America, it’s time to admit that we have a problem: We have Wi-Fi dead spots.
Who isn’t unhappy with the Wi-Fi coverage in their home? We complain about how bad the signal is when we watch Netflix in so-and-so’s bedroom, use the Xbox in the basement, or stream music in the kitchen.
The industry has come up with all kinds of solutions: Wi-Fi repeaters/extenders, Powerline adapters, router hacks, and more. All of them, however, have their downsides, such as having to switch from one Wi-Fi network to another when you move around the house.
Life is different, of course, in office buildings, where you have one Wi-Fi network everywhere you go. That’s because offices use expensive enterprise routers that support a protocol called 802.11r, which lets your phone or laptop switch smoothly from one Wi-Fi base station to another as you move around.
A new product called Eero offers that same 802.11r roaming technology — but brings it, for the first time, to the home.
The key is that, instead of installing just one Wi-Fi transmitter, you install a set of them, spaced evenly throughout your house.
The result is a single “mesh network” that blankets the entire house with a good, strong signal. (The company’s marketing pitch goes like this: Expecting a single router to fill an entire home with Wi-Fi is like expecting one speaker to fill every room with music.)
I’ve had a chance to try it out, and here’s the bottom line: Eero smashes the dead-zone problem like a sledgehammer on an ant. It’s drop-dead simple to set up and a joy to use.
It is also, unfortunately, crazy-expensive: $500 for a set of three Eeros, which is what you need to blanket a typical house. (If you have a huge house, you can expand as necessary, at $200 per additional capsule.)
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s absurd! What kind of dummy would pay $500 to solve the dead-spot problem, when there are so many cheaper alternatives?”
But you might also reasonably respond: “$500 to end my kids’ griping forever? $500 to bring the full speed of my $65-a-month Internet service to every room of the house? Sign me up!”
Each Eero (named after architect Eero Saarinen) is a sleek, small, white plastic capsule (5.5 inches square). Its good looks are important, because one of the most effective ways of improving your Wi-Fi coverage is to move the router out into the open — which you probably aren’t inclined to do if your router looks like one of these:
Setting up the entire Eero system takes 15 minutes, tops.You plug the first Eero capsule into your cable modem with a regular Ethernet cable. Then you open a simple app on your iPhone or Android phone. It asks you to provide a name and password for your network as a whole. You also name this first Eero (“Downstairs” or “Office,” for example).
Then you set up your other Eeros.
A Wi-Fi signal is like someone talking to you: It’s harder to hear through a wall or a floor. If you can see the person (line of sight), that’s ideal. You’re therefore supposed to place each additional Eero within sight of the previous one, or at least with as few intervening walls or floors as possible.
You just plug each one into a power outlet; only the first one needs a wired network connection. (You can plug other capsules into Ethernet jacks in the wall if you have them — a good idea if the capsules are farther apart than 40 feet or so.)
In the app, you tap the + button to detect and name these additional Eeros.
For anyone who has ever had to set up networking gear, this idiot-proof, tap-and-go simplicity is pure gold.
And the result?
Below is a map of my house. The colored bars represent Wi-Fi speeds in three tests:
- Blue (bottom bar): This is the Netgear R6400 ($130), the Wi-Fi router recommended by the reviews site Wirecutter that I bought last year specifically to eliminate dead spots. It almost did the job — but Kids 1 and 3 still complained bitterly.
- Red (middle bar): With the $500 set of three Eeros. As you can see, it improved the signal in most rooms, especially in the far kids’ bedrooms.
- Yellow (top bar): Just for kicks, I added one more Eero unit — a total of four (and a total price of $700). Four Eeros give me nearly full speed in every room on every floor of the house!
(Longer bars are better. For reference: The Family room is the fastest in the house; that yellow bar translates to 56 megabits per second. The Kid 3 blue bar is the worst: 4 Mbps.)
The apartment of Wi-Fi death
As you can see, at my own house, with the exception of the kids’ bedrooms, we weren’t exactly suffering before Eero came along. But I have a friend who lives in a pre-war apartment in San Francisco, in which the walls are apparently made of concrete, lead, and Kryptonite.
Over the last five years, I’ve helped her try to solve her Wi-Fi problems several times. We’ve upgraded her router twice; installed a Wi-Fi extender; experimented with PowerLine adapters: Nothing worked. The Wi-Fi signals in the kitchen and dining room have been so weak, you can barely see their blue bars in the diagram below.
Those blue bars show the challenges faced even by our latest attempted fix, the Archer C7 router (another Wirecutter pick). The Eero (red bars) blew it away.
Boom: Wi-Fi coverage in every room, just as promised. The kitchen and dining room improvement? Network speeds went from 1.7 Mbps to 79 Mbps — almost miraculous.
What’s not to like
So: The Eero is small, attractive, idiot-proof, fast, and it works.
As a bonus, when someone comes over to your house, you don’t have to remember the password; you can send them a link via email or text message containing the network name and password — either for the main network, or a separate guest network that doesn’t have access to the rest of your computers.
Eero is not, however, a slam dunk for everyone. Some of the annoyances:
- To get going, you have to create an Eero account, which includes disclosing your phone number. That seems a bit much.
- The Eero app doesn’t work when the Eeros aren’t actually connected to the Internet. Why not? (I also found a couple of minor bugs in the app.)
- The app prominently displays a speed test. Great! Unfortunately, it never changes as you move through the house. Eero explains that it shows the speed coming into the house — not the speed your laptop or phone is getting within the house, which would be far more useful.
- Despite the term “mesh network,” your devices (phone, tablet, or laptop) connect to only one Eero capsule at a time. The engineering achievement here, according to Eero, is the intelligence the capsules use to hand you off from one to the next as you move through the house. OK, but it would then be nice if the app indicated which capsule you’re connected to at a given moment, particularly when you’re troubleshooting.
- The app offers three generic screens with capsule-placement tips — “within 40 feet of each other,” “line of sight preferred,” and so on. But it doesn’t do so interactively, tailoring those suggestions to your house as you fiddle with positioning. It should.
- Expert users can’t tweak the configuration settings much at all. You can’t specify the security protocol (you get WPA2, AES encryption), the channels it uses, the frequency (it offers both 2.4 and 5.0 gigahertz), and so on. No parental controls, either.
You might also be alarmed at first that there are only two Ethernet jacks on the back of each Eero unit (plus a nonfunctional USB jack). Where are you supposed to plug in your network hard drive, printer, cellphone booster, and so on? My old Netgear router had four Ethernet jacks.
Ahh, but this is actually a benefit, at least in my setup. Because Eeros are now spread throughout the house, all of those additional network gadgets don’t have to be clumped together near the router. Two apiece can be plugged into the Eeros in less conspicuous locations.
Alternatives to Eero
To appreciate the Eero — or to solve dead-spot problems with less expense — you could certainly try some alternatives:
Get a newer router: If your current Wi-Fi router is more than a couple of years old, it doesn’t have the latest technologies and so isn’t delivering the best possible performance. Just replacing an old router could result in way better coverage.
Move your router: Your instinct might be to tuck your router out of the way, because it looks so hideous. But the truth is, positioning your router up off the ground and as centrally as possible is much better.
Get an extender: A Wi-Fi extender (or repeater) grabs the weakening signal from your router and re-broadcasts it, giving it a boost into the farther reaches of your house. But you pay a price in speed with this technique, and the extended network has a different Wi-Fi name. (Instead of My Network, it’s something like My Network_Ext.) Having to switch back and forth manually between these different networks gets old fast.
Powerline adapters: These modules plug into power outlets and then use your home’s electrical wiring as network cabling; you connect your devices through their Ethernet jacks. Unfortunately, depending on your house’s age, the quality of the wiring, number of circuits, proximity to big appliances, and so on, such networks are prone to interference and speed drops.
Multiple routers, one name: If you buy more than one router and give their networks exactly the same name and password, they automatically form a single big network. You avoid the two-network-names problem.
Apple actually advertises this technique as a feature of its AirPort base stations. (Other brands don’t always work so well.)
This setup saves you having to manually switch networks as you move. Unfortunately, it’s up to your phone, tablet, or laptop to say, “Gee, my first router signal is now so weak, I should start looking for a second one” — and, often, that doesn’t happen until you’re well into the second router’s territory.
In 802.11r networks like Eero’s, however, the routers are smart enough to tell the device, “Hey, there’s a closer router now! Make the switch!”
Rival devices: Eero is the first home 802.11r system, but others are on the way from D-Link, LinkSys, and others. Clearly, home 802.11r is going to be a thing.
The bottom line
Sometimes, time, beauty, reliability, and certainty are worth paying for. That’s why I ended up buying an Eero set for myself. My San Francisco friend also bought Eero — and canceled her electrician’s visit.
That’s two Eero systems sold already—and a very good start for the dawn of high-speed mesh networks at home.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.