What to know when choosing between router and mesh networking

Best Wi-Fi Router
Best Wi-Fi Router (Image credit: Netgear)

A home network today usually consists of a router — which can be provided by an Internet Service Provider — and various devices dotted around the building. The majority of consumers can be more than satisfied with the signal strength in a smaller house, but should the router be located in a corner or the building be larger in size — dead spots can appear that leave devices without connectivity to the network and beyond.

This is when wireless access points or a mesh network might come in handy.

Instead of calling up an ISP and waiting for an appointment with an engineer to pop round only to be informed that a more powerful (and expensive) router upgrade is on the cards, there are some options available to solve this issue. One being Access Points (AP) — or wireless repeaters — that can be added to the home Wi-Fi network to act as portals to the router, boosting the signal range, or configuring a mesh network.

The main difference is that the latter doesn't make use of a central hub or router, but rather asks each and every device connect with one another directly using a few well-positioned relays. Throwing in an AP is an inexpensive option that may solve an issue with wireless connectivity not being available in a specific room. However, to solve a wider signal issue, setting up a mesh network may actually work out cheaper than investing in a more powerful router and a number of APs.

Extending a network

Almond Repeater

Access Points hook up to a router or hub and act as a point of access to the surrounding area. Installing a unit in a room the router has poor coverage in and devices can then connect to the AP and enjoy an ethernet bridge to the router, taking advantage of a more reliable connection. Adding an AP is a perfect solution when you simply need to patch a dead area of signal — the bedroom, for example.

But what happens if connecting a cable to the router to an access point isn't on the table? Wireless repeaters (or Wi-Fi Extenders) can be used if wiring up the router is not an option. These receive a signal from the router and essentially re-transmit it and plug straight into an outlet. This is a path for those who don't wish to re-configure their entire home network or have the knowledge to do so.

A downside is SSID conflict, which can result in devices needing to hop between access points, repeaters, and the router to connect to the network.

Go Mesh or go home

Google Wi-Fi

Best Mesh Wi-Fi Kits

Mesh networks are a more advanced option and sport an interesting design that allows data to leap between relays to reach a specific destination. This skips a central hub or router calling all the shots. So instead of having a single point of access for all devices, a mesh network can consist of multiple relays that connect with one another and can quickly direct traffic between devices.

An advantage of this — as well as extensive coverage — is the lack of a single point of failure. In a non-mesh scenario, if an extender or AP closes down, attached devices will lose connectivity, and the router will be unable to get its signal out as a backup. Mesh networks are immune to this. One relay node connects to a modem and acts as a gateway for all other nodes.

That said, it's not all positives with this more complex option as mesh networks don't necessarily scale as well as a router and AP/extender combo. More effort and time is required to add more nodes and maintain the network.

It's recommended that most homeowners steer clear of this solution and opt for APs and repeaters to get the most out of their network. But should you have more demanding needs, mesh networking is certainly the way to go when handling increased volumes of traffic or attempting to get a signal at every part of a building.

Best Mesh Network kits

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

  • Nice article.
  • When I upgraded, I just took my old router and turned off DHCP and connected it it wired to a network jack in the far back bedroom (same SSID). This covered the back bedroom and garage where I had issues. My question, however, is this. If I trun on my Surface in the back bedroom, and then walk into the other side of the house with it, will it hop to the better signal, or stay on its initial connection? Do mesh networks handoff between nodes better? I'm having a difficult time seeing the difference other than distributing the work of a single central hub for DHCP and routing.
  • @pallentx, the problem with using the same SSID is that you don't know which AP your Surface is connecting to (unless you drill down and look at the MAC or do a tracert to see the IP#). I don't believe it is any quicker to handoff between APs when the SSID is the same than if they were different, which means there is no benefit to you in using the same SSID (there could still be a benefit to guests with a single SSID -- you would only need to add them to one AP and they would have access to all, which could be helpful if that's you want them to be able to access your network from anywhere too). I would highly recommend that you rename the SSID on one of them and set your Surface to auto-connect to both. This way, if the performance is ever slow or the signal strength is low, you can immediately tell if it's still connected to the one that's far away and with one click, pop it over to the closer one. Using the same SSID name has somehow been promoted as a benefit. Other than the obscure benefit to guests noted above, it's not.  
  • You have no idea how mesh networking works... There is no need to change SSID, device will hop between AP with stronger signal. That is the whole idea of a mesh... It is all the same wireless network amplified by multiple devices so the signal covergae is better. No need to play with SSIDs...
  • @melhiore, no need to get nasty, we're all friends here. As it happens, I do understand how mesh networks work, down to the physics of the spread spectrum RF and the calculations behind the hand-off transfers, which are NOT perfect. If you look at my comment in context, please note that I was responding to the specific post above it from pallentx, and suggesting that his existing system with simply changing to differentiated SSIDs would probably be superior for a home configuration.
  • What a load of rubbish. Mesh networking? What exactly is this doing. There is nothing in the article to explain what this is or whether it's just a late April fools joke.
  •     I agree. Kind of feel like the author has never even used any of the mesh setups on the market. I had near zero problems getting mine set up... just turn off my routers wifi and set the mesh kit to bridge. Done in like 5 minutes and performance across the house has never been better. Adding mesh points is incredibly easy too. Just buy another one and register it with the app. Once you have it set up, it's also so much easier to deal with than an access point with separate ssids. It figures out which unit is best for your device to connect to and you never have to think about it. I feel there is very little useful information in this article, especially since it's somewhat misleading, I get the main reason to post this was to link to articles that contain affiliate links, but when they're poorly researched, it kind of undermines your credibility. This has been a HUGE problem at Windows Central recently.... 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesh_networking Perhaps that will help you understand what mesh networking is. Not an April Fool's joke. One of the most common mesh networks that many users who travel may come in contact with without knowing it are the Free Wi-Fi network in a large hotel. Imagine the latency involved with enough repeaters to reach the room furthest away from the router. Ugh!
  • Large Wi-Fi implementations do not work in the full mesh configuration. Usually you have wireless controller like Cisco, Aruba, Meraki etc. Those devices do forward packets directly to the routing/switching devices without bouncing them from one AP to another. There is no latency you talk about. Mesh is different, it is OK for small office/SOHO or home enviroment...
  • Exactly.  Typically, enterprise wi-fi relies on layer 2 or 3 roaming back to a controller and only uses mesh for hard to wire areas.  I have a Cisco AP setup at home in a cluster.
  • Sorry this is a terrible article... Enough said... 
  • Sorry this is a terrible article... Enough said... I
  • My experience with extenders is bad. I am using ap/electricity network modems.
  • Hmm I've heard if you want to go mesh on a home network then Orbi or Plume are the way to go. Orbi just pushes out a stronger signal and requires less APs, Plume uses lower power to the APs but has a lot more of them so you only have as much of a signal as you need.
  • Looking at Eero, Orbi and others the Google Wifi is most user friendly, imo. Love the ability to use IFTTT and get a message when kids get home and make sure boyfriends and girlfriends went home loke agreed and jot hiding in basement.