Why I replaced Google Wifi with Synology's mesh networking gear (and why you might, too)

Google Wifi is a great offering, but it has its limits. In this article, we'll look at how we slammed hard into those limits and how the Synology mesh might make for a viable alternative.

Router reviews are normally about speeds and feeds. They generally answer whether or not routers being reviewed are faster for Wi-Fi than other routers, and what connections and protocols they offer. They are an almost never-ending series of price/performance comparisons. CNET has an excellent, in-depth review of the Synology RT2600ac which has had the benefit of CNET Labs performance testing.

This review is not like that. This review is almost entirely subjective. In it, I compare the marriage of the Synology RT2600ac and MR2200ac against Google Wifi in my very challenging house.

The Synology RT2600ac is an AC2600 4x4 quad stream router. It's part of a router class that, right now, includes fast -- but not the fastest -- Wi-Fi routers. When CNET initially reviewed the RT2600ac, it was at the top of its game in terms of speed. Even two years later, it consistently gets great marks for its performance. There's a lot more to the RT2600ac, but we'll come back to that later.

Also: Best Wi-Fi Systems for 2019 CNET

The Synology MR2200ac is, to me, where the magic is. The MR2200ac is a mesh router. You could just buy an MR2200ac and use that as your only Wi-Fi router, but if you combine a few MR2200ac devices with an RT2600ac, it can transform the Wi-Fi in your home or office by creating a seamless, always-available mesh of solid Wi-Fi coverage.

This was also the promise of Google Wifi. You could (and still can) buy a bunch of Google Wifi pucks or, as I did, a Google Wifi-compatible Asus OnHub and then some Google Wifi pucks, and create a mesh network as well.

I know. It gets confusing fast. Stay with me. This will make sense very soon -- and it's important because it could make your life easier.

Problem statement

Last year, my wife and I bought a fixer-upper home in Oregon. It's a wonderful place, but it's a bit weird structurally. It consists of one section built on top of crawl space, and another section built slab-on-grade. Connecting the two is a small hallway and utility closet, which also has the water cooler, HVAC system, washer/dryer, and circuit breaker box.

In other words, there's a Faraday cage between both wings of the house. It's almost impossible for a Wi-Fi signal from one side to reach the other.

I initially set up Google Wifi to try to make everything work. My wife's office is at the far end of one wing, and my office (and the servers) is at the other end. We both work from home and rely entirely on both our internal LAN and the Internet to make our living.

Also: Top 5 things to know about airplane Wi-Fi TechRepublic 

My first attempt involved just planting a few Google Wifi pucks around the house, allowing the Wifi signal to leapfrog from one puck to another. In our previous house, this worked well enough -- so well, in fact, that doing so essentially upgraded an old 2011-vintage Mac mini's Wi-Fi to much more modern performance.

In the new house, though, things weren't as optimal. It quickly became clear that Wi-Fi performance through the utility room hallway was a non-starter. I first tried putting a series of bridging pucks between the rooms, including one just outside the hallway, one in the utility room, and one on just the other side.

When that didn't work, I attached a wired Ethernet switch to the OnHub router and ran a cable from there through the hallway and utility closet, to a Google Wifi puck on the other side.

Google Wifi supports using Ethernet as a back-channel for long-run communication, but it's very poorly documented. Worse, Google Wifi tech support doesn't have much additional information, which forced me to rely mostly on the Reddit GoogleWiFi subreddit for technical information.

featurevisualise.png

As you move around your location, NetSpot maps signal strength onto a map or floor plan. IMAGE: NetSpot.

Signal strength was generally good. I even used the pro version of the NetSpot Wi-Fi scanner to analyze performance house-wide. By the time I had placed six Google Wifi pucks, I was able to blanket the house with what NetSpot said was a solid signal.

Also: 5 out of 6 routers are inadequately updated for security flaws

This proved to be both expensive and futile. Some folks in the subreddit claim that too many Google Wifi pucks clog up the signal, and I think they might be right. Google Wifi tech support, unfortunately, had nothing informative to say on the matter.

But something wasn't right. No matter how many different configurations I tried of the Google Wifi pucks, rearranging them, tying them together with Ethernet or not, increasing and decreasing the number installed, our internal network reliability was just consistently poor.

The problem was not our connection to the Internet, because we have absolutely stellar broadband. We work from home, so we spend a bit extra to bring 1GB fiber performance to the house. The problem was Wi-Fi connectivity inside the house itself.

img-3961.jpg

Ideally, you want a solid line, not a lot of drop-offs.

I used another tool, an app called Wi-Fi Sweetspots. This tool constantly tests Internet connection speed and graphs it over time. Because that test has to go through the router, it's also testing the connection speed to the router. What I found was interesting.

In areas of the house near the main router, connection speeds remained consistently high, but when I went to rooms at the far end of the house, connection speeds alternated between really fast and absolutely nothing. This despite the fact that my Wi-Fi signal strength in those same areas was showing in the NetSpot survey as quite strong.

Also: Think your Wi-Fi's faster than mobile internet? Not in these 33 countries 

In other words, the signal was good, but we were losing packets. A lot of packets. Connection speed would show as 500Mbps for a few seconds, then drop to zero for about five to thirty seconds, then pick back up to 500Mbps or more. The Google Wifi mesh wasn't meshing, apparently.

Our IoT devices suffered the most. The Nest thermostat had difficulty retaining a reliable connection. The Alexa devices nearest the main hub worked fine, but as we moved farther away from the center of the house, they had consistent connection issues. The smart TVs kept glitching on Netflix and Hulu.

I eventually ran six network cables through the attic to the various main rooms of the house. This solved the problem of connecting computers to the server, but did not solve the IoT issues, which rely on Wi-Fi almost exclusively.

Our smart home was losing its grip.

Enter Synology

I've known the folks at Synology for a couple of years now. My first look was at their 4-bay DS916+ NAS appliance. Later, I evaluated their 8-bay DS1817+, which went on to earn top scores in our NAS Wars shootout.

Synology distinguished itself by hitting on a number of vectors: good price/performance, excellent RAID reliability scores, and absolutely top-of-the-game usability scores with their Diskstation Manager (DSM) UI.

The company also makes routers. Their router UI, called Synology Router Manager, shares the same exceptional UI design from DSM. But we need to be fair here. The Google Wifi UI is also excellent. Both are clear and well-designed.

Also: The best location for your router for actually good Wi-Fi CNET

What makes the Synology version different though, is that it's clear, but deep and powerful. You can set up intrusion detection, VPN, all sorts of traffic sculpting, and it's all very clear. On the other hand, the Google Wifi interface is designed for consumers. You can't even change your local IP address range. For some reason, if you're on Google Wifi, you're on 192.168.86.x. That's just the way it is. UPDATE: It's been pointed out by several readers that this is no longer a limitation on Google Wifi. 

For a year or so, I was relatively comfortable trading power for Google's solid software and excellent network protection. I missed the VPN capabilities, but I was able to run that through my NAS. I missed some of the power of traffic sculpting, but when I really thought about it, in a two-person household, it wasn't mission critical.

But when my network experienced constant glitches, that I couldn't accept.

I actually had a Synology-provided RT2600ac router in house while I was trying all my Google Wifi mesh workarounds. The problem was the RT2600ac just didn't have enough reach to make the ends of the house. It, too, was stymied by my hallway utility closet Faraday cage.

Then, the company came out with their MR2200ac devices. These perform as standalone lower-end routers and as mesh extensions to the RT2600ac. Like Google Wifi, they will allow you to extend your Wi-Fi coverage by either leapfrogging Wi-Fi signals across devices, or by using an Ethernet connection and then extending Wi-Fi from that extended node. Unlike Google Wifi, the Ethernet extension option is a fully documented and supported feature that their support folks actually know about.

Also: VPN services: The ultimate guide to protecting your data on the internet 

Reaching the end of my patience, I shot an email off to the folks at Synology and requested a couple of MR2200ac nodes to test. I figured that if my house was able to kill Google Wifi, it'd be a good test for Synology's mesh.

I yanked out all the Google Wifi devices and replaced the main router with the RT2600ac. Then I attached an MR2200ac node to an Ethernet cable in my wife's office at one end of the house. Because the architecture of the house is so weird, there was no way to run an Ethernet cable to the other part of the house. Instead, I just dropped the second MR2200ac node on the floor by the back door.

That was right around Thanksgiving. I've been running on the RT2600ac/MR2200ac mesh for about two and a half months. It's been rock solid. All of the IoT devices work. No matter where we are in the house, we have solid Wi-Fi.

While connection speed does drop down to about 200Mbps at the far reaches of the house, there is no packet loss. That's more than enough performance to stream movies and music and, watching Netflix and Hulu -- and connecting to our internal video server -- there have been no glitches.

Cost may be an issue, though. You can get a three-pack of Google Wifi pucks on Amazon for $239 (although keep in mind that even six wouldn't solve my networking problem). By contrast, the RT2600ac is two hundred dollars alone. Each MR2200ac will set you back about $140.

Also: 11 ways to make your Wi-Fi faster CNET

All told, my configuration (had Synology not been gracious enough to provide me with test units for ZDNet) would have cost $480, or just about double what three Google Wifi devices cost. On the other hand, my smart home has gotten its mojo back, our IoT devices all now work, and streaming is solid everywhere in the house.

What should you buy?

Based on the GoogleWiFi subreddit, a lot of folks love their Google Wifi devices. I did in our previous house. But there are also a lot of folks who are hitting a wall with the devices, and because they're intended as a consumer item, Google doesn't have support for edge cases who need more performance.

Synology, on the other hand, thrives on the edge cases. They give their customers all the customization capability they need, along with a hefty amount of power and the responsibility that goes with it.

In terms of which you should buy, I think the choice is relatively simple:

  • If you have a small home or office with simple Wi-Fi and networking needs, go with Google Wifi or the Synology MR2200ac without the big RT2600ac router.
  • If you're on a budget and have a relatively small space, go with either Google Wifi or a single Synology RT2600ac, depending on whether you want more flexibility or more Google.
  • If you have a larger space that's relatively open and you don't want to worry about network tweaking, you're probably good to go with Google Wifi.
  • If you have a large space, want to have better control of your networking and enterprise-level features, go with the Synology RT2600ac and MR2200ac mesh.
  • If you have a large space that actively blocks radio signals, go with a combination of the RT2600ac, Ethernet cables to extend to remote areas, and MR2200acs devices to create Wi-Fi signal sources at those extended locations.

Basically, the geekier you are or the tougher the problem you have, the more you'll like the Synology solution.

What are you doing for Wi-Fi networking in your home or office? Have you tried mesh networking? What's working best for you? Let us know in the TalkBacks below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.