A brief review: Google WiFi

Over the last year or so, more and more of the video content that I consume is coming by way of streaming over the Internet. Very nearly every device that I have (TV, phones, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV stick, and even my completely unremarkable Blu Ray player) has the ability to use WiFi and stream content from Netflix and YouTube. A little more than a year ago, we shifted from Comcast (boo!) to Sonic (yeah!) and the Dish, which also opens up some On Demand streaming.

So, it’s fair to say that we are placing a bit higher demands on our WiFi network. Sonic actually repackages ATT U-verse (DSL) in my neighborhood and gave us the usual modem/wifi access point. On paper, it wasn’t that bad a device: it had both 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz radios, in addition to four ethernet ports. It also serves as a VOIP server, and handles all my landline phone.

I really like Sonic, and mostly like The Dish Network, but early on, I began to be pretty dissatisfied with the quality of the WiFi network. Our modem was in an upstairs bedroom, it was clear that throughout the house, we had some dead spots where coverage was pretty mediocre. Sometimes the 2.4Ghz band seemed to penetrate better and give better performance than the 5.0Ghz band, even though the 5.0Ghz band had greater bandwidth and better theoretical performance. What was annoying was that the access point presented two different SSIDs, and if you found one better than the other, you had to manually switch. That wasn’t such a bad deal for your phone or laptop, but it was annoying with the various TV devices that didn’t store common configurations and allow you to switch between them. Additionally, my neighbors seemed to be going WiFi mad as well, judging by the number of new SSIDs that appeared in lists when I tried to connect. I wondered if they were causing contention. I could have tried to optimize the placement of my access point, or added additional repeaters, or bridge networks…

All this seemed like a lot of work. I’m not an idiot when it comes to this kind of stuff, but neither do I really want to spend a lot of time developing a complex network plan. I already have enough things that I’m not getting to: spending my time working on fixing my WiFi network seemed no more fun to me than it would be to lay new telephone and electric wires to my house. I just wanted to get something that would improve my network connectivity throughout my house, and not generate a whole lot of new “opportunities for learning.”

I spent a bit of time thinking about it, and since I had some spare bucks in my Amazon account, decided that spending some money might be in order. I thought that overall the reliability of the base network to my house was fine (a quick survey of speed tests with my laptop plugged directly into the Ethernet of the access point seemed to confirm this) but I needed a better WiFi solution.

I could pretend that I did a lot of research, but really all that I did was go on Amazon and look for highly rated solutions. I came up with Google WiFi as being a highly rated solution, which included nodes which combined to form a mesh network which promised easy configuration, better coverage and higher performance. Knowing that Amazon was very good about returns, I rolled the dice and bought it. Two days later, a box arrived at my front door.

First impressions out of the box were excellent. The quality of the packaging was very high. There were three “nodes” which are all identical in the box. Each is powered by a provided AC adapter which uses USB-C connectors. Each node also contains a pair of Ethernet ports. The box included one Ethernet cable as well. The nodes and cabling are all physically high quality.

Most routers that I’ve had before were configured using an on-device web server. The Google WiFi system takes a different approach: it requires the use of an app on either your iPhone or Android device. It I have an iPhone, so a quick download from the App Store, and I was good to go.

The first thing I did was disable the WiFi on my existing access point. I logged into the device (maybe for the last time) and disabled both the 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz radios. I then fired up the app on my phone, which started setup.

It was very clear and easy to follow. Basically I plugged the Ethernet cable into my existing access point and into one of the three nodes. I then powered it on. The app contacted the new node, and then asked me to scan the Q-code which is on the bottom of the device. It tried to contact the Internet… and failed. It rebooted both the access point, and the new node and… still didn’t connect to the Internet.

I then had some dim recollection that the old access point had some differentiation among the four Ethernet ports on the back. I had plugged it into the third port (it was open) but decided that maybe it should be in the first slot. I changed it, and voila! Network access achieved. It asked me for a new SSID, spent a few minutes configuring, and then it was up.

It then asked me if I wanted to install any additional nodes. I had two, so I said yes. I put one at the other end of the house, and one downstairs. It was easy, you just plug in the nodes, the app finds them, adds them to the network and configures them. It basically creates a single, bridged virtual network, all of which is accessed by a single SSID.

Once all the nodes were added, it informed me that they were doing an update to get the latest software from Google, and that it would inform me when the update is complete. It took about five and a half minutes to complete.

And… it was like the clouds opened up (or at least the tubes of the Internet did).

So. Much. Better.

There were times when I was lucky to get 1.5Mbps to my devices. Starting On Demand streaming required a couple of minutes wait, and you might expect to hit pauses while watching it because the buffering was unable to keep up with the device. The idea of streaming 4K content from netflix to my cheap (but remarkably good) $400 Hisense television was impossible.

But not now. Every device in my house seems to be able to access at least 20Mbps, and often 30Mbps or even higher.

Dead zones? Gone. I can sit anywhere on the couch I want, and with good connections! Huzzah!

Total time to setup the network was well under 30 minutes.

I was a bit leery about relying on an app to control the network, but I must say: the app is great. It is much more responsive than the typical web based controls that most routers offer. You can check network health even when away from your home network. It lists all the active devices and access points, and can tell you of any outages. You can share network configuration privileges with others by providing their email address, which is kind of nice. You can easily configure a few of the most important settings, and can easily add port forwarding or configure IP addresses to individual devices. You can also set priorities between devices, or configure “family off times”.

If you like spending time configuring networks and firmware, and think that flashing new firmware like DDwrt or Tomato to your routers is fun (I’ve been there) then this may not be the product for you. But if you just want a network that works, with a minimum of fuss and a reasonable set of features, then I can recommend Google WiFi.

Addendum: Here’s another review from Forbes, with more screenshots..