This little router blankets your home in speedy WiFi - and gives Google a serious challenge

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amplifi review Business Insider/Jeff Dunn The Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD.

WiFi routers are in the midst of a sudden renaissance.

As more and more people welcome more and more internet-connected things into their lives, a growing number of networking companies have seen an opportunity to pounce. The result: a persistent stream of new "WiFi systems," multi-device setups that pair a base router with external extenders and range boosters.

The idea is to blanket your home in internet. You put a slick-looking router in one spot, and a handful of nodes where you normally have trouble staying online. All of these bits talk to each other in the background, creating a "mesh" network, which allows you to walk around your place without losing your connection.

Smaller startups like Eero and Luma kicked off this trend in earnest, but now big names like Netgear and even Google have jumped aboard.

One established name you may not know, however, is Ubiquiti. Led by billionaire Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, it's carved a spot out in the enterprise world, but is taking advantage of this WiFi hype train to transition its tech to consumers.

And so we have the AmpliFi, which isn't totally a mesh system, but creates the same effect. I've been testing the highest-end AmpliFi HD model - a dual-band, 3x3, AC1750 router - for the past couple months. Here's what I've found.

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Like the many other WiFi systems hitting the market, the AmpliFi emphasizes design. And it looks great.

Like the many other WiFi systems hitting the market, the AmpliFi emphasizes design. And it looks great.

Pera worked at Apple before starting Ubiquiti, so it’s not a total surprise that the AmpliFi feels like something that could come from the iPhone maker. It’s a clean, tiny, white cube, with rounded corners, a soft-touch finish, and a circular, responsive touchscreen at its center. (On which you can check your time, current download speeds, data usage, and IP address.)

It’s the antithesis of the antenna-laden, miniature spacecrafts that traditional routers can sometimes look like. I had no problem displaying it out in the open. That may not sound like much, but it has a tangible effect — WiFi needs space, and keeping your ugly router tucked away from your devices makes your connection less reliable. That’s less of a problem here.

For what it’s worth, that attention to detail is also evident in the AmpliFi’s packaging. It all combines to make the router feel more like a consumer product, and less like a networking tool.

What’s a little less great, though, are the “mesh points” that come packaged with the base router.

What’s a little less great, though, are the “mesh points” that come packaged with the base router.

While I like the look of the little white monoliths, it’s not hard to see how they might be difficult to install. You get two of them, and they’re both very tall, meaning they’re likely to take up the entirety of an outlet or power strip once they’re plugged in. This isn’t an issue with the Eero, whose nodes are just as elegant as the main router.

That said, they’re cleverly designed. At the bottom of each extender is a magnetic ball connector, which lets you flex them around any nearby objects. It also lets you point them back toward the router, which strengthens the overall connection. If these things had to be huge, at least they’re not rigid.

Setting up the AmpliFi HD is as simple as you’d like.

Setting up the AmpliFi HD is as simple as you’d like.

You just shut everything off, plug the router in, connect it to your modem with an Ethernet cable, then turn everything on. From there, you use Ubiquiti’s companion app (iOS, Android) — or a very basic Web interface — to find your connection, then give it a name and password. A little chime plays, and you’re good to go.

Setting up the mesh points is just as painless. All you do is plug them in and wait. The set of blue LEDs on each point’s front will flash for about 30 seconds, then the nodes will automatically connect to the router.

It all requires very little time and effort, which is exactly what you want from a product predicated on the idea of making WiFi more accessible. After some initial aggravations with my ISP, it took me just a few minutes to get everything up and running.

Likewise, the AmpliFi app is one of the few pieces of router-related software that feels welcoming.

Likewise, the AmpliFi app is one of the few pieces of router-related software that feels welcoming.

I have seen the exasperation on my friends and family’s faces whenever they’re forced to trudge into their router settings. I’m not saying the AmpliFi app will help them understand what a MAC address is, but I know that it’s brighter and more neatly laid out than the vast majority of like-minded interfaces. It isn’t intimidating.

It goes a bit deeper than most other WiFi systems, too.

It goes a bit deeper than most other WiFi systems, too.

Within the app, you can run a speed test, adjust and set timers for the LED light ring that runs around the router’s bottom (good for a nightlight), or access a 24/7 live support chat (which is nice, but clearly outsourced).

There’s a handful of more in-depth settings, too, all of which worked well:

• You can set up a guest network without much trouble, and determine how many people can access it for a given stretch of time.

• You can see exactly which devices are connected to your network, and pause each one’s access with a tap. Great for tormenting your friends!

• You can separate the farther-reaching 2.4GHz wireless band from the faster 5GHz band, and create separate connections for each, and for the mesh points themselves. Most mesh routers can’t do this.

• A “band steering” feature automatically directs your devices to that 5GHz band, if you’re close enough for that to be beneficial.

• A “router steering” feature points your device to the router instead of the mesh points, since that can sometimes bring faster speeds even if it’s farther away. (More on this in a sec.)

There are other nerdy things — a port forwarding option, DHCP server settings, MAC address cloning — that aren’t available on rivals like the Eero, but you get the idea. Relative to other WiFi systems, the AmpliFi finds a solid balance between simplicity and granularity.

That said, for a $350 router, the AmpliFi HD is a bit light on power-user features.

That said, for a $350 router, the AmpliFi HD is a bit light on power-user features.

While Ubiquiti goes deeper than most of its WiFi system peers, it’s still omitted things that are standard on “normal” routers half its price:

• There’s no quality of service (QoS) option, so you can’t prioritize certain devices and services over others.

• Though you can pause a device’s internet access, some parents may miss being able to block specific websites from their kids.

• And while the AmpliFi app is great, Ubiquiti really wants that to be your hub — there’s little in the way of Web control, and you can’t troubleshoot remotely.

In terms of hardware features, the AmpliFi has four Ethernet ports for wired connections — more than the Eero, Luma, and Netgear’s Orbi.

There’s a USB 2.0 port on its back as well, but right now it doesn’t do anything. Ubiquiti says a future update will let it connect to peripherals, but today it’s weirdly useless.

Performance is where it counts, though, and it’s here that the AmpliFi more than holds its own.

Performance is where it counts, though, and it’s here that the AmpliFi more than holds its own.

I’ll preface this by reminding you that everyone’s setup is different, and some people’s WiFi needs are stricter than others. In my testing, though, the AmpliFi performed well. In both my apartment and a colleague’s more intricate house, it consistently kept up good speeds and excellent range.

At close range, the AmpliFi downloaded large game files significantly faster than my ISP-issued router. I could also connect to several devices and stream 4K YouTube video with zero delay. From outside my place, with thick walls and a full garage in between, it still kept a robust connection and streamed 4K video, only taking a few more seconds to load.

In all cases, it performed a bit better than the TP-Link Google OnHub. It’s worth noting that this was all on the 5GHz band, though — on the 2.4GHz band, it’s closer to average.

More importantly, the “mesh” part of the setup does what it’s was supposed to. Switching from router to extender is largely painless, and with the right setup, the connection is far-reaching and consistent.

More importantly, the “mesh” part of the setup does what it’s was supposed to. Switching from router to extender is largely painless, and with the right setup, the connection is far-reaching and consistent.

As I walked around my friend’s two-story place, my connection didn’t drop, and I could still web browse and watch HD video regardless of which corner I ducked into. It just worked.

There’s a definite speed drop-off, as expected, so I’d recommend turning on router steering where possible. But if you can’t, the extenders were strong enough to at least keep things reasonable. It was miles better than the standalone OnHub here.

Now, clearly, these aren’t the most scientific tests. I’d point you to reviews from PCMag, The Wirecutter, SmallNetBuilder, and others for harder data, most of which says that the AmpliFi is very good for what it is, even if it’s not class-leading. My experience lined up with that.

This is a device for people who don’t read router breakdowns, though. In the real world, the AmpliFi should be a noticeable upgrade for anyone struggling to keep their place connected. As a $350 router should be.

Let’s be clear: The AmpliFi HD is good, but mesh routers are fundamentally overkill for lots of people.

Let’s be clear: The AmpliFi HD is good, but mesh routers are fundamentally overkill for lots of people.

The things we’re calling mesh routers are designed for people who live in larger homes, and suffer clear dead spots within them. If you have WiFi troubles in a house that isn’t big, you might just need a better router.

The AmpliFi alone could be that, but you can get better short-range performance for less money. And if you’re strictly concerned with getting the fastest speeds possible in harder-to-reach areas, you could be better off investing in a powerline networking kit.

What you’re paying for here are aesthetics, and a way to avoid the headaches that often come with installing traditional extenders. The AmpliFi is overpriced for what you get, but then again, so are all of its peers at the moment.

I can’t say that the AmpliFi HD is the absolute best of this new crop of WiFi systems, but it’s certainly near the top. It walks the line between accessibility and robustness better than most.

I can’t say that the AmpliFi HD is the absolute best of this new crop of WiFi systems, but it’s certainly near the top. It walks the line between accessibility and robustness better than most.

If you want the strongest of these mesh routers, all signs point to the Netgear Orbi being a step ahead. That’s a tri-band AC3000 router that supports MU-MIMO tech — in English, it’s more technically capable, more futureproof, and all-around more powerful.

But it’s much larger, and Netgear’s app isn’t as clean. Plus, for many people, its performance advantages may be negligible today.

Taking the wider view, the AmpliFi HD is a success. Not everyone needs it, but if you’re sure that a traditional router won’t solve your WiFi woes, it should do the job, and present little frustration in doing so.

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