When your home or office is too large for a single Wi-Fi router to cover in wireless signal, a mesh router kit can help spread the signal. The best mesh router kits use a series of nodes, typically two to three, to blanket the home with the wireless signal, covering every nook, cranny and closet with a usable internet signal.
Currently, mesh networking gear can be divided into two designs. The "true mesh" design features a series of identical and interchangeable devices that all interconnect wirelessly. The second is known as a "hub and spoke" design, which uses a router and one or more wireless extenders. These days, both categories of gear are marketed and sold as a "mesh kit," so we included both options in this guide.
A mesh network is not for everyone. For those that live in a smaller home or apartment, a single router is probably works fine. But for more challenging home situations, such as a multilevel dwelling or a larger residence (say greater than 2500 to 3000 sq ft), a mesh router kit is worth considering.
The best hub and spoke mesh router kit for gaming
Class leading speeds
Excellent Wi-Fi coverage
Integrated anti-virus support
Optimizes gaming traffic for improved QoS in congested environments
USB port enabled
Cannot add additional extender
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.
While the other more pure mesh kits lack Ethernet ports and USB port access, the Ally doesn't force sacrifices in these areas. The router has three available Gigabit ports (the internet goes into a fourth port labeled “modem”), enough for a desktop, network printer, and NAS, for example. The extender, which connects via a dedicated 5 GHz band, even has a Gigabit port, so it can function as a wireless bridge.
The Ally features QoS settings to prioritize gaming traffic—and it shows. On our gaming network congestion test, the Ally was able to prioritize gaming traffic and keep the FPS at 24.72, with only a single latency spike. With the network saturated, many competitors struggle to maintain a FPS in the single digits. When it came to the throughput testing, the Ally had a similarly impressive performance, easily taking the pole position on three of the six benchmarks, the only mesh router to accomplish this.
It may be a bit of irony that our pick for the “Best Mesh Router for Gaming” is more “mesh like” than “true mesh” as the Ally is a router and extender—not a series of equal mesh nodes. However, in use, this distinction is merely academic. With the the ability to control the network from the web interface, it can make any parent into a network administrator, with available settings for content filters that can be set by the device, and an access schedule by day and time. With a current street price of $259 for the router and extender kit, it makes the Ally mesh solution a reasonable value proposition, and looking at our testing data, it's our overall pick for the majority of users.
If you’ve been waiting for a pure mesh system that offers a no compromises approach to throughput and gaming, then the Portal Wi-Fi kit is the closest yet. The Portal is the result of a Kickstarter from some ex-Qualcomm engineers, and is now produced by Ignition Design Labs and sold through the Razer store.
Portal's specs are quite robust with AC2400 Wave 2 Wi-Fi, MU-MIMO, and a 4x4 radio for the 5 GHz spectrum. The smooth curved shape houses nine internal antennas, with four Gigabit ports and two USB ports on the rear. It also uses additional 5 GHz frequencies known as U-NII. That spectrum is typically used for radar, but this router can use the frequency if it is clear via Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) technology—something that's particularly useful for folks that run Wi-Fi in congested congested areas. Portal refers to this tech as Fastlanes.
Setup was not the smoothest, but after a firmware update and a few reboots the system was up and running. Limited settings can be adjusted in the app, such as to add the additional satellite unit, or in a web interface, where we went into "custom mode" to give gaming traffic the highest priority above other network traffic to avoid congestion.
The Portal performed well in our 2.4 GHz throughput tests with some wins among our tested mesh routers, but its 5 GHz speeds really blew us away. It dominated across the board, including a score of 551.06 Mbps at the close distance, making it faster than anything else tested. Results in our gaming test was also very strong, with a score of 25.433 FPS—the best FPS seen to date on a mesh router—while streaming our videos with only 5.70 percent of packet loss, whereas many other mesh setups drop frames up in the double digits.
The Portal retails for around $150 for one unit that covers 3000 sq ft, or a two pack for $378. In other words, it's cheaper to buy Portal units à la carte, and add them back together on your own. On its own, a single Portal unit also works as an excellent router for smaller setups.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 and is tri-band, with an additional 800 Mbps bandwidth on the second 5 GHz channel for dedicated wireless backhaul between the nodes. There is no option for wired backhaul between the devices. Each node has two Ethernet ports, but lacks a USB port- a common shortcoming of pure mesh systems. The system sends out a single SSID that combines both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and assigns traffic to the frequencies to optimize throughput. The key standout feature, from a gaming perspective is that the network traffic can be prioritized- a feature that too many of these other mesh systems still lack.
Once configured, the Asus Lyra had decent scores on the 5 GHz throughput tests, although it was slower across the 2.4 GHz frequency. The notable feature is that when we streamed the five 1080p videos at it, and fired up our game, it ran at 24.6 FPS- our second highest score for a pure mesh system, making this a pure mesh system that can manage network congestion and provide a gaming experience that matches the hub and spoke solutions. The three pack is available currently for $349, and they do sell a two pack version for smaller deployments.
The D-Link Covr takes the hub and spoke approach, with the hub resembling a traditional four antenna router, and the spoke a quarter of the size looking like the "Mini-Me" to the hub. The specs are strong with the hub alone featuring AC2600 speeds, and the overall system stating AC3900 speeds, with support for MU-MIMO with 4 x 4 data streaming. In addition, the hub features four Ethernet ports, and the spoke two more ports, again offering more wired connections than most pure mesh solutions. Advanced settings, including firmware upgrades, and designating priority to devices can be done via a router based web based interface.
In testing, it is immediately clear why robust QoS is necessary for prioritization of gaming and video traffic on our network congestion test. While some other mesh kits struggled to maintain FPS in the single digits on our test game, the D-Link Covr could sustain 24.45 FPS, while simultaneously streaming the five 1080p true HD video streams, with less than 1% dropped frames, an impressive feat. The current price of $299 keeps the D-Link Covr from earning our recommendation, along with the slow 2.4 GHz speeds.
Eero is a true mesh design, and we went hands on the three node kit. Each node provides about 1000 sq ft of coverage. In testing, the Eero nodes provided a solid signal, with decent throughput- with multiple wins if we compare it only to other pure mesh configurations. On our gaming congestion test, the FPS are a low average of 5.38 FPS. Too bad this otherwise useful kit lacks QoS to prioritize gaming traffic, as it would make it a contender for our purposes.
Eero has recently updated to a second generation, which promises twice the range with smaller satellites they call Beacons, and a monthly subscription service referred to as Eero Plus to enhance security. We held off retesting the updated Eero this time around as these enhancements are not addressing our primary shortcoming- the lack of QoS.
The Linksys Velop includes three taller nodes that would be at home on a bookshelf next to stereo equipment, with each node covering 2000 sq ft with Wi-Fi. Setup is via the Linksys app and Bluetooth communication, which took close to an hour when a firmware update intervened. Velop features dynamic tri-band, which means that the backhaul is accomplished via a dedicated frequency, and gets adjusted depending on the fastest connection.
The Velop’s dedicated wireless backhaul gives it decent 5 GHz throughput tests, but the gaming FPS of 5.417 keep it from getting our recommended nod.
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. When it came to the throughput tests, the Luma came in dead last—consistently on each benchmark even when upgraded to the latest firmware. Additionally, when it came to the gaming performance, the FPS ground to a crawling 5.583 FPS—clearly in need of QoS for gaming priority.
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.
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, and 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 individually.
From the perspective of throughput, the Orbi RBK30 is strong, with speeds that only trail the RBK50 by a little bit. However, on our gaming congestion test, the FPS dropped to 6.19 FPS, with 13.4% dropped frames on our 1080p videos- both less favorable than the RBK50 in testing.
The Art Deco movement from the 1920’s focused on sleek designs, and simple elegance, and 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. 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 antivirus 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.
In testing, the M5 got bested by the competition on each distance and frequency. However, what really separates the serious gear from the posers is the performance on the network congestion test, and here the M5 is respectable, with an average FPS of 19.8 on our gaming test, while simultaneously streaming five 1080p videos with <1% packet loss. While the M5 is a more than decent system, it did not keep pace with the more robust competition. The three pack is available for $229, making it one of the more affordable prices for a true mesh kit.
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.