Google’s OnHub is an easy router that cures bad Wi-Fi

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Early reviews of Google’s first OnHub router say it’s impressive but value isn’t yet known.

For most people, a Wi-Fi router is like a Ronco rotisserie: You set it and forget it. I get it, you never want to think about your Wi-Fi router, especially since you either spent an hour on tech support setting it up, or got some cable installer to do it for you. When Google announced its own Wi-Fi router, called the OnHub and designed by TP-Link, I vehemently shrugged it off and successfully convinced a Mashable intern to cancel his pre-order for the $199 device and Save His Money™.

The router is the gateway to high-speed internet in our homes, and it enables us to wirelessly connect countless gadgets — smartphones, laptops, TVs, thermostats, speakers, coffee makers, game consoles, the list goes on — to the internet. Then the OnHub arrived for testing and I started to warm up to its promises of faster and better Wi-Fi coverage through intelligent software, not to mention super-simple setup via an app.

It’s got pretty much everything my AirPort offers—the latest Wi-Fi technology and easy access from an app—and in addition, it serves as traffic cop for all the gadgets in my environment trying to reach the Internet. The WSJ said that even those with high-end routers will be impressed by ease of use and bandwidth, but may be disappointed by lack of granular control. Most people use the router provided to them by their internet service provider (ISP), which may have terrible wireless range and a ridiculously complex setup process. Aftermarket routers, whether it be a model from Netgear, Asus, or even Apple, can provide better coverage and wireless range, but even those aren’t the easiest things to set up or manage.

That means you won’t waste hours on the phone with customer support to get help for installing it and answering questions like “Is your device plugged in?”. That alone makes it a worthwhile upgrade for my house […] Google trumps Apple’s easy app-based setup with cloud-connected network management and enhanced troubleshooting […] and I like the fact that I can easily text my Wi-Fi password to a friend, or become “Manager” of my mother’s network […] [But] there’s a clear lack of networking tweakability, which is good for easily frustrated home networkers like me, but bad news for people who want specific custom settings Speed tests showed the OnHub was a bit faster than the Airport connection (a difference of about 6 megabits per second).

As a result, U.S. router sales have fallen from 6.1 million year-to-date in 2012 to 3.5 million in the same period this year, market research firm NPD reports. Compared to an Apple router, the Google OnHub was faster by six megabites per second and performed better on long distance tests, from three rooms away. Yet while many people are satisfied with their cheap or rented router, a segment of the population is starting to realize they need something better, for three key reasons: They’re connecting more and more gadgets to their home networks, they’re streaming more video than ever before, and they’re paying for increased bandwidth, upwards of 100 megabits per second, which only gets choked by a sub-par home network. “I don’t think anybody gets a state-of-the-art router from their ISP,” said Stephen Baker, NPD’s vice president of industry analysis for consumer electronics.

Overall the difference in network performance wasn’t too huge, at least in this limited face-off […] What really sets the OnHub apart is its app […] It displays how many devices are attached to the network, including how much data each is using. A sleek cylinder with a matte blue or black finish, the OnHub ditches the traditional array of blinking lights for a single glowing status ring, and is something you could put anywhere in your house without much embarrassment.

Cheap routers aren’t selling so well, but higher-end models, like the ones my colleague Joanna Stern reviewed in February, are. “People are willing to pay a lot of money—more than before—for an AC router with significantly better performance than they had in the past,” said Mr. The router comes in black or navy and Google says it’s designed to be be placed in the center of your home so its 13 antennas can blast Wi-Fi in all directions, but I don’t see that happening. Google knows better than most how much people are using the Internet, and the design of its router shows that it understands how that happens at home.

With the OnHub, Google is trying to solve the three biggest pain points of routers — setup, coverage, and troubleshooting — and build a wireless portal for the future. Instead of pointing houseguests to a piece of paper with your 12-character alphanumeric password scribbled on it, you can share the network name and password directly from the app.

Not only is the power cable only 5 feet long, but the OnHub needs to be plugged into your modem, which needs to be connected to a coaxial-cable outlet, which for some inexplicable reason is always in the worst place possible — like in a closet or next to a door. Built in close partnership with TP-Link, a networking hardware maker, Google’s OnHub has an array of antennas covering 360 degrees, along with a front facing antenna that bathes the immediate area with strong Wi-Fi. After switching out my current router and using the OnHub for the past few days in my own home, I want to say that Google has come awfully close, with just a couple of downsides that may or may not matter to you. If you’ve ever spent the afternoon banging your head against the wall trying to get your WiFi network up and running, the OnHub might well be the right router for you, despite its high price.

Instead it studies your environment and lets you prioritize a device over all the others in your home, maybe the Netflix-streaming Roku, or the laptop in the den. If you don’t know what you’re doing or have little experience setting up a home Wi-Fi network, racking your brain around ports, channels, proxies, and gibberish like http://192.168.1.1 can be like pulling teeth. The OnHub already saved me a ton of headaches in my San Francisco apartment, where thick walls and a weird layout had previously made getting online a real pain. Walls, furniture, appliances, and all of the normal stuff people have in their homes can block Wi-Fi signals, so having fewer of those in the way makes for a better experience. It’s also a good choice for a power user to recommend to the tech-savvy family and friends looking to them for network tech support–the price and performance are good, and the OnHub will make troubleshooting easier.

Fortunately, the OnHub’s powerful wireless range made this a non-issue: I put it upstairs in my home office next to my cable modem, where my prior router was located. (More on wireless coverage later.) Setting up the OnHub in my home was painless: I plugged it in, downloaded the app to my smartphone (OnHub has apps for Android and iOS), and went through the setup process. That involves holding my phone near the router to pair it via audio signal and start the initial configuration, which is a lot easier than trying to directly connect my phone to a temporary wireless network or pair it over Bluetooth. It’s a strong performer, and it has some innovative features—including that TPM module to foil hackers—but its feature set is much too limited: The OnHub won’t let you share storage or a printer over your network; it doesn’t have DLNA, ftp, or VPN servers; and it has just one LAN port. For instance, if I’m watching Netflix on my Apple TV and I want a smooth streaming experience, I can prioritize it for better performance (less buffering).

While I appreciate hardware that recommends settings it thinks will deliver the highest performance, I want the freedom to override those recommendations if I don’t agree with them. You can’t control which channels the OnHub operates on, you can’t choose the network your clients join; heck, the OnHub doesn’t even provide for a guest network. You can prioritize bandwidth to specific devices, so if you’re having an online gaming session or want to stream 4K content to your TV, you can allocate the most bandwidth to those tasks. It’s powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM and comes with 4GB of internal storage, but none of those specs really matter to most people. It also lets you run speed tests — both from your ISP to your modem and from the OnHub to your wireless devices — making it easy to identify where a bottleneck might be occurring.

The app even tells you what your speed enables you to do: whether that’s stream ultra HD 4K content or something less bandwidth-intensive, giving actual meaning to the upload and download numbers. Six of those antennas are 2.4GHz (802.11 b/g/n) and six of them are 5GHz (802.11 a/n/ac), and the last one is an AUX antenna and radio that automatically looks for the least congested channel every five minutes and switches to it so your Wi-Fi performance is always at its best. I live in an apartment building and during certain hours (like dinner time) when the entire building is connecting to their devices, there’s tons of interference. At home, I use a Arris/Motorola SURFboard SBG6580 modem/Wi-Fi router that Time Warner Cable recommended I buy if I didn’t want to keep paying them to lease their own gear.

The Asus cost me about $200 and is a highly-rated router, with configurable antennas, 2.4GHz and 5GHz network support, and lots of settings and options. OnHub is much more than a router, though—or at least, it will be, someday […] On the underside of the OnHub, there’s a label that reads “Built for Google On.” If we want to start wildly speculating (and we do), we’d say that “Google On” is the name of Google’s smart home platform, making “OnHub” the hub for all of your Google On stuff. “Built for Google On” would be the certification process that OEMs go through to ensure their products work with Google’s smart home ecosystem.

At any given time, I would have a dozen or more devices connected to it, including smartphones, tablets, speakers, set top boxes, laptops, lightbulbs, and smoke detectors. Google swears that it does not track the websites you visit or pull any content from network traffic. (You can read more on all that here.) The search giant says it collects data about Wi-Fi channels, signal strength and the kinds of devices on your network, information that’s “relevant to optimize your Wi-Fi performance.” You can even turn off the cloud connection in settings, if you don’t like the trade off, but you’ll lose some smarts and the remote access. Other parts of the home had dead or extremely slow zones, and the video monitor we use for watching our infant would completely interfere with the 2.4GHz network, rendering it unusable. I’ve tried switching to the 5GHz band, where interference is supposed to be less likely, but it’s never really better because everyone else is probably doing the same.

As weird a feeling as it is, letting Google take up a physical role in my household, it’s hard to deny what I witnessed this week: The best wireless networking my home has ever seen. My expectations for the OnHub were thusly set: I was sure that placing it in my office would result in a similar experience I had with the Asus (and I wasn’t interested in piping Ethernet wires throughout my home to put it in a different spot). But I’ve had zero issues with the OnHub: coverage has been shockingly good, I haven’t needed to use the wireless repeater at all, and the interference I saw with the baby monitor has disappeared. During Sunday’s VMAs at a little after 9:30 p.m. (primetime and perfect for Wi-Fi congestion and interference), I averaged 3.55 Mbps download and 0.85 Mbps upload (average of three speedtests) on my Motorola Wi-Fi router.

To make that happen, the OnHub employs a total of 13 internal antennas: six for its 2.4GHz network, six for 5GHz, and one to monitor the network and automatically tune the radios to the best settings. The upload speed doesn’t bother me at all, but there’s clearly a huge gulf for the download speed, which is what you need to care about when loading anything on the Internet. Google’s Wi-Fi router has more high-tech tricks: It supports up to 1900Mbps Wi-Fi speeds and a bunch of other wireless protocols for the Internet of Things, including 802.15.4, Weave and Bluetooth Smart Ready, but I I wasn’t able to test any of them. Of course, there wasn’t any update to perform during my review period, but even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it because it’s supposed to happen in the background.

It also doesn’t help that the router only has one free Ethernet port for plugging in other networked devices; comparatively, most routers in this price range (and even below) have at least three to four Ethernet ports. But if you’re on a tight budget and willing to dig into IP addresses and deal with a few potential pull-your-hair-out moments during setup and malfunctions later, you can find a more affordable deal elsewhere for a lot less. It’s certainly possible that those models could include more USB and Ethernet ports, though there’s no guarantee that they will or how much they might cost if they do. The OnHub is excellent as a product, but I predict its biggest hurdle will be one of perception: Before buying, most people will ask themselves: Do I trust Google with my Internet connection? One thing that doesn’t seem possible with this model is Amazon Echo-like functionality: the OnHub has a speaker, but lacks a microphone, making it unable to respond to voice controls.

If you live in a small apartment, chances are you don’t need the power the OnHub offers (though perhaps you could benefit from its simplicity and app-based control). A few years from now, things such as a Wi-Fi-enabled toaster, washing machine, door bell, or garage door opener won’t be the domain of early adopters, they will be commonplace.

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