On paper, Mesh setups seem superior to traditional routers in terms of most metrics, with consistent performance across its large coverage area being the main selling point.
However, you can’t just look at the raw specs when setting up a network. You also have to factor in the setup and maintenance costs, among various other things. Even if you’re eager to splurge on your setup, the reality is that Mesh systems tend to be overkill in many cases (particularly for small-home and apartments).
With so many things to consider, deciding whether a mesh router or traditional router is best for your exact needs can be confusing. This article should be helpful to that end.
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How Do Mesh Systems Work?
A traditional setup consists of one main router, which connects to your ISP and transmits the wireless signal. When one router isn’t enough, additional routers or purpose-built devices may be used as wireless repeaters or wired access points (APs) to expand the coverage.
Repeaters, as the name implies, simply repeat the received signal. In most cases, the signal they receive is on the weaker side to start with. If you’re only trying to eliminate a Wi-Fi dead zone in your house, repeaters may help. But generally speaking, they’re not very effective.
Access Points with wired backhaul are much better in terms of signal quality, but they have some cons of their own. Setting up a large number of APs can be a hassle, both in terms of cabling and software-end configuration.
Each AP also broadcasts its own Wi-Fi network too, which in large numbers, can lead to congestion. Manually switching between the networks as you move around a building, for instance, can be annoying. Device-handled roaming isn’t the most efficient.
To put it simply, Mesh systems aim to resolve all such issues. A Mesh setup consists of one primary router, which acts as the gateway, and multiple satellite nodes connected in a partial or full mesh topology.
These mesh nodes are specialized WAP devices with (normally) multiple radios. Data packets typically hop from node to node to get from the main router to client devices and vice versa. As the nodes are bridged together, client devices connect and auto-switch between whichever node provides the best connection at any location.
Higher-end mesh devices process and retransmit the signal at full strength, leading to consistent signal quality and performance throughout the network. In lower-end mesh systems, you might find that the performance worsens as you move further from the main router. In such cases, mesh with a wired backhaul would be a better option than wireless.
How Do Mesh Setups Differ From Normal Routers?
Mesh setups primarily offer better coverage compared to traditional setups, but there are some other differences also worth discussing. We’ll cover the technical aspects of such differences in this section. If you’re simply interested in the key pointers that’ll help you determine if Mesh is right for you, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
Routers operating on the 2.4 GHz band can typically transmit signals 150-300 ft away depending on factors like indoor/outdoor placement, obstacles like walls, etc. With 5 GHz, the transmission range drops considerably.
Needless to say, sole routers aren’t very effective at covering large areas. This is especially true in the case of modern buildings, whose design and composition can significantly impact signal strength.
Even if you upgrade to a high-end router, you might still find some dead zones in the building where the Wi-Fi signal simply won’t reach. Or you might find that the signal quality plunges as soon as you step out of the building.
There are other factors to consider, too, but in terms of improving coverage, Mesh systems are undoubtedly one of the best options. If Mesh is set up with wired backhaul, the scalability is incredible as you could add as many nodes as necessary.
The same cannot be said for wireless mesh. Going by real-world data, problems tend to pop up when you go above 4 nodes in a network. With lower-end mesh devices that don’t process and amplify the signal well, you’ll also encounter performance impacts as you move further from the main node.
In the worst case, single-radio devices communicate in half-duplex mode. As a node can only listen or transmit at a time, the throughput gets cut in half with each node that the signal has to hop on.
This is one of the main reasons to go for higher-end wired mesh systems over anything else. Generally speaking, you can reliably cover up to 6000 sq. ft with such setups. More on that later, but for now, the important point is that Mesh coverage is much better than traditional setups.
One final thing worth mentioning here is that in some niche cases where you need to focus the wireless signal in a specific direction, directional antennas and receivers can be even more effective than mesh. This is both in terms of distance covered and cost.
Roaming and Routing
Mesh systems are based on the 802.11s mesh networking protocol. Specifically, this standard defines Hybrid Wireless Mesh Protocol (HWMP) as the default routing protocol. But vendors also use alternate routing protocols. For instance, Google Wi-Fi is based on 802.11s, but it had some proprietary changes made.
As for roaming, most mesh devices support and utilize fast roaming standards like 802.11r. Specifically, the Fast Basic Service Set Transition (FT) feature can speed up the handoff process and minimize interruption. This is what’s typically marketed as ‘seamless transitions’ by mesh vendors.
In traditional setups with multiple APs, your device will typically stay connected to a network even if another one with a better signal is available at the current location. In a network with a large coverage area, manually switching between the APs as you move around can be a hassle. Letting the device handle the roaming, as already mentioned, doesn’t work very well.
Do keep in mind that non-mesh routers can support extensions like 802.11r as well. And the decision to roam between networks is ultimately in the hands of the client device rather than the network. It’s just that mesh networks tend to be more consistent and reliable in terms of roaming between nodes.
It’s difficult to compare the head-to-head performance of mesh systems and traditional setups. In real-world tests done in similar conditions, Mesh is better when you need consistent speeds over a larger area. But in some cases, traditional setups can be just as good as well.
For starters, when you’re using the WiFi while close to the router, Mesh’s coverage becomes irrelevant. You’ll get the same performance from a normal router.
In a larger network with multiple nodes, the performance of both Mesh and traditional setups depends on whether it’s a wired or wireless setup. With a wired setup, you can expect similar performance from both, as signal quality will be maintained throughout the coverage area.
Unlike with wired APs, a traditional router’s signal quality and speed will worsen significantly when retransmitted by a wireless repeater. You’ll also face signal attenuation in a standard mesh setup, but it won’t be as bad. In high-end wireless mesh setups, signal quality and speeds will be excellent regardless of which node you connect to.
Can You Setup Mesh With Normal Routers?
Overall, Mesh routers and nodes aren’t all that different from standard routers and APs. This begs the question, why not just bridge standard routers and APs to set up a mesh network?
If you have spare devices lying around and don’t want to splurge on an expensive mesh setup, this could certainly be a cost-effective option. Don’t expect amazing results, though.
For starters, WDS bridging was never meant to be scalable. The non-mesh devices won’t always support mesh technologies like OLSR, 802.11s, 802.11r, etc. This means the network’s routing and roaming capabilities may not be as good as a proper mesh setup.
TLDR, bridging standard routers and APs can be viable for small networks, but in most cases, it won’t be as good as a true mesh setup.
Should You Pick a Normal Router or a Mesh Router?
Here’s the all-important question, what’s ultimately better for your specific situation? To answer this, you should mainly think about your coverage needs and budget.
A router’s coverage depends on a few main factors like the router’s antennas and transmission strength, obstacles in the signal propagation path (walls, furniture, appliances), etc. If you need to cover less than 1500 sq. ft, a traditional setup will usually work fine. You can install additional APs if you need to increase the coverage area slightly.
Once your coverage requirements get above 2000 sq. ft, Mesh systems will almost always be ideal. Particularly, setups with wired backhaul will be best for networks on the larger end.
If you need to cover an area of 6000-7000 sq. ft, a 3-4 device Mesh system should be appropriate. Theoretically, you could keep adding as many nodes as necessary for expansion. But from a practical standpoint, it’s best to maintain 10 or fewer devices for the best performance.
As stated, Mesh systems are definitely better on paper. They provide larger coverage with stable performance, ease of setup and convenience, and even better aesthetics if that matters to you. All of this does come at a high price, though, literally.
High-end traditional routers will usually set you back a couple of hundred bucks. For Mesh, the pricing for small and/or low-end Mesh systems starts at this range. An average medium-sized Mesh system will cost you between $300-500. Mesh costs have been decreasing in the last few years, but it’s still on the expensive side for most people.
There are some additional things worth considering before deciding whether you should purchase a traditional router or a mesh router:
- Mesh nodes are generally designed to be compact. This helps them blend into most locations without drawing much attention. If you want a setup that doesn’t affect the aesthetics of a room, Mesh tends to be better than traditional setups with multiple routers or wired APs.
- Unlike normal routers, which usually have 4-8 Ethernet ports, Mesh routers only tend to have one or two. So, if you need multiple LAN connections, you might need to get a switch along with the Mesh devices.
- You can’t just look at raw coverage size. Things like building layout and objects that impact the WiFi signal should also be considered. Mesh is better overall. But in cases where you need to fix one stubborn dead zone, something like a traditional router with a wired AP can be better.
- Traditional routers with multiple wired APs offer similar, if not better, performance compared to Mesh systems. But numerous wired APs can be a hassle to install and manage. Mesh is convenient, both in terms of setup/management and scaling. Mesh management software is also usually packed with much more features and functionalities than a standard router’s management interface.
Hopefully, you have a better idea of the differences between Mesh and normal routers and are able to determine which is best for your exact situation at this point. To recap one last time, here are the main differences between the two:
|Mesh Router||Traditional Router|
|Coverage||Mesh systems with 3-4 nodes can reliably cover up to 6-7000 sq. ft, with further expansion also possible.||Traditional routers usually cover 1000-1500 sq. ft, but additional APs can improve this significantly.|
|Roaming||As most Mesh devices support standard and proprietary fast-roaming protocols, roaming tends to be slightly better in Mesh.||Traditional setups with multiple APs generally require manual switching between networks. In case of a bridged setup, roaming generally is not as good as in Mesh systems.|
|Performance||Most Mesh systems provide consistent performance throughout the network, regardless of which node you connect to.||Traditional routers perform great with good signals. But as you move further from the router, you’ll notice the performance drop.|
|Cost||Mesh systems are pretty expensive (generally in the $200-500 range).||Normal routers, with a few APs, will usually cost you $200 or lower.|