the router, accessed through the mobile app, include a DHCP server that lets you choose subnet settings, start and end points, and how long leases last for. You can also set up static leases, do port forwarding and clone the MAC address. You can even put the router into Bridge mode, change from DHCP to a PPoE or static network, if you so desire. It’s encouraging that a mesh system gives advanced options like these, for those of us who like to have more advanced networks within our homes. On the wireless side, you can change wireless security (it defaults to WPA2 PSK, but you can drop that down to WPA or even offer no security, but why would you?), and enable a guest network for visitors to your lovely home. Advanced wireless features let you change the wireless channels on each frequency band.
The app also provides some fun settings that really let you dig into some cool options. For example, a Band Steering toggle tells the router to direct client devices to the 5GHz band for higher performance, with an automatic redirect to the 2.4GHz band if the device falls out of range of the 5GHz area. This option helps eliminate the need for creating two separate network name options, seen on other dual-band routers - the software does this all for you behind the scenes.
A Router Steering option is also very cool - this tells devices to connect directly to the router when possible instead of the satellite mesh points. This option is disabled by default, but some users may wish to enable this in case they are experiencing multi-hop slowdown. This would also likely help in smaller home setups (although in that case I’d probably just disable the wireless satellite anyway).
Other things you can do with the app - perform an Internet speed test (both upload and download) to see if your broadband provider is delivering the service you’re paying for; and see a list of devices connected to your network, with an estimation of its own upload/download speeds. Identifying particular devices can be tricky, as this depends on the hostname of the client devices, which may or may not be changeable by users.
My favorite feature of 2016 is also available on the AmpliFi system - the “Pause the Internet” ability. Like the other Wi-Fi mesh systems I’ve tested, you can push a button and temporarily disable Internet access for all devices on the network, or for individual devices listed on the Devices menu. I like to call this one the “Get your Kids’ Attention Really Fast Without Yelling” feature. Pausing the Internet through the devices menu eliminates the need for setting up separate profiles, which the other systems made me create. But then, you have to also know which device you’re disabling - so make sure you press the right button so you’re not disabling your spouse’s tablet when you meant to disable your kid’s phone.
Getting the system to work with my existing peripherals was not problematic at all. My wireless-enabled printer was able to print jobs, the game consoles quickly connected to the Internet and a network-attached storage drive could be easily accessed by computers, tablets and consoles alike. I liked having the option of four Ethernet ports on the router, which gives more options for devices like the NAS box and other network settings, something the one-port-only systems from Eero and Luma are missing.
Apart from the satellite units' design that makes it more difficult to place in non-wall outlet settings (such as power strips or setting them on a table), the AmpliFi system is a great mix of easy-to-setup networking with more advanced features and data that can help you figure out what's going on with your home network. I enthusiastically approve.
Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five)
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