domain classification wifi mesh routers

Inadequacies of Domain Classification & Parental Controls on Mesh Router Systems: Part 1

Webshrinker periodically performs threat detection tests on hardware devices and other security products to compare threat protection and content filtering capabilities. Because of the proliferation of mesh WiFi routers, this series will focus on mesh router systems. In our first installation of this series, we’ll cover these mesh routers as a whole and give our review. In later articles, we’ll spotlight each router and dive into their unique security settings.

WiFi performance has become a major factor in everything from working from home to personal internet use. That’s part of why mesh router systems have become a standard in many households and work environments. At Webshrinker, we’ve come to realize that some of these mesh WiFi routers truly care about domain classification, quality of website categorization, and parental controls while others simply don’t.

Domain Analysis Testing Process

To perform an accurate test, we need to make sure that we treat each provider the same to generate comparable results. Here’s our testing process:

  1. Generate a 7-day lookback list of the most dangerous threat domains in the categories of: Botnet, Malware, and Phishing & Deception
  2. Generate another 7-day lookback list of the top domains in content categories of: Adult Content, Drugs, Gambling, Terrorism & Hate, and Weapons
  3. Set up traffic capture on the test subject
  4. Perform dns lookup on threat domains to simulate traffic while safeguarding our internal networks
  5. View and record blocked domains from the test subject

The threat domain lists are considered a snapshot in time because they are quickly de-platformed once discovered so a new list is generated prior to each test.

Test our domain lookup tool

What are Mesh Routers?

Mesh router systems are taking over the home market for good reason. Large homes over 3,000 square feet, homes with unusual layouts, multiple stories, or dense building materials especially benefit from mesh systems. The gist of mesh routers is to maximize wifi coverage by spreading multiple “hotspots'' around the dwelling. Wifi emanating from multiple locations beats a standalone router every time no matter how many antennas are poking out. Don’t confuse this new bread with wifi extenders of the past. Each device works in concert with the others to develop a wifi cloud surrounding your space and maximizing your bandwidth.

Mesh Router Comparison

3 Pack Price Max Speed Sq Ft Coverage Parental Controls Protection Plan Wifi 6 Capable
Google Nest WiFi $349 1.2 Gbps 5,400 Yes Included No
eero Pro 6 $599 1 Gbps 6,000 Yes $99/yr Yes
Netgear Orbi $999 6 Gbps 7,500 Yes $69.99/yr Yes
Plume $477 Yes Included Yes
Linksys Atlas Max $1,199 5 Gbps 9,000 Yes Included Yes
TP-Link Deco X90 (2 pack) $499 2.5 Gbps 6,000 Yes Included Yes

All the systems improve your WiFi experience and provide greater insight into what is actually happening on your network than most consumer grade routers but there are many aspects to consider when making the right choice for your needs.

Physical Space

Building materials such as metals, brick, concrete, ceramic, glass, and drywall have a significant impact on your signal strength. Even worse are other wireless devices and nearby wifi signals causing interference.

Layout and the number of floors at your home or office is another obstacle for WiFi strength.

These mesh routers cannot change the material or layout of your space but they can create hotspots where they are needed most. Getting around a mechanical room or up the stairs is as simple as adding more mesh satellites.

Mesh router Ease of Setup

Setting up a mesh router system is not complicated, but it can be difficult for many who aren’t used to technical implementations. The first time I set up a mesh router years ago, I broke my internet connection. Turns out my device was still retrieving DNS IP addresses from a device it was previously connected to. This wasn’t the fault of the mesh router, I simply wasn’t aware of the previous way the device was used and it impacted my ability to set it up properly. It’s important to note that sometimes things will go wrong with these deployments, and calm troubleshooting may be required.

All the companies in our list provide decent support to help, but here are the extremely simplified steps to get you started.

Basic Setup Steps

  1. Connect your new mesh router to your modem. The new mesh router can take the place of your existing router if you have a separate box from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) serving as your modem. If you have a combo modem/router from your ISP you’ll still need it connected as-is.
  2. Set up the mesh router through the app supplied by the manufacturer.
  3. Add satellite units around your space to maximize WiFi coverage.
  4. Connect devices to the new WiFi network

Advanced Options

  1. Turn off any existing WiFi networks from your ISP’s equipment. This step reduces confusion when connecting devices and removes potential interference.
  2. Add a network switch to your new mesh router. The mesh systems excel at WiFi, but most have few additional ports for connecting wired devices. Wired devices will always outperform WiFi and adding a switch allows for a wired expansion of your new network.

Mesh router user experience

Like with all software, including here at Webshrinker, user experience is absolutely critical. Here, I will comment on the topic I glossed over in step No. 2 of the basic setup: The apps and their associated user experience.

Google Nest Wifi uses the Google Home app. It’s easy to understand Google’s motivation here. All aspects of your smart home can be managed from the app and WiFi is part of that ecosystem. Since the WiFi puck serves as Google Assistant and a smart speaker, it makes sense to group within the Google Home app but results in setup fatigue. While the app has a lot going on, it’s relatively easy to find the new mesh router to add and navigate through the WiFi/Google Assistant/voice/speaker setup process. 

Be prepared: There are many questions to answer, but Google keeps them simple and guides you through the process. Unfortunately, there is no web app with additional features in the Google Home ecosystem. So what you see in the mobile app is all there is.

eero has the easiest in-app setup out of all of our test subjects. The single focus of the initial launch is to get you online—which was a relief after the Google Home app. More advanced features like parental controls and device profiles are available after initial setup. The walkthrough was simple and easy. Bonus: Both eero 6 models serve double duty as a zigbee hub for a connected home through Amazon’s Alexa app. The only eero downside is no web app for power users looking to do more with your network gear.

Netgear Orbi is our first test subject from the traditional router manufacturers and they’ve taken visual cues from the upstarts eero and Plume, but the mobile app is lacking basic features like DNS IPs and port forwarding. The app is easy on the eyes with a hint of legacy baggage, but not enough to cause anxiety. WiFi setup was smooth but the router's internal web app is the only place to find and configure most settings. Another user experience point centers around Netgear’s ecosystem. In typical enterprise fashion, it’s difficult to find information specific to your device because the product catalog is so vast and historic.

The Plume Homepass app is well designed and simple to use. The connected devices automation on the homescreen is also pretty fun and useful to determine which pod a device is connected to. Initial setup was a breeze and similar to eero in that it is focused on enabling WiFi, saving advanced options for later. There is a web app for Plume, but our pods were acquired from an ISP so the web app was unavailable.

Linksys is another seasoned veteran of the home router wars. After selecting Velop as the router type, the initial WiFi setup is very easy and navigating the app is sensible. The app feels quite modern but all the traditional router features are packed in the side menu when revealed. In typical Linksys style the router’s internal web app is full-featured.

The TP-Link Deco mobile app’s setup questions are seamless, but a firmware upgrade was required for our internet to become active. In a trend reversal, Deco offers a very basic web app while all settings are available in the mobile app including application priority and router tweaking. The strength of the Deco app is providing all the critical router settings in a simple to understand grid. The advanced settings like IPv6, Dynamic DNS, and port forwarding are tucked away but easy to access.

Parental Controls & Security

Since Webshrinker and our parent company DNSFilter are focused on threat protection and content filtering, I’m going to take a deeper look in a series of posts over the next few weeks analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the parental controls and threat protection of each mesh system. Stay tuned!

Below is a quick list to jump around our review of mesh router security features.

Part 2 - Plume

Part 3 - Netgear Orbi

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