(BEING CONTINUED FROM 5/7/16)
Google’s OnHub is an easy router that cures bad Wi-Fi
For most people, a Wi-Fi router is like a Ronco rotisserie: You set it and forget it. These often ugly networking boxes have one job: Give us Wi-Fi or else we’ll freak the hell out (and it won’t be pretty).
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™.
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.
Still, I wondered who would be willing to pay $200 for Google’s Wi-Fi router? Perhaps the same kind of buyer who would pick up Apple’s $200 Airport Extreme, I mused. Also, the OnHub had sold out immediately, so tons of people are clearly interested.
The OnHub is an unassuming tube-shaped gadget. As I said in my unboxing, it reminds me very much of the Amazon Echo, right down to the light ring on the top. It’s designed to look good in your home as opposed to certain other wireless monstrosities. There’s a 3-watt speaker on the top, but it can’t be used to play music. It also doesn’t have a microphone so you won’t be able to talk to it. Not that you’d want to talk to your router, anyway.
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. 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.
If the Nest Cam taught me anything, it’s that a delightfully simple and quick setup, and easy-to-use user interface is worth paying a premium for. You spend less time troubleshooting your gadgets and more time doing important stuff like watching Game of Thrones reruns.
Setting up a regular Wi-Fi router isn’t a fun experience (unless you’re an IT guy). 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.
Just plug the OnHub into an outlet, connect the Ethernet cable to your modem, and follow the instructions
Just plug the OnHub into an outlet, connect the Ethernet cable to your modem, and follow the instructions in the app — within a few minutes, you’ve got a Wi-Fi network up and running.
Everything is handled via the app, which is more than just a means of setting up the OnHub. Through it, you can access more advanced networking settings (DNS, WAN, PPPoE, port forwarding and a handful of other nerdy stuff you’d find on a regular router) and perform a network check and speed test.
The app’s strength is its visual layout. The Overview tab tells you the status of your Wi-Fi network in “human” language like this:
How cool is this? the Google On Hub app lets you monitor how much data each device on Wi-Fi is using in real time! pic.twitter.com/AeCwF64p9R
— Raymond Wong (@raywongy) August 29, 2015
Not like this:
IMAGE: SCREENSHOT BY RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
The light ring on the top makes it easy to understand what the OnHub’s status is (no more blinking lights!): No light for “needs to be plugged in,” blue for “ready to be setup,” teal for “on and active,” and amber for “offline or another error.”
Tapping on the Devices node shows you which devices are connected to the Wi-Fi network and how much data each device is using in real-time. If someone is downloading a huge file or if you suspect someone is freeloading on your network, you can easily monitor it all.
if I’m watching Netflix on my Apple TV and I want a smooth streaming experience, I can prioritize it for better performance
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). The downside is all the other devices on the Wi-Fi network will have slower performance.
I usually have to turn off the Wi-Fi on all of my devices when I’m streaming video to my TV. Prioritizing a device does seem to make its Wi-Fi connection more reliable and faster. I noticed YouTube videos loaded a lot quicker when my MacBook was prioritized than when it wasn’t, while other devices were connected to the network chewing through data.
Faster and more reliable
At $200, the OnHub had better offer something more than just an easier setup experience. And it does.
The OnHub is a powerful cylinder. 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.
What matters are the 13 antennas inside that are designed to shoot Wi-Fi in all directions and provide greater coverage. 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.
The OnHub is designed as a top-to-bottom wireless stack that’s completely automatic, and it’s wonderful. 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. I paid $100 for it last year, and it’s not very reliable. I frequently have to dive into the router settings and switch from channel 6 (the default for most routers) to another one. And even then, the router configurator always says the interference is severe. 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.
To test if the OnHub really could get me a more reliable connection, I dug out my old iPhone 5, which is only capable of 802.11n Wi-Fi and not the newer standard 802.11ac (so there’s no unfair speed boost advantage) and used the Ookla Speedtest app to test between my Motorola router and the OnHub. I pay Time Warner Cable for download speeds of 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) and 5 Mbps upload, and I damn well better get what I’m paying for.
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. In other words, terrible performance:
Wi-Fi speeds with my Motorola/Arris Surfboard SBG6580 Wi-Fi router during prime timepic.twitter.com/qIOYFQNIfG
— Raymond Wong (@raywongy) August 31, 2015
When I switched over to the OnHub, its intelligent channel switching gave me significantly better Wi-Fi. I averaged 40.80 Mbps download and 1.50 Mbps upload. 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.
Wi-Fi speeds with my Google OnHub Wi-Fi router during prime timepic.twitter.com/WVy9RAkJrs
— Raymond Wong (@raywongy) August 31, 2015
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 andBluetooth Smart Ready, but I I wasn’t able to test any of them.
Even software updates are automatic. 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.
Premium for convenience
I know I’m backpedaling on my knee-jerk reaction and our intern is probably regretting canceling his pre-order, but the OnHub really is a terrific product.
I’m sold on the OnHub concept, but the $200 price is still hard to stomach. 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.
The $200 price may be steep for a Wi-Fi router, especially if you’re happy with the one your ISP provided or you own, but that’s not all you’re getting. The OnHub also has the powerful performance, storage and that speaker. My best guess is the OnHub will be the hub (no pun intended) for Google’s smart home or Internet of Things platform — the wireless network that ties together future Nest devices and more.
if you value convenience and ease of use above all, you won’t regret getting an OnHub.
if you value convenience and ease of use above all, you won’t regret getting an OnHub. 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.
All said, the OnHub by TP-Link isn’t the only one Google plans to sell. Asus will also release a Google router later this year, which I hope will offer the same kind of delightful experience at a lower price. A $100 OnHub router sounds very reasonable to me.
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? Turns out, it’s thought of that, too.
Stupid easy to set up • Boosts Wi-Fi performance • Real-time monitoring via app •Priority mode great for streaming video
Pricey • Only one Ethernet LAN port • Power cable is too short
The Bottom Line
The Google OnHub is incredibly easy to set up and gives you more reliable Wi-Fi through smart software.
The best place to put your router, according to physics
Electromagnetic radiation — it might sound like something that you’d be better off avoiding, but electromagnetic waves of various kinds underpin our senses and how we interact with the world — from the light emissions through which your eyes perceive these words, to the microwaves that carry the Wi-Fi signal to your laptop or phone on which you’re reading it.
More or less every form of modern communication is carried by electromagnetic waves. They whisk through the antenna on your car, travel through walls whenever you need to make a phone call inside, yet also inexplicably reflect from seemingly nothing in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
This happens because the atmosphere becomes a plasma at high altitudes — a state of matter where atoms split apart and electrons are no longer bound to their parent nuclei. Plasmas have interesting properties, as they react very strongly to electromagnetic fields. In this case usefully: at low enough frequencies it becomes possible to bounce radio signals around the world, extending their range.
It’s the interesting interactions between high-powered electromagnetic waves and plasmas that my research group and I study. The most intense electromagnetic waves in the world are found in the form of high-power laser pulses. The UK hosts some of the most powerful laser systems in rural Oxfordshire, and the same idea of using electromagnetic waves to accelerate particles is used at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN.
It’s all in the maths
We can accurately predict the interactions of intense electromagnetic waves and plasmas, as the underlying physical processes are governed by Maxwell’s equations — one of the triumphs of 19th century physics that united electric and magnetic fields and demonstrated that light is a form of electromagnetic wave.
Solving Maxwell’s equations by hand can be tortuous, but it transpires that a clever algorithminvented in the 1960s and rediscovered since makes the exercise relatively simple given a sufficiently powerful computer.
Armed with the knowledge of Maxwell’s equations and how to solve them, I recently turned my attention to a much simpler but more widespread problem, that of how to simulate and therefore improve the Wi-Fi reception in my flat. While “sufficiently powerful” in an academic sense often means supercomputers with tens of thousands of processors running in parallel, in this case, the sufficiently powerful computer required to run the program turned out to be a smartphone.
For this trick you will need one Maxwell
The electromagnetic radiation emanating from the antenna in your wireless router is caused by a small current oscillating at 2.4GHz (2.4 billion times per second). In my model I introduced a current like this and allowed it to oscillate, and Maxwell’s equations dictated how the resulting electromagnetic waves flow. By mapping in the actual locations of the walls in my flat, I was able to produce a map of the Wi-Fi signal strength which varied as I moved the virtual router.
The first lesson is clear, if obvious: Wi-Fi signals travels much more easily through free space than walls, so the ideal router position has line-of-sight to where you’ll be using it.
Sometimes it appears that the waves have stopped changing, and instead flicker in the same places. This is the phenomenon of a standing wave, where Wi-Fi reflections overlap and cancel each other out. These dark spots on the map (or “not spots”) indicate a low Wi-Fi signal, and are separated by several centimetres. Recently, a fellow enthusiast managed to map this phenomenon in three dimensions, as explained in this video.
So the second lesson is less obvious and more interesting: if reception is poor in a particular position, even a slight change of the router’s position may produce significant improvement in signal strength, as any signal dark spots will also move.
101 uses for electromagnetic waves
After publishing my findings I was struck by the number of people eager to perform simulations of their own. Ever eager to spread the gospel of electromagnetism, I bundled the simulation into an Android app to provide others with a simulated electromagnetic wave-based solution to a common modern problem: where’s the best place for my Wi-Fi router?
Assuming few would be interested, I was surprised when news spread via social media and the several thousand copies of the app sold over the course of a few hours.
Sales have gradually dwindled but the message remains clear: not only are electromagnetic waves fascinating, mathematically elegant and supremely useful, they can make your life easier, your internet connection stronger, and even make you a bit of money too.
(TO BE CONTINUED)