Samsung SmartThings Wifi review: Mesh networking with a smart home twist

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Fast, reliable network
  • SmartThings integration
  • Free Plume membership

Cons

  • Two apps to manage a network can be confusing

In August, Samsung released SmartThings WiFi, a mesh networking system that combines Plume's mesh networking tech and Samsung's SmartThings smart home tech into an all-in-one Wi-Fi solution.

With Amazon's recent acquisition of mesh networking company Eero, and some of the unease regarding Amazon having access to too much of your information, looking for an alternative mesh system makes sense. Granted, this is a product from Samsung, a giant company, which thus far has kept itself out of the "big company with too much data" narrative.

I started using SmartThings Wifi when it launched in August 2018 but ultimately had to postpone my review until now due to the lack of backhaul support, which was added in a recent update.

The timing could not have been better with the recent Eero news, so I swapped out my Google WiFi setup for SmartThings Wifi and was up and running once again in just a few minutes.

Design

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Samsung sells SmartThings Wifi in a pack of three, or individually. A single device will cost you $120 and is designed for those who live in an apartment or a smaller home up to 1,500 square feet. The three pack costs $280 and will cover up to 4,600 square feet. I'm not sure why you'd need it, but the system will support up to 32 different hubs.

The SmartThings Wifi hubs look just like a SmartThings hub in that it's a small, white, somewhat oval-shaped device. Measuring 4.72 x 4.72 x 0.46 inches, each SmartThings Wifi hub doesn't stand out or call attention to itself in the middle of a room.

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There's an indicator light on the front of each hub that comes in handy when troubleshooting connectivity issues. A green light indicates everything is working fine, while a red light indicates an issue.

On the back of each unit is a WAN in port and a LAN out port along with a spot to connect power.

For those who want to geek out, each hub has 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and support for 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2 x 2 MIMO, AC1300 (up to 866 Mbps on 5GHz, 400Mbps on 2.4GHz), ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth 4.1.

It's complicated

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Mesh networks work through a series of wireless access points, or hubs, around a home. Each hub creates a Wi-Fi network, using the same name and credentials you selected. The hubs then work together, identifying which devices are connected to which hub, and seamlessly handing off the connection if the device moves to an area where another hub has a better signal.

The more devices you have, the larger the area you can cover, and the more reliable your Wi-Fi network should be.

Admittedly, my home network is fairly unique. My cable connection comes into the basement, on one end of the house, where I typically install one access point next to the cable modem. On the opposite end of the home, upstairs this time, I place another hub. These two hubs cover 3,300 square feet without issue. Where things get complicated is that I have a home office roughly 70 feet from the house inside a metal building.

I've tested power line adapters and at one point ran an ethernet cable across my yard, underneath a door, and into my office, which was then connected to a third hub.

Both solutions worked but weren't ideal. Powerline adapters fluctuate and reduce bandwidth far too much, and a standard Cat6 cable isn't designed for outdoor use.

So, about a year ago, I installed two Ubiquity NanoStation Loco M2's to connect the two buildings via a wireless connection, all without any drop in bandwidth or performance.

Why am I telling you about this? Because my setup requires a mesh networking system that supports backhaul, or the ability to provide a wired connection to one (or more) of the mesh hubs on the network.

Performance

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Initial setup of SmartThings Wifi was seamless. The process requires installing the Samsung SmartThings app and then adding the first hub, which will go next to your ISP's modem. After setting up the first hub, you then add more hubs following a similar process.

I recommend setting up any additional devices in the same room as the first hub. I've found after setting up multiple mesh systems that initial setup goes smoother when there are no obstructions, such as walls and furniture, between the different mesh devices. Once setup is complete, you simply unplug the hub and move it to your preferred location.

After all of the hubs are up and running, Plume's technology begins working on optimizing the network and communication between the hubs. The process can take up to 24 hours, but I honestly didn't experience any issues with performance over the first day.

With each device acting as a SmartThings hub, you can control and manage all of your smart home devices directly from within the SmartThings app. And better yet, you don't have to worry about connecting yet another hub to your modem to make it work.

As I previously mentioned, when SmartThings Wifi first launched it lacked backhaul support.


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By connecting ethernet to the third hub in my office, the system created a second network for my devices to connect to. Both networks coexisted just fine, despite sharing the same name and credentials, as long as you didn't move between the two buildings, or sit in a spot where signal strength would fluctuate and cause your device to switch between the two different, yet same, networks.

I often found myself having to toggle Wi-Fi on my devices when I would move between my office and house in order for the device to connect to the proper network. This caused a lot of confusion and frustration, and lead to a lot of troubleshooting with Samsung and Plume. Eventually, I was told backhaul support was coming, but the timing wasn't certain.

As of the update that was released a few weeks ago, that issue has disappeared. I'm now able to walk between buildings, or sit at my kitchen table, and experience full bandwidth without any issues.

I've used Google WiFi for since it launched and I can say that the experience SmartThings Wifi has provided since the update has mirrored that of Google Wifi. My speeds are maxed out, regardless of where I'm at in my home or office, and coverage has been excellent.

Two apps, too many

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Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

My biggest complaint about this setup, however, is that it requires two apps to manage your network.

The SmartThings app is used for initial setup and basic settings like network name, password, and a list of devices connected to your network. And for some, that's where their needs will stop.

But if you want to create guest passwords, use the parental controls, or get more advanced with IP reservations and the like, you'll need to use the Plume app. 

To Samsung's credit, the SmartThings app does link directly to the Plume app, but what if you don't know that Plume is what powers the mesh technology? The setup process and initial realization that two apps are needed can be jarring to those who aren't tech savvy.

I get it -- in order for the system to work with Plume and handle its SmartThings integration, two apps are needed. I just wish there was a more intuitive way of going about it.

Included with each SmartThings Wifi system is access to Plume's Membership features that normally require a yearly or lifetime paid membership. Included with the membership is access to Plume's parental controls, guest access to your network (based on the password you give to someone), among other features.

Conclusion

Samsung's SmartThings Wifi is the best of both worlds. You not only get a reliable mesh Wi-Fi system, but you get the added bonus of the SmartThings ecosystem for home automation. With products from Ring, Schlage, Ecobee, and many more all supported by the SmartThings ecosystem, it makes sense to consolidate the number of hubs and devices in your home.

If you're looking to make the jump to mesh and aren't sold on using Amazon or Google products, then Samsung's SmartThings Wifi is worthy of your consideration.

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