While it helps tackle wireless blackspots around your home, Google WiFi has an Achilles’ heel which could be a deal-breaker for many NBN homes. As we fill our homes with wireless gadgets, reliable WiFi coverage1 is becoming more of a challenge. A flaky home wireless network might be tolerable if you’re only checking your email and browsing the web, but it soon becomes unbearable in busy households streaming music and video to every room.
Google WiFi gives your home a wireless overhaul to fix coverage blackspots.
In the past, improving your home wireless coverage has involved upgrading to a more powerful WiFi router or investing in WiFi repeaters, which can be temperamental. The new generation of mesh home networks take the pain out of this by letting several WiFi hubs work in unison to provide blanket wireless coverage.
Welcome to the party
The Google WiFi hubs work together to cover your entire home.
Google WiFi launched in Australia last week, alongside Google Home2, to compete with mesh networks from the home networking giants: Linksys Velop3 and Netgear Orbi. At $199 for one WiFi hub or $499 for three, Google WiFi certainly has a major price advantage over its rivals, although this comes at a cost.
Like the others, Google WiFi is very easy to set up. Take one WiFi hub out of the box, plug it into the power and connect it to your broadband modem via the supplied Ethernet cable. This becomes your primary Google WiFi hub.
Next download the Google WiFi app (iOS/Android) and follow the instructions to setup the wireless network and add the other WiFi hubs. The app recommends placing the second hub around two rooms away from the primary, then it performs a quick test to check that it’s within range. Now you can daisy chain subsequent hubs, they don’t all need to be within range of the primary hub.
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Get the latest news and updates emailed straight to your inbox. Once the system is up and running the improvement to your WiFi coverage is striking, especially if you live in a multi-story home. You can walk around the house and seamlessly roam from one hub to the next whilst staying on the same WiFi network, like the way your phone switches between mobile towers when you’re on the move.
The Google WiFi app, available for Android and iOS.
Each Google WiFi hub features two Ethernet ports, letting you connect Ethernet-only devices like desktop computers, network printers and network drives so you don’t need to run as many cables around your home. The WiFi coverage maps below compare Google WiFi with the coverage from a FritzBox 7490, in a narrow three-story house. It stacks up well against the Linksys Velop coverage maps4, which was tested against a Telstra Frontier gateway.
On the middle floor of a three-story home – LEFT: FritzBox 7490, MIDDLE: single Google WiFi hub, RIGHT: three Google WiFi hubs (blue hub is upstairs). Photo: Adam Turner
The results are distorted by the fact that both Google WiFi and the FritzBox support bandsteering – automatically switching your devices between the 2.4 and 5GHz wireless bands in search of the best performance. To be fair, I don’t think the maps quite do the FritzBox justice and perhaps it’s more reluctant to shunt devices to the 2.4GHz network. Also keep in mind, Google WiFi also supports beamforming which bends the wireless network towards your device to improve the signal strength – temporarily improving coverage in the furthest reaches of your home.
You can also use the Google WiFi app to prioritise one wireless device in your home above all others.
Top floor: LEFT: FritzBox 7490 downstairs, MIDDLE: single Google WiFi hub downstairs, RIGHT: three Google WiFi hubs on the right (blue hubs downstairs). Photo: Adam Turner
Strike up the band
Technically Google WiFi falls short of its mesh networking rivals because it’s only a dual-band wireless system, not tri-band like its more expensive competitors. To be fair your average user wouldn’t notice the difference, and it helps Google keep the price down.
Bottom floor: LEFT: FritzBox 7490 upstairs, MIDDLE: single Google WiFi hub upstairs, RIGHT: two Google WiFi hubs upstairs (and a third two floors up). Photo: Adam Turner
Google WiFi hubs run 2.4 and 5GHz networks side-by-side, which appear as a single WiFi network to your devices. Meanwhile the Linksys and Netgear systems run an extra invisible 5GHz network, which the hubs use to talk among themselves and relay traffic back to the primary hub without choking the main WiFi network that your handheld devices rely upon. Without this separate dedicated 5GHz backhaul link, Google WiFi’s 802.11ac wireless network is only rated AC1200 – with theoretical maximum speeds of 1200 Mbps (more like 500 Mbps in real world conditions). Meanwhile the AC2200-rated Netgear and Linksys gear can theoretically double this performance, but realistically Google WiFi’s AC1200 is sufficient in a country where you’re lucky to have 100 Mbps broadband speeds.
You’d only put Linksys and Netgear’s extra speed to use when transferring data around your home.
Keep it simple
While Google WiFi is easy to configure and offers impressive coverage, unfortunately it sacrifices many advanced features in the pursuit of simplicity. The parental features are very basic, although you have the advantage of being able to access them while away from home. Once you dive into the advanced network settings you can change the DNS settings but you can’t configure Dynamic DNS. Likewise you can allocate static IP addresses for devices on your home network, but you’re stuck with the default 192.168.86.x IP range. The real surprise with Google WiFi is that it doesn’t support “Bridge Mode”.
This won’t matter in some homes, but in others it’s an instant deal breaker – especially if you’re on the NBN. In a nutshell, Google WiFi insists on being the heart of your home network, plugged directly into your broadband modem so it can hand out IP addresses to all your devices and direct traffic around your home. Of course you might not want Google WiFi to handle all these tasks, especially if you’ve already invested in a high-end broadband router which lives at the heart of your network. Alternatively you might rely on your ISP-issued broadband router to run your NBN home phone5.
With Linksys Velop, Netgear Orbi or practically any other WiFi gear, you can select Bridge Mode so it runs your wireless network but still lets your broadband router play household traffic cop. In return you generally lose a few network management features built into the WiFi gear, like parental controls, but your broadband router might be able to handle those.
Hold the phone
Google WiFi doesn’t offer Bridge Mode when you’ve got more than one hub working as a mesh, which is an incredible oversight. This means you’re faced with three options; replace your broadband router with Google WiFi, put your broadband router into Bridge Mode, or plug Google WiFi’s primary hub into your broadband router. If you’re on the NBN and you disconnect your ISP-issued broadband router, or put it into Bridge Mode, you’ll probably lose your home phone – as most NBN-based home phone lines actually run over the broadband. Killing the phone service is obviously unacceptable in some homes.
The only other option is to plug the primary Google WiFi hub into your broadband router and let them both play traffic cop. At this point you’ve cut your home in half. Wireless devices on your Google WiFi network, like your smartphone and notebook, can’t talk to the devices connected to your broadband router via Ethernet – like your desktop computer, network printer and network attached storage drive. You can also encounter Double-NAT firewall issues which can screw up your port forwarding and online gaming.
This obviously isn’t a problem in homes that run everything over WiFi and don’t use the Ethernet ports on their broadband router. If you do use them, you’ll need to plug those Ethernet devices into the Ethernet ports on the Google WiFi hubs to ensure they can talk to your wireless devices.
So what’s the verdict
It’s quite possible Google might add Bridge Mode in a firmware update down the track, Google tells me “this is just the start of the Wi-Fi product journey and we’re always working on improving our products”. In my experience, buying hardware in the hope that future firmware upgrades will come to your rescue is often a recipe for disappointment.
Otherwise Google WiFi ticks a lot of boxes; it’s easy to set up, the boost to your network is impressive and the price is right assuming you’re satisfied with AC1200 wireless speeds. For some homes it’s the perfect solution to your WiFi woes. Yet if you’re wedded to your current broadband router, for whatever reason, make absolutely sure you consider the implications of the lack of Bridge Mode before you take the plunge.
- ^ reliable WiFi coverage (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ Google Home (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ Linksys Velop (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ Linksys Velop coverage maps (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ rely on your ISP-issued broadband router to run your NBN home phone (www.smh.com.au)