You’re going to be hearing a lot in the near future about mesh networking (also known as whole-home Wi-Fi or surround Wi-Fi). Like the current political situation in the US, you’re going to be alternately enhanced and confused by what companies claim to be offering with these systems, so listen up. Whole home Wi-Fi is simple (sometimes too simple) and easily explained, but what it might or might not do for you comes down to a question of what you want. We were lucky enough to obtain a Luma Home Wi-Fi System for review, and we’re here to explain, edify, and coach you on why you should or shouldn’t get one.
Broken down to the bare minimum, a whole home or surround Wi-Fi system is basically a router with additional physical access points (or “nodes” as they’re often called) included in the kit. These act as a sort of extra bubble of coverage that extends the range of your signal. The difference between buying a router and access points separately is that 1) it’s far more expensive and 2) each AP has to be configured separately. In other words, with bridges or alternate routers, you have to literally disconnect and reconnect to your router every time you move from one hotspot to another. So, you have a router in the family room, and another bridge or access point in the kitchen. When you move from the family room to the kitchen, the device disconnects form one router, and then reconnects to the second router. There is no “handshake” as the device roams. With mesh networking, the whole system is set up as one continuous access point, so you don’t have to reconnect when you enter a different zone.
With the Luma, the setup is so easy it’s almost suspect. The entire process, from opening the box to setting up the routers to enjoying whole home Wi-Fi, took no more than fifteen minutes. I’ve had blind dates go worse in less time than that.
A blue ring lights up on the Luma modules during setup, but that eventually goes away—I was initially worried that this ring would glow all night, but it doesn’t, which is great, since one of these nodes was going into my daughter’s room. The last thing she needs is a high-tech nightlight. The only other part of the operation consisted of downloading the app on my iPhone, and one on my mother’s LG phone.
Word of Caution
There is no browser-based administration of the router like there is with every other standard router out there. If you fidget with your router settings or have need for PPPoE, PPTP, L2TP, or IPv6 WAN connections, then you don’t want to install this, or you want to keep your old router in place. The Luma only supports DHCP WAN.
Where the Luma shines is in ease of setup and security. If you are a low-tech user who only wants fast Wi-Fi and little setup, then the Luma system is for you. Once you download the app, you have a variety of tools at your disposal, including the ability to assign specific users to specific devices. We’ll explain why this is great in a minute. You can also set the filtering level (Unrestricted to G), although at the lower G level, almost every website is blocked. You can also grant access to guest Wi-Fi, so not everyone needs your password during a holiday get-together, and the Luma includes a host of built-in intrusion security protocols (including botnet, malware, spyware, spam, and phishing detection, along with ad fraud and more) that will help keep your Wi-Fi hacker free.
So, back to assigning individuals to devices. When you assign a device to an individual in the app, you can then also assign a filtering level based on the user, and you can be notified whenever that user tries to access sites that go against the filtering protocols. You can also pause the Internet per user, which means that family meals, quiet time, or any time where you need a break from Wi-Fi can now be implemented without changing passwords or unplugging your router.
In real life, this all seems like a parent’s dream, but in other situations, this level of intrusiveness can seem a little, well, intrusive. There is even talk of a list of websites visited being delivered to the admin for the router, which is great if you have a seven-year-old, but an uphill battle for your seventeen-year-old. I know. I stormed that beach when I installed the Luma.
Unfortunately, none of the filtering works when you have a VPN installed. Because a VPN creates its own network, the Luma app doesn’t recognize that someone is on the network when you are connected. With the VPN running, I was able to access all levels of websites even though I had set the filtering to G.
What about the Performance?
The router and nodes speak to each other wirelessly, so if one node is interrupted or down, the other nodes can still transmit their signal. The hexagonal discs only have three ports. A power port (each disc is independently powered), two Ethernet ports (in/out) for hardwired flexibility, and a USB 2.0 port (for expansion, possibly—right now the port doesn’t do anything). The routers work with a quad-core processor using IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac protocols and simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. It’s also Bluetooth 4.0 (low energy Bluetooth) certified. The router uses a standard 2x2 AC1200 router internally, with two dual PCB antennas for the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands (four in total).
The Luma worked efficiently, right off the bat. The coverage was phenomenal. In the three-story house in which I live, I placed a Luma in the middle floor, top floor, and subfloor, all at around the same physical area—dead center on each level. What I got was three floors of uninterrupted access, without any corner dead spots or weak connections. But when I went into the backyard, I noticed I had a weaker signal. I then went back and repositioned one of the routers to an area near a back window, and voilà! The backyard was enjoying the same signal range that I got on the middle floor. Although Luma will suggest where to place routers, you should set them where you need them. I think a range of fifteen feet from the center of each placement is an accurate sphere of influence to receive a Wi-Fi signal.
I played videogames, used my laptop to web search, and connected up to 17 different devices throughout the week. I didn’t experience any dropout, lost signals or packet loss (of course, this was with the VPN disconnected—as is normal with all VPNs, there was some traffic slowdown while it was running). This was also not faster than my normal router (an ASUS RTAC68U AC1750), which is to be expected, since the Luma runs on an AC1200 configuration. But it is also a known fact that each node in this setup also vies for the bandwidth you’re trying to free up, so if you’re running dozens of devices, add the two nodes to the list of devices that need that Internet juice.
While the tradeoff is the ease of setup (ridiculously easy), the built-in security, and the expanded coverage, you might expect more from a router system that almost doubles the price of a good router. When you consider that you have to buy three routers to do the same work, that’s when a system like the Luma tends to pay off. The question is, do you need the coverage and the simplicity, or do you need the raw power? A bigger question may be: why can’t we have both? Until we see what the eero or the Orbi by Netgear can do, the questions will remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Whole home or mesh networking Wi-Fi is the wave of the future, and Luma is one of the first to hit the beach.