Riding the new Wi-Fi wave (part 2)

Can a wireless mesh network solve your Wi-Fi coverage and speed issues in your home? Eero's easy-to-setup system make it worth a look.

eero lifestyle bookshelf

In part 1 of this mini-series looking at the new wireless mesh networking aimed at home systems, I looked at Luma’s system. Instead of a single router providing coverage for the house, a mesh system uses multiple nodes that work in conjunction with each other to provide greater coverage and faster speeds.

So here's part 2, in which I tested another wireless mesh system - this one from San Francisco-based startup eero. Like the Luma devices, the eero system comes in a three-pack of nodes (it costs $499), but you can also buy individual nodes for $199. You can get away with using just one node as its own Wi-Fi router/access point as long as you connect it to your modem (cable/DSL), but the added benefits of the mesh kick in when you add the second, third or any additional nodes. In the three-pack, the system includes power cables for each eero node, and one Ethernet cable that links the first node into your cable modem or WAN connection.

eero product topdown 3up Eero

The eero system comes in a three-pack of nodes (for $499), but a single node can be used if you want just one connected to your modem.

Setup starts with downloading the eero app, which walks you through the process. After connecting and confirming the connection of the first node (including naming the network’s SSID and providing a WPA2 password), you can then add eero nodes to the network. The app isn’t as specific as the Luma app in terms of where you place the additional nodes (Luma suggested going upstairs/downstairs as part of its setup), but the eero app does recommend a few things. First, it says the nodes should be about 40 feet apart from each other, which seems like a short distance. Second, it recommends that the units have line-of-sight placement, avoiding walls, doors and other obstructions. Good luck finding that in a normal house (I kept thinking that if I had an open-space house with direct-line of sight, I'd likely only need one Wi-Fi router in the first place). 

In my tests, I placed the first unit next to the router on the left side of the house, the second unit in the dining room (somewhere in the middle), and the third unit on the right side of the house. They were all on the same level, and somewhat within line-of-sight (although I did have a door and some walls separating them). This approach in setup was different from my Luma setup, which placed one node on each floor of the three-level (two floors and a basement) house. When I placed the second and third eero nodes, I was warned that I had a "poor connection", but after hitting "Retry" (without actually changing the location of the node), the system connected properly. This felt like a weird glitch in the setup process than a situation where I had a poor connection.

eero dashboard screenshot Eero

The eero app dashboard provides information on your home WAN speeds, and whether the network is online or offline.

The eero app provides basic information about the state of the network - whether it’s online/offline, a speed test function (upload/download speeds of the WAN connection), IP addresses for each node on the network, and device names of things connected to the network (such as mobile phones, computers, etc.). You can also enable guest network access or ask for Help from eero (it provides the email address, phone number and a link for the Help Center). Advanced network settings can also be viewed, which lets you change your network from automatic IP addressing to static, or client IP addresses via DHCP being either static or automatic.

There’s a ‘family profiles’ option as well, which attaches specific devices to family members (like your daughter’s phone, son’s tablet, etc.), and lets you set schedules for Internet access, as well as the manual pause feature, which “pauses the Internet” (just like the Luma system). It only lets you assign devices after they’ve connected to the network, so you need to build the network and have the clients attach to it before you can start the profiles.

Interestingly, the family profiles option was not available to me initially, as the system said it needed a software update for the eero devices in order for it to work. The software update was not something I could download, I had to wait up to 24 hours for the system to do an “automatic update” (in theory, it would update when the Internet wasn’t being used by your family members), but it would have been nice to download the update myself (like you can with almost every other Internet-connected device on the planet). I did receive a nice email notification after the initial update, but still - let people update the system on their own or do it automatically during setup.

Once the three eero nodes were connected and working, the next part was connecting clients. In my case, this involved mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.), as well as more static devices (a Wi-Fi printer, network-attached storage, Internet streaming devices and two game consoles). This was harder to achieve than the initial setup of the eero devices. To be fair, we also had some problems with the Luma system.

Like the Luma nodes, the eero units provide an additional Ethernet port, in which you can attach other peripherals (storage, printers, etc.). For users who are switching from a single Wi-Fi system to mesh, this is the part where you’re likely to run into some reconfiguration issues, as most singular Wi-Fi routers include up to three or four additional Ethernet LAN ports. If those were filled up like they were in my case, you have to figure out whether to split up the peripherals and attach them to individual eero devices, or attach an additional device to the one connected to the router (like a switch) and then attaching all of the peripherals to that device. Either way, there’s the issue of IP address reconfiguration, power considerations and other fun networking tasks that could potentially ruin your weekend.

When I connected an Xbox 360 to the new network, I got a pop-up message from Microsoft saying that the system could detect multiple instances of the same SSID (while it only showed one option for the SSID name, we still got the message). This would seem to indicate that the mesh network nodes all transmit the same SSID name (instead of providing a 1, 2 or 3 to the initial SSID name), which the game console was detecting. The Xbox also gave a warning about our NAT settings and offered a port forwarding suggestion, but we were still able to connect the system without changing the settings. This issue is known to the eero support team, as the instructions for ports to open via the app are available on the eero site. The notebooks, phones, tablets, PS4 and Roku 3 Internet streaming box all connected to the new network without incident. 

When plugged into the eero next to the router, a Seagate Central NAS box was able to be accessed from across the network, including connecting via the Seagate Media app on the Roku device. A second NAS box from Seagate, a newer model Seagate Personal Cloud Pro system, did not work with either the Luma or the eero network, but I think I screwed up in trying to do a hard reset on the unit. I can still see the NAS box on the network, but can't access the contents or configure the system after the reset (time to buy a new NAS!). 

Connecting the wireless printer (an EPSON XP-830 Series model) was slightly tricky. As mentioned before with the Xbox, the printer detected three different SSID options all with the same name. I selected the first instance of the SSID on the list, thinking that it would be the one with the strongest signal. After connecting, I received a warning from the printer stating that Multiple network names (SSID) that match your entered network name (SSID) have been detected. Confirm network name (SSID).” It also said, “A router/access point channel conflict has been detected. If you have problems printing or scanning, improve your wireless network environment.”

I had similar problems with the Luma system, which indicates that peripherals might not yet be ready for a wireless mesh setup. On the Luma devices, however, I had the additional problem of my notebook not being able to find the printer, despite both devices being on the same network. With the eero network, I couldn’t replicate the problem, so at least I was able to print documents (but the issue of the multiple SSIDs still bugged me). 

After running the eero network for a few days i didn’t seem to encounter any connection problems with devices (although an Xbox 360 download did seem to take forever - but that could have been Microsoft’s fault), and coverage around the house was quite nice (but I own a small house anyway so never had any major dead spots like other people might have). 

Bottom line: Would I recommend switching from an existing Wi-Fi setup to one of these new mesh networks? The answer depends on a bunch of factors.

If you are finding yourself with poor connections, slow speeds or dead spots within your home, then these systems should be worth a look. They are a ton easier to setup and configure than trying to get a wireless range extender with a traditional Wi-Fi  router.

If you're setting up a brand new network for yourself or a relative (or coworker or neighbor or someone who doesn't know or care about networking), then this is also a yes. The ease of use in terms of setup and the "set it and forget it" nature of these systems will impress you.

If you're an old-timer who likes tinkering with advanced settings, IP address configuration and other settings, I'd wait on getting these systems. Some "advanced features" are offered via the Luma and eero apps, but they're far less abundant than what you get when you access a traditional router via a web browser.

Finally, if you're happy with your current Wi-Fi setup, you don't need these either. While the 'pause the internet' feature and other features found on the apps are interesting improvements in managing a home Wi-Fi network, they're not worth having if it means you have to shut down your existing network, do the new setup and then reconfigure/reconnect your clients and peripherals (at least until a faster Wi-Fi protocol comes out).

Modified grade for Luma: 4 stars

Grade for eero: 5 stars

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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