Five years ago, the router world was dominated by names like Netgear, Asus, TP-Link, and Linksys. Google wasn’t in the conversation, and it didn’t have a router available for purchase (or even a real hardware division, for that matter).
Fast-forward to 2019, and Google lays claim to the top-selling router, thanks to the popularity of its Google Wifi mesh system, which it introduced in 2016. It’s even more popular than Eero, which first popularized the idea of a mesh router for better Wi-Fi coverage in a home.
Now, Google is launching its follow-up: the more powerful and more capable Nest Wifi system. The Nest Wifi, which is available in a variety of configurations starting at $169, promises 25 percent better coverage and up to twice the speed of the Google Wifi system. In addition, the Nest Wifi’s Points, or secondary units that you place around your home to create a mesh system, double as Nest Mini voice-activated smart speakers.
I’ve been testing the $269 kit, which includes the router and a single mesh Point, in my roughly 2,000-square-foot, split-level home. Google says this package provides as much coverage as the three-pack of the Google Wifi, and it’s good for homes up to 3,800 square feet and up to 200 connected devices. A $349 option provides a second Point and can cover up to 5,400 square feet and up to 300 devices.
Like other mesh systems, the Nest Wifi is not a modem, so it needs to be plugged into the modem you already have (likely provided by your ISP) to work. For me, that meant plugging into my Verizon Fios connection, which is a gigabit fiber link. (Unlike Eero and others, Nest Wifi doesn’t work in a “bridge” mode, which makes setting it up with Fios more convoluted than other routers. For more on getting Nest Wifi to work with a Fios connection, see this post on Verizon’s forums.) This connection comes into my home in the living room on the main floor. I then placed the Point in my home office, a level below where the router is.
This arrangement was sufficient to provide strong Wi-Fi in every part of my home and gave me enough bandwidth to stream 4K video wherever I had a signal. It also handily managed the 50-plus devices that are connected to my Wi-Fi network at any given time and didn’t have any trouble “hopping” devices from the router to the Point when I moved about my home.
The Nest Wifi consistently provided faster speeds to my devices than the Google Wifi and similar speeds to what I get from the Eero Pro and Netgear Orbi, provided my devices were connected to the primary router and not the Point. When connected to the Point, speeds were cut in half, likely due to the Point’s less capable antennas and the lack of a dedicated backhaul channel for the router to communicate to the Point, like the Eero Pro and Orbi systems have. Since my internet service provides gigabit speeds, I still had over 100 megabits of bandwidth for both upload and downloads available no matter where I went in my home, but that’s a far cry from the roughly 900 megabits that gets piped into my house. The average home broadband speed in the US is just under 100 megabits, so most people will be able to take full advantage of their ISP’s service with the Nest Wifi.
In addition to weaker radios, the Point lacks any Ethernet jacks, so you can’t use Ethernet backhaul to connect it to the router or plug devices directly into the Point where it’s placed.
But where the Point lacks in Wi-Fi capabilities, it makes up for by the fact that pulls double duty as a voice-activated smart speaker. Essentially, it’s a Nest Mini speaker mashed into an original Google Wifi puck. It sounds very similar to the Nest Mini, which isn’t a bad thing, and there’s a glowing ring at its base that illuminates white when you speak to it and orange when the mic is muted. It even has the same touch controls as the Nest Mini for adjusting volume or pausing playback. Google intends the Point to be placed out in the open, which provides the best wireless and smart speaker performance, so it designed it to look nicer than the typical router. It also comes in three colors — white, pale blue, or pale pink — while the main router is only available in white.
The Point supports all of the same voice controls for the Google Assistant as the Nest Mini, but it also adds a couple of router-specific voice commands, such as running speed tests or pausing connections to groups of devices managed in the Google Home app. If you have a Nest Hub or Hub Max, you can also run speed tests from there or display the credentials to a guest network.
If you don’t need yet another smart speaker in your home or you prefer Amazon’s Echo, Google is selling a two-pack of the router that doesn’t have any Points for $299. This also gives you slightly better coverage than a router and a Point and provides Ethernet jacks in both places you place the nodes with support for wired backhaul.
As mentioned, the Nest Wifi doesn’t have a dedicated wireless backhaul band, instead relying on a traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz dual-band system for both connections between the router and points as well as connections to devices. Sanjay Noronha, connectivity product lead at Google Nest, says the company decided on this approach because it can manage traffic efficiently with software, and it doesn’t need to add another level of hardware cost and complexity to the mix. But in my experience, a dedicated backhaul band does provide faster speeds to devices that are connected to mesh points farther away from the main router.
Similarly, the Nest Wifi does not support the newly ratified Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which is designed to provide more efficient connections to devices that have Wi-Fi 6 capabilities. Noronha says supporting Wi-Fi 6 at this stage would have added a lot of cost to the system with few benefits for the vast majority of customers since the vast majority of Wi-Fi devices do not support Wi-Fi 6 yet.
Setting up the Nest Wifi requires a Google account and the newly updated Google Home app for iOS or Android. The Home app guides you through installing the router, setting up a new Wi-Fi network and password, and placing the Point in an optimal location in your home. You can run speed tests through it, see how many devices are connected to the network and prioritize specific ones, create a guest network, and schedule Wi-Fi breaks for kids’ devices on the network. It’s also possible to block adult sites on any device.
But if you want to access more advanced features, such as seeing which node a specific device is connected to or configure port forwarding, you’ll have to use the old Google Wifi app, which has been updated to support the Nest Wifi. Google says it will continue to support both apps until the Google Home app has all of the features currently available in the Wifi app.
Like the Google Wifi and Eero systems, the Nest Wifi relies on Google’s cloud services for features such as automatic channel selection, remote network management, identifying connected devices, and providing historical data consumption stats. It’s possible to disable the cloud connectivity in the Home app, but Google says the Nest Wifi will not perform as well without them. The Nest Wifi also uses Google’s DNS services by default, but the company says it does not associate Google Public DNS information with Google Accounts and the DNS provider can be changed through the Google Wifi app.
Unlike Eero, the Nest Wifi doesn’t have a subscription component for ad blocking, filtering, and other security features.
At $269, the router and Point two-pack is only slightly more expensive than Eero’s new $249 entry-level three-node system, yet it provides as good or better coverage and faster speeds than the Eero. It’s also considerably less expensive than an Eero Pro system or the newer Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers from Linksys or Netgear. That makes the Nest Wifi, like the Google Wifi before it, an enticing value that will likely prove to be very popular. It’s not the fastest mesh router system you can get, and if you have a very fast internet connection in your home like I do, you won’t be able to access most of your bandwidth through the Nest Wifi, though few other Wi-Fi routers can do much better at this point.
So for the vast majority of people, the Nest Wifi performs well, looks good, provides some unique features, and doesn’t cost a fortune. It seems like Google has another winning router on its hands.
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