Whole home wi-fi solutions are all the rage nowadays, and every major network gear provider has skin in the game—and so does Google. Even Apple’s Airport and AirPort Extreme products offer similar functionality, and the price point doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal as it used to be.
What’s more interesting, though, is that our houses aren’t really getting bigger. I mean, per capita, average square footage doesn’t seem to have increased at the margin that the need for whole home wi-fi solutions indicate they may have. What has changed, though, is the need to always be connected regardless of where in your house (or your yard) you happen to be.
We all have dead zones in our homes—the places where wireless (and sometimes cellular) signal just doesn’t make it—so whether you’re binging Netflix with your head at the foot of the bed, or are tragically forced to read an actual book on the toilet instead of checking your Facebook feed, whole home wi-fi systems aim to remedy the worst of our technologically demanding woes.
Whole home wi-fi typically comes in one of two flavors. The first (newest) way is with a two, three or four-pack of devices all similarly shaped and sized, and designed to be aesthetically pleasing. They are usually functional as fully wireless with the exception of the primary hub, which connects to your modem. The big players like Netgear, Linksys, Google, Samsung, along with the lesser known brands Luma, eero, Amped, and plenty more—all offer solutions anywhere from $250 – $400 depending on the device count and performance.
The second flavor of whole home wi-fi is more traditional in some sense, in that it closely resembles what old school networking guys would consider a full solution: some sort of primary routing device, and either wired or wireless access points that extend the signal of the hub. Functionally, they don’t much perform differently from the newer form factors, but they do have a much larger hub (with external antennas) and usually smaller access point/range extenders; additionally the main hub has an accompanying built-in network switch. And these, too, can range from $250 – $400 (or more) depending on the coverage need.
The D-Link Covr system is of the second flavor, with a fabulous 6-antenna hub and a smaller extender that works via wire or wireless. And, it retails at $300, pricing it somewhat competitively with the other players in the market. The unboxing experience was adequate, not tremendous, but not any worse than expected; I don’t think of this “second flavor” of whole home wi-fi as elegant in the way that the newer (fancier-looking) form factor is—so I didn’t expect it to be anything more than what it was.
The provided quick start guide was simply written, easy to understand, and got me started in no time with device configuration. For reference, this new system would replace my current system, a modular one, composed of a Linksys EA9500 Router with a MaxStream RE7000 range extender; which were set up in a matter of minutes by my two kids who were at the time both under the age of 8. It performed flawlessly in two different houses for us for nearly a year and a half—so the bar for this newer system was set pretty high.
Perhaps I’m missing out—but the excitement of a new router can be immediately quelled by using a smartphone to set it up. I love to tinker with router settings, so for me, the thrill of connecting physically to a router with my laptop and browsing to an IP address, using some generic login credentials—it makes me feel like I’m hacking a mainframe (whatever that means). The only problem is, many laptops you buy now come without ethernet ports, and both my Dell and Apple laptops left me high and dry in that category. But, as they say, wireless is the new wired, so I pressed on.
From there it was in some ways similar to setting up a Chromecast (if you’ve done that)—browse on your device to a temporary wireless connection and follow the wizard. And that’s where things started to go south. I understand that most of the population isn’t going to get the enjoyment from tinkering with router configurations the way I am, so I understand the need for a wizard. What I don’t understand is a wizard that takes a long time…especially when the same configurations from a command-line perspective typically execute very quickly. Nonetheless, after powering on the router, waiting for it to recognize the range extender, connecting it to my home internet, and waiting….for far too long…I was forced to reset the router and start again. Fortunately, the second attempt was successful (albeit still a bit longer than I like), and the initial setup was complete. Pick and SSID and password, set the admin password for the router, and move on.
Next on the agenda was placing the range extender, for which the router’s software wizard was not particularly helpful; essentially I had to pick a spot, plug in the extender, and hope that all 5 LED’s lit up green. Fortunately, the positioning of my previous extender and the new one were the same—so not a ton of trial and error required.
And it just works. For a week now, no blips, no issues, everything is running great…but this is no different from what I had before…a system that just works.
There is essentially one question that really drives the need to purchase whole home wi-fi. First: do I currently have any dead spots or slow spots that my current home wireless doesn’t reach? If so, it’s definitely time to start shopping. If you’re an apartment dweller or have a small home, then a mid-range wireless router is going to do just fine for you. Personally, I’d rather buy my own router and modem and avoid paying the internet provider any monthly fees for refurbished equipment, but if you don’t want the liability of possibly replacing it and just want a monthly bill, stick with what your provider gives you.
But—if you do need a little more coverage, now you need to entertain whether you’ll get one of the new, fancy wireless solutions like Google Wi-FI or Netgear Orbi—or do you want to have a more traditional looking router and range extender solution? Certainly some of it is personal preference, but probably more than anything else, it depends most on how many wired devices you need to connect to your router. And this is where things get tricky.
Smart home hubs, network attached hard drives, ethernet-enabled televisions and game systems that are currently attached to your router, or that you will someday want to attach to your router, need to be considered. If you need just one or two spare ports, then the fancy-looking solutions probably aren’t going to cut it, as many of them don’t have network switches incorporated into the hubs. If you’re in this camp (like me), sadly (like me), you have to go a little more traditional.
But, what’s nice—you get some more functionality here, provided you can tolerate the longer wizards, with the network switch and probably additional management options as well. At the end of the day though, it was relatively easy to install, provides the service and functionality that I need, and is priced well against competitors. In that sense, it’s hard not to recommend.