Linksys Velop: Home mesh, take two

After my recent disgust with Netgear knowingly and intentionally breaking the Orbi installations of customers using wired backhaul, and my decision to yank the entire thing out of my house and return it to Costco, I was left with the fallback of my previous WiFi set-up: A pair of Apple AirPort Extreme units. Given that their performance and coverage was insufficient to start with, and coupled with the fact that they are end-of-lifed, well, it was somewhat urgent that I acquire and install what was, last August, my second choice in home mesh: Linksys Velop. So how did that go?

The Linksys Velop system was my second choice, not my first, primarily due to its limited feature set in comparison to the Netgear Orbi. The Velop is clearly targeted toward typical home users who aren’t looking to be able to tweak every little setting, or enable obscure, little-used functionality. I’m a tinkerer, so that stuff appealed to me. But honestly, as I described previously, some of Netgear’s features, including its VPN server support, were little more than poorly-designed security risks anyhow. It could probably be argued that by focusing on the parts that matter, perhaps Linksys won’t screw-up the firmware in a future update like Netgear did. I can certainly hope.

Installing the Velop was fairly straightforward, but didn’t go quite to plan. Linksys opts to use a mobile app to guide the installation — which in turn requires setting-up an account, an extraneous step I didn’t much appreciate. The app-based approach is probably easier for the average person to deal with, versus using a computer, dealing with Ethernet cables, IP addresses and all the rest of the minutia that’s often required. But I found the app-based approach to be slow, a bit awkward, and in the end, it simply didn’t work all the way to a successful installation. It failed to actually create a WiFi network under my preferred SSID, and there was so much waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) for steps to complete, it drained 15% of my iPhone’s battery before declaring that it was done (when it actually wasn’t).

To complete the set-up and configuration, I ended-up having to fire-up a computer anyway, and utilize the Velop’s web-based toolset.

Using that web-based admin interface is something Linksys seems to discourage for reasons that aren’t clear. When you access the console, you’re told that the app is recommended, and you’re provided with links to download and install it — but you can bypass that and use it anyway.

As I said earlier, the Velop system is pretty feature-light. It does provide configuration of the private network addressing — a must-have for me — and you can configure a guest network, as well as customize the various WiFi names and passwords. But beyond that, don’t expect much.

Speaking of the guest network, unlike the Orbi system, that network is in a different IP address space — which is how it should be. The Orbi, on the other hand, assigned both main and guest devices to the same IP address space, and dealt with the security concerns internally, which was not really very confidence-inducing.

The Velop does support wired backhaul, which is something I was specifically looking for. (Front haul is the connectivity between the routers and your devices; backhaul is the connectivity between the nodes to form the mesh network that is the entire point of having a Velop, Orbi, eero, or similar solution in the first place.) Using wired backhaul eliminates one potential point of interference or failure. You can’t actually confirm that the Velop units are using wired backhaul when you provide it; Linksys’ web site says it’s automatically selected when it’s available.*

Performance of the Velop system appears to be roughly the same as the Orbi in terms of general speed. Since it’s not that straightforward to evaluate in a typical home setting, my assessment is coming from experiential gut feeling, and is based on how streaming music, streaming video, and online gaming seem to function.

In terms of signal strength to WiFi devices, the Velop would appear to have an edge over the Orbi system. The nodes are in the same locations as the former Orbi installation, but yet, signal strength — as represented by the “bars” icon on various devices — seems better when devices are physically positioned at points farthest away from the nodes. Signal strength remains “full” not just to the margins of the footprint of my home, but even nearly to the margins of the footprint of my underlying property. That was not the case with the Orbi system.

One thing remains, and I’m not blaming the Velop: The Nintendo Switch doesn’t function in an agile way on a mesh network. With tablets and smartphones, you can freely move around the house, and the devices will jump from node to node to ensure the strongest signal — all without skipping a beat (figuratively, or if streaming audio on Spotify, even literally). With the Nintendo Switch, the unit steadfastly holds onto the connection to whatever node it connected to when you turned it on. I could make a case that this is either smart design, or bad design — it depends on the situation, I suppose, but for my purposes? This isn’t how I wish it functioned. If you start an online game in one spot in the house, you’d best stay there until you’re done. The flip side of the coin is that with the Velop, I finally have a solid, full-strength signal anywhere in the house I’ve looked when using the Switch.

Finally, I have to give props to Linksys for not forcing automatic updates down my throat. Automatic updates are enabled by default, yes, but you can turn it off. This is what caused me so much grief with the Netgear Orbi, and I have no interest in experiencing that a second time. Linksys posts its release notes online (as of this writing, they are here), and I’ll be reviewing them carefully before rolling-out any firmware updates to my system — as well as giving it a few weeks post-release just to make sure no issues start to bubble to the surface in online forums, etc.

The bottom line? Long-term experience with my Linksys Velop may well uncover issues I’m not currently seeing, but for the moment, the system appears to be well-designed, it seems to function well, and it appears to deliver on its general promise. Let’s just hope it doesn’t bite me in the rear-end nine months from now like Netgear did with the Orbi.

 

 

* There is a technical way of getting to this information as follows:

  1. Open a web browser from a computer on your local network.
  2. Browse to: http://192.168.1.1/sysinfo.cgi (assuming you’ve not changed the IP addressing configuration).
  3. Log-in using your admin credentials.
  4. Give it a minute, and then search the page for “bh_report”.
  5. You should see a block with one line for each connected Velop node. The table shown will indicate the backhaul channel; it will say “wired” if wired backhaul is being used.