Reviewing Google WiFi : A hassle-free router comes at a price

Google's not new to the hardware game, but with its "Made by" range, the company is making a concerted effort to marry its smart software with the gear we run it on. We've already tried the Pixel phones, Daydream View VR headset, Chromecast Ultra and Google Home, but until now, there was one Made by Google gadget we'd yet to test, and it's the one that arguably ties all the rest together: Google's aptly named WiFi router.

If you're looking for a router that mixes smart design with simple features and solid performance, Google WiFi is a solid choice. However, users who like to get their hands dirty may prefer the control and flexibility of more conventional products. For the rest of us, Google WiFi will likely eliminate some key pain points and provide an easy transition to the connected home.
Google WiFi builds on the idea of OnHub. With OnHub, Google partnered with TP-Link and ASUS to build routers that didn't look terrible and were easy to use. Google WiFi shares those goals, and adds one more: to eliminate the WiFi black spot and the tyranny of hokey WiFi extenders. How will it do this? Well, you'll need to buy multiple devices ($129 each, or $299 for three). But if you do, Google promises that the mesh network its router automatically creates will best most other solutions out there for full-home coverage and ease of use.

There's something I'll say right up top. Google WiFi is a lifestyle device. It's designed for people who don't enjoy navigating the typical router admin console (or don't even know that their router has one). If you're the sort of person who wants to do lots of port-forwarding, or manually configure DHCP and other such things, this might not be for you. It's not that Google Wifi can't do those things (it can); it's more that its focus is elsewhere.

One of those areas of focus is ease of use. Now, let's be fair: Setting up a router isn't usually that hard, but it often involves an ugly web admin panel that -- ironically for a device that helps you enjoy the internet -- looks like it was designed in 2003. You'll set Google WiFi up with an app (Android or iOS). That might have some of you groaning, but it's all very simple and painless. In just a few steps you're good to go. I'll have more to say about the app later, but for now, suffice it to say that setup is a more contemporary experience.

Another priority for Google was making a router that looks nice, and I'd say the company did indeed achieve that. A quick internet search for "wireless router" returns a slew of angular black boxes with ugly antennas that might look okay in an office or basement, but nowhere else. Google WiFi's white cylindrical design, however, is fairly unremarkable, and that's precisely the point.

That is to say, Google WiFi doesn't catch your eye, and should fit in with a wide range of home decors. I personally like how it looks. One of the things that puts me off Amazon's Echo devices is the slight gadgety appearance. Google WiFi, on the other hand, gets the balance of function and forgetableness just right.

But what good are a modern user interface and a sleek design if a router doesn't get the basics right? Fortunately, Google WiFi does. The first time I ran an internet speed test, I experienced a slight sinking feeling. I realized my current Netgear router has been shortchanging me to the tune of about 70 Mbps of download speed. This isn't to say that Google's product is the solution; it's what it's replacing that's likely the problem. But it's a problem that's potentially sitting in living rooms and dens everywhere, without people knowing it.

That's because there's a general resignation that WiFi never gives you the full internet speed you're paying for. So much so that I barely shrugged when the 100Mb of cable internet I signed up for often translated to 30 Mbps over WiFi. I also experienced similar, if less drastic, speed improvements (35Mbps to 48Mbps) when I installed Google WiFi at a colleague's house, and that was with both routers just feet away from the PC.

In both instances, the incumbent router had been set up with default settings and basically left to do its thing. Could a bit of digging in the settings have improved the old router's performance? Maybe? Probably? But that's not really how it should work for such a basic task as internet bandwidth. I also experienced similar performance improvements with PC-to-PC file sharing, with Google WiFi almost tripling the transfer rate of my old router every time.

These tests are not overly scientific, but they reflect how many of us -- specifically the customer Google is going after -- use or care about our home WiFi. Most of us want to know we're getting the best speed we can, and that our network won't choke when we share files. On these two basic tasks, it's a solid thumbs-up for Google WiFi.

Modular design
If you have a larger house, you'll probably want to add extra WiFi points. With Google WiFi this is very easy to do: Just tell the app that you want to add a new device, and plug it in. That's more or less it -- no need to bother with things like bridge mode (though you can do this if you have an existing router you like). Of course, there are various existing ways to patch together multiple routers -- many of which are more affordable than Google's $299 three-pack. Still, Google's solution is elegant, an example of how these things should work.

Google claims that WiFi and the mesh network it creates offer some important performance enhancements. First up, of course, is coverage. Google WiFi's design team wants you to think of it like a lightbulb, with you putting nodes wherever you need them. As a basic guide, Google advises one unit for about every 1,500 square feet of space. Unlike repeaters that can cause problems with handovers (when moving back and forth between the router and the repeater), the mesh network should handle all that seamlessly. It's something most people notice only when it goes wrong, but the idea is that you no longer have to feel like you're "roaming" in your own home.

Another benefit is that Google WiFi automatically checks to see that your WiFi is on the least congested channel every five minutes, swapping as needed. The same goes with hopping between 2.4 and 5GHz. All of this happens in the background, so theoretically you're always getting the optimum settings. At the very least, the auto channel setting should reduce the need for resetting the router. Conventionally, devices choose a channel on startup and stick with it, which is why the connection can nosedive if that channel gets busier later.

While I was reading other smart router reviews, I came across several comments with a shared theme. Something along the lines of "How hard is it to read up on basic networking to improve your WiFi speed?" or "Just flash custom firmware and you can set up a smart network in just a few hours." I'll come clean: I used to be one of these people who would install DD-WRT and get deep into the settings. But as my technology needs and financial situation have changed, I kinda just have other priorities, so the idea of a device that does its primary job well and requires zero fuss is appealing.

It's also a shame that there's no modem inside Google WiFi. The result being that while it's probably better-looking than your current router, you still have to plug it into your -- probably ugly -- modem. In many cases, including my own, that modem is also my old router. Sure, it means I can hide the old dual-purpose box and not worry about losing performance, but it would have been nice to be able to replace it completely.