Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.
When a colleague heard I was reviewing the new Eero Wi-Fi system, aimed at covering your whole house and eliminating the hassles of dealing with traditional routers, he messaged me: "Talk about how annoying and mystifying it is when your home Wi-Fi fails. I spent two hours today just turning shit off and on until it just sort of started working again."
That’s exactly the sentiment Eero, a small San Francisco startup, is hoping will get people interested in its slick-looking, simplified, app-controlled Wi-Fi boxes, which it refuses to even call routers.
Eero’s basic product is a dead-simple wireless mesh network of devices that it recommends people buy in packs of three to spread around a home for optimal coverage.
I’ve had just such a three-unit Eero system working in my typical-sized, two-story suburban house for about 10 days now. Holding my breath, I installed it in place of a carefully configured group of traditional routers I’d been using. And, so far, the Eeros have worked perfectly, which is no small thing, because my home has a couple of quirks that make Wi-Fi tough.
For one thing, our family room, where we do much of our online activity, is like kryptonite for Wi-Fi, because a heavy brick wall separates it from the rest of the house. And another busy corner, in an addition off our kitchen, has always had a weak signal.
To solve these issues, I’ve been using three Apple Airport Extreme routers (two of them Time Capsule models for also backing up our Macs). These were set up to work with my Verizon Fios router, whose hopeless wireless capability had been turned off.
Configuring this setup required help from Apple and a visit from Verizon technicians. It worked, but would periodically require manual restarts of multiple things — the fail-and-pray situation called out by my colleague.
In my tests of Eero, the setup required almost no configuration and, so far, no restarts. In fact, Eero claims its system is "self-fixing," because it regularly diagnoses itself and fixes problems.
The Eero theory: One is not enough
Eero looks nothing like the usual router. It’s a 1.3-inch-tall white box with a gently sloping top, which is just 4.75 inches square. There are no visible antennas and only one pale light on the front, which doesn’t blink except during setup.
On the back, there are only four ports: One for power, one for attaching a USB device, and two Ethernet jacks, in case you want to hardwire all or part of your Eero network or attach a networked device like a shared external hard disk.
The whole thing is set up and can be monitored from an iPhone or Android smartphone app. Updates, diagnostics and fixes come from the cloud. In many ways, the concept of simplicity and app setup are similar to Google’s OnHub router. But Eero stresses the mesh network, multiple-device approach, while Google tries to do it all with one unit.
Eero’s basic idea is that most dwellings — even small ones — need multiple Wi-Fi access points, because there are just too many obstacles weakening or blocking the signal, and too many devices today using it.
So its devices serve multiple purposes. The first, connected to your cable modem or other network source, acts like a router. But additional Eeros, recognizing that one of their brethren is already a router, act like access points, tied to the first Eero by a mesh network that keeps them all in communication. The devices automatically figure out how to adjust if you choose to connect one or more of them via an Ethernet cable (as I did in my family room), but they can all work purely wirelessly, except for the first one.
To perform the setup — the easiest I’ve ever seen on a Wi-Fi system — you just use the Eero app on your phone to name a network and select a password for your main system and, if you like, for an optional second guest system.
The app guides you step by step, lets you name each box ("Kitchen," "Bedroom," etc.) and even suggests where to place the units. The app also has a built-in speed test, so you can see how fast your Internet connection is at various points in your house.
The process worked smoothly in my tests. And, though I had no interest in this, you can even poke around in the weeds, fiddling with things like DNS, NAT, port forwarding and so forth.
Speed and power
My particular Fios plan promises 85 megabits per second upstream, and the same speed down. In general, I have gotten close to or even a little above these numbers when testing with Speedtest.net while no heavy streaming or downloads were under way, and that remained the case with the Eero system in multiple places in my house. That includes both the family room and the kitchen addition.
My worst test, in Eero’s built-in speed test, was 83 Mbps down and 74 up. My best, in Speedtest, was a bit over 86 in both directions. The internal Wi-Fi speed rate (as opposed to the speed back and forth to the Internet) never dropped below 700 Mbps and was often over 800.
But my most rigorous test — one I had never done before — came when I tried to blast everything at once. With 16 devices attached to the Eero network, I simultaneously streamed an HD show from my Apple TV, streamed music from the net to a Sonos speaker, downloaded a large file to my laptop from Dropbox, transferred photos wirelessly between two laptop, and walked around the house with my iPhone playing a variety of YouTube clips. Meanwhile, my wife was calmly Web-surfing on her laptop and checking Facebook on her iPhone.
Every one of these activities went off smoothly, at a satisfying clip, with no buffering or stuttering.
A recommendation, with caveats
If I had to pass judgement on Eero today, I’d recommend it with two caveats. First, even 10 days is too short a time to fully evaluate a home Wi-Fi infrastructure. But I ran it through the wringer in the time I had, and it performed like a champ.
Second, Eero is far costlier than popular routers you can scoop up on Amazon. Those butt-ugly units with a zillion antennas and flashing lights can be bought for well under $100. But Eero costs $199 for a single unit, and $499 for a pack of three, which is what the company recommends. But my Apple routers are also $199 and, with the number and type I used, the total cost was actually higher.
The product goes on sale today at 9 am ET, at eero.com. The company also expects it to be available from Amazon this week.
Wi-Fi is like air for living a digital life. You want as much of it as you can get, everywhere. It’s possible to achieve that with high-quality, well-configured traditional routers. But I found that it’s much easier, if a bit pricey, with Eero.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.