The End of Bad Home Wi-Fi
Eero combats frustrating Wi-Fi dead zones with an armada of little wireless routers. A new Wi-Fi system called Eero combats dead zones with an armada of little routers. WSJ Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler explains how it works.
Hello from the other side...of my house. It used to be a Wi-Fi dead zone over here, a wasteland where my laptop and iPad couldn’t eke out a Web page. But now every corner is bathed in sweet, sweet wireless Internet.
Instead of a single Wi-Fi beacon struggling to spread wireless Internet through your whole house, Eero is a well-coordinated armada of access points you put
Bad home Wi-Fi has met its match in a smart but pricey new system called Eero. It’s a radical rethink of the blinking Wi-Fi router boxes we all know and hate setting up.
If Internet access is oxygen, testing Eero has been like getting a new lung.
Eero, made by a San Francisco startup, begins shipping this week. It won’t speed up your home’s Internet connection—that depends on your service plan. But it will make sure you’re taking advantage of the Internet access you’re already paying for.
Outfitting a house with Eero isn’t cheap. Each of its sleek, white access points costs $200. For large, old or oddly shaped homes, the company recommends at least three—sold online in a pack for $500. Until now, most good routers cost around $200. (At the end of this column, I’ve listed some lower-cost alternatives for improving Wi-Fi dead zones.)
Other startups, including Luma, and big router makers such as Linksys and D-Link have already announced plans for similar Wi-Fi products coming in the next few months. Wi-Fi is a long-running personal tech headache because every home is a little different. Many things disrupt wireless signals, including beams, other wireless devices and even people. My century-old house was built with Wi-Fi-blocking metal chicken wire in the walls.
Meanwhile, our data demands have skyrocketed. Streaming Netflix , Skyping and accessing the cloud all tax Wi-Fi coverage—multiplied by every family member. I know people who have, in desperation, taken a sledgehammer to walls, strung up Ethernet cable or turned old Pringles cans into “cantennas.”
New generations of Wi-Fi tech—the current hit flavor is called 802.11ac—have gotten better at carrying more data and delivering it faster. But they’ve made the data highway wider, not longer. Even when I tested leading stand-alone routers, the $200 Apple AirPort Extreme and $280 D-Link AC3150, I still had a dead zone in my office.
One solution has been to invest in a network extender, a separate device that despite occasional hiccups, Eero one-ups traditional routers in the two areas that matter to most of us: total coverage and simplicity.
But many people, including me, end up returning these to the store. They can be slow or, even more annoying, require all your devices to hop to the extender’s separate network.
Eero, ready to ship, is the first to make good on the promise of a new kind of home Wi-Fi network involving multiple, smaller routers.
Eero’s answer is to make your home Wi-Fi work more like what you’d find at a big campus, hotel or airport, where you automatically bounce around to the closest wireless access point, never changing networks. Eero cooked up a way to accomplish this entirely through sandwich-size wireless access points you distribute around the house. They quickly form their own mesh that lets them share Internet access and beam data to your device from whichever box is closest. (This is similar to how Sonos music systems stream songs.)
Eero’s smart software is the real hero here. It took me just 15 minutes to set up a three-piece Eero network entirely on a smartphone. You plug the first Eero into your Internet modem. Then Eero’s iPhone or Android app uses Bluetooth to find and configure each hub. The app tests for interference and instructs you to move your Eeros, if needed. The experience is blissfully jargon-free.
Most Wi-Fi routers look like props from “Battlestar Galactica,” but Eeros—named after Eero Saarinen, architect of St. Louis’s Gateway Arch—are handsome enough to sit in the open, where they work better. Behind the scenes, the system works like a relay race. Eero A, hard-wired into your modem, sprints data to Eero B, which picks it up and sprints it to Eero C— which then beams data to your laptop if it’s on the far end.
Each Eero access point has two Ethernet ports and a USB port, which will gain functionality in future software updates.
Each hop risks slowing the network, but the system largely kept up in my tests at two homes with Wi-Fi woes, one long and skinny apartment and a larger, three- story house. Testing with an iPhone 6s, I got blisteringly fast wireless Internet access. Peaks reached 90 megabits per second in one home, 120 in the other—our max levels of Comcast service, in fact. What used to be my worst dead zone is now getting a median speed of 42 Mbps (though occasionally dipping as low as 10). On devices with older 802.11n Wi-Fi, like a first-generation iPad, median speed was closer to 25 Mbps—still, more than enough to stream Netflix.
There were a few bumps in the road. Though you probably won’t need to plug in as many devices now that you have better Wi-Fi, you may be annoyed that Eeros only have two Ethernet ports. (One upside, though, is you can hardwire into any of the Eeros on your network.) On a few occasions, my Eeros turned on a red network-trouble light for no apparent reason. Eero’s CEO Nick Weaver says that was caused by a known connectivity-monitoring bug that Eero is working to fix.
Another time, my Eero network conked out, but the Eero app didn’t tell me what was wrong or help me self-diagnose. It wasn’t until Mr. Weaver took a look and suggested a different configuration for some of my plugged-in devices that the network became stable again. He says Eero’s cloud software is constantly getting smarter about compensating for problems, and Eero offers phone support to all customers seven days a week.
The D-Link Unified Home Wi-Fi Network Kit, shipping this summer for $370, also promises to cover a whole house with Wi-Fi by joining two access points.
Eero doesn’t offer some of the security and network management tools you might find elsewhere, like Google’s OnHub. Some of those features could be added to Eero in the future—it’s already smart enough to update its own software.
Finally, I wish Eero were sold in a way that made it easier for you to choose the right number of boxes. In one test house, a two-Eero setup proved sufficient. Three may only be necessary in homes larger than 2,000 square feet.
If Eero is too expensive, there are a few other ways to address Wi-Fi dead zones at home: Move your router: The more central its location, the more corners your Wi-Fi router will likely be able to reach. Even if you can’t move your modem, you might be able to put the router in a different room using a $10 Ethernet cable.
Try an Apple router: Apple’s $100 AirPort Express is one of the best Wi-Fi extenders, and makes it easy to expand an existing network if you set it up with an iPhone or Mac. Yet while Apple’s $200 AirPort Extreme router has speedy 802.11ac tech, the Express only uses older 802.11n, and couldn’t keep up with Eero.
Set up a powerline network: You can buy a system, such as the ZyXEL Powerline AV2000 Gigabit Adapter, that adds Ethernet jacks around the house by running Internet through your home’s existing electrical system. But they can be finicky, and you’d still need an extra Wi-Fi router or wireless adapter unless you’re just plugging in a computer.
Wait for another distributed option: Soon, Eero won’t be the only game in town. This summer, D-Link will begin selling its $370 Unified Home Wi-Fi Network Kit, which packages a router and an extender with similar intelligence and even faster radios. Linksys says it will ship a $300 “seamless” two-piece network kit in June. And another startup, Luma, is offering a limited pre-sale deal on its mesh-network devices: a three-pack for $250. It promises even more software bells and whistles than Eero, including automated Internet time limits for children. But Luma’s product is still in beta testing, and the company didn’t have a fully functional version for me to test in time for this review.
I’m likely going to buy Eero for myself. What it gets right: Wi-Fi isn’t something we should worry about, it’s just supposed to work.