To really use your high-speed service, you’re going to have to pay up
Gigabit home internet has been available in the US for some time, but in the past couple of years, more people have been able to sign up for it. Even though the average home broadband connection is just around 130Mbps, at least 80 percent of US households are able to get gigabit broadband service, according to a report from the NCTA. Of those, between 2.5 percent and 6 percent of homes actually have it, depending on which report you read.
While gigabit internet service has been gaining ground, actually making use of all that speed without tearing apart your home and installing wired networking throughout has remained a challenge. The Wi-Fi routers supplied by internet service providers are far too slow to allow a single device to reach anywhere near the provided speeds, and even high-end aftermarket routers typically cap out around 400Mbps over Wi-Fi.
This is where Wi-Fi 6 — specifically, mesh Wi-Fi systems — can make a difference. In the past year or so, a number of Wi-Fi 6-enabled mesh routers (read: those that use multiple interconnected units to blanket a home with a strong Wi-Fi signal) have become available with promises of very high speeds over wireless connections. These systems range in price from about $200 on the low end to upwards of $700 for the best possible performance. The Arris Surfboard Max Pro, a $649 Wi-Fi 6 mesh system that I’ve been testing, shows just how much of a difference can be made on a gigabit internet plan.
Wi-Fi 6 brings a number of advancements to wireless networking, including support for many more connected devices on a single network, faster theoretical top speeds, and improved battery life on devices connected to a Wi-Fi 6 network. To take advantage of many of the features, you need to be using a Wi-Fi 6 device, such as a very recent smartphone or laptop. And to take advantage of the greater capacity of Wi-Fi 6 networks (such as dozens of simultaneously connected devices), every device that’s connected needs to be Wi-Fi 6. Chances are, you likely don’t have very many Wi-Fi 6 devices in your home. I’m a professional gadget reviewer, and of the nearly 60 devices currently on my Wi-Fi network as I write this, just four are Wi-Fi 6.
But if you have gigabit internet service, you don’t need dozens of Wi-Fi 6 devices on your network to take advantage of a Wi-Fi 6 mesh router’s capabilities right now. That’s because Wi-Fi 6 allows the nodes of a mesh network to communicate at much higher speeds than Wi-Fi 5 allowed. Those speeds can then be sent directly to your smartphone, laptop, or games console that’s connected to a nearby mesh node, even if those devices aren’t Wi-Fi 6. You can get even faster speeds if you connect your computer or console to the mesh node with an Ethernet cable, even if you are a few rooms away from where the internet connection comes into your home.
Not every Wi-Fi 6-enabled mesh system is going to be able to provide speeds to take full advantage of a gigabit Ethernet connection. The ones that can will have a tri-band setup, which provides a dedicated 5.8GHz network for the mesh nodes to communicate over, as well as 4×4 MiMO support on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks that your devices connect to. In simpler terms, a $200 entry-level Wi-Fi 6 system will cap out around 300Mbps, just like a Wi-Fi 5 system, while a $500 or $700 system will be able to provide two or three times faster speeds. Basically, you’re going to have to pay a lot of money to get a router that’s capable of utilizing your gigabit internet service.
To test this out, I installed the Arris Surfboard Max Pro Mesh system in my roughly 2,100-square-foot split-level home. The Surfboard Max Pro is a two-piece, tri-band AX11000 Wi-Fi 6 mesh router system with a dedicated network just for the router and its satellite to communicate over. It has 4×4 MiMO support on all three of its bands, comes with four gigabit ports on each node (with link aggregation to support up to 2Gbps service), covers up to 6,000 square feet, and can support up to 200 simultaneously connected devices. My internet service is a Verizon Fios gigabit plan, with an advertised maximum of 940Mbps download and 880Mbps upload speeds. It comes into the house on the right side of the main floor, which is where one of the Surfboard Max units is set up.
The second unit is in my home office, in the lower level of the home. Since my home was built in the middle of last century and I do not have interest in ripping apart the walls to install modern networking lines, I rely solely on Wi-Fi connections for the devices in my office and most of the home, aside from the living room TV, set-top boxes, and smart home hubs that are connected to a 16-port switch that’s wired directly into the main Surfboard Max unit.
To see the difference a Wi-Fi 6 system would make compared to the Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers I’ve tested before, I hooked up a Windows 10 laptop and a Mac mini directly into the satellite node with an Ethernet cable. This setup allowed me to reach download speeds of over 500Mbps to either computer and upload speeds north of 800Mbps, using Speedtest.net, even though I was a floor away from where the internet comes into the home. That’s roughly 200Mbps faster download and twice as fast uploads as I have been able to attain in my office with similar Eero Pro and Nest WiFi setups, two popular Wi-Fi 5 mesh systems.
In more practical tests, I’ve been able to download games at upwards of 90 megabytes per second (about 720Mbps or megabits per second, which is what internet speed is usually measured in), pulling down an 85GB download of Battlefield V in just a few minutes. Those higher speeds are a direct result of the Surfboard Max nodes’ ability to communicate at up to 4.8Gbps between each other on the dedicated 5.8GHz network they use.
Closer to the main router and connected solely over Wi-Fi, I am routinely able to get speeds north of 400Mbps direct to my devices, according to Speedtest.net and Fast.com. Those speeds aren’t the full capacity of my internet service plan, but they are slightly faster than what I typically see from Wi-Fi 5 routers. Of note, whether a device is Wi-Fi 6 makes little difference in the connection speed, in my experience. The real advantage of a mesh Wi-Fi 6 system is the ability to have those faster speeds in more rooms of your home without having to install in-wall wiring.
While the Surfboard Max Pro system does prove that a Wi-Fi 6 mesh system can take better advantage of high-speed gigabit internet service, it doesn’t come without compromise. The units are enormous: at nearly 10 inches (25.4cm) tall and 5 inches across (12.7cm), they dwarf an Eero Pro unit and are considerably less discreet. My devices frequently get “stuck” on one of the nodes without seamlessly hopping to the closer one as I move throughout my home, something that both Eero and Nest WiFi are much better at. I have had to reboot the system on numerous occasions to get the internet working again. And finally, the Surfboard Max mobile app that’s used to set up the network, monitor it, and manage it is lacking in features and is clumsy to use compared to Eero or Google’s sleeker apps. Those looking for advanced networking controls will be disappointed to find that there’s no web-based client for managing the network from a PC, either.
Still, if you have gigabit internet at home and you don’t have the option to install wired networking, you are doing yourself a disservice by not looking into a Wi-Fi 6 mesh router to take advantage of it. You’ll have to pay a hefty premium to get one, but since you’re already paying a premium to get gigabit internet, you might as well pay for a good router to go with it.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge