More and more, we rely upon high quality, mobile connection to the Internet. Outside our homes and businesses, cellular service usually provides this link. However, data transfer over cellular can prove spotty and pricey! Therefore, many of us favor WiFi in our homes. But here again, we face challenges as modems and routers often find themselves in unfortunate, non-central locations. Consequently, even at home, wireless data may prove inconsistent. For these reasons, many of us seek to extend the WiFi signal in our homes — easily.
Who We Are — and Why We Care About WiFi
Emporia Energy has emerged as a leading provider of technology for residential energy monitoring. Because its flagship Vue platform relies upon reliable data connection, Emporia clearly wishes to ensure its customers can easily extend home WiFi.
As a result, we have kept our eyes open for appropriate products related to improving WiFi service throughout homes. And we mean throughout, since our customers have electrical panels located in garages, basements, and even out-buildings! However, we have had difficulty finding a product or set of products meeting our criteria for value, ease, and flexibility. Until now, that is…
Two Strategies for Improving WiFi: Mesh vs. Repeater
Products to increase WiFi coverage essentially fall into two broad categories: “repeaters” and “mesh systems.” Of these, mesh systems generally present a better option. They tend to install more easily and to work over larger areas. They further offer seamless operation for users moving about the single network.
In contrast, repeaters often require more complicated installation and tend to operate within more restricted areas. Additionally, they require setting up multiple networks, making them feel somewhat “jumpy.” However, historically, repeaters tended to be significantly less expensive than mesh networks.
In brief, recent pricing for a particular mesh system now changes the math when accounting for ease, flexibility, and risk around a new repeater. (And yes, we have experienced repeaters that failed to work!)
The Better Approach: Mesh
Overall, we feel that mesh networks provide a superior long-term solution over repeaters. Mesh systems function as a single network, which greatly eases installation. From a hardware standpoint, mesh systems comprise one router and one or more satellite units. As a result, the router and the satellite(s) are designed to operate together. In contrast, repeaters may (or may not!) link to any router, which can lead to greater complexity during setup. And finally, mesh networks provide great flexibility. Customers can simply add further satellites as necessary — but only IF necessary — should they encounter dead spots and wish to extend wireless reach.
However, in the past, mesh networks suffered from one problem: their relative expense. Whereas repeaters exist for as low as about $50, mesh networks have sold more in the range of $300. We therefore were THRILLED to learn of a new package from Netgear!
Our Recommendation: the Orbi RBK22
Netgear’s Orbi RBK22 sells for about the price of a router and repeater. Therefore, it represents an obvious choice for consumers already grappling with an outdated router. However, we think that the improved performance, flexibility, and installation will push many others to adopt this method to extend WiFi easily.
The Orbi system comes with a router and one satellite unit. As indicated earlier, it is always possible to purchase additional satellite units (i.e., an Orbi RBS20). However, our experience suggests this will prove necessary only on rare occasions. The RBK22 is designed to provide excellent WiFi service over 4,000 square feet. Clearly, this area corresponds to most homes — as well as their outdoor spaces. And we have no reason to question what Orbi claims!
Most people will install the Orbi mesh system using a wireless connection between the base router and the single satellite included in the RBK22 package. The instructions are easy to follow and integrate well with the Orbi app. Installation by this method will generally take less than 20 minutes. During installation, both the app and hardware provide feedback regarding signal strength as received by the satellite. Most often, a blue light indicates a strong connection between the two pieces of hardware. In these cases, the user simply moves on to stable, seamless use.
A Special Case
However, one of our installations required placing the satellite nearly 80 feet away from the router. Worse, the home’s thick stone walls were unavoidably located between the two units. In this case, we experienced an amber light, meaning signal strength was not “optimal.” As users, we still saw decent WiFi coverage. Nonetheless, as installers, we naturally preferred achieving the “warm and fuzzy” satisfaction of the blue light!
A natural option would have been to purchase a second satellite to place between the two units. However, wishing to avoid the added expense of a third piece of hardware, we implemented another option. Simply put, we ran an Ethernet cable through the home’s unfinished basement and thereby achieved a wired connection. Although this solution did not prove overly difficult, it did require about one extra hour with Netgear phone support. This communication was necessary to achieve the correct settings for the Orbi equipment. Nevertheless, the system has since operated uninterrupted and to blue-light satisfaction for months!
Beyond Mobile Devices
With several systems now installed, Emporia feels confident in recommending the Orbi RBK22 to its customers and others. We believe you will find this product well designed to extend WiFi easily for use by mobile devices. Of course, this will make you highly popular with your teenagers and their guests in your home!
However, beyond popularity, you will also achieve new-found flexibility around other connected devices. Many of these products, such as monitors, thermostats, LEDs, and power strips are available in the Emporia store. Together, they speak to home protection, security, and energy efficiency. Combined with your new-found ability to extend WiFi easily, you move that much closer to achieving the benefits of a connected home.