The Traditional Wi-Fi Experience
Anyone who has had to create a home network over the last 20 years knows the struggle of traditional Wi-Fi networks. Between the struggle of limited options for the placement of your internet service provider’s modem and the weak signal put out by that modem and router combo resembling a technological Frankenstein’s Monster, Wi-Fi has rarely been a pleasant experience. Compound traditional hardware limitations with poor overall wireless network throughput and multiple clients attempting to stream high definition video and you have a recipe for disaster. In the age of Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and over-the-top TV streaming, hardware manufacturers understood that a change in Wi-Fi technology was needed. Enter mesh routers.
The Advent of Mesh Networking and the EnGenius ESR530
By abandoning traditional hub-and-spoke-style networking, where a client’s wireless performance was dependent on how close it was to the primary router, mesh routers distribute nodes throughout a home and leverage multiple connection points to improve overall throughput. While these mesh network systems are, on average, more expensive than the traditional wireless router, they are becoming more and more important as smart home devices and internet-of-things (“IOT”) devices continue to proliferate in homes everywhere. In a now-crowded mesh router market, the EnGenius ESR530 and the more powerful ESR580 represent a great price-performance option with simple setup for beginners and advanced features available for more advanced users.
Released in April of 2019, the EnGenius ESR530 mesh router is the newest entry in EnGenius’ expanding consumer product line. Sporting a new Wave 2 dual band Wi-Fi chip and AC1300 wireless strength, the ESR530 has the specs to match mesh systems priced at nearly $100 more.
Initial setup is completed using EnGenius’ EnMesh app, available in both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. After plugging in the primary mesh router (the one that will be plugged into your modem), launching the EnMesh app results in a fairly straightforward setup, including creating a network, password, and adding additional mesh routers around the home. The gallery below shows the process you can expect when setting up the new network.
Overall, I was very pleased with the performance I experienced with the router and mesh access points. To test the system, I set up a router in the upstairs office and a mesh access point in the downstairs master bedroom of my ~3000 sq. ft. home. After setting up the network, I walked around the house with my Samsung Galaxy S9 to see what kind of speed I could get.
Standing next to the router upstairs, I was able to effectively max out my 500mbps connection. Moving down the hall and a few rooms away, speed dipped, clocking in at about 200mbps. But, there was still plenty of speed to stream 4k video or transfer larger files.
Walking downstairs and across the house, I remained connected to the upstairs router, and speed dropped significantly, struggling to give me 20mbps. However, after my phone connected to the mesh access point in the bedroom, speed quickly increased back up to over 200mbps.
It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, however. With only one access point per floor, there were slow spots in the corners of the home. For instance, in my dining room, which is on the opposite side of the house from my bedroom access point, speed was quite poor. The same goes for my backyard, which tended to drop connection from time to time.
At the end of the day, if I were to make the ESR530 my full-time Wi-Fi network of choice, I would likely add two additional access points to fill in the dead zones not covered by the two routers provided by EnGenius for this review.
Another note on performance. For this test, my downstairs access point was wired back to my network switch, meaning that the mesh routers did not need to communicate over Wi-Fi, which significantly increases performance. If your home requires you to network the mesh access points without any wired backhaul, you will want to add more nodes as necessary to ensure overall network performance.
Other Features – Hardware
In addition to your standard WAN/LAN ports, the EnGenius ESR530 also includes a USB port on each of the access points, allowing you to connect a printer nearly anywhere in your home and print from any device in your home, including iPhones via AirPrint, a feature absent on most competitors at this price point.
Importantly (and as mentioned above), the EnGenius ESR530 also supports wired backhaul on each of its routers. What this means is that for those users who want maximum performance, the mesh routers can run on wired connections instead of simply connecting to the other routers via Wi-Fi. This results in a significant increase in overall available bandwidth for those clients connected to the wired nodes.
Other Features – Software
The ESR530 includes most of the software features you’d expect in 2019, including quality of service (“QOS”) settings to ensure streaming video services, gaming consoles and other bandwidth-heavy clients get priority on the network. Parental controls are available, including device-specific rules that limit access to different websites or services, or set schedules for when devices can access the internet at all.
The EnGenius EnMesh app provides a clean overview of the network and makes it easy to do basic maintenance and monitoring. Interestingly, the more advanced network features are unavailable in the EnMesh app, with EnGenius opting to leave those features less accessible by requiring the user to login to the desktop management console in the browser. EnGenius did provide a link in the app that opens a browser window to access advanced settings. That said, I found that once I started digging around in the advanced settings, I had access to pretty much any setting I (as a somewhat informed consumer) could ever want, including the ability to convert the mesh routers to a more traditional access point if desired.
While still a lesser known brand in the consumer space, EnGenius smartly priced its mesh Wi-Fi routers to easily beat its competition on a value-per-dollar basis. At less than $200 for three mesh routers, the ESR530 handily undercuts its direct competitors from Google and Linksys by more than $100.
Setup was straight forward and worked mostly without a hitch and performance was in-line with what I would expect from Wi-Fi routers with AC1300 radios. Bottom line: if you are looking to upgrade your traditional router setup to give your wireless network more coverage, I recommend giving the EnGenius ESR530 a look.