How well will it mesh with your network?
(Sorry, I’ll see myself out)
Home networks are a pain, aren’t they? Actually no, they’re not – I’ve occupied plenty of hours over the past decade or so constructing my own home networks with increasing layers of pointless complexity. And now I’ve stopped.
Background Story Time
When I moved into my new home, it came with extensive ethernet cabling – probably more than we really needed. All of it terminated at a patch panel in the garage – way up in the front right corner of the house. The reason they did this is because the fibre-optic line for all the data, phone, and TV services terminates at that point, connecting into a network termination point. This “NTP” is basically a white box that splits the signal into WAN, POTS, and terrestrial D-TV signals.
The idea was that the router/modem combo (PPPoE auth) would sit in this cabinet, and all of the ethernet lines would feed in to this point. The problem with this is that the wireless network would originate from this point, effectively blanketing the garage and front yard in signal, and leaving a huge black spot at the back of the house. When I pointed this out, their solution was to “just plug the WAN into the patch panel and plug the router in somewhere else”… which also made all of the ports absolutely fucking useless.
Fortunately, one part of the house has two ports. Unfortunately, said area is right at the back of the house. So while I could run a little 5 port switch at the patch panel and have a dedicated WAN line down to the modem/router, the wifi signal was now at the other end of the house – leaving the front (with the master bedroom) with awful coverage, and the media room with reduced coverage. Without running additional cables, there wasn’t anything I could do.
I’d tried a wireless extender, but these boxes often cause more problems than they solve. Enter Google Wifi.
What is it?
Google Wifi is a new wireless router from Google that relies on mesh networking to extend wireless signals. A mesh network is simply a set of access points operating as one continuous network. This isn’t a new concept and you could achieve something similar by simply bridging two wireless access points together. Where a mesh network differs is that the network appears to be one single network to other devices – but they will be handed off to different access points based on coverage. So if you move closer to an access point, the network will pass off your device to that point instead. This way, you always connect to the best access point on the network, and therefore should get the best speeds.
Google Wifi comes either as a single unit (for $199 AUD) or as a three pack ($499 AUD). I got the three pack, although I’d say for the majority of homes a single unit or 2 units will be enough – but getting the 3rd unit as a spare or to give as a gift for $99 is hard to pass up. Inside the box were the three units, three power supplies (using micro USB) and one cat6 ribbon cable. And that’s about it – there’s a pamphlet that tells you to download the app from the iOS or Google Play store, but nothing else.
Each unit has three ports – one for power, one for “WAN” and one for “LAN”. In practice, the distinction isn’t quite that simple. The primary node will need to use the WAN port for the actual connection to the modem, but subsequent nodes can use that WAN connection as an ethernet backbone (discussed later). There’s a reset button on the back but otherwise there’s nothing to push or touch on the nodes themselves – just a wrap around light that changes colour based on device status.
In terms of wireless standards, the nodes go right up to 802.11AC, while offering legacy b/g/n support too. It supports up to AC1200 2×2 Wave 2 beamforming wifi, as well as 2.4ghz and 5ghz channels. Translation: it’s pretty fast if you’ve got the devices to take advantage of it.
How easy it is to set up depends on your network. If you’re using an ADSL connection, you’ll still need an ADSL modem. Since the majority of people have a modem-router, you’ll need to configure it for bridge mode and disable the wireless access point. If you rely on PPPoE, DHCP or a static IP for your connection, you can just use Google Wifi directly. My ISP uses PPPoE, so I just tossed the cable directly into the primary node, and all was well! I downloaded the app, followed the instructions, and it was done!
The instructions are simple to follow. Adding nodes is as simple as using your phone’s camera to scan the QR code on the back. There’s very little network jargon to understand – which is great if you have no real idea what it is that you’re doing. After following the instructions, it downloaded and update and that was it – it was finished. You give the network a name, drop a password on there, and that’s it. If you only have one node, that’s the end of it. You’re done.
Adding extra nodes is as simple as doing the same thing again – scan the QR code and the app adds it to the network. This will create a mesh network and enable the smarts to hand devices off to the best node. Pretty simple stuff, really. By default, nodes will just use the wireless network to connect to other nodes – so you don’t need to hardwire anything. You’ll have to be careful with placement to ensure that the node isn’t placed in a blackspot – it has to have some wireless service to extend the range, and the better the signal it can receive, the better the results will be for anything that connects to that node.
Alternatively, extra nodes can be connected via eithernet to the WAN port back to the primary node. To do this, you’ll need to connect the other node to the LAN port on the primary node. So basically: Secondary WAN -> LAN on Primary. The other LAN port can be used for connecting another device by ethernet (like your computer). Sounds complicated? It really isn’t, and once you start playing with it you’ll understand how it works.
My setup was a bit more complicated than that. I put my 5 port switch at my patch panel and set up the primary node where I had two ethernet ports – one for WAN (directly to my ‘modem’) and the other connected to the switch. The primary node had the WAN cable in the WAN port, and the LAN port had a cable that ran to the switch. The second node was plugged into one of the ports on the switch (via the patch panel) via its WAN port. By using this method, everything plugged into the switch could connect to the primary node – so I had a hardwired backbone from the secondary node to the primary.
No extra configuration was needed. You can add a few other things, like IPv6, priority devices (as a kind of quality of service – like giving a Netflix box priority so that other users don’t interrupt your download stream), “family” mode to block access to particular devices or set a schedule to restrict access, and a guest network mode.
More advanced features are slightly more limited. The device supports UPnP and port forwarding, as well as custom DNS settings, but that’s pretty much it. You can do some simple port forwarding too. If you need anything more than that, this isn’t the device for you – but for the vast majority of home networks, this sort of support is ample.
God damn, it really does work as advertised. A single puck significantly boosted wireless networking speeds. My Linksys WRT1900 had nothing on this. A single puck actually eliminated all of the black spots in the house, and significantly improved speeds. Where I’d be lucky to get a sustained 30Mbps in my bedroom, I was now looking at 150Mbps with just a single node located at the same place as the original modem/router. With the second node installed, the entire house has a minimum stable throughput of about 500Mbps, with most areas sustaining around 700Mbps (tested with an iPhone 7 Plus).
Based on that, even a single node placed centrally would do wonders for coverage – and rigging up an ethernet cable to connect it to a modem isn’t that hard to do. The improvement in internal network speeds is great. Internet speeds? Well, my original network pretty much allowed that to work without issue (my internet speed is capped at about 40Mbps, but doesn’t often reach that top speed) but the stability is significantly improved. There are fewer timeouts, fewer streaming issues, and overall better quality of connection.
The app is great too – it’s simple to use and easy to understand. My girlfriend, who hasn’t got a clue how the network works, could at least see if there was an issue with the network. To borrow a competitor’s phase, it just works.
There’s no dedicated wifi backbone – which is in contrast to other units like Netgear’s (much more expensive) Orbi devices that do the same job. What this means is that if you have a lot of wireless traffic, that traffic is also travelling over the same channels as the connection between the nodes. If it gets particularly busy, traffic passing through secondary nodes could slow down. Now in practice this is probably not going to be an issue, but if you’re in an apartment complex or high density residential area with lots of wireless units, it could cause issues. You will notice a difference if you’re benchmarking. If you can hardwire the nodes together, I’d strongly recommend it.
I wish there were more ports – even just another ethernet port would be useful. I’d love to be able to have an ethernet connection for my PC into the primary node, but that port is occupied by the switch feed in. A small complaint perhaps, but still an annoyance.
Some people won’t like the lack of options for configuring the network. It’s aimed at people who have modest needs. I’d argue that the majority of home networking users would be adequately served by its options, but there are some omissions. Notably, you can’t run a network-level VPN connection.
Also I did notice (and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing) that the default DNS options are to pick from either your ISP or Google’s own DNS servers – and in my case, it defaulted to Google. Generally I find Google’s DNS servers work better, but that’s not always going to be the case for every user, or in every situation – there are some cases where Google’s will appear to work better, but will occasionally cause the connection to route around local content servers (which their test won’t take into account). Just a trap that some might not be aware of.
Finally, it’s a tad bit expensive for what it is. It’s good, but it’s also $500 for a 3 pack – and to be honest, most houses won’t need 3.
Google Wifi is an excellent solution for people looking to extend their wireless network. It’s really easy to set up and it’s not hard to manage. The wireless hardware inside the nodes is superior to what you’ll find on a lot of similarly-priced modem-router combinations, but with the advantage of seamless mesh networking included.
That said, there are two potential considerations. Firstly, it’s best to wire the nodes together if at all possible, to avoid relying on a wireless backbone that might suffer from congested airspace. Secondly, if you’ve got an ADSL connection or cable modem (or similar), you’ll still need it – and if your ADSL model is a modem-router combo, you’ll need to put it into bridge mode or figure out if it’s worth the cost of Google Wifi.
But with that said, it’s one of the cheaper mesh networks, and it does work pretty much without any effort at all. I’d recommend it if you’re struggling with wifi blackspots. I’d also suggest that one will probably work wonders for smaller houses or apartments, and two will probably cover the majority of home users (unless your house is massive or you need coverage outside, I guess).
Google Wifi is available from many different retailers, including JB Hifi and Officeworks.