|Router Security||Mesh Routers||
Website by |
From the beginning routers have been complex devices with more configuration options than anyone could possibly understand, myself included. On the whole, however, I view the complexity as a good thing, as it offers many options for better security. But, these dozens of options are too much for consumers to deal with.
So, when the time came in early 2016 for new mesh routers to appear on the market, hardware vendors took it as an opportunity to make routers more user-friendly by removing 90% of the features. By then, everyone had a smartphone so management of the router was moved from a web interface to a mobile app. But phones have small screens and thus little room for the many features that legacy routers offered. See the Google Wifi page for some critiques of its mobile app.
Most mesh router systems are managed solely with a mobile app are Eero, Google Wifi, Luma, Plume and Ubiquiti AmpliFi. The one exception had been Netgear, their Orbi routers still (as of April 2017) offer a full web interface with the classically large number of features. When the Linksys Velop system was introduced in January 2017 management of the system required a mobile app. In June 2017 they added a web interface, one that is similar to the interface on their WRT and Max-Stream routers. As far as I know, Velop, Orbi and the D-Link Covr are the only mesh router systems with a web interface (technically Cover is not a mesh system).
But, every coin has two sides. The flip side of easy-to-use is inflexible. Consumer focused mesh routers can hardly be tweaked at all. For example, they all have a single guest network. My favorite router, the Pepwave Surf SOHO can create three networks. Some Asus routers can create eight.
Still, this latest generation of routers is generally better than legacy models in a number of ways.
Mobile security, however, seems to be a downside. Configuring a legacy router always required you to enter a password. No more. There doesn't seem to be anything securing access to the mobile apps that control these newer routers. And, hardware vendors still drop the ball on UPnP, enabling it by default, no doubt, to minimize tech support calls. Shame on them.
Another trend with mesh router systems is the constant involvement of the hardware vendor in your network. With most of these systems you must establish an account with the hardware vendor and the mesh router phones home with unknown data. There are multiple downsides to this approach
Mesh routers that require you to establish an account with the vendor are Eero, Google Wifi, Plume, Luma, Amped ALLY and TP-Link Deco. Systems that do not require an account are the Ubiquiti AmpliFi, D-Link Covr, Netgear Orbi and the Linksys Velop. AmpliFi only requires an account for remote admin access to the network. AmpliFi does not have its own accounts, it uses either a Google or Facebook account.
On another note, I checked four mesh routers and none support WPA2 Enterprise. While it is common to think that WPA2 is the best Wi-Fi security available (at least before WPA3 is released) the reality is that WPA2 Enterprise is more secure than WPA2. Its also more complicated. One big advantage is that instead of a single password, each Wi-Fi user gets their own userid and password. The mesh routers that definitely do not support WPA2 Enterprise are Eero, Google Wi-Fi, AmpliFi and Linksys Velop. Needless to say, the Pepwave Surf SOHO does support WPA2 Enterprise.
NON SECURITY ISSUES
Diverging from security, after testing the Wi-Fi performance of a few mesh router systems, Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder.com observed: ... no matter which mesh wireless system you choose, be prepared to experiment with node locations. Unfortunately, only Amplifi provides signal strength information to guide mesh node placement and also provides a clear indication of how nodes are connected. With the others, you're on your own to devise your own methods to determine best node placement. Let's hope vendors improve the situation, because it's clear mesh node placement matters...a lot!
Some mesh systems can be connected via Ethernet, some can not. The official term for the connection between satellite mesh devices and the main device (the one directly connected to an ISP) is "backhaul." In August 2017, Tim Higgins wrote that eero, TP-Link Deco and Google Wifi support Ethernet backhaul, while the Netgear Orbi does not. Netgear has promised support for a while now.
In the same article, Higgins notes that the systems differ in radio design. Both generations of Orbi and eero Generation 2 have three radios; one for 2.4 GHz and two for 5 GHz. Google Wifi and TP-Link Deco have only two radios. Orbi and eero dedicate one radio to the 5 GHz low band (channels 36 - 48) and the other to the high (channels 149 - 165). Orbi always uses the 5 GHz high band radio for backhaul, and nothing but backhaul. In contrast, with eero Gen 2, Wi-Fi devices can connect to any of its three radios. He implies, but does not explicitly say that Google Wifi and TP-Link Deco can use either frequency band for backhaul. With Google Wifi you have no control over this, I don't know about Deco. The article did not include AmpliFi, so I will add that AmpliFi lets you easily chose the wireless frequency band used for backhaul. This is a great feature - when a satellite device is close to the main device, then 5GHz provides better speed but when they are far apart, 2.4GHz provides a stronger connection.
In the same article, Higgins notes that eero Gen 2, TP-Link Deco and Google Wifi can continue to operate if their cloud services are off-line. Eero originally could not do this, but this has changed. Still, for these devices, the cloud service is an essential part of the product, which is not true for Orbi and AmpliFi.
A good article by Dave Hamilton for the Mac Observer: How to Choose the Best Mesh Wireless System For Your Home. Hamilton has done extensive testing with Amped ALLY, Eero, Google Wifi, Linksys Velop, Luma, Netgear Orbi, TP-Link Deco and the Ubiquiti AmpliFi HD. That the article does not focus on speed is a breath of fresh air. Also, it talks about problems with a Netgear Orbi firmware update. Originally written Aug. 2017, last updated March 30, 2018.
The Eero app has a nice security feature. If you click on the message that says "9 connected devices" (see screen shot) it displays a list of devices that are "Currently on your network". For each device it shows the signal strength and current bandwidth, but not the name of the eero device its connected to (see screen shot). The nice feature is that right under this list is another list, one of devices "Recently on your network". And, since the eero app lets you give friendly names to devices (Bobs new iPad), this makes it easy to look for intruders. Screen shots were taken with the Android app in July 2017.
My thoughts on how Eero self-updates are on the firmware self-updating page.
Eero promises not to brick routers if you don't pay a subscription by Jacob Kastrenakes of The Verge June 14, 2018. The eero $99/year subscription is now, and will always be, optional. It adds content filtering, malicious site blocking, and subscriptions to 1Password and a VPN. As for the expected lifespan of an eero system, the company has not publicly stated how long it intends to support each of its routers. They claim that new features will be rolled out for "many years" after they stop making a given unit. And, after that, security patches will be made available for a really long time. The article says that even without Eero's cloud the routers would remain largely functional. It has been reported elsewhere that when your Internet goes down, eeros stop working such that you can't even use your LAN. That was not addressed in this article.
I have no hands on experience with the Asus Lyra mesh system.
On the plus side for privacy, no account is needed to setup and configure the system. On the minus side, it includes the same Trend Micro malware protection system, AiProtection, that Asus uses on their single box routers. For more on the privacy issues with this see the bugs page under May 2017, the topic is "Privacy issues with Trend Micro software in Asus routers".
It does not seem to self-update. We can't know for sure as there is no User Guide to look it up in. There is a function in the mobile app to update the firmware: Settings => System => Firmware update. Asus says to use this to manually check for any new firmware versions.
It does not supported wired Ethernet connections for backhaul. There are no USB ports.
According to this FAQ item, remote access to the system just works. I take this to mean that the router maintains a constant connection to Asus which must be functioning as a middleman when an Android/iOS device wants to administer the system from afar.
From ASUS Lyra Home Wi-Fi System Reviewed by Tim Higgins (Aug. 2017) it does not rely on a companion cloud service. Quoting "it has both app and web interfaces, which provide a disjointed administration experience. Not all features are available in both interfaces and the web interface does not contain all the features you find in the app." The one Guest W-Fi network can be enabled for 3,6,12,24 or unlimited hours. You can not disable UPnP. Wowzy, that's bad.
AMPLIFI by UBIQUITI
The AmpliFi mesh router system does not self-update, but it does check for updates on its own. There is a problem with this approach.
I administer two AmpliFi setups, both remote from me. To fix the KRACK flaw, in October 2017, AmpliFi released new firmware, as did many router vendors. So, I went to update each AmpliFi system. The first one reported that it was running firmware version 2.4.2 and that 2.4.3 was available to be installed. Fine.
The second system was also running firmware 2.4.2 but it was ignorant of the newly released firmware. The mobile app has no manual check for update feature, so all I could do was wait until it detected the new firmware on its own. Only then, could I manually update it.
When the AmpliFi app says there is an available update it reports both the currently installed version and the available updated version. However, it only gives you numbers, there is no way to see the Release Notes for the new firmware.
On a completely different note, my experience has been that it is best to avoid the AmpliFi Mesh Points. AmpliFi uses the term Mesh Point to describe candlestick shaped antennas designed to plug directly into an electric outlet. Their standard configuration is a single router and two Mesh Points, but you can also make a network with just routers, a setup that has worked well for me. You can also use a Mesh Point as a Wi-Fi extender to extend any Wi-Fi network, even one created by a non-Ubiquiti router. I have had bad experiences with this however. See my February 2018 blog, Ubiquiti AmpliFi Mesh Point Problems.
TP-LINK DECO M5
The TP-Link Deco M5 does not self update. According to the User Guide the mobile app tells you when there is an available update and then you have to manually install it by clicking a button. It doesn't say if there is any passive notification for people to never go into the app. In fact, it doesn't say much at all. The User Guide is lame as heck. That its only 18 pages tells you all you need to know; but, 6 of the pages are legal stuff. That leaves 12. Take away the cover page and table of contents and we are down a 10 page pamphlet.
The mobile app requires a TP-Link ID to even get started. It has the mandatory one and only one guest network. It includes Trend Micro antivirus software that we have seen, when used with Asus routers, can spy on you. For more on that see here and here.
From Linksys Velop Dual-Band Intelligent Mesh WiFi System Reviewed by Tim Higgins May 29, 2018. This was a review of the second generation Linksys Velop mesh router system. It is cheaper but with less horsepower than the first generation. Downsides: the Velop still supports the ancient WEP protocol for over-the-air encryption. It also supports WPS. As for wireless issues, you can not control the frequency band it uses for backhaul and you can not set a fixed Wi-Fi channel. On the plus side, there is no mandatory cloud service for administering the thing, it uses a standard web interface. The review did not say if the router can self-update.
A July 2018 review at TidBits paints a slightly different picture. It says that a Linksys account is required for setup. And, while there is mobile app, it says there is also a browser-based interface, but it is not easy to find, and Linksys does not want people using it. As for self-updating, this review says it is available as an option. Velop has the seemingly mandatory single Guest Wi-Fi network. The reviewer had two different problems with the initial setup.
From Tenda MW6 Nova Whole Home Mesh WiFi System Reviewed by Tim Higgins of Small Net Builder. February 8, 2018.
During initial setup you have to give Tenda either an email address or a mobile phone number to establish an account.
Quoting: "Nova is a self-contained system that doesn't rely on a cloud service for system operation. It does, however, rely on a Tenda-hosted relay service to authenticate Nova logins ... I had intermittent problems reliably connecting to Nova. Some days the app would connect just fine. On others, I couldn't get past the screen below, no matter what I did, including multiple reboots, app reinstalls and memory clears and even after resetting Nova to factory default. Even when I could connect, the "Failed to connect to the router" message would often come up and I'd get sent back to the No Connection screen. Very annoying ... I later learned the trick to local management is to disconnect your modem or ISP router from Nova. Once the WAN port was disconnected, I was able to get past the connect screen to the other administration pages. Tenda has some work to do here. The good news is the network appears to keep running if internet goes down, so at least local traffic will be ok."