ONE OF THE buzz-phrases in the industry this year is "whole home WiFi". It doesn't take a genius to work out what it claims to offer, but what actually is it?
Well, in most cases, it uses a number of access points that work together in a "mesh" formation, each strengthening the other.
It's not the same as having a range extender because all the components of the mesh are seen as one device, meaning there's one network name, one set of controls, and theoretically, no black spots.
It also means that a single technology knows when to move you from one access point to another seamlessly, without faffing.
Of course, this technology isn't just limited to homes. Businesses will also be able to benefit from being able to offer wifi access to entire buildings more easily and robustly than ever before.
So who are the runners and riders in the first batch of whole home WiFi?
£369.99 at Currys for two units
Orbi looks so much like a pair of Ikea lamps that it's a disappointment when they don't light up. However, what they do provide is a very robust connection between the base and satellite units, by using an additional part of the 5GHz band not in use for WiFi.
This means that the bandwidth isn't swallowed up by the two (or more) devices chattering at each other, freeing it up for faster internet on the main 2.4 and 5GHz bands. Netgear claims to have pumped all the power of its prosumer Nighthawk range into the Orbi, which goes some way to justifying the horrendous price tag. Make no mistake though. Orbi is an investment.
£229 from Google for two units
The newest player comes from the good people at Google who offer a pair of very compact, simple devices. We did find it mildly galling that there's only one spare ethernet port on the devices, meaning you'll probably need to invest in a switch as well. But where Google WiFi really excels is its beautifully simple app, that makes everything from initial switch on to forwarding ports the easiest anyone has ever made it. There's even a neat little feature that can configure a device to receive priority for a set amount of time, like if you decide to have a box-set binge.
BT Whole Home WiFi
£249 from BT for three units
BT got the jump on Google, releasing its own whole home system first, and undercutting Google by a considerable margin. The offering is pretty similar to that from Google, but it's discs are stand-up (or wall mounting) and as such probably the most unobtrusive devices.
Performance is great (but as with all these systems, remember you'll need a modem) but with only one ethernet port, it's another job for an ethernet switch or three. The app offers loads of options such as parental control, and although it's not as pretty as the Google one, it's still pleasing to use. More importantly, it's not carrier specific, so it'll work with any internet provider, and at under 250 notes for three discs, the pricing is more in line with what Google is offering its US customers. Plus, BT offers a money-back guarantee if you aren't able to get wifi in every room in the house using its system.
It's worth noting that not all mesh WiFi requires new equipment. If you're a Sky Q customer and take your broadband from Sky, then all your set-top boxes act as mesh WiFi repeaters. Sadly, Sky Broadband is locked down quite tightly, meaning that a lot of the features that we like aren't available (like using your own modem-router).
Furthermore, Sky Q only uses the older 2.4GHz frequencies to mesh boxes together if you're not a Sky Broadband customer, which we found actually made for a less reliable TV picture, so there's actually an argument against Sky Q if you're not planning to take the quad-play service. Or do what we did and use ethernet cables instead.
£203.99 from Ebuyer
Gigagate is slightly different to the other products here, in that it's designed to do a specific job - provide wireless connection to specific points that would otherwise require an ethernet line. For example, your smart TV is on one side of the room, but your router is on the other. It provides a 5GHz link between the base and any satellites, and also offers a 2.4GHz WiFi access point for anything else.
The logic is that a dedicated 5GHz link will be almost as fast as a direct ethernet connection but with none of the cables, and the system is aimed at people who don't want or need a full whole home system, but really don't want trailing wires either. That said, you can sync up eight of them if you want, but the lack of open 5GHz WiFi is a bit off-putting, and it doesn't work with Devolo's fine range of Powerline products, but these are just niggles. If you want what it does, it does it well. µ
And, er, not much else
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