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AmpliFi Instant System, hands on: A basic budget system for simple mesh wi-fi

Written by Mary Branscombe on

AmpliFi Instant System

Once you have a large enough building that you need more than one wi-fi access point (AP), it's definitely worth installing a wi-fi mesh system because it allows devices to roam seamlessly from AP to AP. It's common to see mesh systems with three units (one base station and two mesh repeaters) but the Netgear Orbi and the $179/£183 AmpliFi Instant System both start with just two. That's one reason this is cheaper than Ubiquiti's previous, pricey mesh offering.

The small, rounded white boxes of the Instant System -- about the size of the 4K Apple TV -- are neat enough to leave on display; the front display of the base station is a clock as well as a touchscreen you can tap through to see network information. If you find that -- or the glowing white LED base -- annoying, you can turn them off or have them automatically turn off in the dark. You don't really need the screen as all the information is in the AmpliFi smartphone app, which is the only way to set the devices up -- there's no web interface.


The Amplifi Instant System base station is about the size of a 4K Apple TV, and features an LED display.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The power cables (actually USB-C) are fairly long, so if you do want to have the hardware on display you can reach a plug that's a fair distance away.

Setup is mostly as straightforward as promised. Ubiquiti claims just two minutes, but that would only cover setting up the base station if you already had the AmpliFi app installed on your phone. Both the card in the box and the app take you through setup, although we initially couldn't connect and had to switch the phone to the rather cryptically-named network that appeared once we plugged in the first unit to run setup.

While you're naming the network and setting the wi-fi password, the app prompts you to use the same password for admin and suggests that you add a 'social account' (Gmail or Facebook) for remote control. That's not particularly good security and there's no information in the setup about what information (if any) you might be sharing with those services. If you do reuse the password, make sure to set-up a guest network before telling visitors how to log on to your wi-fi.

The MeshPoint extender is pre-paired with the base station, but setting that up, while simple, took another two minutes. At that point, the app offered an update which we installed. Restarting after the update took rather longer than we'd like, especially as we then had to reconnect the base station to the MeshPoint. None of this was difficult or confusing, but it wasn't quite the instant experience promised.

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The Instant System gives you dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi with a top speed of 1200Mbps; on a 40Mbps VDSL connection we saw much the same upload and download speeds as from the Netgear Orbi we normally use, but you might notice a difference on a faster connection.


Speed testing and mesh coverage analysis in the AmpliFi app.

Images: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

But the Instant System certainly couldn't match the Orbi for coverage or signal strength and the quoted 4,000 square feet coverage seems somewhat optimistic -- especially if you have brick walls or you're in a modern building with a metal frame. We tested the Instant System in a Victorian flat with brick walls: it's long, narrow and has several floors. We couldn't set up the MeshPoint in the first room we tried to extend the network to, because it was out of range of the base station. When we moved it to a closer room, we got a connection but the signal strength was very dependent on where in the room we positioned it (higher up was better). London brick contains mica crystals, which makes for a challenging wireless environment, although the Orbi isn't sensitive to its location in the same way.

After moving the MeshPoint to get it connected, we checked what band the AmpliFi system was using. It had picked the same band as the Orbi, so we used the app to move it to a different band. This took a surprisingly long time to complete -- about as long as rebooting the base station -- and even then, only the base station moved to a different band; the MeshPoint was still on the band occupied by the Orbi (and several wireless devices in neighbouring buildings).

Signal strength around the house varied significantly. The signal propagated well to rooms on the next floor when it only had to go through the ceiling, but even partition walls reduced the signal in adjacent rooms, and the signal was much weaker on the next floor up.

The only time the Instant System's signal was stronger than the Orbi's was when we were in the same room as the AmpliFi unit and the Orbi was on the other side of a brick wall. Moving to the other side of that brick wall, the Instant System's signal in the next room was only as strong as the signal from the second Orbi unit, which was one floor up and on the other side of yet another brick wall.


It's simple to set up and manage a guest network in the AmpliFi app.

Images: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

If the Instant System wi-fi mesh isn't strong enough to reach across your entire building and you have structured cabling, you could use the extra Ethernet port on the base station and the MeshPoint extender to connect them. Or you could use that for connecting a device that only has an Ethernet port. Again, having only a single port helps keep the price down, but makes it less useful if you want your mesh to share devices that connect over USB.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The AmpliFi app is both simple and powerful. Networking novices are unlikely to get stuck and there's a reasonable range of options if you want more control. It's simple to set up a guest network and limit its availability, which is useful for limiting how long children are online or turning the network off outside business hours. You can also pause or change the priority of connectivity on specific devices, if you need to give one connection more bandwidth. You can run a speed test or set the range of the built-in DHCP server (which you can't turn off). And if you set up the remote access you can do all that from anywhere, which is handy if you get a support call when you're out.

If you want better coverage and more sophisticated options for home or business use, the Netgear Orbi is a better choice. But the AmpliFi Instant System is a basic budget option for simple mesh wi-fi that should satisfy many less-demanding users.


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