Photo Credit: Linksys
Mesh routers are becoming increasingly popular, and while we've seen them become more accessible in terms of price, there will always be premium offerings for those who can afford to pay a bit more. With products like the Netgear Orbi, the premium is justified, as the network coverage and performance that you get are unmatched by the more affordable mesh router systems that we've reviewed so far.
Linksys is a well-known and trusted name in the world of networking and it recently forayed into the world of mesh routers. The tri-band Velop mesh Wi-Fi router system we are reviewing today is available in three different configurations — Rs. 49,999 for the router system with three nodes (bearing model number AC6600/ WHW0303-AH), which has an advertised range of 6,000 sq. ft.; Rs. 34,999 for a pack of two nodes (AC4400/ WHW0302-AH) which claims to have a range of 4,000 sq. ft.; and Rs. 19,999 for the lone AC2200/ WHW0301-AH which, as you would've guessed, has a range of 2,000 sq. ft.
The naming system is a bit of a disaster, especially when you consider there's a more affordable dual-band Velop router system as well, which carries model numbers AC1300/ WHW0101, AC2600/ WHW0102, and AC3900/ WHW0103 Dual-Band for the one, two, and three pack kits respectively. For the sake of this review, all references to Velop correspond to the tri-band router system that we are reviewing, and not the more affordable alternative.
Let's take a closer look at the Velop mesh Wi-Fi router system in the hope that the engineers at Linksys have done a better job than the marketing department that came up with those model numbers.
Routers are usually seen as utilitarian devices with big, bulging antennas and cables popping out of everywhere. While most entry-level routers still follow the template, we've seen manufacturers of expensive routers make more of an effort to design something that's aesthetically pleasing.
That's especially the case with mesh router systems, which consist of multiple nodes that need to be placed across different rooms, which means design is often one of the criteria that consumers base their purchase decisions upon. Linksys says one of its goals while designing the Velop system was to "have a small footprint designed to disappear in any room of a home", and it's safe to say the engineers have delivered on that promise.
Each Velop node has a 3.1-inch (7.9cm) square base and slightly tapers towards the top. The units have are 7.3 inches (18.5cm) tall, which means they are fairly easy to tuck away as compared to the humongous Netgear Orbi units, though not as compact as, say, the nodes of the D-Link Covr or the Tenda Nova mesh systems, which we have reviewed recently. What's more, unlike the Tenda Nova, for example, we have no complaints about the build quality of the Velop units. Each unit looks and feels solid, and the partial mesh design lends them a real premium look.
The front and right (as you are facing the unit) sides are solid white, while the back, left, and top sport the aforementioned mesh look. There seems to be a black colour option in some markets, but it's not available in India so far.
The status light at the top blends in nicely with the mesh look, even when it's lit. There's a small vent at the bottom, between the two mesh sides back for cabling. The connector that plugs into the power port of each unit is angled so as to easily pass through this vent. Turn the unit upside down and you'll see a small gap between the base of the router and the ports. This is a good place to coil up any extra length of cables and tuck them away from sight.
Talking about the ports, each Velop unit has two auto-sensing Gigabit Ethernet LAN and WAN ports, which means the router can detect what's connected and decide their behaviour accordingly. Unlike the Netgear Orbi, for example, there's no dedicated primary node, and the one connected to your Internet line becomes the primary node.
This also means that you can, for example, buy a one-pack Velop system to start with, and then buy another or a two-pack if your requirements change at a later stage. A Linksys representative confirmed that you can even buy two three-packs and combine them into a single network if you have a humongous house and money's no object.
There are no USB ports, which means you cannot connect any peripherals to the network, unless they have built-in networking support themselves. Power users might also lament the limited number of Ethernet ports on each unit as opposed to, say, the Orbi nodes but that's clearly a function of the Velop units' compact design. Each unit also has a reset button and a power toggle.
As we mentioned earlier, the Velop system we are reviewing here is a tri-band system. Each node has one 2.4GHz radio with a maximum theoretical speed of 400Mbps, and two 5GHz radios — one for 802.11b/g/n and another for 802.11n/ac — that each max out at a theoretical 867Mbps. Each unit has six antennas, and is powered by a 716MHz quad-core processor with 512MB RAM and 4GB of internal storage, though you shouldn't really need to worry about that.
Getting started with the Linksys Velop mesh system is fairly straightforward, and while there's a Web-based interface to help you do that, Linksys more than encourages you to use its app for both initial setup and system administration at any later stage. Download the Linksys app for Android or iPhone, power on the router, and you are ready to get started.
Each node has Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which makes it discoverable to the app during the initial setup process. Follow the prompts to set up the first node — with your Internet connection plugged in to one of its Ethernet ports — and then do the same to add additional nodes to your network. Everything is pretty intuitive and user-friendly.
As we mentioned, you can administer the router on a PC using the Web-based interface as well, but every time you try and do that, you'll be reminded that Linksys really wants you to be using the app instead almost in a “are you sure you want to do this?” kind of way.
Once you start using the app, it's easy to understand why — unlike some other routers, the Linksys companion app offers full control over the router and its features. In addition to changing Wi-Fi and Internet settings, you can do things like set (up to three) devices that will be given priority access to the available Internet bandwidth.
Using the app, you can instantly pause Internet access for a particular device, schedule Internet downtime during specific hours (on a per device basis), block specific websites for a device, or even block specific kinds of websites for a particular device. The latter requires a subscription to the Linksys Shield service, which costs Rs. 419 per month or Rs. 4,199 yearly, and enables category-level controls for up to 14 devices.
For free, you can block manually block websites on specific devices, and this works with mixed results. For example, if you block Twitter.com, the device will not be able to access Twitter via the app or website. However, the Facebook app continues to work even if you block Facebook.com. Of course, this is down to the hostnames that each app uses internally, but the point is that the results might not always be what the end user expects.
Some advanced features such as port forwarding and triggering, MAC address filtering, and more, are present as well. However, there are some features such as Dynamic DNS support that seasoned users might miss. You also can't manually specify which band your Wi-Fi network should use, but Linksys believes the built-in Channel Finder feature that will scan your environment and automatically select the best band should do the job.
You can also use the app to monitor and administer the network remotely by signing up for a Linksys account. There's a Linksys Alexa skill that lets you quickly toggle the status of the guest Wi-Fi network, among other things, but it's sadly not available in India yet.
Linksys sent us a three-pack of the Velop tri-band router system that we tested over a period of four weeks in a three-storey house. We placed a Velop unit near the centre of each floor (roughly 1500 sq. ft. in area) and we had Wi-Fi coverage in nearly all areas, save for the far corners, which wasn't unexpected.
Though each Velop unit has an advertised range of 2,000 sq. ft., that's under ideal conditions, and the real-world experience — especially in Indian homes with thick concrete walls — is always very different. For comparison, we placed the nodes of our Orbi mesh Wi-Fi router system (RBK50 AC3000) — the best mesh Wi-Fi router system that we've reviewed so far — in the same spots as the Linksys Velop units, and its coverage was slightly better than that of the Velop.
While the devices — like laptops and smartphones — showed nearly identical signal strength, we noticed some amount of packet loss with the Velop, while the Orbi was flawless in that respect. This didn't just happen at the edges of the network, in fact packet loss was a constant theme with the Velop, even when the devices had a clear line of sight to the node.
Now to be clear, this is not something that impacted performance hugely — more on that shortly — and the average user probably won't even notice it, but power users — the kind who are likely to spend this much money on networking equipment — will likely realise that something's amiss. Sadly, this makes the Velop a non-starter for gamers or other high availability applications.
In terms of speeds, we found the Linksys Velop to be a bit hit-or-miss compared to the Netgear Orbi. Starting with simple Internet speed tests, the Velop mesh system managed average speeds of 26.2Mbps across five tests over Wi-Fi on a MacBook Air, while the Orbi managed 44.6Mbps under the same conditions at the same time. We then performed the same tests on a Mac mini (also connected via Wi-Fi), and the Velop fared better, with average speeds of 39.2Mbps, as compared to 34.2Mbps on the Orbi.
We then moved on to file transfer tests over the local network, and for this we performed file transfers between the Mac mini and the MacBook Air placed at different locations. At different spots on two of the floors, the performance of the Orbi and Linksys Velop was pretty much identical with very little to differentiate the two.
The additional unit that our Velop system had compared to the Orbi obviously gave it a performance advantage on the third floor. We found a spot that was right at the edge of the Orbi's range, where the Velop-powered network was at full strength. As expected, the Velop comprehensively beat the Orbi here, with 2.4x faster transfers.
By default, the Velop has a common SSID for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, and the router “intelligently” decides which device goes where. We noticed that most devices we used were being connected to to the slower 2.4GHz network. Thankfully, unlike with the Orbi, the Velop administration software lets you manually specify different SSIDs for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, which means you can force devices onto one band or the other. However, we didn't notice any performance improvements even when both devices (that we were copying files from and to) were on the 5GHz band, which was a little bit surprising.
The tri-band Linksys Velop mesh router system has a lot going for it, especially the premium design that'll fit unobtrusively in most rooms, and the full-fledged companion app that's perhaps the best of its kind. It also offers decent range, and unparalleled extendibility in terms of adding more nodes at a later stage if you desire.
However, the raw performance that it offers does not justify the premium you pay, even when compared to expensive mesh systems such as the Netgear Orbi. In most of our tests, the Velop was at best as good as the Orbi, but the packet loss problem made the overall experience worse.
In our tests, the Velop system with two nodes offered roughly the same range as the Orbi with two nodes, but the Orbi performed better overall. In terms of price, however, there's a huge difference between the two. The Netgear Orbi RBK50 tri-band system with two nodes is available at Amazon for Rs. 24,999. The equivalent Velop system has an MRP of Rs. 34,999, but is often available for around Rs. 31,500.
The three-node Velop system that we reviewed offers more range than our Orbi system, but we could easily buy an Orbi two-pack system along with an additional satellite, and the overall cost would still be lower, which packs Linksys' offering extremely difficult to recommend.
Ratings (out of 5)