Best mesh routers for 2021 – CNET

Whether you’re working from home, streaming or gaming, having a dependable home Wi-Fi network is essential. But what if your router falls well short of covering your entire home with a fast, reliable wireless connection? That can be an issue if you’re living in a multistory home and trying to stream upstairs, or working out of a back office that’s several rooms away from where your router sits. Fortunately, you can decimate dead zones like those and spread a fast and reliable Wi-Fi signal throughout your entire home by using a mesh system that pairs a router with range-extending satellite devices. A mesh system augments your traditional router and ensures that using more than one connected device at a time won’t slow down your connection — this is especially important if you rely on a smart home device or three. 

With hardware like that spread strategically throughout your home, a good mesh network setup will automatically “route” your connection as you move through the place, steering you between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands within a single, unified Wi-Fi network. It’ll also decide when to route your connection through a satellite mesh point and when to send your connection straight to the main router. That’s better than what you’ll get from a simple range extender and it makes for a close-to-seamless home network, with more consistent internet speed in each room.

The rub is that mesh Wi-Fi systems are much more expensive than range extenders and typically more expensive than traditional, stand-alone routers, too. Further, you may need more than one mesh point or mesh node to create the ideal mesh networking conditions. That said, we’ve also seen lots of new mesh competition hitting the market in recent years and that’s driven prices down significantly. Though we’d recommend aiming a bit higher, you can even find basic, entry-level mesh systems for as little as $20 per device.

Some of the best mesh Wi-Fi models include systems from Eero, which popularized mesh networking before being bought by Amazon in 2019, as well as the latest setups from Netgear Orbi and Google Nest. Mesh systems like those regularly sold for as much as $400 or even $500 a few years ago, but now all of these manufacturers and others offer multipoint mesh router systems — including the main router and the satellite devices, or nodes — that cost less than $300, if not less than $200.

We’ve still got lots of routers and mesh systems we’d like to try out — including a growing number that use Wi-Fi 6 technology promising better performance and faster speeds. More mesh routers that support Wi-Fi 6E, which means they can access a newly unlocked mass of bandwidth in the 6GHz band, should be arriving in the coming months, too.

Expect regular updates to this post as new Wi-Fi mesh routers like those make it to market. For now, here are the top mesh routers we’d recommend right now for anyone ready to make the upgrade.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Several years ago, Google Wifi became a breakout hit thanks to its easy setup and its ability to spread a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection throughout your home for all of your connected devices. Now, there’s the Nest Wifi, a second-gen follow-up that adds in faster internet speed and a better-looking design, plus Google Assistant smart speakers built into each range extender. The price is a little lower this time around, too — $269 for the two-piece setup above, with roughly the same area of Wi-Fi coverage as a three-piece, $300 Google Wifi setup from years back.

On average, the Nest Wifi notched the fastest top speeds that we saw from any Wi-Fi 5 mesh router (and faster speeds than the newest Linksys Velop system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 and costs more than twice as much). Plus, the two-piece setup offered enough signal strength to provide sufficient coverage at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home. It also aced our mesh tests, never once dropping my connection as I moved about my home running speed tests, and I never caught it routing my connection through the extender when connecting directly to the router was faster, either.

The lack of Wi-Fi 6 support might seem like a missed opportunity, but the Nest Wifi does include support for modern features like WPA3 security, device grouping and prioritization and 4×4 MU-MIMO connections that offer faster aggregate speeds for devices like the MacBook Pro that can use multiple Wi-Fi antennas at once. It’s also fully backward-compatible with previous-gen Google Wifi setups, which is a smart touch. All of it is easy to set up, easy to use and easy to rely on, making it the most well-rounded mesh router pick of the bunch, and the first one I’d recommend to just about anyone looking to upgrade a home network.

It was a little surprising that we didn’t see a Wi-Fi 6 version of Nest Wifi in 2020 or 2021, but that might have been a savvy move on Google’s part — a mesh router will get the most out of Wi-Fi 6 if it adds in a second 5GHz band for dedicated traffic between the router and its satellites, and tri-band designs like that get expensive fast. Among dual-band mesh routers, I’d much rather have a top-of-the-line Wi-Fi 5 system than an entry-level Wi-Fi 6 system. Even among new competition, the Nest Wifi fits that bill.

Read our Nest Wifi review.

 

Amazon

Eero was an early pioneer of the mesh networking approach, and in 2019, it got scooped up by Amazon. Then, in 2020, we got two new versions of the Eero mesh router: the Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6, both of which add in support for — you guessed it — Wi-Fi 6.

Each system is priced at a value, netting you a three-piece setup with two range-extending satellites for about as much as some competitors charge for a two-piece setup. That’s great if you live in a large home and you need your Wi-Fi network to cover a lot of ground — the additional mesh Wi-Fi network extender will make a big, noticeable difference in your speeds when you’re connecting at range.

But between the two of them, I strongly prefer the Eero Pro 6, which costs $599 for a three-pack. Unlike the regular Eero 6, which disappointed in my tests with poor band-steering, the Eero Pro 6 setup I tested worked like a charm, spreading fast, reliable speeds across my entire home. Plus, it features a tri-band design with two 5GHz bands, which is key for optimal mesh performance. It’s also a great pick for Alexa users thanks to a built-in Zigbee radio that lets you pair things like smart locks and smart lights with your voice assistant without needing any extra hub hardware.

$599 isn’t inexpensive by any stretch, but it’s about as good a price as you’ll find for a three-piece, tri-band mesh router with full support for Wi-Fi 6. That makes it a worthy and sensible upgrade for large homes.

Read our Eero Pro 6 review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At a retail price of $700 for a two-pack, the newest, brawniest version of the Netgear Orbi is too expensive to recommend outright — but if you just want the fastest mesh router money can buy, look no further.

With full support for Wi-Fi 6 and a second 5GHz band that serves as a dedicated backhaul connection for the router and its satellites, the powerful system was downright impressive in our tests, with top speeds of nearly 900Mbps at close range in our lab. That’s one of the fastest numbers we’ve ever seen from a mesh router in that test, and it only fell to 666Mbps at a distance of 75 feet — which is still faster than we saw from the Nest Wifi up close, just 5 feet away.

Things got even more impressive when we took the Orbi AX6000 home to test its performance in a real-world setting. With an incoming internet connection of 300Mbps serving as a speed limit, the system returned an average speed throughout the whole home of 289Mbps, including speeds at the farthest point from the router that were 95% as fast as when connecting up close. That’s an outstanding result — no other mesh router I’ve tested in my home comes close.

Again, the problem is the price: $700 is simply too expensive for most folks, especially given that you’ll need a connection of at least 500Mbps in order to notice much of a difference between this system and others we like that cost less than half as much.

There’s also the less expensive AX4200 version of the Orbi mesh system that costs $350. It’s still a tri-band Wi-Fi router that supports Wi-Fi 6, but you don’t get the multigig WAN port that comes with the AX6000 model here. We’ll keep an eye on that one and update this space once we’ve tested it out.

Read our Netgear Orbi AX6000 review.

 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It isn’t quite as fast as the Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi listed above, but the Editors’ Choice Award-winning Asus ZenWiFi AX came awfully close — and at $435 for a two-piece system, it’s a lot easier to afford.

In fact, the ZenWiFi AX offers the same multigig WAN ports as the Orbi 6, the same dedicated backhaul band to help keep the system transmissions separate from your network traffic, the same ease of setup and steady mesh performance and the same strong performance at range. It even comes in your choice of white or black.

I also appreciated the depth of control in the Asus app, which lets you manage your network and customize that backhaul as you see fit. If $435 is a bit too much for your budget, know that there’s a smaller version of this system called the Asus ZenWiFi AX Mini. It isn’t as high-powered, but it comes with three devices that all support Wi-Fi 6 for $250, which makes it pretty interesting.

Read our Asus ZenWiFi AX review.

 

Ry Crist/CNET

I did a double take the first time I saw the price tag for the slimmed down, dual-band version of the Netgear Orbi mesh router system. Currently available at just $125 for a three-pack, it’s a clear value pick — and a dramatic turnaround from the original Netgear Orbi, which was way too expensive at $400 for a two-pack.

Netgear brought the cost down by sticking with Wi-Fi 5, ditching the built-in Alexa speaker that comes with the Orbi Voice and skipping the tri-band approach and the dedicated 5GHz backhaul band that other Orbi systems use to connect each device in the mesh. I wonder if Netgear missed an opportunity by not branding this system as “Orbi Lite.”

It all makes for a less robust mesh system than other Orbi setups, but I hardly noticed in my tests. Among the Wi-Fi 5 systems I’ve tested, the dual-band Netgear Orbi actually notched the fastest top speeds at close range, it kept up with the Nest and Eero in our real-world speed tests and it offered excellent signal strength in the large CNET Smart Home.

Netgear’s app isn’t as clean or intuitive as Nest’s or Eero’s, and the network didn’t seem quite as steady as those two as it steered me from band to band in my tests, but those are quibbles at this price. If you just want something affordable — perhaps to tide you over until you’re ready to make the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 — then the new Netgear Orbi definitely deserves your consideration.

Read our Netgear Orbi AC1200 review.

 

This graph shows the top speeds of a single router from each system we’ve tested in our lab, no extenders. The Eero Pro 6 was the only one to notch a top speed higher than 1,000Mbps (1Gbps), with Wi-Fi 6 systems from AmpliFi, Arris, Netgear and Asus close behind. Meanwhile, the Nest Wifi router had the fastest average download speeds of the Wi-Fi 5 systems we tested. 


Ry Crist/CNET

Top speeds

As I said, we’ve already run a good number of speed tests with these systems. When we clocked the top wireless transfer speeds for a single Wi-Fi router from each system, it was the Eero Pro 6 that led the way with a close-range top speed of 1,008Mbps. That makes it the only mesh router we’ve tested that was able to top out above gigabit speeds in this test. Meanwhile, the AmpliFi Alien, the Arris Surfboard Max, the Netgear Orbi 6, the Netgear Nighthawk and the Asus RT-AX92U performed well, too, each with top speeds comfortably north of 800Mbps at close range. No surprise there, as those all support Wi-Fi 6, the fastest version of Wi-Fi yet.

Behind those came the Nest Wifi, which holds the top spot in this test among Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers. The budget-friendly, AC1200 version of the Netgear Orbi impressed us, too — it was even faster than the Nest at close range.

Just know that these top speed tests take place in our lab. We wire each router to a MacBook Pro that acts as a local server, then download data from it to another laptop on the router’s Wi-Fi network. That lets us see how fast each router can move data without the variables and limitations that come with downloading data from the cloud via your internet service.

With the exception of Eero 6, the Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I tested in my home were each able to perform noticeably better than previous-gen systems at range (the master bedroom and back bathroom). Even if your home uses Wi-Fi 5 gadgets like mine does, your network will still benefit from that Wi-Fi 6 connection between the router and the satellite.


Ry Crist/CNET

Real-world speeds

Top speed tests are one thing, but it’s important to also take a close look at how well these mesh routers perform when you add in the range extenders and pull data from the cloud, the way they’ll be used 99% of the time. So, I took each one home, set it up on my 300Mbps AT&T fiber network and spent quite a bit of time running speed tests in order to find out.

I ran the majority of these at-home tests using a Dell XPS 13 laptop that uses Wi-Fi 5, with separate speed tests on an iPhone 12 Pro that supports Wi-Fi 6. I’ll continue to run tests to both types of client devices in order to get a good sense of how well these routers perform with both current- and previous-gen hardware. 

You can check out my full reviews for more information on that breakdown. The short version is that newer client devices that support Wi-Fi 6 will typically be able to hit sustained speeds that are noticeably faster than what you’ll get with older, Wi-Fi 5 devices — but previous-gen devices like those can still benefit from a mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6.


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Specifically, my data shows better performance at range, with speeds that didn’t dip as much in that master bedroom and back bathroom. With the top-performing Netgear Orbi AX6000 system, speeds hardly dipped at all. Connecting my old laptop near the satellite in that master bedroom and back bathroom was almost as good as connecting near the router itself in the living room.

That likely stems from the fact that the router and the satellite are able to use Wi-Fi 6 to relay signals back and forth more efficiently and at faster speeds. The Orbi AX6000’s tri-band design does some heavy lifting here, too, as that allows the system to dedicate an entire 5GHz band to the backhaul transmissions between the router and satellite.

After running countless speed tests in multiple spots throughout my home, where I have fiber internet upload and download speeds of 300Mbps, I average the results together to get these aggregate speed ratings for each mesh router I test. Here’s the leaderboard as it currently stands.


Ry Crist/CNET

Just be aware that adding an extra band to the mix really brings the price up. The Asus models I tested each cost about $400 or so, while the Linksys Velop MX10, AmpliFi Alien, Arris Surfboard Max Pro and Netgear Orbi AX6000 systems each cost about $600 or $700 for a two-pack. Of them all, I like the Asus ZenWiFi AX the best — that one finished my performance tests in a close second behind the Netgear Orbi AX6000 and at $450, it costs about $250 less than that top-of-the-line system.

The Eero Pro 6 is another strong option with a tri-band design and full support for Wi-Fi 6. That one costs $599 for a three-pack, which is still expensive, but less than just about any other system like it charges for a three-piece setup.

I also tested the Netgear Nighthawk mesh Wi-Fi system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 but doesn’t include an extra backhaul band. That means that your network traffic has to share bandwidth with the transmissions between the router and the satellite, but it also brings the cost way down. At $230 for a two-pack, it’s pretty tempting, but the performance was too shaky for me to recommend it.

Another option is the TP-Link Deco X20 mesh router. I tested that one out at my home, but we won’t be able to test its top speeds in our lab until later this year. At $270 for a three-piece system — and with full support for Wi-Fi 6 — the Deco X20 is essentially the same thing as Amazon’s standard, non-Pro Eero 6 system, but it did a better job in my at-home tests of steering me to the right band, which raised its overall speeds.

It’s also worth remembering that your router can only pull data from the cloud as fast as your internet connection allows. With the average download speed in the US currently sitting around 100Mbps or so, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to push a Wi-Fi 6 router to its full potential anytime soon — though, like I said, you will see slightly higher speeds to client devices that support Wi-Fi 6.

If you don’t need Wi-Fi 6, there’s nothing wrong with skipping it and going with a previous-gen, Wi-Fi 5 option in order to save some money. I’ve tested a number of bargain picks like that — among them, the AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi, currently available in a three-pack for $125, is my top recommendation, with the right balance of performance and value. If you really want to get dirt cheap, you could opt for a system like Vilo, which costs just $20 per device, plus shipping. It’s the slowest mesh router I’ve ever tested, which wasn’t surprising, but it was still functional and able to maintain average download speeds above 100Mbps in that back bathroom of mine.

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A mesh router system makes the most sense in a large environment — like, say, the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Quality of coverage

Speed tests are all well and good, but a mesh router system is overkill in a 1,300-square-foot home like mine. So, for our next test, we headed to the CNET Smart Home, a four-bedroom, 5,800-square-foot house on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky. Our goal: to determine which system provided the strongest signals and Wi-Fi access across the entire place.

To do this, we mapped out the home’s upstairs and downstairs floor plans, then fed that data into NetSpot’s free software for measuring signal strength. We chose the most sensible spots for the routers and range extenders, along with dozens of specific points from which to measure each network’s signal strength, both inside the home and out.

Here’s the signal strength for each of our top three Wi-Fi 5 systems in the CNET Smart Home with a single router broadcasting the signal to a single extender, both of which are located on the main floor. Yellow is great, green is good and blue is bad. All three systems provided comparable Wi-Fi coverage here, though the Netgear system impressed us with how strong the signal stayed in the basement.


Steve Conaway/CNET

Then, we set up each router we were testing and spent a day taking measurement after measurement after measurement. What resulted was a colorful set of nifty-looking heat maps showing us just how strong the signal is from room to room.

A couple of things about those heat maps. First, to keep things fair, we measured a two-piece setup for each system — one router and one extender. We may do additional tests with two extenders in play if the system includes one, as was the case with the 2019 Eero system we used, but for these heat maps, we wanted to give you a good comparative look at how these systems perform.

Second, we placed each router and extender in the exact same spot for each test — the software approximates their location, which is why it looks like they’re in slightly different places from map to map.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating that these maps show you the aggregate signal strength of each system throughout the house and not their actual download speeds. That said, better signal strength means better wireless speeds. My partner-in-testing Steve Conaway summed it up thusly: “Yellow means you’re in heaven, green means good enough and blue means WTF.”

Here’s how the signal strength looks with the Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers we’ve tested. The AX6000 version of the Netgear Orbi was a standout here, but for the most part, things aren’t dramatically better than you’ll get with Wi-Fi 5.


Steve Conaway/CNET

The first big takeaway from our coverage tests was that the Netgear Orbi AC1200 did an impressive job of spreading a strong signal to the basement, even with both the router and the range extender located upstairs. That lines up with our speed test data, where the Netgear consistently kept up with the Nest and the Eero at range. These coverage tests suggest that in a large-enough home, the Netgear might actually outperform those two systems outright.

Those three — the Nest, the 2019 Eero and the dual-band, AC1200 version of the Netgear Orbi — are our top Wi-Fi 5 systems. But what about the Wi-Fi 6 systems we tested?

Take a look for yourself. As you can see, there isn’t a huge, across-the-board improvement in signal strength — but the AX6000, Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi was a standout, registering especially strong signal strength near the router and extender. The latter might help explain why it was able to do so well in our tests, where wireless speeds near the extender were practically as fast as if I were connecting near the router itself.

That’s a better result than I’ve seen from any other system I’ve tested and it’s a big reason why a $700 two-piece Orbi 6 system is the only pick in that high-end class of expensive tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh setups that I’m currently comfortable recommending.

All three systems provided comparable coverage in a big space like the CNET Smart Home — but Eero’s $250 starter kit adds in a third device. We placed it in the basement, where signal strength tends to be weak, and it made a big difference.


Steve Conaway/CNET

I’ve highlighted the other key takeaway in the adjacent GIF, which shows the coverage for the full, three-piece Eero setup. No huge surprise, but that three-piece setup provided noticeably better coverage than the two-piece Nest and Netgear setups, because we were able to add an additional range extender down in the basement.

Translation: If you’ve got a large home that’s 4,000 square feet or more, then you should prioritize getting a setup with more than one range extender. Even better? Check out my top overall pick for large homes, the three-piece Eero Pro 6 setup. At $599, it’s definitely more of an upgrade pick, but it nets you a fancy tri-band design with full support for Wi-Fi 6.

What about Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6E is a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices that are equipped to send transmissions in the 6GHz band, which is something routers couldn’t do until recently, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to open that band for unlicensed use. The 6GHz band offers more than twice as much bandwidth as the 5GHz band and there aren’t any older-generation Wi-Fi devices using it, so the pitch is that it’s sort of like an exclusive, multilane highway for your internet traffic.

linksys-velop-atlas-max-6e-wi-fi-mesh-router-promolinksys-velop-atlas-max-6e-wi-fi-mesh-router-promo

The newest Linksys Velop mesh router supports Wi-Fi 6E, which means it can transmit on the 6GHz band.


Linksys

There are already a handful of routers that support Wi-Fi 6E available for purchase. Among them is the Linksys Velop Atlas Max 6E mesh system, which — at $900 for a two-pack, or $1,200 for a three-pack — is one of the most expensive mesh routers you can currently buy.

Wi-Fi 6E routers like that are certainly impressive pieces of hardware, but I won’t be recommending that anybody buy one. Remember, the only devices that can connect over 6GHz are other Wi-Fi 6E devices and, aside from the Samsung Galaxy S21, there are hardly any of those on the market yet. Even if you do own a device like that, you’ll likely be better off on the 5GHz band than on 6GHz. Seriously. Both will top out at whatever max speeds you’re paying for from your internet provider, but the 6GHz band has noticeably weaker range than 5GHz.

Just take a look at my at-home test-data for that Atlas Max setup. I ran a full set of speed tests for each of the router’s three bands using a Galaxy S21, with the main router hooked up in my living room and a single extender placed in my master bedroom. The router performed well — but it’s the green 5GHz band that performed the best. The 6GHz band, shown in yellow, saw its speeds dip as I moved away from the main router. They rebounded a bit as I neared the extender, but the speeds on 5GHz were faster overall and I didn’t notice any appreciable difference between the bands in terms of latency, either.

My average download and upload speeds by room for each band with a two-piece Linksys Velop Atlas Max 6E router running my home network. The 6GHz band (yellow) offers decent speeds, but it was outperformed by the good ol’ 5GHz band (green).


Ry Crist/CNET

That weaker range also undercuts the notion that the 6GHz band will improve mesh systems by serving as the backhaul band for the router and its satellites. With less range, you won’t be able to spread those satellites out quite as much throughout your home if you’re using the 6GHz band as the backhaul. That means you might need to buy an additional satellite to cover the space — and with Wi-Fi 6E, that’s an expensive proposition.

That’s not to say that Wi-Fi 6E is a meaningless upgrade. It’s just too early to buy in. With so much available bandwidth and so much less interference from other devices, the 6GHz band might prove ideal for next-gen, high-bandwidth connections — things like wireless VR headsets, which need to move a lot of data at relatively close range with as little interference as possible. But that isn’t a good argument for buying in now, before those devices even exist and when Wi-Fi 6E costs an arm and a leg. If you’re at a crowded public venue like an airport or a stadium, a 6GHz network might be a real luxury with its relatively fast speeds, room for everyone’s traffic and fewer devices competing for bandwidth. But that’s an argument for getting a Wi-Fi 6E phone or laptop, not a Wi-Fi 6E router.

I’ll continue testing Wi-Fi 6E systems as they hit the market and I have more tests planned for the Atlas Max, too, so stay tuned. When I have more data to share on 6E, I’ll post it here, but for now, don’t rush out to spend big on a Wi-Fi 6E router, mesh or otherwise.

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