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Mesh networking vs. Wi-Fi routers: What is best for your home office?

Standard Wi-Fi routers provide one central access point, while mesh systems spread connectivity. Read on to learn about the best options for home setups and hybrid and remote working.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on
A woman crouched under a desk adjusting the many plugs in a router
Image: Getty

As a modern alternative to the traditional router, you would be forgiven for thinking that a mesh router would automatically be 'better' in all cases than a simple, standard device. However, this isn't always the case.

We now have to give more thought to the underlying connectivity in our homes. Mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, ranging from security cameras to smart appliances, have all increased the load shouldered by our routers. 

Also: The best mesh Wi-Fi systems right now

The face of modern-day work has changed with the adoption of remote and hybrid working. Despite the resistance of some companies to continuing these arrangements, home offices are likely to be a common feature in homes for the foreseeable future. 

This is where mesh networks come in. Designed to lighten the endpoint load and reduce congestion, mesh systems can be invaluable for maintaining connectivity, but they aren't suitable for every household. In some cases, you only need a high-quality standard router, whereas a mesh network could be overkill. When it comes to speed, Wi-Fi routers (and LAN cabling) are often king.

ZDNET explains the difference and why you should adopt a mesh network over a traditional router system -- and vice versa.

What is a traditional router?

A traditional router acts as a central hub for internet connectivity. Traffic requests from devices funnel through a main router's internet service and a single access point. Routers can be accessed through wireless channels or by plugging in an Ethernet cable. Typically, these routers are password-protected.

You should buy a traditional Wi-Fi router if...

a traditional home router with nothing plugged in
Image: Getty Images

1. Affordability is a consideration

Standard routers are generally more affordable than mesh network products. While you still can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a premium router, many options are budget-friendly and both quick and stable enough to keep your home office running effectively without further input. 

2. You have heavy bandwidth and speed requirements

Many routers today, such as the Netgear Nighthawk or TP-Link models, are designed with the technology needed to meet heavy bandwidth and streaming requirements. 

Also: Modem vs router: What's the difference?

Gamers and live streamers, for example, should generally stick with wired Ethernet connections and traditional routers, as they will likely provide improved speeds and stability over wireless-first products.

3. You want a plug-and-play product

A standard router is often less hassle to set up than a mesh network. For something that 'just works', a typical router might be the best option. Set it up, make sure updates are automatically applied, and forget about it.

4. You want to separate devices and networks

You can set up guest Wi-Fi networks on most modern routers, but if you also want to keep all of your IoT devices on a separate home network in the interests of security, most routers will allow you to do this without much hassle. 

Orbi RBK763

ZDNET Recommends

Netgear Orbi AX5400

A future-proof Wi-Fi mesh system that spans up to 12,500 sq. ft. of coverage with enough satellites.

View at Netgear

What is a mesh networking system?

While traditional routers are singular, centralized access points, mesh networking devices are decentralized. 

Instead of a device connecting to a single gateway to the internet, mesh networks are created from multiple Wi-Fi nodes that all provide web connectivity. For example, you could have a central hub in the kitchen and satellite nodes in the home office, kitchen, and bedroom. 

When you access the internet while in the kitchen, you would automatically connect to the hub, whereas you would jump on a node while you're in your home office, and so on -- and this blanket coverage is why mesh devices are great for larger homes or offices. Most mesh systems will automatically select the best channels and nodes to avoid dead zones and to lower the risk of poor connectivity.

You should buy a mesh networking system if...

Amazon eero 6+ mesh Wi-Fi system
Image: Amazon

1. Improved coverage

The main benefit of a mesh network is extended coverage. Investing in a mesh setup will remove annoyances, such as coverage blackspots or slow connections in larger properties with a lot of square feet. You're far less likely to have dead zones with a mesh system than you are with a single router access point.

Also: How to convert your home's old TV cabling into powerful Ethernet lines

Mesh networks can often cover up to 5000 sq. ft., and more, with enough satellites. That's far more than you can expect from one central router.

2. You need a reliable connection, no matter where you are

As your device will connect to the nearest satellite node rather than a central point of access, this feature helps ensure that -- no matter where you are in a property -- you are less likely to experience connectivity failures or drops. 

In this manner, mesh networks are particularly useful if you have a home office in a garden area separate from your house, for example. 

3. You want additional controls

Once a mesh network is active, many vendors allow users to control their system through a mobile app. This could include keeping an eye on network traffic, rebooting, or even turning off the internet entirely -- perhaps an appealing prospect for those with children who don't want to mess with a typical router's configuration. In addition, some mesh networks also act as smart hubs and are compatible with voice assistants. 

Orbi RBK763

ZDNET Recommends

Netgear Orbi AX5400

A future-proof Wi-Fi mesh system that spans up to 12,500 sq. ft. of coverage with enough satellites.

View at Netgear


What are the disadvantages of using a Wi-Fi router?

There are three key disadvantages of using a traditional Wi-Fi router:

  • Coverage issues: As internet access is distributed through a single point, this setup can mean that areas far away from your router will have slow or spotty connections that drop. Range extenders can help remove this barrier, and while they can still be cheaper than investing in a mesh network, it's an additional expense. 

  • Overload: Unless extenders or channel separation features are used, too many connections may result in overloading, bottlenecks, lags, and connectivity drops.

  • Tweaking: If you want to tweak the more advanced settings on a router, this can often require annoying visits to a platform via desktop, rather than the seamless mobile app connectivity we have learned to enjoy for many of our modern services. 

What router system is best for my home office?

You need to decide whether the financial outlay for a whole mesh network is worth it. In larger homes with dead spots, mesh networking can provide a way to improve your Wi-Fi signal strength and coverage immediately. 

However, it can be expensive to overhaul your existing router setup for a large home. Going for a complete mesh system may be overkill unless you consistently have multiple users and connected devices competing for bandwidth. 

A Wi-Fi extender can be a worthwhile investment instead if you decide to stay with a traditional home router but need to expand coverage. 

Some mesh network systems, such as Google Wifi, Netgear Orbi, and Amazon Eero, are relatively cheap to set up if you don't need too many satellites. 

Also: The best mesh Wi-Fi systems you can buy

If you're the only person using your network and need a stable, powerful internet connection -- such as for resource-hungry work applications or gaming -- a traditional router and an Ethernet cable may be all you need for reliable and rapid internet access. Wired internet speeds should be quicker than wireless if the connection is working properly, and investing in a simple Ethernet cable, easy to find for no more than $10 or $15, could be enough. This could save you the cost of a complete overhaul. 

Wi-Fi range extenders, too, could be considered an alternative to mesh if you need to boost coverage and throughput in some areas, and they will likely be less expensive than purchasing individual mesh nodes. Some vendors also offer mesh "bolt-ons," such as Asus' AiMesh, which creates a mesh-like coverage wireless network without ripping everything out and starting again. However, the downside is that you will probably have to spend some time setting these bolt-ons up and tampering with your router's configurations.

Is mesh Wi-Fi better for gaming?

The best way to answer this question is to consider latency. Overall, many mesh systems today trade extended coverage for potential downgrades to speed. 

If your household has gamers using consoles casually, it shouldn't matter what type of router you use. However, professional and dedicated gamers will absolutely notice small lags or latency issues -- and they will want the best speed and stability available. In these cases, a wired, traditional router is likely your best bet.

Is mesh Wi-Fi better than an extender?

While both mesh Wi-Fi and extenders will improve the coverage of your home, there are disadvantages to both. 

Mesh systems require investment and the cost can add up quickly, but they provide seamless transitions between Wi-Fi access points dotted around your home. Furthermore, you can rapidly change settings or perform updates via mobile apps. 

Wi-Fi extenders can't be tweaked so easily. However, they are cheaper and are the best option if you just want to tackle a few dead zones, as you just need to plug one into your main router. Keep in mind that, unlike mesh nodes, Wi-Fi extenders won't improve congestion or eradicate bottlenecks. 

Check your ISP first

Before changing your setup, you should review your ISP package. If you're subscribed to a low-speed offering, or your internet provider throttles your speed at peak times, new equipment is not going to help. Instead, a package upgrade could be a better option.

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