For years, home networking kit has been a sea of sameness – a phalanx of reasonably ugly devices that promise super-fast speeds and easy operation. Many fail on both counts.
But times are changing. We’re starting to see some clear segments emerge and evolve. Of course, those bland boxes with an ever-increasing number of antennas aren’t going anywhere. They’re handed out in their millions by ISPs and cable operators the world over and line the racks of your local big box electronics store. They’ll continue to serve mainstream users for years to come.
At the top end of the market, traditional networking companies will continue to bolt on features and evolutionary specifications to eek out the faster speeds and enhanced functionality that prosumers demand. NETGEAR’s Nighthawk X10 is a great example, rocking 802.11ad, twin 10G ports, six Gigabit Ethernet ports and Plex Media Server to boot. Prosumer features and, at $499, a prosumer price. The geek in me can’t wait to check it out.
But the majority of mainstream householders aren’t seeking such jewels. They want Wi-Fi that’s quick with reliable range, housed in a device that doesn’t look like it belongs in their kids’ Transformers collection. A new movement is now trying to educate and serve these consumers.
The Google OnHub didn’t necessarily launch this effort, but certainly encapsulated an alternative choice of aesthetically pleasing, high performing networking devices with simple mobile apps (see our reviews of the TP-Link and ASUS devices). It doesn’t offer all of the bells and whistles of the latest top-end routers (and some of the basics either) but it showed a fresh approach to home networking that was focused more on human factors than spec sheets.
Today’s review subject, the eero Home WiFi System, is cut from similar cloth although it’s built around an alternative approach: mesh networking (one which Google will be jumping on soon with its Google WiFi range, as will the NETGEAR Orbi).
Mesh networking, adopted a while ago on products such as the Sonos wireless speaker system, promises to provides stronger wireless coverage by using multiple devices to distribute signals around the home. Rather than relying on a traditional single point of access (your router) to hammer wireless signals throughout the home, mesh networking systems are able to relay signals between each other. Connect one device to your internet modem, a second at the middle of the house and perhaps a third upstairs and – the theory goes – you’ve spread that signal where it’s required.
Of course, the modular design of such a system means that if parts of your home remain without coverage, you simply need to add another eero device and, boom, you’re covered.
If you’re thinking that the combination of range extenders with traditional routers sounds like a similar approach – relaying and amplifying your signal to cold spots around the home – then that’s understandable. However eero reckons their kit is a much simpler and better performing option as devices will connect seamlessly to a single SSID (no _EXT switching to deal with). Furthermore, traditional range extenders are limited in that they can’t be connected in relay – it’s a hub and spoke model.
With eero, access points are created equal and can communicate with other eero access points on the network, relaying your wireless signal around the home. It’s an approach commonly used in enterprise networks (or, to use an accurate but horrible example, hotels) which require expensive AP management hardware (and at least one network administrator that knows how to configure and manage it). eero promises to replicate the same experience with cheaper (but as we’ll discuss, not cheap) and cuter hardware plus intelligent software that’ll do much (if not all) of the administration effort for you.
Priced at $199 each, $345 for a two-pack or $499 for the three device set we’re reviewing today, eero is most certainly a premium proposition when compared to traditional routers. In comparison, Google Wifi will be priced at $129 per device with a three pack costing far less, at $299. NETGEAR’s Orbi is priced at $249 per device with a two pack costing $399. So, all of these mesh networking systems cost a pretty penny, with eero sitting in between Google and NETGEAR’s offering.
We’ll get into more specifics about the technology soon enough, but first, let’s crack open the box and take a look at the kit.