Review: Google Wifi (Part 1: Google OnHub Mesh)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’ll be aware that crusty old routers are OUT and in their place are coming a swathe of groovy Home WiFi Systems from the likes of eero (review), Luma, NETGEAR Orbi (review) and Ubiquiti Networks’ AmpliFi HD (review).

Having taken a look at most of the leading contenders, I’ve been impressed with these systems’ cute form factors and super-smart controller apps. Performance is varied, though, with NETGEAR Orbi’s clever backhaul design (which dedicates one of its three wireless bands to connect access points in the network) ruling the roost.

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The idea behind these home WiFi systems is insightful. Rather than place a huge, monolithic beast of a router with seventeen spiky antennas at the centre of the home – which usually leaves WiFi cold spots in the farthest corners – throw a mesh of smaller access points around to provide better coverage.

These mesh networks allow devices to roam seamlessly, automatically directing wireless connections around the network to the optimal access point, without loss of service.

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It’s not all sweet-smelling roses, though. Compared to the fastest routers out there, wireless speeds are pretty humble – most of these home WiFi systems are classed as AC1200 devices, with single connections speeds up to (a theoretical) 867 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. Real world speeds are more like 400-500 Mbps, depending on your wireless client – that’s around half the speed of the very fastest routers available on the market today.

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Backhaul performance is also critical to the success of these devices. If your wireless connection has to hop to a WiFi point and then on to the router (or primary WiFi point, as they’re known) wirelessly you can see your connection speed diminish greatly – but, these systems do successfully extend wireless coverage around the home.

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Some systems – but not all at the time of writing – allow you to connect WiFi points via Ethernet (if you have wiring available) for backhaul duties. These systems generally perform better than wireless only devices.

The third issue of these systems is price. While you can start your home WiFi system with just a single WiFi point (the router) at a reasonable price – around $129-$150 – you may need to buy two or maybe three of these modular devices for best coverage in your home.

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That’s why it’s great to see that the newest entrant to the Home WiFi System market, Google, allows its new Google Wifi system to integrate with the company’s existing Google OnHub router (see my reviews of the TP-Link and ASUS OnHubs).

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I’ve been a loyal OnHub user at home since release last year. While I dabble with routers on a daily basis for work, when it comes to my own home network, good looks, great speeds and simplicity are key. OnHub has done a great job for me over the last year and while Google has failed (badly) to deliver on their promise of extended smart home capabilities, I’ve otherwise been very happy.

So, with the funky new Google Wifi replacing the OnHub (it’s being discontinued and you may find one for a bargain in the clearance section of your local store) I was relieved to hear that existing OnHub devices would be able to integrate into a Google WiFi network. Indeed, seeing as the 3×3 AC1900 specs of the OnHub beat the 2×2 AC1200 Google WiFi points it may well be possible to optimse performance of the network using multiple OnHubs rather than the newer devices.

Annoyingly, Google are only shipping Google Wifi in the USA at launch (a change from OnHub which shipped in both the US & Canada – I live in the latter). Indeed, Google’s PR team were set to send me a loan review kit but subsequently retreated when they saw my shipping address. Them’s the breaks.

Anyway, I have a couple of Google Wifi points on the way, courtesy of a purchase from B&H Photo Video (who I love because they ship a huge range of stuff to Canada) so I’ll have a review online in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to get a couple of Google OnHub devices meshed here at home and see how their speeds compare to the Home WiFi systems we’ve previously reviewed.

So, consider this a prelude to a full review of the Google Wifi hardware itself later in the month.

Getting Up and Running

If you wish to create a mesh network with Google OnHub, you’ll obviously need two or more of the devices (both ASUS and TP-Link devices can mesh together in the same network) or you can create a mesh network with OnHub and one or more Google Wifi devices. They start at $129 for a single device up to $299 for a three pack.

Google released a firmware update for their devices last week (version 8872.40.11), which adds mesh networking capabilities as well as a new parental control feature called Family Wi-Fi. You’ll need to ensure that your OnHub is running this software (it should download and install automatically).

You can check your firmware version in the controller app (previously called Google On, now known as Google Wifi). Be sure to visit Google Play or the App Store too, to ensure you’re running the latest version of the app.

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Once the new software is installed, if you head to your OnHub’s advanced settings menu in the app, you’ll notice that your OnHub has now been classed as the Primary Wifi point and there’s a new option to add more Wifi points. Plug in your second/third OnHubs and, once their status lights are flashing blue, hit the ADD WIFI POINT to start your mesh network configuration.

Here’s my network map before the configuration began. There are 32 device connected (!) and you can see that a single OnHub sits between my Internet connection and those devices.

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Setting up the mesh network is very similar to the initial OnHub configuration, although the graphics have been updated to support the new Google Wifi devices. configuration wizard is the same, whether you’re installing additional OnHubs or Google Wifi points.

You’ll be asked to identify the room in which the Wifi point/OnHub will be located – this makes it easier to differentiate the points in the app going forward.

You may recall that Google OnHub announces itself to the controller app by playing a short audio burst which is encoded with an identifier. That’s used again once the device is found on the network.

With the Wifi point added to your network, the app then tests the quality of connection between the first and second points to ensure smooth operation. Upon receiving a successful result, you’re up and running.

Head back to the network map and you can noe see that there are two Google Wifi points between your Internet connection and wireless devices.

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