Riding the new Wi-Fi wave (part 1)

Luma's wireless mesh system changes the way you'll want to setup your home Wi-Fi network

Wireless mesh networking has been around for many years with business-level products and services, but it’s been pretty scarce in the home network space. The most famous user of a wireless mesh network (in which Wi-Fi clients talk to access nodes that can talk to other nodes, instead of a single router) is the wireless audio provider Sonos. But for the most part, improvements in Wi-Fi meant you still bought a singular router that you’d connect to a modem (or you have a combination modem/router given to you by your broadband provider). If you wanted to extend your network or improve coverage in parts of your house, you would need to buy a repeater/extender, which created an extra “hop” for network traffic (not optimal for services/apps that have a need for speed).

 Two new wireless mesh companies have recently hit the market - Eero and Luma. Instead of a single router, these systems give you three smaller access nodes to create the mesh. One of the nodes is connected to the router, and then other nodes are placed in other areas of the house (similar to what you’d do with a repeater, but without the mesh).

 We received samples of the Luma system - it’s a 3-pack that costs $399. Additional Luma nodes (if you have a really, really big house) cost $149 each. We also have an Eero three-pack, we’ll review that in Part 2 of this article. The Luma system started shipping this week, and should soon be available at Best Buy stores and online retailers as well.

Setup via app

 Before you even connect the first Luma node to the modem/router, you download an app to your smartphone or tablet (iOS and Android supported). With the app, you create a Luma account, but then also provide information to the system - the name of the network (SSID), the password and the type of home you have. In our case, we set up for a three-floor house (two floors and a basement) - the app also lets you choose whether you live in an apartment or townhouse.

 Next, the system asks where the modem/router is located, and then has you set up the first luma node to the router, via a provided Ethernet cable. After a few minutes, the app tells you where to place the second Luma node (in our case, we headed to floor 2). Each node has two Ethernet ports (an Out port and an In port), as well as a power adapter. This means you need to place the Luma node near a power outlet.

 Once your network is complete, the app provides a dashboard view that gives you the upload/download speed of the broadband network, and whether the network is up or down. There are also some other awesome features controlled through the app.

Best feature: Pausing the Internet

 First, you can assign devices found on the network to individual users (the app calls them “People”). This is important, because it’s required to enact my favorite feature - the “Pause Internet” button. With the press of a button, network access to the Internet is “paused” for any device that is assigned to a Person (luckily, devices not assigned to a person, such as a game console, TV or phone system, will continue to operate). If you have kids who are constantly using tablets, phones or other devices, this is the fastest way to get their attention. Users are also important for setting up filtering policies, which stops inappropriate content for younger users. It’s based on movie ratings (R, PG-13, PG and G, or U for unrestricted access). You can assign a filter to the entire network or for individual users.

 If you have guests over and want to give them access without revealing your Wi-Fi password, pressing the “Invite to Wi-Fi” button and send them a guest password via text message, email, or even AirDrop.

 The system also has some security features - it will “continuously monitor your network to block hacks and malware by scanning the health of your connected devices for infections and vulnerabilities,” Luma says. The system can also quarantine devices so they won’t affect other devices on the network, and can even “work to fix the device with an over-the-air update when available.” Alerts are sent to the Luma app when unknown devices are found on the network. 

A few nitpicky things

 For users who are experts at Wi-Fi router setup, the Luma system could be seen as “too simple”. While the system supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac clients (with simultaneous dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies), you can’t set up separate networks like you can with more traditional routers. Security features supported include NAT, DHCP, PPPoE, VPN passthrough and IPv6, but those settings are invisible to the end user. Luma says that a future update will provide some more advanced configuration features for those interested. Most people won’t likely care about this, since the goal for probably 95% of users will be network access and Wi-Fi coverage.

 The single Ethernet Out port on each node will also likely cause some network re-adjustment if you have other Ethernet-enabled devices on the network. In our case, we had three additional devices connected to our older router - a network-attached storage device, a powerline adapter (to extend powerline networking to certain devices) and a backup storage device. With the three nodes each having one additional Ethernet port you could, in theory, move those other devices to the other nodes, or you could attach a switch to the first node (the one connected to the modem/router) and then go that route. It’s not that hard to do, but just requires a bit more work.

Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five).

(In part 2, we try out the Eero wireless mesh system)

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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