Question about mesh systems

Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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We have a small house (1,320 sq ft), and our home theater system — and thus our Comcast cable modem and AirPort Extreme 5th gen — is at one corner of the house. My home office is at the opposite corner of the house. The WiFi signal from the AirPort Extreme doesn’t reach my home office, so, years ago, I bought an AirPort Express 2nd gen and put it in my office. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much, as there are several walls in between. So I bought two 50’ Ethernet cables, connected them together, and ran them from the Extreme to the Express. I currently get 160 Mbps down/20 Mbps up near the Extreme, and 50/20 near the Express. If I unplug the Ethernet cable, it drops to 3/3 near the Express (the speed of my first DSL modem, if I recall).

Technically, it works fine; aesthetically, not so much. I covered the cables with throw rugs in a couple of places and taped them to the baseboards in others. My wife and I are trying to make our home look nice, as we probably will be selling it in a year or two. One obvious solution would be to run CAT6 cabling through the attic and walls. Then a friend told me to look into mesh networking. I did, and I found several good articles, such as this one:

https://www.macobserver.com/tips/how-to/best-mesh-wireless-system/

I have an engineering background, so it makes sense. What I don’t fully understand is how they differ from an AirPort Extreme and one or more Expresses that aren’t directly connected via Ethernet. In other words, if I bought, say, an Eero system, would I likely experience the same speed drop-offs as I did with the AirPorts? This article and others say that mesh networks work best when the nodes are connected via Ethernet — but how much better? I’m weighing the cost and hassle of running CAT6 vs. the cost and non-hassle of a mesh system without CAT6, assuming the latter would work well. There’s also the consideration that my AirPort devices are old, and I don’t know what their life expectancies are (I had a second Extreme that died a few years ago). And why is the download speed so much less with the Extreme, since they both support 802.11a, b, g, and n?
 

niji

Contributor
Feb 9, 2003
1,457
1,166
tokyo
i have had the same basic questions as you but can't figure it out yet.
it sounded to me, when "mesh systems" first came out that they were accomplishing nothing more than what we could if we knew how to set up and place Airport Express points for relay.
but what complicated this simplistic thinking on my part was Mibo and dual antenna and later generation WiFi standards, etc.
so, i still am lost, not really understanding this.

on the other hand, i too have looked at hundreds of pages on the web to compare "mesh" systems, and Linksys Velop Home Mesh seems to me to be the one i myself will select when my current (last legs) Airport Extreme (with Time Capsule built in- thus making it nostalgically not so easy to change - and my array of Airport Express die out.
 

Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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I did a little more research since my original post, and, as best I can tell, mesh networks are "intelligent" in the sense that they connect you to the node with the strongest signal based on where where your device is. If you're walking around your house with an iPhone or an iPad, you might get switched from one node to another. The old AirPort system doesn't do that -- there's just a given amount of signal at any given point in your house. If I'm oversimplifying or incorrect, I'm sure someone who knows more about this will correct me.

Additionally (again, based on my understanding), if you connect the nodes wirelessly, it will divide the total signal at each node by the number of nodes. So if I'm getting 160 Mbps download at the base node connected to my cable router, and I add a second mesh node, I'll get 80 Mbps at each node over WiFi (but 160 for anything connected via Ethernet at the base station). I'd be fine with that, as opposed with the the 160/20 I currently get wirelessly near my AirPort Extreme and the 3/3 I get near my AirPort Express when they're connected wirelessly.

I'm sitting in my home office now. I have a 2012 Mac mini connected via Ethernet to my Express, which is connected via Ethernet to my Extreme. I have a 2015 MBP and an iPhone XR on WiFi. I just ran Ookla Speedtest and got 90/20 on each of them. So the Express appears to be the bottleneck.

Each mesh network model I've researched seems to do things a bit differently, and there's no one brand/model that does everything best. One thing that concerns me is what the article I linked to refers to as BufferBloat -- that is, when one user starts downloading something heavily, and it drops the speed for everyone else. I was visiting my parents in October. They have one Comcast WiFi router. Whenever my dad got on his computer and started watching streaming video, the WiFi signal for my iPad dropped to the point of unusability. My wife and I are considering "cutting the cable." If we get a wireless mesh network, and she's streaming something on Netflix in the living room, will I still have usable WiFi speed in my home office? The more I think about this, the more I think the best solution is to get one of my construction-savvy friends to help me run a CAT6 cable through the attic.
 

Mikael H

macrumors 6502a
Sep 3, 2014
643
277
Running physical cables is always the best option if you can do it.

The benefit of a mesh network compared to an "extended" wireless network, is that in the former, the communication between access points is transmitted over a dedicated radio, and so you don't get the guaranteed splitting of link speed you'd get with a traditional extended wireless network. It will perform worse than a physical link, though.

Buffer bloat can be caused by more than your local wireless network. Back when I was cursed with no other way to connect to the Internet than a 6Mbps down/1 Mbps up ADSL connection, my uplink would choke any time something was uploaded. This includes huge delays for the "ACK" network packets required to confirm that I had received something over the network, making any download operation time out. In other words the downlink didn't work properly either if the uplink was overused. And overusing an uplink was as easy as putting an iPhone in the charger at night: As soon as it tried to backup itself, the entire Internet connection at home would grind to a halt.

The workaround, until I could get a proper fiber connection, was to switch to a better router that let me artificially limit the usable uplink speed (which made the most difference), and set Quality of Service rules (for fine tuning specific applications). Limiting uplink speed to slightly less than 60% of the advertised speed from the ISP provided the best balance for me in keeping network traffic flowing both ways with semi-reasonable backup times for iDevices.
 

hobowankenobi

macrumors 6502a
Aug 27, 2015
980
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on the land line mr. smith.
I did a little more research since my original post, and, as best I can tell, mesh networks are "intelligent" in the sense that they connect you to the node with the strongest signal based on where where your device is. If you're walking around your house with an iPhone or an iPad, you might get switched from one node to another. The old AirPort system doesn't do that -- there's just a given amount of signal at any given point in your house. If I'm oversimplifying or incorrect, I'm sure someone who knows more about this will correct me.

Additionally (again, based on my understanding), if you connect the nodes wirelessly, it will divide the total signal at each node by the number of nodes. So if I'm getting 160 Mbps download at the base node connected to my cable router, and I add a second mesh node, I'll get 80 Mbps at each node over WiFi (but 160 for anything connected via Ethernet at the base station). I'd be fine with that, as opposed with the the 160/20 I currently get wirelessly near my AirPort Extreme and the 3/3 I get near my AirPort Express when they're connected wirelessly.

I'm sitting in my home office now. I have a 2012 Mac mini connected via Ethernet to my Express, which is connected via Ethernet to my Extreme. I have a 2015 MBP and an iPhone XR on WiFi. I just ran Ookla Speedtest and got 90/20 on each of them. So the Express appears to be the bottleneck.

Each mesh network model I've researched seems to do things a bit differently, and there's no one brand/model that does everything best. One thing that concerns me is what the article I linked to refers to as BufferBloat -- that is, when one user starts downloading something heavily, and it drops the speed for everyone else. I was visiting my parents in October. They have one Comcast WiFi router. Whenever my dad got on his computer and started watching streaming video, the WiFi signal for my iPad dropped to the point of unusability. My wife and I are considering "cutting the cable." If we get a wireless mesh network, and she's streaming something on Netflix in the living room, will I still have usable WiFi speed in my home office? The more I think about this, the more I think the best solution is to get one of my construction-savvy friends to help me run a CAT6 cable through the attic.

Good you did your homework.....but you are way overkill.

I have two UBNT AC Lite (cheapest model) to cover about 2300 sqft (2 story). Can watch 2 apple TVs while others are streaming video to phones, no lag. All wifi. Can even play WOT over wifi with no noticeable lag, even with every thing else cranking. And these are the cheapest, slowest, lowest performing models. Imagine what the mid or high end models would go in a home?

CAT6 (or 7 or even 8) is great, but I only have 5e.

The trick is getting modern WAPs that handle the hand-off seamlessly, and having a dedicated cable running to each WAP. A true mesh system will work too...without the data cable, but last I checked those were $$$.

If you go UBNT, you just need a decent wired router, and the UBNT WAPs.

If I were doing it again today, I would put Synology 2200s at the top of my list. They are not so pretty to look at, but routing and mesh wifi should be solid. WPA 3, scale-able, and tons of features, with a great, easy interface. I have installed several of their other routers for SMBs, and they have been great.

I don't claim to be a wifi expert, but I can add that radio and antenna tech has come a very long way in just a few years. And, there is QOS (traffic prioritization) and other software/routing improvements too. Anything more than about 4-5 years old is truly obsolete, and even stuff only a couple years old can't compete with the current best of breed gear.
 
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Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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Thanks, Mikael H and hobowankenobi — great information! I’ll look into the systems you mention.
 

imaccooper

macrumors 6502
May 29, 2014
305
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North Carolina
Looks like you have gotten some good advice, but I also want to mention something. Using the extreme and express like you were doing is not a bad idea and a mess network is a great thing, but remember one important rule. If the access points are wireless then they can only replicate the signal they are getting.

A common thought is, if I add another device (express in your case) to the area where I need signal then it will help my signal. It absolutely will if you connect an ethernet cable to it as you did, but if it trying to get a wireless signal and then repeat it, you will only get moderate results from going that far away.

A better idea would be to move the express closer to your extreme so it can a get better signal. An easy and fairly effective way to find a good spot is to use your phone or a tablet as a test device. Just start in the room where your router is and walk toward your office. Watch your wifi connection symbol in the top corner. Once your device drops from the three lines and a dot down to two lines then stop and if possible move back just a few feet and find a good place around there to place your express. The idea is to still be in a good coverage area, but still enough distance closer to the area you want better coverage in. Obviously you can get way more scientific, but I find that right on the edge of "three line" and "two line" coverage works well in a home.

Disclaimer: Since I'm guessing you want to limit new costs, this solution could hopefully buy you another year with you current setup without buying anything new or doing the work of running cables. I completely agree that wired is a better solution if at all possible. I also agree with one of the posts above that you are getting to the end of the usable life on your stuff so when you move into a new place it might be a good idea to look into a new system.
 

Ubele

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Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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Thanks, imacooper! I hadn’t thought of putting the Express somewhere between the Extreme and my home office wirelessly, so I’ll give it a try this weekend. I’ll let you know how it goes.
 
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Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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Thanks, imacooper! I hadn’t thought of putting the Express somewhere between the Extreme and my home office wirelessly, so I’ll give it a try this weekend. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I finally got around to trying this, and it didn't work. I got a good WiFi signal near the Extreme and near the Express when I put it at the midway point of our house, but the signal dropped off precipitously two rooms down, where my home office is. For now, we're going to live with the long Ethernet cable running through the house.
 

imaccooper

macrumors 6502
May 29, 2014
305
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North Carolina
So if you are getting good signal and speed at the Express, then it sounds like the range is suffering which is to be expected since that is an old device. Also, if I understand correctly, then that is a 2nd gen express which is going to be capped at 100 mb anyway and is only an N connection so you will get further speed reduction.

If leaving the cable on the floor is fine, then obviously that will work. Alternatively, you could use the long cable to run the Extreme to somewhere in the middle of the house and get better overall coverage. So you would go from the modem to the extreme which is in another room or whatever.

The final thing you could try is using the 2.4 ghz band if you are not already. That will give better penetration through walls and longer distance (Note: 2.4 is only going to be helpful if your signal strength is low. If you are getting good signal strength, but just low speeds then that won't help as 5.0 is faster in general).

Other than that, I'm afraid you had the right idea originally in looking into a new system. I won't say not to get a mesh system because they are nice and would work great, but honestly for a 1300 sq ft house, you will probably be just fine with a many of the new routers on the market today.
 

Ubele

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Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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Thanks again for all the great information, imaccooper! I can't remember what band I'm using, so I'll check. I think it's 5 GHz, because, if I recall correctly, I was getting interference from other devices at 2.4 GHz.

Our single-story house is a rectangle, and the path that the Ethernet cable follows is an L. The Extreme is at the tip of the base of the L. The base goes through the living room and a hallway. The hallway then turns at a right angle and forms the rest of the L. Along the side of the L are two guest bedrooms, with the master bedroom/home office being at the top tip of the L. The Express is in the office.

With the Extreme and the Express connected via the Ethernet cable, I get wireless speeds of about 135/20 near the Extreme and 80/20 near the Express. (I suspected that the slower speed of the Express was due to its age and using the N connection, and you confirmed that.) If I disconnect the Ethernet cable, I get no signal at all near the Express. If I move the Express to the guest bedroom at the right-angle turn of the L, I get 40/20 near the Express and 4/2 in my office. I did consider running the Ethernet cable to the Express in the guest bedroom, but the cable would still be running over much of the exposed floor and would need to be covered by rugs, so I might as well leave the Express in the office.

It didn't occur to me that a newer non-mesh router might cover the whole house. Next step is to try the wireless router that Comcast supplied and that I bridge to the Extreme, although the Comcast router is about three years old. If the Comcast router doesn't have much signal strength in my office, has wireless router technology improved enough in the past three years to warrant giving a new one a try? If so, do you have any recommendations? I was thinking of buying my own, anyway, rather than renting one from Comcast.
 

estabya

macrumors 6502
Jun 28, 2014
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The reduced speed your seeing coming off the Express is due to the fact that the Ethernet ports on the Express top out at 100Mbps; they aren’t gigabit ports.

With your house being only 1300 square feet I think that a mesh system is likely overkill. I would recommend getting a managed switch for your home theater setup (you could even use the AirPort Extreme and just disable the wireless) and then run an Ethernet cable to a newer AC access point in a more central location in the house.
 

imaccooper

macrumors 6502
May 29, 2014
305
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North Carolina
A far as bands are concerned, it is a good idea to use 5.0 to avoid interference, but the one advantage 2.4 has is the range it has. I wouldn’t run everything on 2.4, but instead create a second network called something different (maybe use the same name but add 2.4 or something) and just use that for the things in the end of your house. Honestly my expectation is that it won’t make too much difference, but it may make enough difference for it to be acceptable.

The built in stuff from Comcast probably won’t be great, but I expect it to be better than the old express. If you set the Comcast unit up as the main unit and then use the extreme just like you were using the express as a bridge, that might do better for you.

The layout of the home makes sense, obviously the best place to put the router would be in the middle somewhere close to the bend in the L. You could consider running an Ethernet cable to that area through the attic as you mentioned before if that is feasible. With that said, I do still expect a decent router with some antennas would cover everything fine even in the corner. If you decide you want to go that route, some of the midrange models from netgear or linksys would probably be fine. If the above solutions don’t help enough, then post back with a budget and we can recommend a few options based on that.
 

Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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Thanks, estabya and imaccooper, for you help! I'll try your suggestions and report back with what I eventually end up doing.
 

Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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With that said, I do still expect a decent router with some antennas would cover everything fine even in the corner. If you decide you want to go that route, some of the midrange models from netgear or linksys would probably be fine. If the above solutions don’t help enough, then post back with a budget and we can recommend a few options based on that.
Following up on my thread... I've decided to give a new router a try. Running ethernet cable through the attic is more hassle than I want to take on, especially if a new router would work just fine. I've read more good things about Netgear than Linksys, but there are so many different models available. These are my needs:
  • It's just my wife and me in the house. The heaviest usage would be the two of us streaming video at the same time on two different devices.
  • My wife's computer (late 2012 Mac mini) is near the main router (currently the 5th gen AirPort Extreme). She also has a 2017 iPad and an iPhone XR. She might be streaming video on any of those devices.
  • When I work in my home office at the far corner of the house (where the 2nd gen Airport Express is), I typically have my work laptop PC, late 2012 Mac mini, and 2015 MacBook Pro running. I might also occasionally check my 2017 iPad and/or iPhone XR. Only one device at a time (one of the computers) does something heavy like streaming video or uploading/downloading large files.
  • We're not gamers.
  • We might be "cutting the cable" with Comcast soon and just relying on Netflix, etc. We don't have a 4K TV yet but might get one within the next couple years.
  • We likely will be upgrading our Mac minis to something more current within the next couple years.
That's probably TMI, but the main points I want to make are 1) I need good coverage in my home office, 2) our needs don't seem very heavy now, and 3) I want to get a router that will handle our near-term future needs, as well. I was reading about Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax), but there's no point getting a router that supports that unless I have client devices that support it as well, right? As for budget, I'm flexible. I'm thinking $100-200, but if you think something under $100 would do the job, great. On the other hand, if something between $200-300 would be significantly better, I can swing that. Any recommendations will be appreciated!
 

Ubele

macrumors 6502a
Original poster
Mar 20, 2008
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After doing some research, I decided to order a Synology RT 2600AC. It gets great reviews, and I like the fact that you can attach a hard drive to create NAS.
 
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Ubele

macrumors 6502a
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Mar 20, 2008
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I set up my Synology RT 2600AC, and it exceeds my expectations. My 2015 MacBook Pro, when it’s near the router in the living room, gets 170 Mbps download/25 Mbps upload. In my home office, at the opposite corner of the house, it gets 50/20, which is fast enough. My 2012 Mac mini, also in my home office, gets 50/20. My wife’s 2012 Mac mini, which is on the other side of a wall from the router, gets 150/25. My 2017 iPad and 2018 iPhone XR, though, get 170/25 in the living room, in my home office, and on the back deck outside — everywhere in the house and yard. Thanks again to everyone who offered advice!