Throughout 2020 I did nothing but complain about the internet. I started paying for gigabit speeds in an attempt to kickstart my life since the pandemic brought everything crashing down, but my current wifi setup is barely capable, and I’m starting to feel like my whole house is a dead zone.
These days, the internet needs to simultaneously handle TV streaming, multi-person video conferencing, online school, and a whopping number of connected devices like security cameras and digital assistants without skipping a beat. Mesh wifi can help with this, which is why it’s become such a popular device category in recent years. And with Wi-Fi 6 devices on the horizon and faster internet speeds becoming more readily available, there are new mesh wifi routers to help accommodate.
I started looking at new systems that can take advantage of my faster internet speeds and disperse the bandwidth among all the devices placed throughout my humble abode. I also wanted to future-proof my home in preparation for the onslaught of WiFi 6 devices coming through the pipeline, which is why I tested Wi-Fi 6 mesh router systems, even though many devices are still relying in older 802.11ac connectivity. Here are the ones I tested:
The nice thing about mesh wifi systems is that each router company attempts to add value by bundling in smart home antennas, security features, and other features meant to make your internet situation at home easier to manage. Because of this, each system is priced differently.
I ran several tests to figure out which of the mesh wifi routers perform best in my house. I used Ookla’s Speedtest to gather data on wireless download and upload speeds in a variety of places within my two-story house: the office, the entryway, the dining room, the bedroom, the backyard, and even in the garage, where I’ll often load up on last-minute media before hitting the road. I also used my most common internet tasks to test each set-up, such as downloading a mass of audio files from a shared folder in Dropbox and ping tests in Elder Scrolls Online, a game I’m known to appear in once in a while.
I focused on four distinct criteria: Design, because I’m still at home all the time and have to live with staring at the wifi router; user friendliness, because managing the internet is already a massive headache on top of everything else going on; performance, because I want ample internet speeds blanketing my property; and extra stuff—things like smart home integration and malware protection—because these companies throw the extras in there precisely to entice you away from their competition.
The Mesh Router With the Best Design
Mesh routers come in various sizes, ranging from comically oversized (the Linksys Velop AX M10) to small and stowable (the Eero 6). At least with larger devices—and this is the case across the board—you tend to get a little more functionality out of the router and each satellite node.
The Eero 6 is an Amazon product, so it’s designed for mass appeal. It’s unobtrusive in a variety of household aesthetics and can be installed anywhere there’s an outlet. It’s great for folks who want to set up a mesh network and get on with their lives, but it lacks any ethernet ports for hardwiring devices. High-end gaming consoles, laptops, computers, and set-top boxes can only connect wirelessly—a significant limitation if you’re like me and paying for gigabit speeds. You want to reduce latency if you’re playing online co-op or streaming high-resolution video.
The TP-Link Deco X20 is the most agreeable in form and function, offering a small enough footprint that it doesn’t overpower a bookshelf. It’s a little more than five inches taller than the Eero, but you get two extra ethernet ports on each node to connect devices around your house. The Deco X20 and Eero 6 are the only three-pack, dual-band routers in this lineup.
Mesh routers grow in size the more functionality you add in. The two-pack Asus ZenWifi AX (XT8) and Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 are both tri-band routers that measure six and 10 inches in height, respectively, so it’ll be obvious these are “internet things” no matter where you place them. They both offer a wealth of ports, with the ZenWifi offering two 2.5 gigabit Ethernet ports per unit, plus one USB 3.1 port for hardwiring hard drives. The Netgear Orbi has one gigabit WAN port on the router unit, plus three gigabit Ethernet ports, while the satellite unit has two extra gigabit internet ports for hardwiring devices.
The Linksys Velop AX M10 is enormous in comparison to the rest of the lineup I tested. At nearly 10 inches tall, it’s double the size of my gigabit modem. But it’s ripe with ports, with four gigabit internet Ethernet ports and one USB 3.0 port on both the router and satellite unit. Its tall, angular look is very router-like, however, and the most beautiful thing about the M10 is the color-changing LED status light at the very top. The Linksys AX M10 was also the worst offender in the power brick department, followed by the Netgear Orbi. The Deco X20 and ZenWifi had the second most compact power bricks, with the latter carried over from Asus’s laptop lineup. The Eero 6's power brick was the smallest, and since it’s USB-C, you could probably use it to charge your Android phone when the router isn’t in use.
Winner: TP-Link Deco X20
The Mesh Router With the Best App
The upside of installing mesh wifi in your home is that it’s relatively friendly to use, thanks in part to the companion apps designed to simplify common networking tasks.
All the routers tested here offered a quick and easy setup, save for the Linksys Velop AX M10, which had some DNS routing issues that I didn’t realize until a day into testing. (I pointed it to Google’s DNS settings in the Advanced Settings tab in the Linksys app, and it fixed the problem almost immediately.) The Asus ZenWiFi is also a little weird because you have to keep the satellite node within a few feet during the initial configuration and then place it where you want it after the setup is complete.
Each companion app offers easy access to the devices connected to your network, with the ability to tap on a specific device and see its IP address, MAC address, and how much traffic is going to and from each device. There are also guest modes across the board that you turn on and off as you need. The Orbi, Deco, and Eero apps all let you stop internet access for specific devices. All apps feature per-device prioritization for allowing things like TVs, smartphones, and laptops to receive priority bandwidth on an as-needed basis.
Each mesh router also offers its own brand of Quality of Service (QoS) features, which refers to optimized network traffic. It’s handy if you have a household full of internet users continually hogging the bandwidth. Eero, TP-Link, and Asus offer various presets to choose from, like whether the router should focus on delivering the best video streaming experience or the best gaming experience. In the ZenWiFi app, there’s even a preset for torrenting. The Netgear Orbi offers dynamic QoS, though you’ll have to specify maximum internet bandwidth per device to get it going. I much prefer the automatic profile selection to the per-device configuration, though it’s nice to have both in the event someone upstairs is hogging the bandwidth for their MMO, and you’re just trying to watch some Netflix.
If you want web browser access to the router, a necessity if you’re the internet wrangler at your house, avoid the Eero. Some might argue that this is what makes the Eero simple and user friendly. But if that’s what you’re looking for, the Deco X20 offers a similarly simplified app experience, with browser access for when your internet isn’t performing as it should.
Built-in parental controls are a popular add-on for mesh wifi routers, and though my kid is not even yet a toddler, I’m looking forward to the day I can torture her with limitations on her internet access. The Asus ZenWiFi, TP-Link Deco X20, and Linksys Velop AX M10 offer free parental controls that are easy to set up and access within their respective apps. The Eero 6 requires you to pony up $3 a month for Eero Secure for parental controls. And the Netgear Orbi points you to the Circle app, which lets you set content filters and pause the internet for free, or you can pay $50 a year for extra features like time limits, bedtime mode, and per-device usage meters.
The Linksys app is the winner here for its all-encompassing feature set. Although I wasn’t a fan of the straightforward interface, the menu is easy to navigate even for a novice, and I found it easier to understand than the ZenWiFi app. There’s an option for easy parental controls, including a per-device kill-switch. And if you have any hard drives or flash drives connected via USB, you can access those through the app.
The Orbi app is in second place for its similar breadth of features. You can also log into the mesh system while you’re out of the house to perform a speed test if the folks at home are complaining or you’re trying to turn off a device’s access to the internet. But the lack of parental controls built into the app itself is a severe oversight for a device that costs this much.
Winner: Linksys Velop AX M10
The Best-Performing Mesh Router
Mesh wifi needs to blanket the house with enough internet that every device can stay connected regardless of its proximity to the router. I thought that the tri-band routers—the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6, the Asus ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) , and the Linksys Velop AX M10—would be the top-performing. Tri-band routers have three bands doing the duty: a standard 2.4GHz and 5GHz band for routing traffic, plus a 5GHz backhaul for passing data back and forth between connected devices without disrupting the bandwidth. Imagine my surprise when a dual-band router was the best performer of them all.
It’s not that the TP-Link Deco X20 is the fastest mesh wifi router amongst the five tested here or that it delivered high enough speeds to justify the exorbitant amount of money I pay for gigabit internet each month. But it was the most consistent performer throughout most of the house, including the garage. The Deco X20 started to show its limitations once I ventured out 20 feet into the backyard to perform benchmark tests, though it still pulled down 40 Mbps. That’s enough bandwidth to stream Spotify or take a video call while watching the sunset. It even performed the best in the Elder Scrolls Online ping test.
The Netgear Orbi and Asus ZenWiFi were much faster by comparison, clocking speeds as high as 859 and 636 Mbps down, respectively. The Orbi seems to work best within range; a budget Core i3-based laptop I tested reached speeds of 341 Mbps and nearly 42 Mbps up. The Orbi was also the fastest in the Dropbox download test, managing to gulp down 2.6 GB of compressed audio files in a little more than a minute and a half. Conversely, the ZenWiFi maintained speeds with devices out of range, managing 160 Mbps down out in the backyard and 453 Mbps down in the garage.
For my gigabit internet setup, the Linksys Velop AX M10 is quite the contender. It delivered the fastest speeds at the farthest range, measuring 905 Mbps in my office where the routers are stationed and 823 Mbps in the front room where there are multiple security cameras and other such devices. Out in the backyard, it performed no better than the ZenWiFi, though.
I wasn’t surprised when the Eero 6 performed the worst. When all three nodes are activated, Eero promises a maximum of 500 Mbps of throughput, half of what my internet speeds are capable of. I still saw terrific numbers, but they were the lowest by far. I’ve read that there are better results with the Eero 6 Pro for gigabit internet. So if you’re in that camp and interested in Eero, you might consider shelling out that extra $300.
Winner: TP-Link Deco X20
The Mesh Router With the Best Extras
Mesh wifi manufacturers all attempt to bundle in helpful “extras” to add to the whole system’s value. These extras include turning on a guest network with a digital assistant or security features that help block malicious websites and threats.
Let’s start with the dual-band, affordable mesh routers: the Eero 6 and TP-Link Deco X20. The Eero 6 offers a subscription called Eero Secure Plus for $10 a month. It includes a subscription to password vault 1Password, Encrypt.Me’s VPN service, and anti-virus through MalwareBytes. As I mentioned in my review of the Eero 6, the subscription is worth it just for 1Password, though the other two services have mediocre reviews across the board. If you end up paying for anything with the Eero 6, the $3/month Eero Secure tier is enough to enable parental controls, ad-blocking, and threat detection scans. There’s also a ZigBee radio embedded into the Eero 6, so you can add smart home devices like lights and locks without a dedicated smart home hub. And because it’s an Amazon product, it has Alexa support.
TP-Link and Asus include much of this stuff for free, including Alexa support. The Deco X20 comes with a lifetime subscription to TP-Link HomeCare, which includes parental controls and anti-virus, as well as WPA3 encryption. Asus’ free service is called AIProtection, and it too keeps an eye out for malicious websites, malware, and any outside hacking attempts. The caveat is you have to consent to Trend Micro, the third-party enabling these features, to scan your network. It’s a little daunting considering our newfound and very justified fears of data mining. But at the very least, Asus is transparent about it. It’s completely opt-in, too, so you don’t have to use it if you don’t care for the features.
I liked the Netgear Orbi for being the only router on this list to offer Google Assistant support because I use it throughout my household. But I’m not too keen on having to sign up for Netgear Armor for $100 a year for anti-virus and data theft protection through BitDefender. What’s worse: You have to install the BitDefender app to access those features on every computer and smartphone you want them applied to.
The Linksys Velop M10 is without any extra bells and whistles for warding off malware and other known internet maladies. That would have been fine were it not for its $700 price tag. At the very least, there’s Alexa integration.
Winner: TP-Link Deco X20
The Winner Costs Nowhere Near $700
Like buying a car, choosing a mesh wifi router is an entirely subjective experience. There are so many variables that come into play with internet performance. Your house might have more walls than mine, for instance, and might be constructed of materials that don’t allow much passthrough for wireless devices. You also have to consider the size of your dwelling; whole mesh wifi systems are generally rated for larger properties, and one router might be enough for your situation.
All the routers tested here, save for the Eero 6, performed relatively well and could crack the 500 Mbps throughput afforded by my indulgent internet speeds. But unless you’re paying for that kind of internet, you do not need to shell out $500 to $700 for a mesh wifi router.
If you do live on a large property and you’re hoping to blanket your entire home with enough internet to satiate the household, the TP-Link Deco X20 was the most consistent. It’s a great deal for $280, and it comes bundled with several features that typically require a subscription with other mesh routers in its price range. If you need more ethernet ports, the ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) is the next best choice for its abilities and attractive price tag—only $450 for a two-pack, enough to cover up to 5,500 square feet. Only consider the Linksys Velop AX M10 and Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 if you can stomach their nearly $700 price tag for two, and if you’re hoping for the chance to reach gigabit wireless internet speeds.