FOX11, Los Angeles - We’ve seen more mesh network routers coming online in the last year, and for the most party they’re pretty awesome technology. Let’s face it, setting up access points in bridge mode is a pain in the can for most users who barely change the default settings on their WiFi routers to begin with. Manufacturers have taken note and that’s why most of these mesh routers feature super simple setups and minimalist user interfaces. That’s where TP-Link’s Deco takes a different tact! While it’s still very simple to set up, it takes my own greatest pain point (and a concern expressed by parents) and solves the problem of the “too simple setup.”
What is the “too simple setup?” For me, its the point where a manufacturer dumbs down the configuration options of a product so much so that doing anything other than the basics, or diagnosing problems becomes untenable. Working here at the TV station, we set up some Apple TV units to work with our video routing system so that we could do some tech segments. When we tried to use Airplay to mirror iOS displays, there were times it didn’t work, but the interface/UI for Airplay is so simple you can’t go anywhere with troubleshooting. It either works, or it doesn’t. Sure, I’m simplifying it a bit, but for the most part, the oversimplification can be problematic. Deco eschews this current fad of oversimplification by striking a healthy balance between ease of network setup for those who want plug-and-play action, and advanced options (including parental controls) for post setup network customization. But, let us back up a bit and take a look at the hardware before we get into the software and user experience it provides.
Art Deco Hardware
When you open up the box, you’re greeted by three white discs, power cords, ethernet cables and manuals. And that’s it. As are most of these mesh network routers, the main objective of the Deco units from an aesthetic standpoint is that they look like they belong in your living room, among your decor. My only issue here is that I’d like to see these offered in more than just white. And I mean that for all the mesh network routers I’m seeing lately. Looking at the units, you’ll see an LED on top, and around “back” you’ll find two gigabit ethernet ports, a USB-C power port and along the bottom you’ll find a vent for heat dissipation.
As with any good router, it’s more about what’s on the inside than out- not counting the antenna array, of course. Inside TP-Link’s Deco units you’ll find quad core processors, 4 internal antennae per unit and Bluetooth 4.2 radios. In addition, the WiFi radios give you dual band access with speeds maxing out at 400Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band and 867Mbps on the 5Ghz band. I ran some speed tests to put the actual throughput to the test, but we’ll get to that later.
Right now, you can only get the Deco in a three pack, but they’ll be available individually in the future so you can expand your network one unit at at time if necessary.
Deco: The Set Up
I received the Deco units ahead of launch, and the apps weren’t available via their respective app stores yet. Once I sideloaded the Android app, I went about the task of setting up the network. It was not a painless process. The set up process kept crashing at the same point every time, so I tried from different Android devices, with different versions of Android, to no avail. Not a problem, let’s try the iOS app. I sideloaded the app onto my iPad Pro, then proceeded to try to set things up again and this time was able to without a hitch. I don’t know yet what the problem on Android was, but either way, I was on my way. My only issue with the set up process, is that I’d like to be able to do it directly from a computer and not over Bluetooth, as is the current process with Deco. I’d rather have set up done via a wired connection to the primary unit because it eliminates a lot of issues.
Once the iOS app connected to the primary unit, set up was a breeze! Network SSID established, basic settings configured and it was on to adding a second and third unit. That process (screenshots in the gallery above), was painless and is squarely what products like these are all about. Whole home coverage for the average Joe/Jane without the hassles of repeaters or bridges.
What makes this product stand out from previous mesh network systems I’ve reviewed is the fact that you actually get some advanced features on the back end, which are still fairly simple to configure. From the main menu, you’ll get a WiFi Settings menu which is where you can go to change the network name (SSID), network password, turn on a guest network and even “Shake to Share” your WiFi password with guests via several different messaging options via your device’s share menu. For parents worried about those summer months when the kids are online the heaviest, or to curb some of the usage during the school year, there’s a Parental Controls menu that you’ll want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with.
The Parental Controls menu allows you to create named profiles, then assign devices to that profile. Once devices are assigned to the profile, you’ll be able to see how much time those devices spend online each day, along with the websites they’ve visited in the Insights menu. The Filter Level menu is where you’ll be able to set an age-appropriate web filter for that user. In this case, you get four preset levels of filter: Child, Pre-Teen, Teen and Adult. You can block up to 9 categories of content, including Adult Content, Gambling, Sex Education, Social Networking and Downloads, among others. You can also add a list of websites to a blacklist section of the app in the Filtered Content section. The Time Controls menu allows you to set daily time limits for the total time spent online, with separate controls for weekdays and weekends. You can also set up a Bed Time where the internet is inaccessible to those devices on school nights and weekends. If you want to put a temporary ban on the internet access for that person’s profile, and by extension all of the devices attached to that profile, there’s a big ‘ol Pause button at the bottom of the screen.
But Wait! There’s More!
TP-Link has included three years of Antivirus with the Deco. With this you get a Malicious Content Filter, Intrusion Prevention System and Infected Device Quarantine. The latter prevents infected devices from sending sensitive information or security threats to clients outside of your network. The Malicious Content Filter is especially helpful when you have younger surfers on your network. It blocks malicious website that are listed in the Trend Micro’s database.
The QoS (Quality of Service) menu allows you to prioritize network traffic based on activity. You have six options with the final one providing the ability to customize the traffic by activity, using sliders. For my household, I have the Streaming activity set to high priority. While this feature is definitely a welcome addition, I’d also like to see the ability to provide priority by device, or profile. I pay the bills, so all of mine and my wife’s devices should be able to have priority over all of my teens’ devices.
The Advanced menu is where you’ll find the option to set the LEDs to turn off at night, but you’ll get much more robust options as well. Address Reservation, Port Forwarding and Notifications of three types of activity associated with your Deco. You can be notified when a new device is detected on your network, notified of firmware updates and when monthly reports are ready.
Need For Speed
Testing the network from multiple devices produced favorable results. A Samsung Galaxy S8+ consistently hit the max that I’m paying for from Spectrum at 100Mbps, often hitting above that. My experience was consistent across laptops, tablets and smartphones, but where I ran into some interesting results was throughput on the network itself. Remember, a theoretical 400mbps and 837mbps per second is what I should be able to see passing through my network on the 2.4 and 5ghz bands, respectively. Since there are many people who won’t have 2x2 AC WiFi cards in their laptops, I tested with an older MacBook AIR, running wireless N. You can see those results above.
For an AC router, the speeds appear to be a bit on the slow side compared to other mesh and traditional MU-MIMO devices I’ve tested, though I’ve experienced no bottlenecks or lag in my Netflix streaming and I’ve had no complaints from my sons as they simultaneously play Smite on their Xbox Ones in different rooms. Add to that several pieces of home automation hardware on the network, including two different voice assistants and I’d say that I have a fairly heavy amount of network traffic, but not once did I experience any slow down during my review. I have used routers which felt faster, though the vast majority of users will be fine with the speeds that the Deco set produces. The only area, based on these speed tests, that you’ll potentially have any issues is if you’re streaming, or moving, large files over the internal network. Let’s say, if you’re using a Plex server and streaming movies from network attached storage to a TV or laptop. Even then, you’re going to have to be streaming some pretty heavy files, like 4k content. The other potential bottleneck could be backing up a laptop over the network to attached storage, depending on how you back up.
Overall, I really liked the Deco’s Parental Controls. I usually pan router-based parental controls in favor of dedicated parental control suites of software, but this time around I found Deco’s offering to be fairly robust and well worth consideration. Also, in my time in the NPO sector educating parents on internet safety, more often than not, they couldn’t tell you which anti-virus app is installed on their computers, if it's up to date, or if the subscription is active. This feature, which protects all devices accessing the network, is worth its weight in gold. My only issue is that there’s no mention of how much it’s going to cost to renew the protection once the three years is up. My primary issue with this router is the internal network speeds, but only because people tend to keep their routers for several years. If this is going to be the product providing your home with its network capabilities for the next several years, I’d be concerned about what happens as more home automation hardware comes onto the market and 4k (or better) downloadable content becomes more widely available. Again, for most people, the intra-network speeds aren’t a deal breaker but I’ll generally recommend getting the fastest, fattest pipeline for your home when you buy so that you’re as future proofed as possible. To that end, I’ve reviewed other mesh network and traditional routers with more solid intra-network speeds.
In the end, if you need the whole home coverage that a mesh network provides, I’d place the Deco on the short list. Keep in mind that currently, there really is just a short list of mesh options but the added parental controls and anti-virus make this a product well worth considering for most households, especially those with children. Right now the Deco can only be purchased as a three pack, or individual units. The three pack will run you around $250, while the single units can be found for $100.
Disclosure: TP-Link provided me with a sample for the purpose of this review.