Have you ever done the Wi-Fi Wave? You do it when you find yourself dropping out of Wi-Fi range at the office. Take your laptop or phone and hold it at arm's length in front of you. Strut around the room as you look for the best signal from the access point on the other side of the building, always keeping an eye on your Wi-Fi icon to see how strong your connection is. Thankfully, like the Funky Chicken and Gangham Style, it's a dance you no longer need to do. In this case, mesh Wi-Fi is your salvation.
The problem with traditional Wi-Fi networks is their limited scope. Radio signals from wireless access points only reach so far, and office walls can limit that range still further. The best option available in the past was either to wire separate access points, which was disruptive and expensive, or to use a Wi-Fi extender.
Extenders (also known as repeaters) take signals sent to and from a Wi-Fi access point and rebroadcast them, extending the wireless network's range. They're inefficient, because they often call for you to reconfigure your access point. They also rebroadcast everything indiscriminately, like a network hub. Because Wi-Fi is half-duplex, meaning that a wireless device can't transmit and receive at the same time, extenders limit your throughout.
Mesh Wi-Fi networks solve many of these problems by extending your wireless network more intelligently. They work in concert, with each mesh device aware of the others in its vicinity. Rather than broadcasting everything to everyone, a mesh device uses its awareness of other devices to find the optimal route for each network packet to reach its destination.
Mesh Wi-Fi therefore offers better performance than extender-based networks, but it also offers other advantages. It's easier to set up, typically needing no extra configuration on the router. Mesh devices will sometimes even tell you when they're positioned optimally, taking the guesswork out of network design and enabling non-technical users to install them.
You can also use mesh devices to build resilient Wi-Fi networks by positioning each of them in range of multiple others. This gives traffic alternative routes to the other end of the office, even if one device goes down.
There are some downsides. One of them is the lack of standards adoption among vendors. You'll often find manufacturers using their own mesh technology, making them incompatible with other vendors' systems. That's fine if you're willing to throw in your lot with a single hardware provider. If you want to mix and match, though, look for compliance with the Wi-Fi Alliance's Wi-Fi EasyMesh standard for better interoperability.
Should you buy a mesh Wi-Fi system? They're more expensive than extender devices. In fact, a single mesh device can cost more than some access points, making them a weighty purchase. Before you invest in one, ensure that you've positioned your existing Wi-Fi access point to get the maximum range out from it.
If you don't have existing Ethernet cabling in your building, and if you're suffering from dead spots or slow Wi-Fi, a mesh approach can boost your networking experience.
Sadly, it means you won't get to watch Colin from sales strut his stuff when he's trying to connect from his tablet in the canteen. But maybe that's a good thing. If so, you're welcome.