To Mesh Or Not To Mesh?
You’re probably aware of the performance advantages of Mesh WiFi but find yourself wondering if the improvement in performance justifies the cost. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at Mesh, its advantages over traditional Wi-Fi, and provide a low-cost solution that allows you to have all the advantages of Mesh WiFi at an affordable price.
It’s possible to have performance issues in a large home even if you have a powerful WiFi router. A Wi-Fi signal can only travel so far before it starts to degrade. If you have just one wireless router in your home once you get past the 2500 square foot range you’re going to start having issues. Issues like lag and dead spots will increase exponentially with the size of your home.
Many of these problems can be corrected with entenders, Powerline, or bigger antennas but once you start getting into a really large home Mesh has got to become a serious consideration.
The TP-Link Deco M5 is an example of a Mesh Wi-Fi system that finds that magical sweet spot between performance and price. Deco Mesh WiFi systems are consistently among the best-selling mesh systems on Amazon. Mesh is usually very easy to set up but there are still some quirky little things that confuse some people which I’ll be covering in this article.
Link to M5
Advantages Of Mesh WiFi Over "Regular" Wireless Routers
So what are some of the advantages of a mesh system over a standard wireless router? With a “regular” wireless router, you have just one connection for the whole house. If the range of the wireless router does not extend to the whole house you’ll end up with dead spots and other slowness issues such as lag and dropped connections.
These issues can sometimes be cleared up with wireless extenders, but in many cases, you’ll end up with multiple SSIDs (wireless networks) and you’ll end up having to manually disconnect and reconnect as you move around your home. You may also have to get multiple Wi-Fi extenders to take care of multiple dead spots in your home.
With a Mesh WiFi system, you can put nodes in all the important parts of your home and connect to all of them with one SSID (network name). Each node has a special extra band which allows them all to communicate with each other and decide which connection is the strongest one for wherever you’re located at the time.
Another great thing about mesh is it so easy to set up. When I first set up my Deco M5 it was almost fun. When I was done I was like, “Whoa, is that all there is?”
Another good thing about mesh is its flexibility. There are different ways to set mesh WiFi nodes up. When setting up your mesh WiFi system you may find yourself running into words such as router mode, access point mode, bridge mode, NAT, double NAT, and wired backhaul.
It would be time-consuming to do the research to figure all this out so let me break it down for you really quick. A wired backhaul is when you connect two Wi-Fi mesh nodes with an ethernet cable. This allows for faster throughput between the two and frees up the Wi-Fi band the mesh nodes would otherwise use to communicate with each other. This results in an increase in your Wi-Fi bandwidth and performance. This is a great way to get the most performance out of your Mesh Wi-Fi system IF you don’t mind running cables.
In this article, I’ll be focusing on the methods that don’t involve pulling ethernet cables through your walls such as “router mode” and “access point mode.”
In most people’s homes, you’ll have a modem and a router. The router performs special networking functions such as Network Address Translation, DHCP, Quality of Service, and port forwarding. In some cases, the ISP will send the customer a modem-router combo in which all those router functions are built into the modem. Many times people will be unhappy with the performance of their modem-router combo and they’ll go out and get themselves a nice shiny new wireless router.
Unfortunately what happens is when you do this you have all those router functions happening on both the modem-router combo and the new wireless router. When that happens those functions start to interfere with each other and you end up with something called double NAT. You can also end up with conflicting DHCP IP addresses. QoS and port forwarding rules can get kind of confused as well.
The common solution for this has always been to call your ISP and ask them to put the modem-router combo into “bridge mode.” This bypasses all those fancy wireless router functions and allows them to be taken care of by your new home wireless router.
The same kind of situation exists with mesh Wi-Fi. With a mesh system, you can set it up in an “access point mode” which means your primary mesh node is just an access point and does not interfere with all those router functions. The other option is to take your wireless router out of the equation and set the primary mesh node up in “router mode” so it can handle all the functions that your wireless router normally would.
Many times people will get “all kinds of” upset because they set their mesh system up in “access point mode” and when they go in to make changes to DHCP and Quality of Service they find those settings are missing and they feel like they’ve been “ripped off.” What is actually happening is those functions do not exist on the primary mesh node when you set it up in “access point “mode.” If you want to use those functions you have to set it up in “router mode” or use your wireless router.
Let's Stop Staring At It And Get It Set Up!
So much for the basic primer on the technical side of wireless mesh routers. Let’s go ahead and set one up. As you know we’ll be using The TP-Link Deco M5 which is an extremely affordable Mesh WiFi system. The Deco Mesh M5 specs are decent but they’re not overwhelming. What it amounts to is an AC 1300 megabits per second system with 867 MB per second on the 5 GHz band and the rest on the 2.4 GHz band.
Each node has four antennas and supports MU-MIMO and Beamforming. It also has a very nice Qualcomm quad-core processor and each node has two ethernet ports. You can now also get antivirus and parental controls as part of a free subscription service. TP-Link Deco M5 also comes with a cloud service that you can use to log in, monitor, and control your home network remotely.
The M5s specs are fine for our purposes since we are more interested in expanding our range than getting blazing speed. At the end of this article, I’ll show some statistics of an actual speed test between The Deco M5 and a Netgear Nighthawk (link to Netgear Nighthawk).
Okay, let’s start getting our Deco M5 setup. When you first plug in the primary mesh node you’ll get a nice little blue blinking light. This means it’s ready to be set up and configured. As I mentioned before you can set these up in either “access point mode” or “router mode.” In this case, will be doing the setup in “router mode” so I can show all those “special router functions.”
That means we’ll be taking the wireless router out of the equation and using the primary mesh node as the wireless router (See below.)
Deco M5 WiFi Mesh Smartphone App
The majority of setup involved with any Mesh Wi-Fi system is done on your smartphone. Here we go:
Download and log in to the app. You may have to create an account.
Choose your device!
Power cycling your modem gives it an opportunity to “resync” with your internet service provider and introduce The Deco M5 to your ISP as the new router.
Make sure all cables are connected correctly before turning the modem back on. Wireless networking does not work without wires!
Once the modem is on and synced with the ISP (Blinking lights) power on the Deco by plugging in the power cord.
Your smartphone and Deco M5 should see each other and automatically connect. Woohoo! You can now configure the Deco with your smartphone!
Give your new Mesh WiFi node a location.
Select your Internet Connection type. Most will be “Dynamic IP.” You can get this information from your ISP.
Give your new Mesh WiFi network a network name and passphrase.
If you’re using an Apple device don’t use TKIP encryption. TKIP encryption does not work with Apple devices.
Move on to the next?
Connect your devices.
Exploring The TP-Link Deco M5 Smartphone App
Now that we have the smartphone app connected to the Deco M5 it’s time to see what we can do with it!
Connected devices. The little toggle button turns seamless roaming on and off for that device.
Use Smart Actions with home automation devices. The Deco M5 also works with Alexa.
The cool stuff is here!
Turn your WiFi mesh bands on and off.
Turn the Guest WiFi on and off.
Test your speed!
Use the blacklist to block WiFi devices from your network.
Check for updates.
True Home IT Gurus like the “Advanced” section!
Here we can modify our LAN IP, change our DHCP settings, specify a DNS address for machines in our Network, and set any port forwarding and DDNS settings. UPnP automatically opens ports for certain devices on the network. Important for gamers.
You want to make sure you have Fast Roaming and Beamforming enabled. There’s no reason to disable these two features.
This section allows you to switch back and forth between “Router Mode” and “Access Point” mode if auto-detection doesn’t work.
If you’re a parent you can control your kid’s access to the internet here.
Here we’re giving Little Billy access to games and social networking. He’s still not old enough for gambling and adult content!
We can also set limits on the days and the amount of time he can access the Internet.
We can also add specific devices to his “profile” and set restrictions and priorities on those devices.
The App Is Impressive!
I have used many Wi-Fi smartphone applications at times many of them seemed buggy and would sometimes lock up. For the most part, the TP-Link Deco M5 mesh Wi-Fi app performed flawlessly. It performed every operation I asked of it and “just worked” without any errors.
Deco M5 vs Netgear Nighthawk
For this simple test, I took turns connecting to the Netgear Nighthawk and then to the Deco M5 from a wireless laptop.
At first glance, it may appear that the Netgear Nighthawk “outperforms” the Deco M5. In terms of raw speed it does but keep in mind on the 5 GHz side the Nighthawk is a 1300 Mb per second router while The Deco is only an 867 Mb per second router. From that standpoint, it’s kind of an unfair comparison.
The important thing to keep in mind is why you bought your mesh Wi-Fi system in the first place. Was it to achieve blazing speed or was it just to increase your wireless range? If the goal was to increase wireless range we have accomplished that objective. If you need blazing speed another more high-end mesh system like the xxxx might be a better choice.
The Bottom Line - Where WiFi Speed Hits The Road
With a standard wireless router, you’re going to start off with max speeds like those shown above when you’re right on top of the wireless router, but as you move farther and farther away the speeds you get are going to rapidly decrease. On a mesh network designed for coverage area, you’ll maintain good speeds throughout the home.
One valid concern is the Ping speed. These ping speeds are not acceptable if you’re a gamer. By design Mesh has a lot of crosstalk and communication going on between the nodes. This consumes bandwidth and creates overhead which is a big reason why the Ping speeds are so high. A good approach would be to set up your mesh nodes in “access point mode” and allow your wireless router to control things such as Quality Service, NAT, and port forwarding and run your games off of the wireless router.
While The TP Deco M5 may not be the fastest Mesh system out there it is definitely one of the best values you’ll find if your main concern is to increase wireless coverage and performance throughout your home. I would highly recommend this system to anyone who is looking to improve their Wi-Fi coverage and get the biggest bang for their buck. You can get one here right now:
Link to Amazon TP-Link Deco M5.