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The best mesh router kit for gaming

These all-in-one kits will help you cover every nook, cranny, and closet with usable internet signal.

Mesh router kits are the latest trend to hit the residential networking market. Rather than just use a single router to provide Wi-Fi coverage for the home, a series of devices, typically two to three, will blanket the home with the wireless signal, covering every nook, cranny and closet with a usable internet signal—or so the theory goes.

There has certainly been networking gear available to deal with Wi-Fi signal dropouts, and they took the form of additional access points and repeaters. While such devices promised to fix the wireless dead spots such as a basement, or the deck outside, the issue was that the additional gear was sold à la carte, required some DIY networking knowledge and planning, and was not simple to administer, with potential issues of handoffs of the signal between devices. Rather, a mesh network all comes in one nice package, with simple directions and a smartphone app to manage everything.

The current mesh networking gear can be divided into two designs. The first is “True mesh” where a series of devices all interconnect wirelessly, and each of the devices are identical and interchangeable. The second design is a “Router and extender,” which also gets called a “Hub and spoke” design. To the purists, the “Router and extender” is not a true mesh network, as the devices are not identical, and in the end it is really a router with a prepackaged extender all in one box. However, these days, this type of gear gets marketed and sold as a “Mesh kit,” so we include both the pure mesh and the router and extender gear into this one guide.

A mesh network is clearly not for everyone. For those that live in a smaller home or apartment, a single router may be a perfectly workable solution—no additional complexity or cost is required as long as the router is up to date. However, for more challenging home situations, especially in a multilevel dwelling or a larger residence (say greater than 2500 to 3000 sq ft), a mesh router kit is worth considering. It also depends on the amount of obstacles impeding the signal such as thicker walls, floors and fireplaces, and the number of simultaneous devices.

Finally, the other concern is that while these mesh router kits provide a great signal, the other issue is that some mesh kits are not really oriented for the PC gamer as they lack prioritization of gaming traffic. With our network congestion testing process, we can separate out those kits that do not toe the mark when it comes to PC gaming, to help make a great choice.

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The best mesh router kit for gaming

  • Class leading speeds
  • Simple setup
  • Excellent Wi-Fi coverage
  • Integrated anti-virus support
  • Optimizes gaming traffic for improved QoS in congested environments
  • USB port enabled
  • Cannot add additional extender

For this revision of our guide, we’re again recommending the Amped Wireless Ally. While the competition has redoubled their efforts, the Ally still holds the speed crown when it comes to gaming, and the price is even more affordable.

The Amped Wireless Ally fits into the router and extender category of the mesh family, with a high total coverage rating of 15,000 square feet. Typical deployment is for the router component to be near the modem, with the extender on a different floor in a central location. Both the router and extender are AC1900, featuring 2.4 GHz speeds of 600 Mbps, and 5 GHz speeds of 1300 Mbps.

While the Ally did use a smartphone app for setup, the communication to the router is via Wi-Fi as opposed to the Bluetooth that their competition uses, and this ran smoother for setup. The extender comes preconfigured to work with the router, so all that was needed was to plug it in, which was impressively simple. The smartphone app can be used for network monitoring and administration, but there is also a web browser interface for the Ally that is a useful alternate interface that will be appreciated for its more advanced feature set.

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The Best Pure Mesh System

  • Simple setup
  • True mesh with QoS—finally!
  • Small size
  • Slower throughput
  • No dedicated backhaul

The Art Deco movement from the 1920’s focused on sleek designs, and simple elegance. It brought us landmark architecture, such as the Chrysler Building that adorns the Manhattan cityscape. If this school of design were to create a mesh router system, it would be TP-Link’s Deco M5 system.

After struggling with other true mesh kits, the M5 is a breath of fresh air when it came to setup. We literally had the app downloaded, the nodes deployed, connected, and firmware upgraded in about 20 minutes—our smoothest setup ever of any mesh kit. Each node is a small disc, with a notched design on the top, that is suggestive of Art Deco design. The spec speeds are slower than the competition, with N400 and AC867 Mbps, but the more concerning issue is that these units are not tri-band, which means there is no dedicated backhaul connection between the three nodes in the kit. However, pluses include integrated anti-virus software, and more importantly for gaming, QoS that is user selectable to the type of traffic to prioritize, which we promptly set to “Gaming.” Other standout features include support for Amazon Alexa, and IFTTT.

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Features to look for in a mesh router kit

The Luma smartphone app requests information about the setup of the home to optimize the deployment. All of the tested mesh kits require a smartphone app for initial setup.

Smartphone Integration

Several of these mesh kits get setup via a smartphone app, either iOS or Android. If you use an increasingly rare alternate smartphone OS, such as Windows Mobile, or Blackberry we can skip the lecture on how you need a new phone, but be aware that you will have difficulty in setup. The app also provides useful functions to administrate the network, such as integrated speedtests, turning it off to get the children to do their homework, viewing what devices are connected, and upgrading the firmware. 

Mesh Network Design

Mesh router kits fit into two categories: “true mesh,” and “router & extender.” A true mesh design has multiple devices, where each functions as a connected node on the network, and they all are interchangeable. Alternately, a router & extender kit has one box designated as a router, with a second box preconfigured to be the wireless extender device. Each has their advantages with true mesh being easier to expand with additional units, and router & extender having features of a more traditional setup with additional Ethernet and USB ports and, but at the expense of future expandability.
 

On the bottom of the Velop are two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Ethernet Ports

Routers have shipped with integrated Ethernet ports, typically at least four, with some higher end routers having six or even eight Ethernet ports, so in a modest setup the router also provides the functionality of a wired switch. Mesh router kits lack these ports, with the true mesh devices having only one or two per node, and the free ports will end up scattered around with each node. Router and extender kits have the advantage of more Ethernet ports at the router.

Priority

While total throughput is a touted spec for a network, when it comes to gaming it really comes down to continuous throughput (most games require <1 Mbps, but with low latency), and maintaining this during times of network congestion is what to plan for when designing a gaming network. The traditional approach for a router is to be able to give clients priority, as well as to shape traffic to prioritize gaming traffic via QoS (Quality of Service) settings. All of our picks for “Best Gaming Routers” do this successfully, yet not all of our mesh kits offer these types of settings to prioritize gaming traffic.

On the back of each Eero node is seen a USB port at the end on the right, however, it is not enabled for end user use.

USB Port

A USB port has become commonplace on router gear. While some mesh kits have the physical port, they designate it only for “diagnostic purposes,” so don’t plan on popping in your flash drive for some personal cloud storage. The more traditional router and extender approach has the USB port able to be utilized for accessible storage.

Backhaul

Backhaul is the term on how the mesh nodes communicate with each other. If they communicate on the same channel as the transmission of the data, it significantly cuts into the bandwidth and creates congestion. Ideally, the mesh nodes should be connected on a separate, dedicated frequency, apart from the connection to the client. In at least some cases, each mesh node has a tri-band radio, with the second 5 GHz radio used exclusively for the node to node connections, and not visible for clients to connect to.

SmartConnect

Traditionally, routers have offered two SSID’s, one on 2.4 GHz and the other on 5 GHz. Some newer gear offers the option to combine these two SSID’s into a single one, with the router deciding which of the frequencies the client is really connecting to. While this is a useful option, some mesh kits only offer a single SSID, with no way to offer separate SSID’s for each of the frequencies. When you can only connect on 2.4 GHz, and the gear is capable of linking up on the faster 5 GHz frequency, this turns into frustration.

How we test mesh router kits

All mesh kits are setup in a typical residential setting, with the internet provided via a cable modem. We set up each mesh kit as a two hub system, with the primary unit connected via wire to the cable modem (Optimum 200, DOCSIS 3.0, 12 x 4 channels, speeds 200/35 Mbps). The second node is on a higher floor, with several obstacles in the way, including a floor, a partial concrete wall, and metal ductwork. Throughput testing is performed via the same methods used for our Best Gaming Router Guide, with NetPerf software. We perform each throughput test three times:

  • “Close” — 8 feet away from the router (or in a mesh kit the primary mesh node as it is the one directly connected via a wire to the cable modem
  • “Far” — 30 feet away from the primary mesh node
  • “Mesh Far” — the same location as “Far” with a secondary mesh node connected wirelessly 20 feet from the primary node (with no line of sight to the primary node, on a different floor, with heating ductwork providing interference), and 10 feet away from the client

By running these multiple throughput tests, this reveals the performance that the secondary node is providing.

In addition, we run a gaming congestion test. Here, the gaming client is connected via 5 GHz Wi-Fi, and running five simultaneous YouTube 1080P videos to provide network congestion. Then latency gets measured via PingPlotter software, and we see how this impacts gaming performance on a sample game of Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, with the FPS (frames per second) measured via the software tool, FRAPS in a sixty second sample.

Competition

Asus Lyra

Asus takes a pure mesh approach to their mesh solution with three identical nodes, each with two Ethernet ports and seven internal antennas. Each of the nodes has AC1200 speeds with an additional 800 Mbps bandwidth for dedicated backhaul between the nodes. Each node has a multicolor LED that provides useful feedback. Setup and administration is handled via the smartphone app, including parental controls, scheduling, and security by TrendMicro, all without an additional monthly fee.

Early testing indicates strong 5 GHz throughput speeds, and look for a final verdict on this product in our next revision of the guide.

Netgear Orbi RBK50

We had high hopes for Netgear’s flagship mesh router kit, the Orbi RBK50 as this hub and spoke mesh system has been a pick for other sites, including our buddies over at The Wirecutter. It claims 5,000 sq ft of Wi-Fi coverage with AC3000 speeds (AC1733, N866, 400 Mbps backhaul), and it even has plenty of Ethernet ports, with three on the router, and four on the satellite, addressing a common shortcoming. Setup was quick and simple via a browser interface, and the router and satellite are designed to work with each other right out of the box. Placement of the satellite is simplified as the blue LED on the top of it indicates when it is in an optimal position. The Orbi RBK50 has a single SSID, and we could find no way to separate the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies into separate networks, so this complicated testing and required use of an N150 wireless client for throughput testing, which can account for the slower 2.4 GHz speeds. We benchmarked with Beamforming, MU-MIMO and QoS all enabled, as well as the latest firmware upgrades for both the router and the satellite.

On the network congestion test, the Orbi RBK50 managed a single digit average FPS of 9.1, and over 11.7% of dropped frame, which indicated a lack of prioritization of gaming and video data. Throughput on 5 GHz testing proved strong across the multiple tests with a win on the 5 GHz close test, but the lack of better QoS caused this otherwise serviceable system to not earn our recommendation.

Netgear Orbi RBK30

The Netgear Orbi RBK30 is a more affordable model below the flagship RBK50 detailed above. The most obvious difference is the satellite unit is a smaller preconfigured unit without any Ethernet ports, that plugs directly into a wall socket. The specs also drop a notch down to 3500 sq ft of coverage, and the speeds are “AC2200” from AC866/N866/400 Mbps backhaul. There is flexibility to expand as additional satellites can be added to the system, and are sold à la carte.

From the perspective of throughput, the Orbi RBK30 is impressive, with speeds that only trail the RBK50 by a little bit. However, on our gaming congestion test, the FPS on our game dropped to 6.19 FPS, with 13.4% dropped frames on our 1080p videos- both less favorable than the RBK50 in testing.

Eero

Eero is a true mesh design, and we tested the three node kit. The node is white, lays flat and each one provides approximately 1000 sq ft of coverage. Unlike some other systems, the nodes can be connected via Ethernet cables for solid backhaul, and each node has two Ethernet ports. In addition, it had one of the slimmer power plugs to not block the surrounding outlets. Configuration is done via a smartphone app, but this initially stalled when the smartphone failed to connect to the initial Eero unit via Bluetooth. Thankfully an alternate method succeeded that involved entering the node’s serial number into the app, and setting up the second node had no issue. Promised speeds are 240 Mbps on 2.4 GHz, and 600 Mbps on the 5 GHz frequency.

In testing, the Eero nodes provided a solid signal, with decent throughput- although not class leading on any test. Furthermore, max latency was the highest among the tested gear. On our gaming congestion test, the FPS were a low average of 5.383 FPS. Too bad this otherwise useful kit lacks QoS to prioritize gaming traffic.

Linksys Velop

The Linksys Velop includes three taller nodes that would at home on a bookshelf next to stereo equipment, with each node covering 2000 sq ft with Wi-Fi. Setup was via the Linksys app and Bluetooth communication, which was one of the smoother setups, although it still took close to an hour when a firmware upgrade intervened. Velop features dynamic tri-band, which means that the backhaul is accomplished via a dedicated frequency, but it gets adjusted depending on the fastest connection.

The Velop is a bit of a dichotomy. The efficiency of the dynamic tri-band approach to the backhaul clearly shines on the 5 GHz far test, with a new record on that benchmark of 218.19 Mbps (which bested our previous recordholder, the Linksys WRT-3200ACM which did 214.31 Mbps, for those keeping track). So while the Velop does certainly excel on the 5 GHz frequency, similar to previous Linksys gear, its 2.4 GHz throughput was the second slowest tested, and on the close test, the SSID refused to connect on 5 GHz, which dragged throughput down to the much slower 2.4 GHz speeds. Finally, on the gaming network congestion test, the lack of QoS showed quite a few latency spikes, and the FPS dropped to 5.417 FPS. Once again, the lack of QoS for gaming drags down an otherwise useful mesh kit—does this sound familiar?

Luma 

The Luma mesh system promises “Surround Wi-Fi,” and features AC 1300 speeds, supports MU-MIMO technology, and integrated malware scanning. Similar to other mesh systems, this all goes through an iOS or Android app. We experienced a speed bump on initial setup, as on two different Android devices, the Luma setup would simply not proceed. Upon troubleshooting, the Luma folks revealed the culprit—Android 5.1. Reportedly on earlier versions of Android than 6.0 (Marshmallow), the Bluetooth communication between phone and node stalls. Luma is reportedly aware of the issue, and a future version of the app will attempt to address this. Reportedly the iOS app is not affected by this bug, so we are chalking this up to yet another dreaded case of “Android fragmentation” striking again. With the Android 6.0 client, setup proceeded smoothly, with the Luma being the fastest mesh router to setup, and surprisingly quite painless. The Luma app provides a robust feature set, including network security, and parental controls.

When it came to the throughput tests, the Luma came in dead last—consistently on each benchmark even when upgraded to the latest firmware. While Luma was only marginally slower on the 5 GHz mesh test at 181.22 Mbps, it was more glaring on the 2.4 GHz close test with a pokey speed of 28.02 Mbps. On the network congestion gaming test, the Luma had the best latency compared to its peers, with only a single spike > 100 millisecs. However, when it came to the gaming performance, the FPS ground to a crawling 5.583 FPS—single digits, and in need of QoS for gaming priority.

Results

Mesh router kits are designed to flood the house with a useable Wi-Fi signal, and each of the tested kits did accomplish this—although with varying throughput speeds. Users with Wi-Fi dead spots from a single router setup, say with a challenging modem location, such as a basement, or a second floor bedroom, should consider a mesh router kit. On the other hand, when compared with the results of a single router, users with smaller dwellings and central router locations may be better off with a recommendation from our best gaming router guide.

Looking at performance, we raised the bar to include the additional challenge of gaming performance in addition to total throughput. When the network was saturated with streaming video congestion, our recommended picks outdistanced the competition with solid gaming performance and video streaming scores.

Mesh router kits remain a popular segment of networking gear for the manufacturers. Look for this guide to test additional kits as they come to market.