With wifi more important than ever for keeping your home working and your online entertainment up and running, it may be time to banish those irritating “not-spots” and make your broadband work everywhere in your home with a router upgrade.
Now that most new devices, from laptops and phones to TVs and streaming boxes, support wifi 6, I put several of the latest mid-range “mesh” routers to the test to see which ones deliver.
These mesh systems work by replacing your current wifi. One of the units connects via a cable to the current router from your internet service provider (ISP), and then connects wirelessly to other units dotted about your home to blanket it with strong wifi.
There are two main types of mesh routers. Cheaper “dual-band” systems connect to each other using the same frequencies they use for your phones, computers and other devices.
In testing, dual-band wifi 6 mesh systems provided good coverage but not meaningfully increased speeds across the home compared with older, cheaper wifi 5 equivalents. I would recommend spending less on older wifi 5 kit rather than the new dual-band wifi 6 systems if your broadband speed is less than 200Mbps.
The more expensive “tri-band” systems connect to each other using a separate band of wifi frequencies to the ones they use to connect your devices to the internet, and they can provide considerably faster speeds across the home.
If your broadband speed is above 200Mbps, here are three of the best tri-band wifi 6 mesh systems available. Each were tested with 400Mbps broadband with more than 50 devices connected, including an Apple MacBook Air, iPhone 13 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with wifi 6, and a Microsoft Xbox Series X and Amazon Fire HD 10 Plus tablet with wifi 5, each used for testing speed and range.
RRP: £399 – deals from £300-£350 (two pack)
The tall, white towers of the Linksys Velop do two things better than any other tested: high signal strength over long range and high speed from every satellite.
The mid-range MX4200 version with three nodes thoroughly blanketed the house and provided a reliable signal at about 25 metres away from the house at the end of the garden – something none of the others managed.
Everything remained stable under high load, with multiple devices streaming and downloading simultaneously, while speed and latency were consistent across the home. Wifi 6 speeds matched those using ethernet on the main unit, and ping times were kept below 12ms – only 3ms slower than via cable - and dropped by only a few megabits at the extremities of the house, which was extremely impressive. Speeds for wifi 5 devices were equally good, holding consistently within 100Mbps of wifi 6 devices all over the house.
The Linksys Wifi app on a phone handles setting up the system and can then be used to remotely manage your network while you’re away. The app is a bit slow and doesn’t display the wifi version or speed of connected devices. More advanced settings require accessing the web interface of the system through a browser, too.
Each unit is identical, with three gigabit ethernet sockets and a USB3.0 port in addition to the socket for your ISP’s router.
Velop covers most of the features that are table-stakes for routers, including a guest access option, port forwarding, speed testing, firewalls, automatic updates, device or video-call prioritisation for slower connections and other bits. It does not have a VPN built in for connecting to your home network while you are away, though.
Parental controls allow you to pause internet access manually or on a schedule and block specific sites on a device-by-device basis. Velop is also Apple HomeKit-enabled for improved security for some smart home devices.
RRP: £629.99 – deals from £450-£550 (three pack)
Netgear’s mid-range Orbi system came a close second to the Linksys, providing really fast wifi 6 speeds and low latency from the main unit, with only slightly slower speeds at the extremities of the house. Its wifi 5 performance was slightly worse than the Linksys, while its range was shorter, failing to provide a useable connection at the end of the garden. It struggled to put signal through concrete block walls, too.
The main unit has three gigabit ethernet ports and a socket for your modem, while the satellite units just have two ethernet ports. The network remained stable under heavy usage, but struggled to migrate laptops between the Orbi units as they were moved between rooms, requiring manually disconnecting and reconnecting to wifi to get the best connection.
The Orbi app was simple for setting up the system. It has a few more features than the Velop, such as a network map of your connected devices, but is slow and lacks wifi version and speed information for each device.
The browser-based web interface has advanced settings, including a built-in VPN, which lets you connect to your home network remotely – handy both for privacy when on public wifi and using devices such as smart CCTV cameras when away.
Basic parental controls include manual pausing of the internet and blocking certain sites, but for more options Netgear charges £6.99 a month for “smart parental controls”, which includes time limits, scheduling, website history and device usage tracking, content filters and a few other bits.
Standard firewall security is free, but Netgear also sells an annual £85 “Armor” subscription, which is a proactive security solution from the cybersecurity company Bitdefender that helps stop viruses and other threats. I found it irritating, flagging my attempts to configure smart speakers and other devices as threats and blocking them.
RRP: £599 – deals from £419 (three pack)
Amazon’s Eero 6 Pro is one of the most simple tri-band wifi 6 mesh systems to set up, with the option to login with an Amazon account.
But wifi 6 speeds were the slowest of the group test, losing 10% compared with using ethernet on the main unit and dropping off significantly when connecting at the extremities of the house. Wifi 5 performance was also disappointing by comparison. Each unit is the same, but they only have two gigabit ethernet ports each, one of which needs to be used to connect to your modem on the main unit.
Coverage within the house was good, but the Eero struggled with concrete block walls and had much shorter range into the garden compared to the others. I also had annoying issues with Sonos speakers and a Sky Q set-top box, which required replacing a faulty Eero and software updates to fix. The Eero system caused interference for Xbox wireless audio through headphones connected to the joypad, too.
There is no advanced interface for controlling the Eero, but the app is the best for the basics. That includes the ability to group connected devices into “profiles” so you can pause the internet manually or on a schedule per profile and see how much bandwidth they are using.
But parental controls – some of the best in the business – for filtering content, sites and services require the £2.99 a month Eero Secure subscription, which also includes data consumption history, virus and ad-blocking, and a few other things.
The Eero also includes a built-in Zigbee smart home hub for direct connection of some devices to Amazon’s Alexa, without third-party hubs, and supports the upcoming Thread smart home standard.