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Mesh WiFi vs Access Points: What's The Difference?

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If you have explored wireless networking solutions for your home, you’ve likely found there are choices beyond a standard router and modem to optimize your WiFi network. Mesh networks, wireless access points and WiFi extenders all provide wireless connectivity; however, the right solution depends on your unique needs and requirements.

Access points, for example, extend the reach of an existing network, offering enhanced coverage and supporting more connected devices. On the other hand, mesh WiFi or mesh networks eliminate dead zones and create a single comprehensive whole home WiFi solution for streaming, gaming or working from home.

In this article, we’ll compare mesh WiFi and access points so you can make the right decision for your household’s specific networking needs.

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What is a WiFi access point?

A WiFi access point is a device that creates a wireless local area network within a fixed location and extends the reach of an existing wired network.

Wireless access points connect to routers, switches or hubs by Ethernet cables and project WiFi signals across a specific area. Wireless devices nearby can connect to the network without needing a direct wired connection.

Access points are used in homes, businesses and public places to provide network access to a large number of users and devices over a wide area. It’s important to note that access points simply replicate your router’s internet speed; if you route a network through an access point that has slow speed or poor connection, your network range will be expanded, but the connection may be weak.

What are access points good for?

WiFi access points provide many benefits for users, such as extending coverage, supporting more devices and improving connectivity. Let’s review some of the benefits below.

    • Increased coverage: Access points extend WiFi coverage in larger areas or to zones the main router can’t reach, like different floors or outdoors.
    • Extended device support: Access points support the latest WiFi standards and tech, offering faster speeds to many connected devices and distributing the network load.
    • Improved connectivity: Wireless access points spread WiFi across a broader area, reducing the impact of dead zones.
    • Segmented networks: Users can leverage separate networks for guests, enhancing security for your own network.

Pros and cons of WiFi access points

Many benefits of the best wireless access points include extended coverage, improved connectivity and segmented networks, with more security options for an advanced user.

However, WiFi access points also have a few disadvantages when it comes to their cost, setup, management, maintenance and physical requirements.

    • Cost: The cost of implementing WiFi access points includes not only the device itself but also installation and potential wiring or configuration costs.
    • Setup: Access points can require complex configuration, especially if they require managing the same network across multiple devices to ensure networks do not interfere.
    • Maintenance: Wireless access points need to be regularly maintained and monitored to ensure performance.
    • Interference: If not properly configured, multiple access points can interfere with each other, leading to degraded performance.

Proper planning, installation and maintenance are crucial to leverage a WiFi access point.

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What is mesh WiFi?

Mesh WiFi systems evolved from military communications technology developed in the 1980s, becoming prominent in consumer markets by the 2000s to meet the need for reliable and extensive home WiFi coverage.

In the 2010s, brands like eero championed the simplification of setup and improvement of mesh WiFi connectivity across large areas such as offices and large homes.

Since then, the incorporation of technologies like WiFi 6e has further enhanced mesh WiFi’s ability to support homes with many connected devices and advanced smart tech.

How does mesh WiFi work?

Mesh WiFi aims to eliminate dead zones and ensure consistent internet quality across a range of different internet speeds – no matter your space. Unlike traditional routers, which rely on a single point of broadcast, mesh networks use multiple access points in the form of physical nodes. Each node in the mesh network communicates with the main router and with other nodes.

When the configuration is optimized, the mesh WiFi nodes create a grid-like infrastructure in which data is routed through the fastest and most efficient paths.

Pros and cons of mesh WiFi

Many benefits of mesh WiFi include node-rich networks, self-configuring maintenance, easy management and seamless connectivity throughout the home.

    • Multiple nodes: A mesh WiFi system can include several nodes. One acts as the primary router, connected directly to your modem. Additional nodes work with the primary router, extending WiFi coverage strategically throughout the home.
    • Self-configuring: After set up, nodes automatically communicate with each other to optimize the data routing paths, allowing the mesh technology to flex with the number of devices connected and their needs as they adapt in real-time to changes in the environment, such as interference or device movement.
    • Roaming-ready: Devices automatically connect to the strongest signal within the mesh network. As you move around, your devices switch seamlessly between nodes without dropping the connection or reconnecting to different networks.
    • Easy-to-manage: Most mesh WiFi systems are managed via smartphone, which allows users to control the performance of their wireless network and connected devices, prioritize device traffic, adjust security settings and receive firmware updates.

While mesh WiFi offers many advantages, specific users may find that they do not need the robust features that a mesh network provides. In a small space where WiFi can reach all areas, for example, usually a traditional router will be enough.

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Mesh WiFi vs access points: Comparative analysis

While mesh WiFi and access points both serve the purpose of providing wireless internet access, they differ significantly in design, coverage, performance and management. Let’s compare the two below.

Coverage

    • Access points: While individual access points may provide stronger signals than a single mesh node, coverage is limited to the range of that unit. In order to cover a larger area, you would need to use multiple access points and wire them back to the main router.
    • Mesh WiFi: Coverage is extensive, as nodes can be added to eliminate dead zones and ensure consistent signal strength across larger and multi-story buildings.

Performance

    • Access points: Access points tend to offer more stable and faster speeds because each device is directly connected to the main network. However, users farther away from the access point or behind obstructions experience weaker signals and lower speeds.
    • Mesh WiFi: Designed to maintain stronger and more consistent performance throughout the covered area. Nodes communicate with each other to ensure devices are always connected to the strongest signal available.

Setup

    • Access points: Setup is generally more complex. It may involve technical knowledge, requiring connection of each access point to the main router via Ethernet, running cables through walls or ceilings and configuring network settings manually.
    • Mesh WiFi: Mesh networks offer user-friendly setup. Most consumer-grade mesh systems, such as eero, come with a mobile app that guides you through the installation.

Price

    • Access points: Modern consumer devices often used in smaller spaces or homes, range in price from $50 to $150, supporting basic features and a moderate number of concurrent users.
    • Mesh WiFi: For home users, mesh nodes can range from approximately $100 to $250 each. They provide great coverage and speed, suitable for homes or apartments, as well as features like parental controls and security.

Management and maintenance

    • Access points: Access points often require more hands-on management, typically through network management software. While more complex, you can expect more customization and real-time monitoring.
    • Mesh WiFi: Many mesh systems offer easy management through mobile apps, and auto-scheduling and execution of tasks such as channel switching, network optimization and firmware updates.

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What option is best for my home?

Choosing between the best mesh WiFi system and access points for your home depends on several factors, including the size of your home, the layout, the number of devices you’ll connect and your specific needs for features and performance.

Mesh networks for the home

    • Home size and layout: Mesh networks are great for larger homes or homes with complex layouts that might create signal dead zones. Connectivity between nodes ensures coverage throughout the house – without signal drops.
    • Ease of use: If you prefer a system that’s easy to set up and manage without needing technical expertise, mesh networks are the better choice.
    • Expandability: If you anticipate needing to extend your network coverage—such as into a basement or a backyard—adding additional nodes to a mesh network is simple.

Wireless access points for the home

    • High-density usage: As access points connect directly to your main router via Ethernet, they generally provide stability.
    • Control and customization: If you desire more control over your network settings, such as QoS, security or network settings, access points may be the better option.
    • Aesthetics: Access points are large and must be installed to connect near your modem. Mesh networks, however, are less obtrusive than access points, which may be a consideration if you prefer a cleaner, streamlined look.

Bottomline: Mesh WiFi vs access points

When deciding between mesh WiFi or wireless access points, you need to compare your needs with the specific functions of each technology. You should consider the short-term and long-term benefits of both.

Mesh networks are designed to be consumer-friendly and easily adjustable for covering any area of your home. If you decide that the benefits of an access point system—such as higher capacity and performance—outweigh the more complex setup and management, it might be worth considering if you have the expertise or resources to manage it effectively.

Ultimately, the right choice will align with your specific needs, household setup and how you use your internet connectivity at home.

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Frequently asked questions

Yes, there can be some reduction in speed with mesh WiFi compared to using a single router, particularly as the distance increases from the primary router to the satellite nodes.

Avoid poor placement of nodes, make sure to use a balanced number of nodes, keep your software updated, use compatible technology, secure your network and consider using a wired backhaul to optimize performance.

Yes, having too many WiFi access points can be problematic. It can lead to signal interference, network congestion and inefficient use of bandwidth, potentially slowing down the overall network performance.

A wireless access point is useful for extending WiFi coverage, supporting more devices, enhancing network performance, segmenting the network for security and providing outdoor or high-density area coverage.

Yes, you can connect a wireless access point directly to a modem if the modem has a built-in router with an Ethernet port. If the modem does not have router functionality, you would need a separate router between the modem and the access point to handle these tasks.

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