Google OnHub review
Is this the router of the future?
The lowly router is a necessary evil. It’s a device we can’t live without, but often feels like an arcane relic from an era when boxy tube monitors and dial-up modems ruled. The router is the gateway to high-speed internet in our homes, and it enables us to wirelessly connect countless gadgets — smartphones, laptops, TVs, thermostats, speakers, coffee makers, game consoles, the list goes on — to the internet. It’s only going to get more important as more and more appliances rely on Wi-Fi connectivity for modern conveniences.
As important as they are, routers are equally notorious for being unattractive, difficult to set up, unreliable, and generally unpleasant to use. Most people use the router provided to them by their internet service provider (ISP), which may have terrible wireless range and a ridiculously complex setup process. Aftermarket routers, whether it be a model from Netgear, Asus, or even Apple, can provide better coverage and wireless range, but even those aren’t the easiest things to set up or manage.
Google is attempting to flip that paradigm on its head with its new line of OnHub Wi-Fi routers. The first OnHub router is a $199 model manufactured by TP-Link to Google’s design and specifications. It's shipping this week and doesn’t look anything like a traditional router. A sleek cylinder with a matte blue or black finish, the OnHub ditches the traditional array of blinking lights for a single glowing status ring, and is something you could put anywhere in your house without much embarrassment. And the OnHub doesn’t just look good: it’s packed with powerful antennas to ensure optimal wireless coverage and throughput throughout your home. It’s all controlled with an easy-to-use app, making setup and troubleshooting much easier than with traditional routers.
With the OnHub, Google is trying to solve the three biggest pain points of routers — setup, coverage, and troubleshooting — and build a wireless portal for the future. Did it also happen to create the perfect router? After switching out my current router and using the OnHub for the past few days in my own home, I want to say that Google has come awfully close, with just a couple of downsides that may or may not matter to you.
Google is spending a lot of its marketing efforts around the OnHub talking about its design, and rightly so. The OnHub doesn’t look like any traditional router, save for perhaps Apple’s AirPort Extreme. It’s a sleek cylinder with no protruding antennas, lighting arrays, or ISP logos. All of that is for a reason: Google wants you to place the OnHub centrally in your home, which is the most ideal position for wireless coverage and range. To get most people to do that, it can’t look like something that dropped out of an alien spacecraft.
Google’s point of centrally locating the OnHub in your home is valid: if it’s the same distance from every room in the house, wireless coverage is maximized to its full potential. Walls, furniture, appliances, and all of the normal stuff people have in their homes can block Wi-Fi signals, so having fewer of those in the way makes for a better experience. But the problem with this ideal concept is that most people’s broadband modem often isn’t in the center of the home. The OnHub has to be plugged into the modem in order to access the internet, making it extremely difficult to put it in a different physical location than your modem. Fortunately, the OnHub’s powerful wireless range made this a non-issue: I put it upstairs in my home office next to my cable modem, where my prior router was located. (More on wireless coverage later.)
Setting up the OnHub in my home was painless: I plugged it in, downloaded the app to my smartphone (OnHub has apps for Android and iOS), and went through the setup process. That involves holding my phone near the router to pair it via audio signal and start the initial configuration, which is a lot easier than trying to directly connect my phone to a temporary wireless network or pair it over Bluetooth. All in all, I was up and running in less than five minutes, including naming my network and picking a password that I could easily remember.
Even after you’ve set it up, you still might actually find yourself opening the OnHub’s mobile app. It makes it incredibly easy to see what devices are connected to your network and which ones are using the most bandwidth. You can prioritize bandwidth to specific devices, so if you’re having an online gaming session or want to stream 4K content to your TV, you can allocate the most bandwidth to those tasks. Rebooting the router is also done right from the app, as is updating its firmware, which Google says happens automatically. You can also share the network’s password with a friend just by showing them a screen from the app.
It also lets you run speed tests — both from your ISP to your modem and from the OnHub to your wireless devices — making it easy to identify where a bottleneck might be occurring. The app even tells you what your speed enables you to do: whether that’s stream ultra HD 4K content or something less bandwidth-intensive, giving actual meaning to the upload and download numbers.
One last thing: Google stridently denies that it’s tracking any of your activity on the internet with this router. It also says that the OnHub will work with any ISP, though your ISP might try to convince you that only its router works with its service.
Prior to the OnHub, I had been using an Asus RT-AC66U dual-band wireless router in my modest, two-story, four-bedroom home. The Asus cost me about $200 and is a highly rated router, with configurable antennas, 2.4GHz and 5GHz network support, and lots of settings and options. At any given time, I would have a dozen or more devices connected to it, including smartphones, tablets, speakers, set top boxes, laptops, lightbulbs, and smoke detectors. But despite its cost and feature set, the Asus still needed the help of a wireless repeater to provide coverage in my downstairs bedroom. Other parts of the home had dead or extremely slow zones, and the video monitor we use for watching our infant would completely interfere with the 2.4GHz network, rendering it unusable.
My expectations for the OnHub were thusly set: I was sure that placing it in my office would result in a similar experience I had with the Asus (and I wasn’t interested in piping Ethernet wires throughout my home to put it in a different spot). But I’ve had zero issues with the OnHub: coverage has been shockingly good, I haven’t needed to use the wireless repeater at all, and the interference I saw with the baby monitor has disappeared. In areas that were formerly dead zones, the OnHub has given me enough bandwidth and throughput to stream 4K video, even in my basement, a full two stories below my office. This is despite putting the router in a less-than-ideal location: upstairs, in my office, far from our general living areas.
Coverage and throughput are shockingly good
To make that happen, the OnHub employs a total of 13 internal antennas: six for its 2.4GHz network, six for 5GHz, and one to monitor the network and automatically tune the radios to the best settings. Google says the antennas are arranged within the OnHub for the best possible coverage regardless of how the router itself is positioned. The front-facing 2.4GHz antenna has also been custom designed with a special reflector to boost coverage in that direction.
All of that means I didn’t have to do anything to optimize the radio coverage (nor could I, really). I just put the OnHub in my office, set it up, and went about my life. Unlike a lot of routers, the OnHub doesn’t broadcast separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. Instead, the same network name (or SSID) covers both frequencies, and the OnHub will dynamically adjust network depending on which frequency offers the best blend of coverage, speed, and minimal interference. (Typically, 2.4GHz networks have broader range, while 5GHz ones have higher throughput and less interference from other devices, such as my baby monitor.) That makes it easy when adding a device to the network: there’s only one option to choose from and one password you need to input.
There are a couple of things that make the OnHub less than perfect, and they center around Google’s oversimplified design. The OnHub only has one Ethernet LAN port, which was quickly filled by my Philips Hue, leaving me no other ports to plug in any other smart home gadget that requires a dedicated hub or use a wired connection with my desktop computer. To get more ports, I’d have to purchase and use a network hub, which adds another level of cost and complexity that the OnHub was designed to eliminate. There’s also only one USB port on the OnHub and it's not even active at the moment, making it impossible to use both a media server and a backup hard drive at the same time even when it is enabled.
Most of those complaints are power-user issues, I admit, but they are features that buyers of $200 routers have come to expect. Google says this OnHub is only the first in a line, however. Future models from other manufacturers, including Asus, are coming later on. It’s certainly possible that those models could include more USB and Ethernet ports, though there’s no guarantee that they will or how much they might cost if they do.
Google also says the OnHub is set up for future smart home products, including its own forthcoming Weave platform, and it has built-in Bluetooth and Zigbee radios that are not currently enabled. The company claims that it will be improving the OnHub over time with more features and capabilities via firmware updates, but beyond adding the aforementioned smart home and USB support, it’s not clear what exactly those upgrades will offer. One thing that doesn’t seem possible with this model is Amazon Echo-like functionality: the OnHub has a speaker, but lacks a microphone, making it unable to respond to voice controls.
Of course, the million-dollar (or $199) question here is: do you really need to spend this much on a wireless router when you can get one for free from your ISP or choose a basic third-party option for as little as $50? Many of my colleagues balked at the price of the OnHub when it was announced a couple of weeks ago, but as someone who’s already been down the road of buying a high-end router to cover my home, I can easily see its value. If you live in a small apartment, chances are you don’t need the power the OnHub offers (though perhaps you could benefit from its simplicity and app-based control). But for any modest sized or larger home, the benefits of the OnHub are readily apparent: it just works better than any other router I’ve used, whether that was provided by my ISP or purchased separately.
The humble router has been important for years and will be increasingly important as more and more products add Wi-Fi features. A few years from now, things such as a Wi-Fi-enabled toaster, washing machine, door bell, or garage door opener won’t be the domain of early adopters, they will be commonplace. All of them require a solid Wi-Fi network and strong router powering that network. The OnHub may not be the first router designed specifically with that future in mind, but it’s by far the best option right now.
The OnHub does its job with no fuss or attention needed from me
Like most appliances, the router is supposed to be invisible, do its job, and stay out of your way. For the first time, I can say my router does just that — I don’t have to worry about whether or not my Wi-Fi is working with the OnHub because it just does. Google has a grander ambition for the OnHub and its followup products, but even if that never comes to fruition, having usable Wi-Fi anywhere in my home is worth the $199 to me.
Update: This article has been clarified to note that the USB port is not currently active on the OnHub.