First look: Google jumps into crowded wireless mesh market

Easy setup, Internet pausing and whole-home coverage among top features

Google made a bunch of new hardware announcements earlier this year, which included new smartphones (the Pixel) and a virtual assistant (Google Home), but they also announced Google Wifi (love how they drop the hyphen and lowercase the F, causing whatever copy editors are left on the planet to wring their hands in anger), a wireless mesh platform to go up against the likes of other startups like eero, Almond, Luma, Amplifi, to name a few. Google Wifi is the update to its OnHub Wi-Fi platform - Google says that it's now on its third generation of products (the first one didn't make it to market, and the second one was OnHub). Google sent me a three-pack of the new system, which goes on sale to the general public today ($485 via Amazon, but also available from Best Buy, Walmart or directly from Google).

Like those other mesh units, the Google Wifi system consists of three equal small devices (Google calls them points). In order to create your network, you plug one of the points into a broadband modem via Ethernet cable (the three-pack comes with only one cable) and power up the unit (See "Up Close with Google Wifi's setup process"). Setup steps are done through the Google Wifi app on your smartphone or tablet (there's no way to set this up via computer web browser).

Google Wifi bottom Ethernet ports Keith Shaw

On the bottom of each point is space for the power cord and two Ethernet ports (see photo). One port is needed for the WAN connection from the modem; the second one can be used for other Ethernet devices (such as a storage drive, printer, etc.). Once the first point is connected, the Ethernet ports on the other ports act as LAN ports.

With the app, you set up the first point, renaming the name and password from its default settings to one that you like. The app will then guide you to set up the second and third points, testing both the mesh connectivity (is the point close enough to the other points) as well as configuring everything on the network side of things. The app can also test your broadband Internet speed – Google calls this the “Network Check”.

Once your network is up and running, the app lets you set up a guest network, as well as create profiles for parental controls and devices (Google calls this section “Family Wi-Fi”).

The Family Wi-Fi portion lets you create labels that can include one device (such as “Keith iPhone”) or several devices (“Kids”). Once created, you can then pause Internet activity for those labels – even if you only create a group, you can still pause individual devices. You can also add an end time to the “pause”, giving a time limit for when the pause will end. This includes one hour, two hours, four hours, “Until morning”, or you can choose a custom time. This is a nice touch, as you might forget that you’ve paused the Internet, and don’t want to deal with the request “Why doesn’t the Internet work?” you get later.

Unfortunately, that's all you get to do in terms of parental controls. There's no whitelisting/blacklisting, or the ability to monitor/block specific apps or websites. There's no ability to schedule Internet on/off access either - it feels like this could be easily implemented in future app updates for Google (if anyone knows the Internet sites your kids are using, it's Google).

Google Wifi also lets you select one device to be the “priority device” – once you choose a device (a phone, laptop, gaming console), the system tells the other points to prioritize traffic to that device for the next hour. Other devices can still connect to the Wi-Fi network, but your prioritized device gets to enjoy better performance – like the FastPass at Disney World. It’s an interesting way to provide QoS capabilities – via a time limit – other systems I’ve seen let you implement a permanent priority status, which can be problematic when the device doesn’t utilize the network, it eats up the bandwidth that could be used for other devices.

Speed tests

The goal of the wireless mesh is meant for “whole-home coverage”, giving Wi-Fi access to spots in your home where a traditional Wi-Fi router might not have reached before (or required the purchase of a repeater or range extender). However, this does not mean that your overall speeds will improve (compared with newer, faster Wi-Fi devices like MU-MIMO routers)

The Google Wifi points are AC1200 2x2 Wave 2 Wi-Fi, which offer less theoretical data transfer rates than AC1900 or AC3200-branded products. The system includes simultaneous dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), supporting clients with 802.11a/b/g/n and ac.

Because Google doesn’t let you create a separate 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz network, I couldn’t do separate speed tests based on the frequency I was utilizing. The Network Assist technology within Google Wifi gets to “make the best decision” about speed. For example, if it detects a lot of traffic on the 5GHz segment, it can auto-switch to the 2.4GHz section for each connection. For my tests, I assumed the traffic would travel over the 5 GHz frequency band, as there was no other client connected to the network, and no other traffic on my second segment (to reduce frequency interference, which Google would bypass anyway through its dynamic channel switching feature).

I ran three tests from three different locations in the Cool Tools Testing House – one next to the router, one in a second room about halfway through the house, and a third on the other end of the house. In each case, I was close to a Google point in the mesh, and I reconnected each time (turned off the Wi-Fi on the laptop, then reconnected), to be sure I was connected (in theory) to the closest node/point.

google wifi speed tests Network World

As expected, throughput decreased the further away I was from the main router / storage device. Even though you might be close to a point initially, you’re still at the mercy of a longer wireless trip somewhere along the path.

Other features

The app provides some network visibility – it provides a nice map of the devices connected, and also how much bandwidth each device is using. Another cool feature is that the app will display your Wi-Fi network password, in case you forget it or use one of those letter-number-symbol long passwords.

You can also designate other users as “Managers” to the network, which means they can help manage the system in case you’re out of reach. Smart home options let you manage third-party devices (such as the Philips Hue light bulbs) if you have them. If you own a Google Home device, you can use the voice control systems to do things with the network, such as pausing the Internet. I didn’t have a Google Home device to test this feature in time for this review, but hope to have one soon.

Google says that it can also update the firmware on the devices automatically (usually overnight), but during my three days with the device I didn’t receive any new updates. Once the product starts shipping to more customers, I’m expecting to receive more firmware updates.

There's not much here for gearheads - at least one page on the app lets you adjust some "advanced features" such as DNS, static IP addressing, DHCP IP reservations and port forwarding, but that's about it. You can't access the system via browser - when you do (if you know the IP address of the WiFi point connected to the modem, for example), you get a Google web page that tells you to download the app.

Bottom line: Google has provided a solid entry into the wireless mesh space for consumers looking to easily create a new wireless network within their homes, or to provide whole-home coverage in areas where older routers didn’t reach. People looking for multi-device, high-performance routers should look for other products (within the MU-MIMO space).

Grade: 4 stars (out of five)

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