(Pocket-lint) - There's been a step change in handling Wi-Fi recently. Having attempted to deal with Wi-Fi problems from the router, and with various third-party extenders to spread that into places that Wi-Fi otherwise doesn't reach, the rise of the mesh network solution has brought with it welcome relief for those suffering with poor Wi-Fi.
Names likes Netgear Orbi or Google Wifi are becoming more familiar, but BT heads straight down the line of no complexity, calling it BT Whole Home Wi-Fi. Unsurprisingly, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
We've been living with the mesh network for five months to see how well it works.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi review: Design
- 3x Whole Home Wi-Fi discs in the box
- Each measure 165mm diameter
- White finish with chrome stand
BT has a sense of cohesion to much of its hardware - and we've enjoyed some of the recent designs of even boring devices, like its routers and set-top boxes. BT's theme is based around LED colour and making things simple - and that goes for the Whole Home Wi-Fi as much as it does for the Smart Hub or BT YouView box. In that sense, if you're a BT user, you pretty much know what you're doing as soon as you lift the Whole Home Wi-Fi from its sizeable box.
There are three discs contained within and these create the new network in your home. Each disc is finished in white, measures about 17cm in diameter, and sits on an individual chrome stand. It's a fairly simple but modern design and certainly better-looking than a router littered with several thousand protruding antenna. We'd say that Google Wifi's solution is slightly less obtrusive, however, with its more compact design.
We mentioned LEDs before and that's because the base of the Whole Home Wi-Fi discs will emit a soft blue glow when everything is working as it should - just like the Home Hub and BT TV boxes - which means, at a glance, you can see what it's doing.
Around the back of each disc you'll find an Ethernet port, sat next to the power cable connection, a WPS button, power button and the slide-out network information card (again, just like BT's routers). That's about it: it's simple.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi review: Simple setup
- Ethernet cable supplied
- Setup takes about 10 minutes
Setup of Whole Home Wi-Fi is very straightforward. This has consumers in mind, so there's no need to worry about having any technical knowledge. You simply take the discs from the box, connect the power supplies and connect one of the discs to an Ethernet port on the back of your router (the cable is provided in the box).
The Whole Home disc connected to the router then becomes the new base station for the other discs in the network, and they then connect to that disc wirelessly. All you then have to do is position those second and third discs elsewhere in your home. Effectively, you're spreading the range of your Wi-Fi network using the discs, so you're no longer dependent on everything connecting to the router directly.
Essentially, that's what a mesh network does: it provides more points of contact so that devices aren't reliant on range to the main base station, therefore allowing a stronger connection across a wider range.
Isn't this the same as having a Wi-Fi extender? In essence yes, but the clever part about this new world of Wi-Fi enhancers is that it automatically manages the network and it all has the same SSID - or network name - so that your Wi-Fi devices (like your phone) can connect to any of the Whole Home Wi-Fi discs seamlessly, without needing to manually re-connect. BT calls this Wi-Fi roaming. You needn't call it anything, as you'll not have to worry about anything.
With other point-to-point extenders, you'd be connecting to a different secondary network, or would have to use powerline adapters to move the Wi-Fi to a different location through your mains wiring.
Once the Whole Home Wi-Fi is setup physically, it will create a new wireless network in your house - in addition to the original Wi-Fi you had for your router. BT's advice here is to then switch all your devices to the new Whole Home network (using the details on the network information card on the back of the discs), but it's worth thinking about how you do this to save yourself some effort.
Your old Wi-Fi network is effectively redundant once you have the more powerful Whole Home Wi-Fi network, so you might as well switch it off on the router (pretty easy through your router admin settings) and rename your Whole Home Wi-Fi network so it's the same name as your old network and with the same password. That means you don't have to reconnect every device, as they will just think they are connecting to your old network. That's part of the fun of Whole Home Wi-Fi: once connected, those devices will connect to any of the discs using the same credentials and everyone gets good Wi-Fi.
There's another hidden secret that BT doesn't mention: you can physically connect to the discs too. As each has an Ethernet port, but only one connects to the router, you can use that connection to hardwire something else, perhaps a device without Wi-Fi. We connected our MacBook Pro and found it worked perfectly. Lifehacks for the win.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi review: Using the app
- Android or iOS app
- Check location of discs
- Can pause Wi-Fi with an on-screen tap
- See what is connected where
An important part of the process is using the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi app. This will guide you through setup, help you locate the discs around your house in optimal locations, as well as see what is connected and change a range of settings.
Location is key to success with these types of devices. There's no point in having three discs in the same place, as you're aiming to spread them around the house to spread the Wi-Fi with them. The app will let you know how well connected each disc is, so if a disc is slightly too far from another device, it will say you should relocate it.
We've tried two configurations. The first was to spread Wi-Fi into the garden, so was a linear daisy-chain arrangement, which meant we had Wi-Fi coverage some distance from the house in the rear garden, thanks to putting a Whole Home Wi-Fi disc in a shed.
On the whole, however, there was very little need for a connection in the garden, so we switched to a different configuration to accommodate the loft conversion. The great thing about having three discs in the box is that you have flexibility and taking a disc upstairs meant a more reliable connection throughout the house, so that loft room Chromecast then had a solid connection so we could stream Netflix on the TV up there.
The app will also allow you pause your Wi-Fi network. If the kids are driving you crazy, you're only a few taps away from shutting off the internet, the very definition of power in a modern household. It's the new naughty step.
Finally, the app also lets you manage things like firmware for easy updates and the network ID and password as we mentioned. It's also where you would add more discs: if you need more than three to cover your home, then you can buy extras direct from BT at £80 each.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi review: Performance
- Wi-Fi AC2533, 1733 + 800Mbps
- Dual-band concurrent Wi-Fi
- 4x 2.4GHz antenna
- 4x 5Ghz antenna
- Dual-core CPU
- 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet port
Wi-Fi performance depends on a number of factors and systems like Whole Home Wi-Fi need to be in contact with each other to provide the mesh network. If you live in a castle with 4ft thick walls, this might not be the solution for you, but for those living in a typical house, it's an excellent way to deal with Wi-Fi dead spots.
We tested it in a typical 1930s semi-detached home and the noticeable difference is that Wi-Fi is more reliable and faster across all areas of the house, rather than having a bias toward those in closer proximity to the router. Testing this out into the garden proved the point that we could extend Wi-Fi into areas where it didn't reach previously.
Streaming Netflix via Chromecast on the third floor of our home demonstrated exactly what Whole Home Wi-Fi is about. Before moving a Whole Home Wi-Fi disc onto the second floor, our loft-based Chromecast was not reliable, frequently dropping off the network or failing to pick up the streams as directed. Whole Home Wi-Fi solved this problem.
Having used BT Whole Home Wi-Fi for a number of months, we've also discovered what goes wrong with it. Fortunately that's very little. Networks, especially wireless networks, can be fickle beasts, but we've found the Whole Home Wi-Fi has generally been very good in maintaining connection. We've had two crashes during that time, where the base disc (the one connected to the router) has crashed, at which point everything stops working. This might not be your router or ISP that's at fault, it could just be that you need to restart that disc.
BT Whole Home Wi-Fi joins a growing selection of options in the Wi-Fi space, with a growing number of big-name brands. BT is obviously a known brand in the UK, although there's no need to be a BT customer to use it, unless you can benefit from any deals or discounts.
While we're talking about discounts, BT Whole Home Wi-Fi launched at £300, but is now only £200. That price correction makes BT Whole Home Wi-Fi competitive: Google Wi-Fi is £129 for one unit or £229 for two, making £199 for BT's three a good deal.
Overall, it's difficult not to be pleased with the performance of BT Whole Home Wi-Fi as it simply solves the problem of weak Wi-Fi patches in the home. As we all have more connected devices and rely on more and more internet services, good Wi-Fi is becoming worth its weight in gold. And BT Whole Home Wi-Fi gets a gold star.
Alternatives to consider...
Google offers an alternative in the form of Google Wifi. For this you'll need a Google account, which some might see as a benefit or a drawback. It works in a similar way to BT Whole Home Wi-Fi and delivers great performance, although it is more expensive, meaning the initial outlay for Google's alternative will be more cash for fewer units.