I'm reviewing Google Wifi because my apartment sucks. Well, specifically: my apartment's walls suck. And the placement of my router is far from ideal. You see, because I need a hardline to my desktop PC in my office, that means keeping the router in the office, too, or snaking around fifty feet of unsightly ethernet from my living room along the wall (in-wall cabling is not an option for me). This presents a conundrum, because it means that if I want my apartment to have well-distributed Wi-Fi, I need a big, ugly, long cable running the length of the place. If I don't want to run the cable, it means lopsided Wi-Fi coverage.
Even keeping my Shield TV's connection stable in the living room on 2.4GHz was an iffy proposition with my old ASUS NT66U router. While it performed its functions well for the past five years, signal penetration in the far corners of my new apartment simply wasn't there. In the bedroom, even surfing reddit became a frustrating fight for bandwidth at times, and no finagling of antennas seemed to help. Streams buffered, GIFs half-loaded, and sometimes I would just relent and use LTE, and my precious mobile data allocation, instead.
Enter Google Wifi. You probably already know what Wifi is all about: simple, reliable, anybody-could-set-it-up mesh networking. No extra configuration required, no running cables between access points (unless you want to), and no messy multiple networks or channels. Google Wifi is designed to just work.
The proof of simplicity is in the setup pudding... as no one says. My experience setting up Google Wifi felt a bit slow-going at times, but was never actively frustrating (and in the end, didn't really take long at all). To start, I unplugged my old router, turned off my modem, and hooked up the first Wifi access point where my old ASUS router had sat. I flipped everything back on, waited for the modem to register, and opened up the Google Wifi app. The app asked how many access points I wanted to set up, and I selected three. Then it began to scan for the first one. For the first access point, you'll need to enter the setup network password or - more conveniently - use the QR code scanner in the Google Wifi app to automate this procedure. I used the QR code method and it went off without a hitch. A minute or two of spinning loading animations on my phone later, and the Wifi puck's light went from blue, the setup mode, to white, indicating it was now ready for use. I had set up my network name and password, and told the app the location of the first access point. Channel selection is automated and optimized based on scans conducted by the Wifi device every day, so there's no mucking about with advanced administration if you don't want to.
The app prompted me to set up the next point, which I did in my kitchen, placing it underneath my Google Home. Once powered on, the app detected it, and went through the same spinning loading icon, then asked me again where the access point was. Then, it was on to the third one, which I placed in the bedroom. All said and done, it took me about 15 minutes to set up the three access points - less time than I'd spend on a typical router messing around in a web-based admin interface looking to make sure nothing silly was enabled out of the box or checking for firmware updates (Google Wifi does this automatically) that are invariably obnoxious to apply.
That was it. I had a single SSID for my whole network, and devices would be intelligently sent to whichever access point provided them the strongest signal. I opened the Google Home app and reconnected my Chromecasts and Google Home (Wi-Fi password sharing is a great feature here), turned on my TV to manually connect the SHIELD, and that was it. I had a 3-point Wi-Fi mesh network.
While not as robust as some router management interfaces, where Google Wifi (and OnHub before it) shines is in trying to make what has often been an exceptionally arcane concept - home network administration - more user-friendly. To that end, functions like device prioritization, guest network setup, administrator management, and family controls are readily exposed and designed to be simple for almost anyone to use.
You still do have some more advanced features for the stuff many people consider required - DNS configuration, static IP, port forwarding, UPnP toggling, and IP reservations are in there if you need them. Beyond these and the aforementioned guest network, family tools, and device prioritization, though, there's not much else Google allows you to configure. For those who like to play pro network admin at home, Google Wifi isn't and probably will never be the kind of tool you're going to want. For those who are sick and tired of looking at a router's convoluted, jumbled mess of a web interface, though? It's almost heavenly, in a way.
Now, none of this is particularly new: OnHub did it as well. You can also look at how much data individual devices are consuming, nickname them for easier reference, and see which of your Wifi access points they're currently connected to. The app allows to remotely reboot your access points, or even factory reset them. A new feature specific to Wifi lets you control how bright the LED light on the access point is. This is handy if you put one in, say, your bedroom, where a white LED could be rather annoying.
The app lets you know how strong the mesh is on each of your extended Wifi points, so you can optimize placement and proximity for the best performance. All in all, managing Google Wifi through the Wifi app (previously the OnHub app) is a straightforward and unintimidating affair. Having never used OnHub myself, this is a refreshingly streamlined network management and monitoring experience, one that would make going back to the "old" ways not unbearable, but at least annoying, at least for someone at my level of networking knowledge.
This is the big question for many: Does Google Wifi provide meaningfully better home network performance than a single, high-end home router? The answer, of course, is that it depends. If you currently find your existing router serves all corners of your home well, Google Wifi could actually decrease your network's performance in some conditions if you're using the 3-pack setup, which is what Google anticipates most buyers will do. I know that sounds counterintuitive, so bear with me here.
Google Wifi's mission isn't to maximize your network's peak performance - it's to make the performance of that network on average more consistent and reliable. If you want the very bleeding edge of network technology and transfer speeds, there are probably better products out there for you. Similar to the management aspect of Wifi via the Wifi app, Google Wifi wants your home Wi-Fi network to be something you just have to think about less. Do I get poor signal in the bedroom? Doesn't matter anymore: just stick an access point in there. Do I need to hardwire my smart TV or game console to ensure good latency and throughput? Add an access point as part of your entertainment console.
Obviously, this approach of meshing the network access across a wireless backhaul has drawbacks, namely in peak performance. My secondary mesh points on Google Wifi max out around 130-140Mbps using Speedtest.net, while the primary Wifi hub connected directly to my cable modem manages nearly 300Mbps, or more depending on the device (my connection peaks around 350Mbps on my hardwired desktop). The reason you see such a drop-off is because of the natural compromise in throughput capacity a mesh network creates. Because you're using a big chunk of the wireless radio's performance to send data between the mesh points on the network, you're losing significant total network capacity at the "meshed" points. Think of it this way: instead of merely acting as an access point, transferring data to and from end devices, Google Wifis not hardwired into your network must also do the job of then sending data back and receiving it from the hub Wifi device that's directly attached to your modem.*
(*And yes, for those of you who have your homes hardwired for ethernet: Google Wifi points will default to wired network mode when you plugged directly into your network, no additional configuration required, avoiding this performance pitfall and maintaining the single SSID and intelligent access point switching of the mesh network. You do need to set them up wirelessly first to configure the mesh network. But after that, just plug in the ethernet and they'll disable the wireless backhaul mode as long as you have a supported network configuration. The short of it is that your secondary mesh points must be downstream of the primary Wifi device.)
Theoretically, this could eventually be resolved by having a separate radio on each hub utilize a second wireless network completely devoted to the task of providing the wireless backhaul, but the cost and complexity compromises involved would seem to be too great to tackle just yet. But as is, the Google Wifi point farthest from the hub in my apartment still provides more than enough headroom to stream 4K Netflix... on four separate devices at the same time (in theory). I'll still leave tackling big downloads to my ethernet-wired desktop, but even a 3GB mobile game in the bedroom would still take well under five minutes. That's a far cry from the off-and-on, 2.4GHz and 5GHz switching madness I'd been enduring with my old router for the last few months, which was lucky to cap out at 30Mbps in the bedroom, even if it managed the same 300Mbps in my office that Google Wifi does now.
Your next inevitable inquiry: How does it compare to other similar solutions like Eero or Luma? All I can tell you is what Google's told us. I don't have an Eero or Luma to compare to. Other similar solutions from other companies are cropping up now, as well, and I can assure you I'm just as curious to see how Google Wifi stacks up in less controlled competitive testing.
But compared to my old ASUS NT66U, one of the most popular wireless routers in recent years? The fringe coverage provided by Google Wifi is immeasurably superior. Even if you can compare speeds, that's simply not what matters. By having my apartment truly blanketed in a 5GHz AC mesh network, the reliability and consistency of the network is a night and day difference. I've gone from hating our SHIELD TV, which constantly needed reboots because of Wi-Fi connectivity issues, to barely thinking about it anymore, because it just seems to work.
As for my testing environment, our apartment is small, at around 1000 square feet (93 square meters). But the walls are uncompromising in their rejection of Wi-Fi signal, and due to my need for hardwire access on my desktop in the office, it means our router is placed about as far as possible from the bedroom and living room. We could probably get away with two Google Wifi points in our particular case, but three means we can have one access point for every major space in our apartment, including one in the kitchen which manages to reach well outside the door and into our building's gym room. So yeah, I'd buy three, even if it isn't strictly necessary for my case; the benefit is still there.
A great product for the average home
At its best, Google Wifi is an astonishingly simple way to make a home network that gives you headaches suddenly not suck. If your single Wi-Fi router is driving you and the other occupants of your domicile mad with unreliability at the edges of signal and poor throughput, Google Wifi is for you. Even if your home internet connection isn't all that fast, you can see a dramatic improvement in connection stability and reach, which can make your network feel a whole lot faster even if your ISP is only giving you 50Mbps to work with.
I do have a feeling true network warriors will scoff at Wifi - it simply doesn't offer the configurability or uncompromising technical boundary-pushing that professional-grade networking hardware does. Of course, Google doesn't market it that way, and I don't think they're attempting to make an appeal to this crowd. So, there's really no point in exploring that much further. If you don't want it, you probably already knew you didn't want it.
For the rest of us, by virtue of it providing a consistent and reliable experience, Google Wifi feels a bit like - and I do hesitate to say this, but I'm going to anyway - the iPhone of Wi-Fi routers. Not only does it just work, it says goodbye to the mythos that home networking has to be intimidating and that Wi-Fi is just going to kind of always suck in some parts of your home. Simple but useful tools like data usage monitoring, family controls, individual device prioritization, and guest access are just icing on the cake, if you ask me. Google Wifi shines most when you're not thinking about it, and I find myself forgetting it's part of my home more and more every day - which is the highest praise I think one can give in the very unsexy world of networking equipment.
Google Wifi gets a strong recommendation from me, and further yet, I'd say skip the individual access point and just buy the 3-pack without further consideration of the "two or three" question. Three will be just as good and probably better, and the $40 you'll save picking up two is near impossible to justify. The one exception, I suppose, would be those of you with the OnHub, in which case a single Wifi might make sense, but I'll leave that call to you.