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Faster WiFi with Antennas and Beamforming? (Updated with reader comments)

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UPDATE: see the MPG review of the Netgear Nighthawk X10.

...

I haven’t been happy with my WiFi for quite some time now—Apple Airport Extreme not only has very poor range and poor performance, but they go AWOL often enough to be annoying.

Today I ordered the Netgear Nighthawk X10 Wireless-AD7200 Tri-Band Gigabit Router, currently $230 off (deal ends today).

Hopefully I will see much better performance—I’ll post a review once up and running.

Note well that regardless, I strongly recommend wired Gigabit (or 10G) ethernet as vastly superior to all forms of WiFi. All my Macs are using Gigabit. The WiFi is for entertainment and miscellaneous devices like iPad/iPhone/TV etc—not for serious work.

Netgear Nighthawk X10 Wireless-AD7200 Tri-Band Gigabit Router

Kevin B writes:

May I suggest an alternative that has worked extremely well for me and has had a bonus perk that I am absolutely thrilled about? A WiFi Mesh network.

My wife and I recently moved … we’ve got Comcast / Xfinity for our Internet and I had bought an inexpensive Netgear cable modem / WiFi router all-in-one. It worked fine, but as you’ve noted with your setup, range was limited. That turned out to especially bite us in regards to phone calls of all things. We happen to be in an area with poor Verizon coverage and were therefore using WiFi calling on our iPhones. You basically had to be in the living room to talk on the phone.

I looked at the various mesh network vendors and ended up going with Eero based on:

1) the recommendation of my neighbor, and
2) the recommendation of Dave Hamilton from the Mac Geek Gab podcast, who probably knows more about mesh networking than anybody I know of.

The Eero mesh network solved our range problems … both for Internet and for our WiFi calling. It was very easy to setup and has worked flawlessly.

So what’s the perk? Eero Secure. It’s a $3/month or $30/year subscription they offer that does a number of things … you can do content filtering, for example. It also does malicious website protection and pretty much the things you would expect. But the thing that I am absolutely thrilled about is the ad blocking it does! I’ve used various browser plugins like Ghostery and Ad Block in the past and they were mediocre at best. Eero’s ad blocker is the 2nd best ad blocker I’ve ever seen (I work at one of the National Labs and theirs is the best!). I would pay triple what I’m paying for Eero Secure just for the ad blocker.

MPG: I've considered a mesh network, and at first glance, it seems to make sense.

BUT... the apt comparison is simplicity vs complexity as well as peak performance and low latency. Complexity should always be suspect as an inferior technology without exception until and unless it has unequivocal benefits that outweigh all else. I just do not see that happening here, here’s why.

Seems to me that a directional beamformed signal always wins unless a many-unit mesh is used to cover all usage locations, and no mesh network is going to compete with a beamformed signal out on my patio where no mesh-node is nearby. Nor do I wish to add extra mesh units to deal with those locations. Nor do I wish to spend time trying to find the optimal locations for every mesh unit (not at all obvious given wall construction). Then there is winter vs summer location indoors vs outdoors... gah!

It's a lot simpler to plug in one capable router than the 3 or 5 or 10 mesh units, each of which blocks an AC outlet, which in my home means adding a multiple outlet strip for more expense and quite a mess in multiple rooms. There is also the power draw of all those units and terribly annoying LED lights at nighttime too (though I suppose that black tape can fix that unwanted illumination).

Health: the wisdom of blanket-saturating a dwelling with radio frequency emissions at 5 GHz seems dubious at best. The beamformed external antenna design can use a lower power signal than would otherwise be required. If there is any health consideration, that’s a big plus.

I already know how mediocre-signal devices perform (eg Apple Airport Extreme)—they suck. If I get lousy performance 6-10 feet away through open air , I don’t see how a mesh makes that better other than raising the performance floor from poor to mediocre, but not optimal. Maybe other brands and newer technology is better, but making a mesh of relatively low performance devices is not likely to make them perform better than a high grade directional signal that is beamformed and in reasonable proximity.

The Netgear Nighthawk X10 has four directional antennas with beam-forming. My guess is that directional antennas with beamforming will outperform a mesh network in peak performance and over a wider area (unless many mesh units are used, costly and wasteful), and with lower latency.

...antennas are designed to strengthen weak signals and increase Wi-Fi coverage throughout large homes and buildings. Combine the external active antennas with built-in Beamforming+ technology and wireless users have a direct link to the router. Rather than provide a blanket signal, the Nighthawk X10 beams the Wi-Fi signal directly to connected devices for a stronger, more reliable connection.

My guess is that the Netgear Nighthawk X10 will outperform a mesh network if placed in an optimal location for a house, particularly since it can directionally beamform for 4 devices simultaneously with substantial antennas. With 3-5 people in the house, that means that each user should get a 'prime' signal.

But all of that is just my educated guess based on 30 years of working with technology. It will be interesting to see how the Netgear Nighthawk X10 actually performs.

Sidney L writes:

Was reading your post about getting a new WiFi access point. I went through a similar process about a year ago. I don’t have a demanding network, but have a lot of different devices that most tech households would have.

What I found was the traffic from devices was causing interference on a single WiFi access point that it didn’t matter what speed or power it was, it became unreliable over time. A single network is also now recognised as a security risk from devices like printers, HomePods, Alexa, TVs that can be compromised and attack computers. The current standard approach is to isolate homogenous devices into their own VLAN. This results in traffic isolation which gave me much better security, throughout and reliability.

The problem was implementing VLANs in a relatively simple way. Netgear routers and access points have almost no functionality in this area. There’s a bunch of freeware/shareware open source solutions like Tomato, DD-WRT and Asuswrt Merlin, running on various models of Netgear, Asus, etc. After trying a bunch, I ended up with a Ubiquity UDM @AMAZON. I’ve had Ubiquity devices a few years ago and I was quite underwhelmed. But the UDM makes creating VLANs pretty much point and click. You might want to take a look.

MPG: I have not seen reliability change over time, nor have I seen evidence of degradation from devices. It seems to me that home appliances are more of an issue for the signal than a few iPhones and a TV or two—even right now with two Apple Airport Extreme. With 4 beamformed antennas/channels on the Netgear Nighthawk X10 , I am skeptical that this is a real issue.

Agreed that the security of devices on a network is a valid consideration, though I mostly dismiss it for myself (large lot well back from street, sparse neighborhood). I can dedicate the existing Apple Airport Extremes each to its own local LAN if need be, and I can do the same for the Netgear. I also disable WiFi on everything I don't need it for, and I use ethernet for printers and one of the TVs.

The security issue is real, but isn’t it 100X more of a concern for laptop users away from home using random WiFi networks, so how real is this issue, as a practical behavioral thing? Still, security and privacy are things to at least consider.

I don't enslave myself to headache-inducing technology kruft like Alexa or HomePod—I don't ever want them in my home. It’s bad enough keeping up with useless Apple iOS updates and damned TV software updates. Useless solutions-in-search-of-a-problem gadgets that create new maintenance chores are just ways to degrade my life, which is why such useless garbage devices will never enter my home, barring something with an ROI far exceeding its cost and maintenance headaches. OTOH, I am sure the people I see staring at their iPhones on a nature walk embrace such kruft—each to his/her own.

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