Regular readers will be aware that the new breed of Mesh Wi-Fi systems are quickly gaining the attention of tech enthusiasts as a potential replacement for traditional home routers. These modular systems bundle a small, compact router with multiple wireless access points which creates a mesh network in the home.
The promise of mesh networks, using multiple access points is enhanced Wi-Fi coverage and better speeds than using a traditional router or router + wireless extender combo. Furthermore, these devices are generally more compact and better looking than traditional networking devices, with simple to operate smartphone apps providing a welcome change from old school, complex router management consoles.
Networking manufacturers old and new are racing to ship Mesh Wi-Fi systems into the marketplace. So far, we’ve reviewed the eero Home Wi-Fi System (read the review) an early pioneer in mesh home networking. It does a reasonable job and certainly looks the part, but the system failed to deliver the performance and reliability that I was looking for.
Last week, Netgear Orbi was the latest system to arrive at WGS for review. We were impressed by Orbi’s good looks, reasonably high speeds (most of these systems are AC1200-class devices, so not the fastest routers you’ll find around) but most of all, its ability to sustain those speeds when connecting to satellite access points. That’s a fundamentally important task that eero couldn’t manage so well.
Today, it’s the turn of the Ubiquiti Amplifi HD Mesh Wi-Fi System. Ubiquiti Networks, the manufacturers of the system, is a favoured choice of networking aficionados. The company specialises in enterprise-class wireless data communication products, with its EdgeRouter and UniFi AP lines breaking into prosumer homes. However, these devices are truly positioned for the enterprise, with an extensive array of features and configuration options that require a fair degree of knowledge to configure and manage.
The Amplifi range is an altogether different proposition. Here, Ubiquiti is seeking to leverage its UniFi Mesh networking technology with a greatly simplified, consumer-oriented controls. A “Perfected User Experience” they claim.
Sounds exciting – let’s take a look.
The AmpliFi range includes three models. The $199 entry-level system, simply called AmpliFi, supports a network range of 10,000 square feet with aggregate speeds up to 2.35 Gbps (more on speeds shortly). AmpliFi LR, priced at $299, boosts coverage to 20,000 sqft with the same speed rating. Today’s review model, AmpliFi HD, tops the range at a price of $349. Additionally you can opt to purchase the base router on its own for $149 – multiple AmpliFi HD routers can be meshed together too, should you decide to expand the network from there.
Ubiquiti claims AmpliFi HD offers the same 20,000 sqft range as the LR model, but offers aggregate network speeds up to 5.25 Gbps.
Let’s clarify the marketing claim here.
Competing mesh networking systems such as eero and the upcoming Google WiFi are rated as dual band, AC1200 devices with theoretical maximum speeds up to 1200 Mbps. They transmit data from clients to the router and between access points in the mesh (known as the “backhaul”) using those same two bands, with clever algorithms determining the most efficient method of steering bits around the network.
Netgear Orbi, which is sold as tri-band AC3000 device uses a slightly different approach. It dedicates one of its three bands to backhaul duties which means, in effect, it pretty much operates as an AC1200 class device (albeit a very effective one, as our review sets out).
Routers with 5.25 Gbps are classed as AC5300 devices (see our round up of the year’s best models). There are tri-band devices, shipping in massive boxes. That’s certainly not the case with the AmpliFi HD router which is decidedly dinky.
Looking more closely at the AmpliFi HD specs, you can see that the router itself is actually a dual-band AC1750 class device, offering speeds up to 1300 Mbps on the 5 GHz band and 450 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band. That’s certainly faster, on paper, than the AC1200-rated competition, but where did Ubiquiti get that 5.25 Gbps figure from?
With two mesh access points included in the system, each rated at AC1750, Ubiquiti Network’s marketers have simply aggregated the speeds of each component in the system to claim a “total” speed of 5.25 Gbps. But let’s be clear, the AmpliFi HD is no AC5300-class device.
However, the router is equipped with a cute colour LCD touchscreen, four Gigabit Ethernet ports (a step up from competitors) and a USB port that is currently unavailable for use. Overall, it looks very well equipped to take on 2016’s mesh networking competition – let’s check out the kit itself.
What’s in the Box?
The home WiFi systems we’ve reviewed to date have all been beautifully branded and presented. AmpliFi HD is no exception with sumptuous packaging that’s a cut above the traditional router. The experience starts with unboxing, for sure.
In the box you’ll find the cube-shaped AmpliFi HD router and two tall, narrow mesh access points. They’re accompanied by a power adaptor for the router (the access points have integrated power connectors), an Ethernet cable and a quick start guide.
AmpliFi HD’s industrial design is somewhat of a departure from its competitors. Where they deliver a consistent design across each component in the system, AmpliFi HD varies. The soft-touch, white, cube-shaped router will seamlessly blend into the home – wherever it’s positioned, with its circular touchscreen bringing to mind the Nest Learning Thermostat in its elegance.
With the use of a screen, there’s no need for the traditional array of twinkling status LEDs but you will find a glow emanating from the base of the device. Handily, both the screen brightness and the base LED brightness can be controlled from the AmpliFi app. The router also has an adjustable night mode which will automatically turn off the displays overnight. All great touches.
With a default digital clock face, the AmpliFi HD router somewhat resembles a modern desk accessory – a refreshing change from the usual monolithic networking devices we receive to review.
The rear of the router is reasonably clean – four Gigabit LAN ports are positioned in a square with a fifth network port used to connect to your modem.
The port line-up is completed by the aforementioned USB port and a micro-USB power input. One other feature of note – AmpliFi HD is also equipped with a small speaker near the top of the device which offers a pleasant bing when the device is powered on and at each step of the setup. It’s all extremely neat.
While I’m a big fan of the router’s compactness the design of the two mesh access points is less successful. These tall, angular devices look out of context in a home setting and while Ubiquiti has clearly worked hard to unify the overall aesthetics of the home WiFi system, they look quite industrial and ungainly.
Each access point is equipped with a magnetic silver ball joint, which neatly connects the top antenna to the integrated power adaptor below. It allows allowing the antenna’s orientation to be fine tuned for optimal signal strength. Front-facing LEDs allow you to monitor the quality of the connection with the router and, as you’d expect, you can monitor signal strength via the app too.
Importantly, the access points lack an Ethernet port, so you’re unable to take advantage of a wired backhaul.
I’m sure function is more important than form here, but these access points do look a little big – eero, Google WiFi and Orbi all have an aesthetic advantage here – we’ll see if the same is true of performance a little later.