Your router is the most horrible technology you deal with every day. This essential tool keeps your home connected to the internet, and yet, you keep it thrust in a dusty corner because it’s a wretched, opaque box of confusion. Google’s OnHub is a critical step towards helping you take control back from those miserable blinking lights.
What Is It?
A $200 router with snazzy design courtesy of a partnership between Google and the hardware stalwart TP-Link. Haven’t heard of TP-Link? You might have a TP-Link router right now! (Or maybe it’s a Netgear, or a Cisco, or if you’re really fancy, an Apple AirPort.)
As sold today, OnHub is a just a pricey wifi machine that works a little better than most. You use an app instead of computer software to set it up, and it’s got a few smart features that theoretically help improve your connectivity on a daily basis. More importantly, these tricks hint at the dormant smart home hardware buried inside, which could lead to more powerful “internet-of-things” features in the future.
Why Does It Matter?
Your home router is vital, and you don’t really know how it works. You definitely don’t know what to do if you suspect it might be screwing up. With OnHub, Google wants to turn that passive connectivity box into a user-friendly access point for all the devices in your home.
We need to pause here for some nerdy explanation. Your router is a networking device that relays dem packets it’s taking from your broadband modem and broadcasts them into the air. From there, your laptop, phone, Sonos, etc slurp up the data. This conversation goes both ways, with your connected devices sending data back to your router, and in turn to your modem and out into the wild world of the internet.
Like your stereotypical middle-man, most routers are shady operators that don’t let you know what’s going on. The result is that your internet connection is basically a mystery to you most of the time. Who and what are connected to my internet? How fast is my internet? Is my internet broken? Is my router broken? These are all questions that are answered in most cases by blinking lights that don’t mean anything to normal humans.
This state of affairs worked—and continues to work—more or less well, but it’s not really feasible for the future. As we bring more and more connected devices into our homes, a router needs to be smarter, and you need to know what it’s doing. Your router is a logical air-traffic control center for all of your connected devices. Your Nest, your Sonos, your Hue, and yes, your laptop should all speak the same language so they can understand your commands—and you should be talking to them all in the same place. Is Google OnHub this place? Maybe!
Google’s upfront that it wants to move your router from it’s cobwebbed home behind your TV or in that musty cabinet into the foreground of your space. The slightly conical tubular design and matte finish are handsome, and it resembles some of the more popular speakers out there.
Importantly, the design conceals some of the more unattractive features of gnarly routers, like the gross ports and protruding antennae. I wouldn’t ever suggest somebody buy a router for design, but it’s kinda nice when your gadgets don’t look like butt. Or spiders.
Beyond the generally attractive design, OnHub does away with the usual series of blinking lights that used to tell you what was going on with your internet connection. Now it’s a single ring of light. If it’s teal, your internet is working. Blue? It’s in a setup mode. Amber? Something’s wrong. It’s not a totally simple system—and I’m not entirely sure this light system is as easy as Google imagines it to be. But most of us know that Green is Go and Red is Stop, and the app can pick up where the light leaves off.
There’s also a speaker at the top of the OnHub. So far, it doesn’t do much—but maybe someday this thing will talk to you with a voice? Wouldn’t that be fancy.
The biggest downside of the simple design is that the router has just one ethernet output—this device is designed for a house in which absolutely everything that uses the internet connects wirelessly instead of with a cable.
Today, at launch, the most obvious sign you’re using OnHub as opposed to a Cisco death trap is that it’s almost befuddlingly easy to set up. I told the Gizmodo staff I was running off to tinker with a router as if I was running off to trudge through a swamp for a week. I was back online in about five minutes.
It’s simple. Plug in the ethernet cable that comes out of your modem (hopefully the one that you bought), plug in the power, and download the Google On app for iOS or Android. When you fire up the app, you’ll be guided through an easy setup process. The cleverest bit is how OnHub pairs with Android phones. Instead of using a security code or some other complicated method, the OnHub plays a series of tones out of the speaker on top of the router, and when your phone hears them, it pairs. Easy. For the iPhone you’ll have to go through a slightly more complicated pairing procedure.
From there the router...works! Very well even. One of the smart tricks built into the router is that it can dynamically change wireless bands depending on which frequency is working better in your house. If you live ina big apartment building like me, this can be very handy. I didn’t “notice” that band switching per se, but OnHub has unquestionably better connectivity than my old crappy router. My roommates and I got speedy connections, even in our downstairs rooms that sometimes eluded our old router’s reach. This is anecdotal, but not at all out of line with what I was expecting. Not all reviewers have found its range up to snuff, though.
Besides the speedy, reliable connection, which should be a given for a router this expensive, OnHub promises to demystify your router by keeping you in the know about what’s going on with your network. The Google On app lets you know how many given devices are connected at a given time. From there, you can prioritize one connection over another, which was my sneaky way of making sure that my Netflix streamed faster than my roommate’s. I tried this, but I’m not exactly sure it worked.
Maybe the most useful app tool is the ability to restart your router from the app. For a decade—a freaking decade!—my number one method for troubleshooting internet problems has been to go to my router and physically unplug it. That’s mind-numbingly primative when you think about it. Now, I can restart it without taking a single step.
The Google On app also lets you perform basic network diagnostics like checking upload/download speeds, and seeing if any one device is gobbling up more than its fair share of your data. Again, none of this requires any weird software on your computer or a primative web portal—just an app that looks like the ones you already use on your phone.
It’s worth noting what OnHub doesn’t do yet. Despite being equipped with the latest Bluetooth and Google’s nascent Weave protocol, as well as the 802.15.4 radio chip for connecting an array of smart devices—Google OnHub doesn’t do anything with them yet. The USB port doesn’t do jack. It seems like Google wants this to be the hub for your entire smart home, but right now it just helps distribute the internet.
Plus, it doesn’t have a whole host of fancy router features you’d expect on internet portals this price, like VPNs and guest networks and firewalls and network-attacked storage and practically anything with an acronym.
I mean, $200? Doesn’t do fancy stuff that networking nerds will demand.
Should I Buy It?
The main reason not to buy is the price. OnHub is very much the future, and big ideas you can’t see yet are going to feel a little flimsy compared to the two crisp Benjamins it’s going to cost you. The app-based interface is incredibly easy—why is that so surprising?—and the aesthetic design is handsome, but that’s hardly enough to justify the price when so much basically functional hardware exists.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on routers, but the frustratingly stupid box I own gets the job done and costs like $50 today. Spending $200 feels a little absurd without some obvious value added besides anecdotally better connectivity and a nice interface. I can deal with a router’s painful setup process.
The last thing to note is that even if you trust Google with your data, maybe you shouldn’t necessarily trust the company to keep developing this product. Sure, it seems like a logical extension of Google’s strategy with everything from Nest to Brillo, but it wouldn’t be the first time Google abandoned ship on a connected home product. Remember Android@Home, the Nexus Q, and Google TV? Yeah, neither do we. Maybe wait and see how OnHub improves before dropping your dollars here.
Photos by Michael Hession