How to pick a wi-fi router

Update: I changed the title of this blog post to better reflect the overall subject.  I'm currently writing a blog post that dives deeper how wi-fi work, for those that are curious.

When it comes to wireless networks, everyone seems to fall into two groups:

  • Geeks and nerds who constantly banter and blog over which wifi networking products they like the most
  • Everyone else who usually don't nerd out about technology but get really irritated when their wifi networks don't work. 

If you're everyone else, this blog post is for you.

Most folks don't read the blogs written by the first group, even though they are desperately trying to make sense of a problem that is, for all intents, invisible. I read the geek-nerd blog posts because I'm always on the lookout for a wi-fi network product better than what I currently use in my home and office.

I use a wi-fi network technology that is so good, on so many levels, that I've set up hundreds of other homes and offices with it. To-date, not a single product has even come close to its speed, reliability and security. The trouble is, a lot of techs put too much emphasis on price - what will fix the problem in front of me today - instead of looking for the most effective solution that enables resolving issues today and, better yet, preventing the problems from recurring tomorrow.

 A Wile-e-Coyote scenario. This is the experience most people have with home or office wifi (Based on an unscientific survey of a lot of people who have told me how they feel)

A Wile-e-Coyote scenario. This is the experience most people have with home or office wifi (Based on an unscientific survey of a lot of people who have told me how they feel)

Wifi problems are the biggest waste of time and money

My customers are in the second group above (most aren't nerds and geeks). They prioritize other aspects of their lives and businesses way above tech. Tech problems, like wifi disconnects and slow wifi, interrupt life and work. And the interruption can exponentially compounds: Going to a computer store, asking for wireless network advice; Finding and hiring a consultant to fix your wireless network; Then after paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars, finding new or the same wireless problems happening again. This is a Wile-e-Coyote scenario.

And it gets even worse. That's because it's not always clear to most people when the Wi-Fi network is the actual problem. Wi-fi problems make other devices, and even apps, appear to be malfunctioning. This can send an owner off into tech support hell. Driving to computer stores or the mall, waiting in line, trying to explain an issue that doesn't want to recur at the time, and then finally being told by the tech that there's "no trouble found" or even worse "The problem's on your side." 

And that's a pretty common problem with taking your devices into a store: When the problem is actually the network, then you probably won't be able to reproducing the issue when you're standing in front of a tech.  

So what can we do about it?

How to improve wi-fi speed and reliability

The key to improving wi-fi speed and reliability is having a healthy network and controlling what happens on that network.  This sounds like a lot of technical work, but it's not.  If you're in group 2 (people who just want to get on with life and work) then you need to know only two things:

  1. Which wi-fi network equipment is a good fit for your home or office
  2. What a correct installation looks like, and what's actually involved and why

You hire a CPA or a lawyer who's capable of thinking about your life needs not just today, but also into the future.  The same thing applies to tech.  If 99% of all wi-fi products provide great wi-fi signal strength, then why does nearly every one have problems?  It's because the products out there are not all created equal.  Here's a very, very brief overview of what you need to know when selecting a wi-fi network product:

Some wi-fi products are better than others

The number of wi-fi products on the market is mind-boggling.  So it's break it down really fast so you can understand the differences:

If we were to group all the types of wi-fi networking products out there into major categories, I think they would fall neatly into four groups:

  1. Apple networking products
  2. Traditional consumer networking products (other than Apple)
  3. Next-generation consumer networking products (e.g. "mesh" capable)
  4. Cloud networking products

Apple Networking Products

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If you don't own an Apple Airport or Time Capsule, skip ahead to the next section.  If you own a couple or more Airport devices, read this because you're going to want to replace them with cloud networking.

Apple wi-fi products like the Airport Extreme, Airport Express and Apple Time Capsule are all traditional consumer networking products, meaning that Apple never released a modern, mesh-enabled wi-fi solution.  

The allure of Apple wi-fi products was their ease of installation. Like most things Apple, they were ridiculously easy to set up, and lacked the arcane, convoluted interfaces that are standard on other brands.  With Apple, their was an Airport Utility, and even an iPhone app.  With other brands, you need a web browser and to make sure you're on the same IP subnet (which means nothing to a non-tech). 

Even though the products were pretty and simple, Apple killed off their entire networking line-up recently, which is a very good thing for a few reasons:

  • No one with a larger home requiring multiple wireless devices for coverage should use Apple products.  If you have more than one or two Apple Airports, then your network will be suffering from slow speeds and other performance problems.  As a general rule of thumb, for each additional Apple Airport added to a network of Airports, the total amount of data flow (Internet, etc.) will go down by an additional 75% or more.  I see the typical fast cable modem being wasted all the time with multiple Apple devices reducing the Internet speeds to a small fraction of what they should be.
  • Apple Airports were buggy and unreliable, compared to the new families of cloud networking devices.  Now that Cisco Meraki seamlessly supports all Apple technologies, from Airplay to Bonjour and beyond, and runs reliably for years at a time without interruption, Apple owners have a solution that doesn't just work well, it actually improves the Apple experience.  I'm certain Apple paid close attention to Cisco's billion dollar acquisition of Meraki, and as Meraki has been rolling Apple technologies into every aspect of its functionality, I'm certain Apple had decommissioning their Airports on the schedule for a while.

Traditional consumer networking products (other than Apple)

Ok, so it's probably become clear so far that traditional "legacy" networking products like Apple Airport, linksys, d-link, netgear and other brands - usually products that sell in the $100~$300 range - have fallen so far behind our basic needs today that it's almost silly that they're still sold.  The attraction to these products is really price.  They're cheap, and electronics resellers make a lot of money selling them en masse.

This leaves us with two types of wi-fi and networking equipment to compare: Next generation wi-fi and cloud networking products that also provide wi-fi.

Next-generation consumer networking products (e.g. "mesh" capable)

Next-gen consumer wi-fi products are popping up all over: Google Home, Eero, the Linksys Velop, and more. and they have a lot of "wow" factor for two reasons:  First, instead of the traditional approach of a single router with manually configured repeaters orbiting around it, next-gen wi-fi mostly uses a technology called mesh networking.  In a nutshell, what mesh networking does is route traffic more efficiently between devices. This helps with the "snappiness" of Internet speeds.  Think about it this way:  Its like minimizing the number of stops on an airplane ride. Less is better, and non-stop is best.

The current next-generation offerings are a big step forward in the right direction, because they do a better job moving traffic around inside your network.  The problem is, while they can improve your wireless Internet browsing experience (and maybe printing, etc.) they typically don't provide visibility to what's actually going on inside your network, as well as tools to keep the network running well.   That's where cloud networking comes in.  

Cloud networking products

Cloud networking is a relatively new technology that provides visibility to not just wifi performance, but also detailed visibility to devices and traffic they create on a network. This goes way beyond wi-fi, but it enables me to keep hundreds of customers' wi-fi networks running smoothly worldwide and without every having to step foot into their homes and offices.

In general, with cloud networking, you almost never directly access the device itself.  To make configuration changes, you access a secure web site in the cloud, make the changes, and then the cloud communicates with the devices every few minutes, keeping your network up-to-date and in sync.  There's a lot of benefits to the cloud networking model.

  • I can configure an entire network before the product ever arrives via Fedex.
  • I can see exactly what's going on with every device on a network, from printers to iPhones to Macs and PCs, before making changes to the network.

Additionally, I can control traffic within the network.  This is a BIG deal.  When I read the support sites of most of the popular wireless mesh vendors, I realized that they don't take responsibility or ownership of what's running on the network.  They only make "strong wireless signal" and then refer you to an outside tech/consultant for troubleshooting issues with your network.  Let me be clear: This is a deal killer and makes a mesh wireless vendor useless in my opinion, as a business owner or head of household who needs wireless to be as reliable as water or any other utility.  Let me give you a few examples of what I can do with proper cloud networking:

  • My Apple TV almost never stalls (no perpetual gear icon).  That's because my network prioritizes TV and video traffic so my Apple TV is always getting priority.
  • My Skype, LINE, Webex and Facetime calls are never choppy, because I put a "traffic shaping" rule in place that says my audio and video calls get #1 priority, no matter how much gaming and Netflix traffic is going on in the house.
  • I can see all of my neighbors' wi-fi traffic patterns, so I can place my wireless network in a channel (think lane of a freeway) with the least traffic, so my wife and I always get fast browsing on all our devices.
  • I can enable Youtube for education and even restrict the hours of access my kids have to devices, with a few clicks.  I can even put rules in place on their devices that make the rules stick even when they're outside of our home.  

The point of cloud networking is that each and every device on a network- from the "router" (aka security appliance) to wi-fi access points to switches and even more - all check in regularly with a cloud controller, a machine thats responsible for securely keeping the configuration of each the devices in sync.  Everything you as the owner of the network wants and expects - how the devices all talk to each other, their signal strength, how they're set up on the local network, the applications that they use, and what's allowed and what's not - all of that is managed and controlled by the cloud.

You know all the time a technician spends configuring your router in your home or office?  Imagine the next time you replace that device, it automatically connects to the Internet and pulls down that exact configuration, reprogramming itself.  No technician needed.  Now imagine all of your devices doing that.   Thats the point of cloud networking.

A very important fact about proper cloud networking is that your personal information isn't uploaded to the cloud. Only relevant network management information is shared via the cloud.  Devices, how they're communicating - not what they're communicating - is available on the cloud.  The allows a network manager or qualified technician to make sure devices are connecting well with each other, without visibility to your personal data.

Cloud networking can control a lot of things:  How fast should your Apple TV perform compared to other traffic on your network?  What traffic should be blocked so your kids are protected?  What speed should your wi-fi network operate at, and who gets priority?

So by now we've covered the major categories of networking products out there.  The goal here was to help you identify which product type makes the most sense for you.  The bottom line is:

  • Avoid legacy networking products.  You may think you're saving money, but if you care about quality and your time, get a better product.
  • If all you care about is wi-fi, Internet browsing, and speed, security and control doesn't matter to you, one of the many new mesh products may work for you. 
  • If you care about security, performance, and having a hassle-free network that can make all your devices perform better, then cloud networking is should be your focus. 

Which leads to the next question:

WHO Makes the best Cloud Networking products?  

Full disclosure:  I am a fan of Cisco Meraki.  Let me explain why, and then I'll share the comprehensive review I'm done of three companies including Meraki.  I've worked with the other product makers, Ruckus and Aerohive, and I prefer Meraki products for three reasons:

  1. Meraki is the most reliable.  Their products, when set up correctly, do not need home visits.  Of the hundreds of networks I have set up across North America and Japan, I have never needed to perform an emergency visit to reset a router, unplug a wireless access point, or for any other reason.  I can manage the entire network, no matter how little or big, from my iPhone or Mac, including upgrades, updates and configuration changes.
  2. Meraki is the best overall performer. Like I mentioned above, it doesn't matter how fast your wi-fi hardware is if your network traffic is screwed up.  With Meraki, I can ensure my customers get an optimal wi-fi and network experience.  I always get to the bottom of any network problem.  I never operate with trial and error adjustments. Meraki gives me the tools to get to the bottom of a problem right away, the first time.  Which means my customers get used to me responding to any service request with "I will take care of it." (period)
  3. Speaking of which, Meraki and I share the same attitude: If someone else's product is not performing correctly, we don't just stop there, we both try to accommodate for that and force the product to work properly.  I have amazing cases where Meraki and I didn't just discover software bugs with other products, from something as small as Nest cams and Ring doorbells, to expensive home audio/video systems' remote controls, but we were able to document the issues, escalate what we found to the makers for their software engineers to solve, but in the meantime Meraki enabled me to "tune" the network to force the devices to work.  I'll blog about some of these radical case studies in the near future.
  4. Finally, in 20 years I've never worked with network engineers as knowledgeable and professional as the guys and gals at Cisco Meraki.  I have certifications and formal training in networking and information technology, and they do too.  In fact, when I call support I'm getting the best and the brightest network engineers on the planet. With one key differentiator: Their attitude. When you work with someone from Meraki, they're on your side.  Not on the other side.  They want your problem solved as much as you do, and they go out of their way to help.  It's not just a great engineering experience, to me, it complements the experience I'm trying to create for my customers, which is hospitality-focused.

Ok, I had to get that out of the way.

Evaluating cloud networking products is another area where I think the majority of bloggers are on a completely different frequency than most people.  Almost all the online reviews of cloud networking products I read focus heavily on technical features and product pricing, which are admittedly important, but they miss the mark when it comes to what matters most:  How easy it it to get support and how effective is the support?  To me, a single bad product experience costs me more time than the product itself.

support problems ruin a good product

A good example of what I'm talking about is my recent iPhone battery replacement that was supposed to be mail-in, but ended up forcing me into an Apple Store an hour away and costing over 8 hours of time away from work and my family. It started with an AppleCare phone rep who couldn't override a simple broken process regarding a part number, required me to call in to Apple three times, while a different person on each call reviewed the case from beginning to end, and ultimately they asked me to call into Apple Retail for them, which required even more conference calls.  I know the AppleCare team places importance on the customer experience, and you can see why: A small issue can costs someone much more in lost time than the product itself costs.   In this example, I'm only dealing with an iPhone battery.  Any kind of network, home or office, is sufficiently complex enough to quickly turn into a debacle if designed incorrectly, installed incorrectly, or maintained incorrectly.  It's back to the Wile-e-Coyote scenario above.

The cloud networking customer service test

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I think a product company's customer service philosophy and the customer service operations, people delivering it, is often missing from review of each cloud networking product. So to correct for that, I tested each of the cloud networking companies listed here with a very simple test that consists of two steps: 

  1. Look for their support phone number (how easy is it to find)
  2. Call them (how easy is it to talk to someone, and how professional and easy is the support experience)

First, go to the support home pages for Ruckus, Aerohive and Cisco Meraki and look for a phone number.  I believe this one point strongly tells you more about the customer service experience and support you can expect to receive into the future than anything else. Do they want to take your call?  For Meraki and Ruckus, the answer appears to be yes.  Check out the difference between the three companies' support home pages.

 

I've done this exercise many times before, and in writing this post I wanted to make  sure my review is current.  So after I found Ruckus' phone support number, I gave them a call.  After all, a number is only as good as the time it takes to be answered and the person behind the phone. It turns out the call wasn't easy. Because I have a consumer Ruckus product, defined as one or more access points without a controller (a big machine for managing a complex, large network), the phone support rep insisted that I would have to call the reseller who sold me the product.

With Cisco Meraki, the experience was better. The support number requires your Cisco Meraki customer number first, which is assigned to you when you purchase your first Cisco Meraki product.  Then, after a minute of hold time, a Cisco Meraki engineer answered the phone, and immediately took ownership of the call.

Aerohive doesn't display their support number on their support home page. Instead, only a link to creating a new ticket. It was easier to search Google for "Aerohive support phone number", which find a contact page nested deeply in the footer links on their main home page. 

Quality of support documentation

Whether you're a business owner or a home owner, the quality of support documentation - simplicity, clarity, ease of search - will directly impact your total cost of ownership.  The more time a tech has to spend looking for something, the more it costs you.    Consider a really basic request I have for over half the networks I support: Setting up a VPN (virtual private network) connection on my customer's Mac or PC or iPhone, so they can connect into their network securely. 

With Aerohive, searching for "vpn client" (which is what the configuration is called) comes up with the right hit, but uses technical jargon more appropriate for techs than for non-techs, and no step by step with pictures.    With Ruckus, the search doesn't even produce what I'm looking for on page 1 of the results.  With Meraki?  Not only is it the first hit, marked "recommended", but when you click on it, it gives you a very simple, clean document that not only allows you to self-select what kind of device you want to configure, but it also provides you with step-by-step instructions so good, over 90% of my non-tech customers have loved following along and configuring their own VPN settings, as long as I provide the passwords they need. 

For businesses I serve, this is huge, because it means that I can do more in less time, and because employees are so busy with work, any little task that they can do themselves, without having to stop and call a tech for help, means they have less interruptions and things get done faster for them.  It's a win-win.

Some final thoughts

So many people go for months and years with horrible wi-fi or an unreliable network at home and even at the office.  What always surprises me is how uninformed or misinformed most people are by the vendors who make the wi-fi products that are either underperforming or simply aren't a good match for the customer's needs. And often the technical people who recommended the products to them are equally oblivious to the customer's needs, and they become participants in this horrible mismatch of errors.

I personally believe that education changes things.  It opens peoples eyes to what they don't know, so they can start to ask the right questions, start questioning what would otherwise be the acceptable norm - wifi that sucks.  I believe when a customer becomes more knowledgeable by taking the time to help them understand how to pick a product that's right for them, the price tag on a product becomes a lot less relevant, and the fit and total performance of the product in their life and work becomes the deciding factor.

This was my first pass at this blog post.  Let me know what you think.  And let me know if you're curious about anything I covered - especially if you'd like me to expand on one or two things in a Youtube video.   I'm writing this right now from my apartment on screaming fast wi-fi thanks to my Meraki setup.  I'd love to share with you how my setup works, so you can find a good setup that helps you be more successful in life and work.