(Pocket-lint) - If want a broad, resillient home Wi-Fi network then in 2017 it's all about the mesh network. While mesh has undoubtedly become more prominent thanks to Google Wifi, there are plenty of alternatives out there
The AmpliFi HD system comes with a slightly different approach to Google's attractive but pricey option: it promises market-leading performance and netowrk range, with mesh units designed not to take up any precious shelf space, or leave you with cables lying around.
AmpliFi HD: A 'Cindarella' design
- Round touchscreen LCD
- Mesh points plug directly into wall
- 4 Gigabit ethernet ports
While there are several combinations of devices you can purchase, we tested the standard Mesh Wi-Fi system package - which comes with one main router and two mesh points/antennas.
In some ways, the design story is something of a Jekyll and Hyde tale. Or, maybe more Cinderella. One part of the threesome is attractive, does most of the work and has a shining slipper, the other two are the "ugly sisters".
The main router unit is an attractive white square cube that's made of plastic. It's stylish and - thanks to its round colour touchscreen display on the front - can double-up as a small digital clock.
Of course, that screen can do more than tell the time. Tapping it repeatedly cycles through the display modes, which include the option to see your download and upload speeds in real-time, and see the status of the ports on the back.
Underneath the unit, the transparent base glows white when it's switched on. Not in a "hey look at me, I'm so shiny" kind of way, but more in an understated "just letting you know I'm on, and working" subtle kind of way. If you don't like it, you can switch it off or change the brightness level.
The back is where you'll find the generous array of ports. There are a total of four Gigabit Ethernet inputs which - in addition to the ones you'll already have on your ISP router - provides a lot of flexibility. There's also a USB port, which you could use for adding an external hard-drive, as well as the necessary Ethernet output for connecting to your main router/modem.
The mesh points/towers aren't as subtle and attractive as the router, sadly. Instead, they essentially look like the mini antennas that they are.
These are made up of two parts: the wall adapter, and the antenna, which connect to each other using really strong magnets built into a ball-and-socket joint. Unlike most other mesh network solutions, they plug directly into a wall socket, which could be the best (or simultaneously worst) method of powering a mesh unit.
It could be best, because the lack of any cable, means that plugging it in keeps it out of the way, and doesn't take up any shelf space. It could be the worst, however, because you might not have wall outlets in prime positions.
In our testing, we had both good and bad experiences. The first unit was plugged in towards the back of the house, in the utility room, at around elbow-height, pointing in the direction of the main router unit.
The second unit was a different story: it needed to be at the other end of the house, where the bedroom sockets were much closer to the floor. What's more, they were facing away from the main unit. Which is an issue, since these antennas are very directional. If you're not pointing them right towards the main unit, the connection between mesh point and router isn't as good, and noticeably affects the performance and speed. Thankfully, the use of a magnetic ball-and-socket joint means you can turn the antenna somewhat to face it in the right direction.
In the end, our (admittedly slightly cumbersome) solution was to plug it into the multi-socket extension that was connected to the single plug socket on the opposite wall.
Perhaps the only other negative of the design is that - while the router has four Ethernet ports - the antennas have none. So, sadly, you can't connect to the antennas using a cable.
Features and setup process
- Remote log-in
- Pre-paired mesh points
- Family down-time
One of the great things about the AmpliFi HD mesh system is how easy it is to setup. By default, the two mesh antennas that ship in the set are already paired to the main router.
That means all you have to do is plug in the router and set that up using the mobile app. Here you can set the name and password of the network, then just plug in the mesh antennas where you want them, and make sure they're angled to face in the direction of the router.
These will then automatically connect to the router and give you your one single and expansive network. When powered up and paired, the antennas have a series of green LEDs on the front which light up to let you know how strong the connection is between that unit and the router. If it's too weak you can try angling the antenna to ensure it's facing the right direction, or just move to a wall outlet that's closer to where the router unit is situated.
Once setup, the app gives you access to a host of features that are extremely useful. The main home screen gives you an overview that shows the status of your router and mesh points, and shows you what the connection is like between them. It also shows you how many devices are currently connected to the network and a real-time download/upload speed counter.
You can tap on the image for each of the units to access settings for that particular piece of hardware. So if you want to change what time the screen on the router switches off, you can do that, or choose to have the LEDs on the antennas switched off. You can also choose to do things like reboot the mesh point, or adjust the brightness of the screen and/or LED strip on the router, or update the firmware.
The AmpliFi app also allows you to enable other useful features, like manually performing a speed test or enabling a guest network. Perhaps more importantly for parents who want to manage family downtime, you can create family profiles by grouping together specific devices and then scheduling downtime, so that they can't access the internet at certain times of the day. You can even enable remote log-in, letting you control and manage the network from anywhere you can get an internet connection.
What's the performance like?
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- 6 radios
- Up to 1,750Mbps supported
Once setup and with the antennas in the right places the overall performance and reliability of the AmpliFi HD system is fantastic. Perhaps the key thing here is that, because you get two antennas in the standard mesh kit, as well as the router, the range is really quite vast.
We were able to fill an entire fairly large bungalow with just the three units in the kit by placing the two antennas on either side of the house and the router unit in the middle.
Testing range made it clear this was a more powerful system than Google Wifi. As an example, our Ring Video Doorbell outside the front door would warn us that network connection was weak with Google Wifi, but never had the same issue with the AmpliFi HD mesh system, despite placing the router and antenna points in the same positions.
Speed tests revealed that performance is strong wherever we are in our home, with downloads approaching our network's possible maximum most times.
On the whole, the AmplifiHD is among the best mesh network systems around. Its range is superb, while its performance is steady, reliable and fast.
If there's any improvement needed, it's the design of the antennas. Placed in the wrong place, facing a non-optimum direction will affect the speed and performance. The upside here is that you can adjust them to face the best way, so this is more of a minor inconvenience.
Alternatives to consider
We've been impressed by Google's offering, particularly in the way that the company has managed to create a reliable, fast whole home system that doesn't look like your usual crude networking hardware. While it's more expensive, the design is far more understated than most others and works really well. What's more, each unit has its own ethernet port.
Read the full article: Google Wifi review
BT Whole Home WiFi
If you're a BT customer it might make sense to go with the British ISP's own offering, what's more, it's very affordable in comparison to both the Google Wifi system and Amplifi HD. For £200 you get three discs to offer whole home coverage for less than it costs for a two unit Google Wifi system.
Read the full article: BT Whole Home Wi-Fi review