Living the Mesh Life

Can mesh actually save your home network?

Mesh networking is the current hot topic when it comes to Wi-Fi. Breaking from the trend of increasingly powerful standalone Wi-Fi routers that has dominated the home networking scene over the past few years, mesh networking solutions aim to provide wider and more even Wi-Fi coverage in your home or office through a system of multiple self-configuring and self-managing hotspots. In theory, this approach not only provides better wireless coverage overall, it also makes the setup and maintenance of a Wi-Fi network easier for novice and experienced users alike.

Multiple companies have recently launched Wi-Fi mesh systems, including familiar names such as Google, Netgear, and Linksys. But this new approach to networking has also attracted newcomers, including San Francisco-based eero, one of the first companies to launch a consumer-targeted Wi-Fi mesh platform. eero loaned us their primary product, the 3-piece eero Home WiFi System, and we've spent a few weeks testing it as our home router.

This review is the first part of a series of articles looking at Wi-Fi mesh systems, and it will focus on the capabilities and user experience of the eero Home WiFi System. Future articles will compare eero to other mesh platforms and traditional standalone routers, and look at comparative wireless performance and coverage.

Box Contents & Technical Specifications

As mentioned, we're looking at the 3-pack eero Home WiFi System (hereafter referred to simply as "eero"), a bundle that gives you everything you need to get your home or office up and running with a Wi-Fi mesh system. The box includes three eeros, three power adapters, and a 2-foot Ethernet cable.

Each eero device is identical in terms of design and capability, measuring in at 4.75 inches wide, 4.75 inches deep, and 1.34 inches tall. They each feature two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a single USB 2.0 port (currently restricted to diagnostic use only), and are powered by two 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi radios capable of supporting 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac. In addition, an eero network supports WPA2 Personal encryption, static IPs, manual DNS, IP reservations and port forwarding, and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP).

Setup & Configuration

Unlike most traditional routers which utilize browser-based management interfaces, the eero system relies on a mobile app for setup and management. This means that you'll need an iOS or Android device with an active Wi-Fi or cellular data connection to get started. Upon launching the eero app on your mobile device, you'll next need to create an eero account linked to your email address and mobile number, as eero uses text message-based verification codes for authentication and setup.

Once that's out of the way, you can now begin to set up your Wi-Fi mesh network with the help of eero's guided tutorial. The eero devices arrive in the box labeled "1, 2, and 3" but all of them are functionally identical so you can start with any device. Grab an eero, its power cord, and the included Ethernet cable (if you don't have one already) and head to the location of your WAN connection, typically provided by a cable or DSL modem.

The eero app walks you through each step clearly, but it boils down to the following process:

  1. Unplug your modem and existing router
  2. Connect your modem to either of the eero's Ethernet ports
  3. Plug in your eero and modem

After a few minutes to initialize, you'll be prompted by the eero app to switch over to a cellular data connection (or separate, active Wi-Fi network, if available), where a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will work to identify and assign your new eero. Next, you'll identify the location of your first eero (office, bedroom, basement, etc.), name your network, and secure it via WPA2 Personal encryption.

At this point, your new Wi-Fi network is up and running, albeit via a single eero. To really put the "mesh" in mesh networking, you'll next need to add the remaining eero devices. As the eero app explains, the key is to ensure that the location of your second eero is within adequate wireless range of your first eero, which is typically within 40 feet. Once that location is determined, simply plug the second eero into power and follow the steps in the app to "add another eero." Repeat for the third device.

The three eeros included in the base package will provide coverage for most medium to large homes and offices, but you can add additional eeros as needed, available in 2-packs for $349 and individually for $199. The company suggests a ratio of one eero per 1,000 square feet of desired coverage area, although that guideline will of course vary based on factors such as building materials, layout, and the presence of other wireless signals.

Living the Mesh Life

With your mesh network active, you can monitor network conditions and access advanced configuration settings from the eero app, even from outside your local network. The app provides an overview of the eero devices and their relative signal strength, a list of connected devices, and access to features such as port forwarding, IP reservations, DNS servers, and DHCP ranges. The eero doesn't provide access to every feature or configuration option available on high-end standalone routers, but it contains enough to suit most home and office networks.

That said, let's take a look at the main features and benefits:

Wired & Wireless: The eero hotspots are designed to communicate wirelessly, and they'll automatically utilize both Wi-Fi radios to ensure the best balance between keeping in touch with each other and providing coverage to your wireless clients. However, if you already have a hardwired Ethernet run between eeros, you can wire them together to improve performance and take the burden of intra-network communication off of the eero's Wi-Fi radios. Each eero's two Ethernet ports are "smart" ports which auto-detect the type of connection (WAN, eero network backbone, remote wired device, etc.) and configure themselves accordingly, so you can plug just about any type of Ethernet connection into any port.

Single SSID: When you first set up the eero network, you'll create a single network SSID and password. Aside from the optional guest network, that's it. There's no 5GHz or 2.4GHz distinctions, no "network-1" and "network-2" bifurcations, just a single network name and password for all of your devices regardless of capability. As your devices connect to the network and move around your home, the eero will automatically manage the details of connection point and network type (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac) and seamlessly hand off the connection as necessary. To the end user, this process is invisible, but you can see the connection details, including which eero a particular device is currently connected to, in the eero app.

Automatic QoS: With the huge number of wireless devices in the average home and the demands of high-bandwidth activities such as HD video streaming and video conferencing, Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities are quickly becoming a necessity for home routers. Simply put, QoS prioritizes your network traffic to either prevent a single device from hogging all of the bandwidth (such as a Steam game download causing buffering during the family's Netflix marathon) or ensure that a particular device or app always has top priority for Internet bandwidth (such as forcing Netflix or Steam downloads to take a second seat to Skype video chats).

The good news is that eero supports automatically configured QoS, testing your Internet speeds every day and intelligently learning how and when your devices require bandwidth to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The bad news is that there's no manual configuration options that let the user override the automatic QoS. Most users will be quite well served with eero's automatic approach, and in our testing it worked flawlessly, but some users with more demanding network configurations and requirements may be frustrated by the lack of control.

Automatic Updates: Beyond automatic configuration of your mesh network, another eero benefit is automatic, and frequent, firmware updates. Every few weeks, your eero network will receive updates addressing bug patches, security fixes, performance enhancements, and even new features. These will be downloaded and installed automatically when your network is not in use, but you can also manually check for and install updates via the eero app. This might be an issue for users with mission critical network requirements (as your Wi-Fi network will go down for several minutes while the updates are applied) but it ensures that users, especially those with limited technical experience, will always have the latest security and performance fixes.

Family Profiles: Continuing the "user friendly" vibe of the eero experience, users can configure Family Profiles from the eero app, assigning specific devices to individual family members. Once assigned, the network administrators (a.k.a. "parents") can manually block Internet access to a profile's devices, or configure a scheduled time period during which Internet access is unavailable. Examples of how this can be useful include manually blocking a child's Internet access until their homework is done, or blocking the whole family's access during dinner in an attempt to avoid discussion-killing Facebook checks.

VPN and USB, Where Art Thou?

Although the eero boasts many impressive benefits, a few omissions and limitations may make it unsuitable to power your next Wi-Fi network. First, unlike many high-end standalone routers, the eero does not offer any VPN functionality on-board. It will pass through an existing VPN connection if available via another networking device just fine, but don't expect to ditch your current VPN server.

The second issue relates to USB functionality. As discussed earlier, each eero includes a USB 2.0 Type-A port on the back of the device. Many other networking devices also include USB ports, and allow users to connect printers or storage for easy network access. In the case of the eero, however, its USB port is limited to diagnostic functions only, so you'll need to account for any backup drives or printers when switching. There's a chance that USB device support may be added to eero via a future software update, but there is currently no confirmation on that from the company.

The final issue is Ethernet ports. Although the complete eero system provides you with six Gigabit Ethernet ports, you'll only have two of them at any given location (and only one for your primary eero, as the other will be occupied by the WAN connection to your modem). This stands in contrast to most standalone routers which include four or more ports, and it means that you may need to purchase an Ethernet switch to provide a wired connection to all of the devices that require one.

Performance Preview

As mentioned, we'll be providing a more in-depth look at how the eero compares to other mesh systems soon, but we wanted to address our initial experience. Our test eero mesh network replaced one powered by a single ASUS RT-AC3200 in a roughly 5,000 square foot home. The ASUS router was able to provide coverage to all areas of the home, although performance was limited in the two bedrooms at the end farthest from the router.

Testing from one of those bedrooms using the network bandwidth measuring utility iPerf, we measured maximum bandwidth of about 13 megabits per second when connected via 802.11n at 2.4GHz to the ASUS router. This is enough to browse the Web, but is painfully slow for intra-network transfers.

After setting up the eero mesh Wi-Fi network, and with one of the eero hotspots in the hallway about 15 feet away, performance in that same bedroom jumped to 287 megabits per second via 802.11ac, an improvement of greater than 2,100 percent.

Pricing & Conclusion

Our initial experience shows that eero succeeds in improving the coverage and speed of your home network when compared to a traditional standalone router, but this success doesn't come cheap. With a list price of $499 (street prices range between $400 and $450) for the 3-pack, eero is a pricey upgrade compared to even the highest-end routers which generally top out in the mid-$300s. The lack of advanced features such as on-board VPN, the limited control over features like QoS, and the currently useless USB port may also make the eero less attractive to power users or those with unique networking requirements.

But those aren't necessarily the users eero is targeting. For the less technically savvy, the eero is a Wi-Fi revelation, providing a "set it and forget it" experience with great coverage and performance. Even better, the eero's automatic management and diagnostics mean that you, or the hapless relative or neighbor to whom you provide free technical support, may never need to power cycle a router again, or stare bewildered at a series of blinking lights. That alone is reason to consider the eero, even with just a 1- or 2-pack configuration for smaller homes.

Powerful, standalone routers aren't going anywhere anytime soon, but mesh Wi-Fi networking is poised to be the future of our increasingly wireless world, and the eero Home WiFi System is a fantastic, if pricey, point of entry.