While 2016 was forgettable for a whole host of reasons, in the Home Networking world, it will be remembered as the year of “Whole Home Wi-Fi”. A potentially monolithic shift in form factor from large, ugly routers to aesthetically pleasing, compact mesh Wi-Fi hubs.
So far, I’ve reviewed a number of leading contenders, including eero (review), Ubiquiti Networks’ Amplifi HD (review), NETGEAR Orbi (review) and Google Wifi (review). Of those, Orbi and Google Wifi get my nod – indeed, I’m running the latter for my own home network. Unsurprisingly, networking manufacturers that didn’t have Whole Home Wi-Fi systems in market last year announced upcoming devices at CES 2017. Linksys Velop is the first of this new crop that we’ve received for review and I’m expecting systems from TP-Link, Amped Wireless, D-Link and ASUS to follow in the first half of this year. But today, we get to meet Velop.
Priced at a premium $499.99, Linksys Velop is a three-hub mesh Wi-Fi system that claims coverage up to 6,000 feet. A two pack kit is available for $349 while a single hub is priced at $199. Built around the same 716 MHz Qualcomm IPQ4019 SoC that powers NETGEAR Orbi, the system similarly takes advantage of Qualcomm Atheros’s Wi-Fi SON (self-organizing network) firmware to handle mesh duties. 4 GB Flash and 512 MB RAM are equipped, ensuring Velop’s engine packs a punch.
That said, almost all of these Whole Home Wi-Fi Systems are using Qualcomm’s technology, so what makes Velop any different? The devil is in the detail. Linksys Velop is classed as a tri-band AC2200 system (867 + 867 + 400 Mbps) that, like NETGEAR Orbi, dedicates one of those three bands to wireless backhaul (the inter-connection between the hubs). (Linksys advertise their system as “AC6600” which is hugely misleading – all they’re doing here is multiplying the real class by three, as the system includes three hubs).
However, whereas Orbi is equipped with a 4×4 802.11ac backhaul radio (powered by the Qualcomm QCA9984, if you’re taking notes), Linksys has selected the seemingly lower spec 2×2 802.11ac QCA9886 chipset for the Velop, which may well place it at a disadvantage. We’ll see. However, unlike Orbi, Velop supports wired backhaul over Ethernet, meaning that communications between the devices will be far quicker if you have Ethernet around the home (or MoCA 2.0 adapters scattered around).
Confused much? Let me attempt to clarify by way of the table below.[wpdatatable id=45]
As you can see, there is much in common between the devices but significant differences also. While Netgear’s Orbi dedicated wireless backhaul performs really well, the lack of wired backhaul is a big loss. Linksys Velop has wired backhaul which put it at an advantage, but with a weaker wireless chipset. Will that make a noticeable difference when it comes to real world performance? Let’s see…
Completing the specification rundown, we see that Velop is equipped with two Gigabit Ethernet ports that are smart enough to sense whether they’re being used for LAN or WAN connections. It’s likely, therefore, that you’ll need to add a Gigabit Network switch to your network if you have multiple wired hubs for smart home devices. It’s not a huge imposition, but is worth remembering when it comes to placement and installation.
Aside from enhanced network range, the other big selling point of Whole Home Wi-Fi Systems is their design. Throw that monstrosity of a router in the bin – these new hubs are compact and pretty enough to have out on show. Except when they’re not.
It would be wrong of me to say that Linksys Velop is ugly, but the tall, thin, heavily punched network hubs have a (possibly unintended) retro-style that calls to mind tinny PC desktop speakers of days passed. They’re certainly more compact and less obtrusive than a traditional router but they’re not particularly stylish. On the plus side, Linksys presented the Velop package beautifully and the vertical antenna placement should support stronger connectivity.
Actually, the most successful part of the design is hidden – flip the hubs over and you’ll find neatly hidden network and power ports, alongside small power and reset buttons. A chamfered rear corner helps to ensure your cabling is kept in control.
There’s one other point to mention regarding design. Each hub/node is bundled with a reasonably large power adapter, which is almost as wide as a North American outlet’s back plate. It’s fine for the lower socket in a two gang outlet, but if you’re using a power strip or other adapter, it may well block spare outlets.