Google Wifi was announced in October 2016, and has been selling in 7 other countries before reaching Singapore, becoming the 8th country in the world and the first in Southeast Asia to introduce this popular mesh networking system (Hong Kong followed suit immediately after). I attended the embargoed media event in late August, and was provided with the review units to try out the product for about a week.
Google Wifi is the third mesh router system I tried, after Aztech AIR-706P and Aztech Lyra. It is the easiest to set up, taking me less than 4 minutes to complete one mesh unit. It is also the smallest among the three I tested.
Mesh vs. Extender
And since mesh is a new concept, I shall explain again. The main difference between mesh and wireless extender (or repeaters) is that all the mesh units work as a single wireless network with a single network name (SSID). The mesh technology will make every mesh node communicate to one another to provide a seamless experience for the user.
A wireless extender acts like a separate access point with a separate network name that merely re-broadcast the signal from the original router. Creating same SSID on multiple routers or extenders does not make them work as a single network. The connected device does not release the connectivity from a weaker router to a stronger one, resulting in seemingly poor experience. By giving a different SSID, the user can opt to manually connect to a stronger Wi-Fi access point, but that would be a hassle to non-techies.
Seamless User Interface
In that respect, Google Wifi does a fantastic job in offering an integrated experience. Android smartphone users should feel right at home that the Google Wifi app has the same UX as Android OS. All the settings are done from the app, without ability to go into advanced mode over web browser like most routers do.
From the app, you can do the following:
- Monitor usage across all connected devices in real time. This may help you understand if someone is hogging the bandwidth.
- Set priority to one device for a limited time. This allows one device to enjoy better experience over others.
- Conduct tests to provide health check on the mesh network. The test will check whether the network performance is due to ISP or the mesh nodes.
- Manage scheduled or adhoc Wi-Fi access by user and by device. The app lets you disable Wi-Fi on selected device or groups of devices under a user, e.g. daughter. I can pause the connection within a period, e.g. 1 hour. This is good to control usages temporarily, say, when studying. However, that does not stop the device from switching over to mobile data to continue accessing the network.
- Guest Wi-Fi. Like many routers, Google Wifi allows setting up guest Wi-Fi network and makes it easy to share the network information to your guests. It is also possible to share home-connected devices to the guest Wi-fi, like network printer, so that guests can access them temporarily.
There are also other advantageous features of Google Wifi:
- Seamless Google Login. If you are already an existing Google user, no need to create another login and remember another password.
- Access Anywhere. It is possible to manage the home network even when you are not connected to the home network.
- Designate User Managers. It is possible to nominate other Google account users, like your spouse, to manage the Google Wifi settings.
- Regular Software Updates. Google ensures the hardware and software are updated at least once every 6 weeks to provide timely bug fixes, performance improvements, new features. Updates are automatically pushed to the mesh units, and are as trustworthy as the Android OS that runs your smartphones.
Google Wifi is not built for advanced users, so there is no web browser for more customised settings. Due to its built-in network routing intelligence, there are restrictions on certain router features to ensure integrity, e.g. several app features are disabled if bridge mode is enabled. There is also just one LAN port on the primary Wifi point to contend with (there are two Ethernet ports on each Wifi unit, but one of the ports on the primary unit connects to the modem for incoming Internet data. On other mesh units, both ports can be used for LAN), and no USB port to support USB storage. But again, these requirements are for advanced network users, and at the moment, Google Wifi (and many other mesh routers) are not offering the full works that traditional routers support, with the exception of Aztech.
For my review, I only installed 2 Wifi points, because my apartment is long-shaped, and a third Wifi point seems redundant. Like other mesh routers, Google claims it has intelligence to monitor the network and the connected devices to determine the best mesh node, the optimal Wi-Fi frequency channel and the band to assign to each device. As an end-user, many of these things work transparent in the background. Having experienced the evolution of home Wi-Fi and the so-called “band steering” technology in various router models, I am generally skeptical about the effectiveness. Hence, it does not matter what the product literature say, as long as it works.
So does Google Wifi work well? Short answer: yes. Google Wifi is capable of extending the network coverage of a single network name at a larger area. I do not have to worry about changing network name from the living room to the bedroom (which I do now). I can check the quality of the mesh network and the devices connected to it for easier troubleshooting, if it occurs. Worse case, I can remotely reboot any of the mesh routers.
As for connectivity speed, it achieves the lowest compared to Aztech AIR-706P and ASUS Lyra, even against my existing D-Link DIR-895L that is positioned further than the nearest Google Wifi mesh node. Although the Google Wifi app claims the mesh is getting around 600Mbps on the test, and even though the same app claims the connected device is getting “great” connection to the mesh, the in-device speedtest app says otherwise, getting less than 100Mbps on average. From the same spot, the D-Link router test gets me 140Mbps.
Additionally, I find that the Google Wifi has the tendency to connect devices to 2.4GHz instead of the faster 5GHz. I usually had to reconnect the second time before Google Wifi assigns the faster band. As a result, I often experienced slow access speeds for unknown reason. Google has their back covered in their help page, which claims the assignment is dependent on the device and not the issue of Google Wifi. I do acknowledge that this issue went away after a while, so I reckon the Google Wifi’s intelligent feature seems to kick in and recognise my desire for certain devices to go on the 5GHz network.
The Google Wifi offers a more familiar UI for Android users. Its features are also comprehensive for home owners with little knowledge in Wi-Fi networking setup. The overall performance is slower than ASUS Lyra but the nodes are more compact and easier to be deployed at any corner of the house.
Currently in Singapore, you can only purchase Google Wifi with local warranty through StarHub together with selected broadband plans, paying $15 a month or $360 in total, making it the cheapest Wi-Fi mesh product in Singapore. Additional units can be purchased during on-site installation at the retail price of S$199.
Should you get a mesh router or normal router? A mesh router lets you roam the house using a single SSID network name and you will get good coverage as long as you place the mesh units at the right place. It would take more effort to set up with the normal router plus wireless extenders, which works better when separate SSIDs are assigned, but router-extender set up can achieve higher speeds.
If you want a fuss-free magical experience of network coverage, go for mesh systems. If you love to tinker around the network settings and get the best bang for your buck, standard router with extender may be a better option.