Your home WiFi router has a thankless job— if all things are going well, you forget it exists, and if things go badly (read: your signal isn’t strong enough to watch the rest of the O.J.: Made In America series), you want to throw it against a wall. Even if you resist the urge to smash it, there’s little you can do except unplug it, count to ten, plug it back in and say a silent prayer to the bandwidth gods.
Just as a refresher, your wireless router is the device you plug into your modem: Your modem connects to your ISP (whomever you pay for Internet Access), and your wireless router connects to the modem to turn that access into radio waves that can be broadcast wirelessly throughout your home, allowing multiple devices to connect to the Internet, wirelessly.
A few companies are evolving the home WiFi router to be prettier, easier to set-up, use, and diagnose if your signal falls flat. I’m looking at Starry, Eero, and Amplifi: All three are providing an interesting reboot to this unsung hero of our digital lives. Here’s how they stack up, and what you need to know about each:
Amplifi’s LCD touchscreen is pleasing to the eye, and sort of reminds me of a Nest thermostat: You get a clear take on how your WiFi is performing, in attractive fonts and colors. And it’s cube design makes it something you don’t have to hide. Eero puck-like hardware has also been beautifully designed— it looks a bit like a spacecraft (reminiscent of Apple’s old Airport design), but it wouldn’t be imposing on a kitchen counter or a nightstand. Starry might win the award for prettiest of them all: With it’s striking triangle shape and pretty touchscreen with ambient orbs, it truly is bookshelf-worthy. Too bad your modem probably still looks like a plastic hamburger— can someone get on redesigning those, please?!
What all of these Wifi routers fail to mention as they’re suggesting that you proudly display their hardware as some objet d’art, is that your router still has to be plugged in to your modem, which still has to be plugged into an ethernet port in the wall. So unless all those things are on your mantel or bookshelf, your router is still relegated to the back closet, or wherever else your router is banished to now.
The Set-Up Is Easy
No more frustrating, blinking lights (what do all those lights mean, anyway?!): All of these routers seek to take the headache out of setting things up, and make the experience more like getting a new Fitbit, or smart coffee maker. All three get plugged in to the wall, then your modem, and then their apps take over, walking you through configuration and making the whole process easy. Additional Eeros or Amplifi antenna are also easy to add— just plug them in, and the app will tell you if they’re in an ideal spot, or to move them closer to the router. Starry even offers further assurance: If anything does go wrong, at any time, you can tap Starry’s screen and request a call from a Starry expert right from the device.
They’re blazingly fast
If you like tech jargon, here are some terms to impress your friends at the next cocktail party: Each of these home WiFi routers boasts 802.11AC, which is the newest and fastest WiFi standard to date. 802.11AC uses 5Ghz radio waves, which are capable of faster speeds, but sometimes have trouble moving through doors, walls, or competing with your neighbors’ networks. That’s why they also use 2.4Ghz waves (which have reduced speeds but can go farther): Having the capacity to broadcast the Internet with both kinds of waves makes each a mixed-mode solution. Starry’s unit goes one step further, giving you a mixed-mode solution for the house AND a separate dedicated 5Ghz network for your high-use devices, so things like your Roku or your XBox can perform their best.
They blanket the house
Amplifi’s signal is boosted by antenna-clad units that you can plug in around your home to extend it’s range. Two antennas come with each base, and the set of three devices creates a mesh-point system, or mesh network: Each piece in the system fortifies the signal strength, keeping it strong into the far reaches of your home. Amplifi’s antennas can be plugged in virtually anywhere, because they have no wires (you wouldn’t want to plug in a Eero box with a wire coming out of it on the island, above). Eeros boxes work the same way: The Eero app will guide you as to where to put the boxes to maximize the WiFi range in your home. If you have Ethernet ports in those rooms, you can plug your extra Eeros in to the wall, and the Eero software will decide if the signal is better sent through Ethernet or through the air.
Starry doesn’t have extra antenna soldiers to pass along its signal strength, but it boasts beamforming technology, which is fancy tech talk for a “smart” signal that comes straight to you instead of blanketing the room. Starry claims that beamforming means faster, more-reliable WiFi when and where you need it, and according to comprehensive tests, it performed really well.
They have apps
Gone are the blinking lights that tried to communicate so much we didn’t understand: Each of these routers has an app that helps with set-up/configuration and shares all kind of helpful information, demystifying the router and helping you diagnose things when they go wrong. Starry’s app will show you what devices are connected, and give you a read-out on the health of your signal. You can also use the Starry app to put a connected device into ScreenTime mode, which gives you network-level parental controls, blocking access to certain websites on that device. Eero’s app will show your modem’s up-to-date upload and download speeds, how many devices are currently connected, and the connection status of all the Eeros in the home. Amplifi’s app has many of these same features, along with a cool one: It will allow you to a secure way to authorize a guest’s access to your network without you having to share your password.
They’re really, really expensive.
These routers aren’t kidding around: They’re chock full of cutting edge tech, and they’re priced like they know it. Amplifi is $199 for the base station and the two antennas. A 3-unit Eero system jumps to a whopping $499, but for a 2-story home Eero recommends four, and getting that extra unit will cost you another $199 (you can’t, at present, buy extra Amplifi antennas). The Starry station is even pricier at $299 if you take into account that it’s just one unit. You might balk at dropping this much cash on a forgotten device in your house, but if you’re truly disappointed with the performance of your home WiFi router, it could make a huge difference in the quality of (digital) life.