UniFi to Google WiFi then back to UniFi: Review

Introduction:

I’ve come back to the world of UniFi after flirting with Google Wifi. The original reason for moving to the Google Wifi was because I believed that first of all the mesh based network would provide better coverage. I bought the ’three pack’ Mesh network box which had three base stations, a ethernet lead to connect to the Chorus Fibre ONT box. There was also the fact that the base station I had, UniFi AP AC, had been transferred into long term service branch but I’m ok with that given that I got 3 good years from the device and when you crunch the numbers it works out to be $2 per week which is pretty good value when you consider it is a enterprise grade piece of hardware. I gave Google Wifi a chance primarily because of positive experiences with Google’s online services and using Chromecast in the past so I was left with a pretty positive impression. What I’ll be doing is talking about both devices and doing a summary as to the pro’s and con’s of each device and the suitable scenarios that one should use them in.

 

Setup:

Google WiFi depends on downloading and installing an app onto your phone off either the Play Store or the Apple App Store as well as setting up a Google account as well since it integrates into Google’s cloud services which might lay as the ground work for further integration and automated management but at the moment it is one step in the process of setting up. The other consideration is ensuring that your ISP doesn’t rely on using VLAN tagging or otherwise you’ll need to install a smart switch between your Chorus Fibre ONT box and the Google device so that the smart switch effectively creates a a VLAN session and the Google Wifi device ‘rides on top’ of it. The alternative is to move to an ISP that doesn’t use it, a good example would be Bigpipe ( link ) which is what I use but keep in mind that it doesn’t have telephone technical support, there are no special contracts and or special deals – it is a straight forward ISP for those of us who want a pipe to the internet and to be left alone (the same reason I have Skinny Direct where everything is done online). Regarding the mesh network configuration, once you have setup the first base station then what you do is go around and scan the QR code which brings it up where you can then add it to the mesh – so it is pretty much straight forward as long as you can follow the instructions on the screen as they appear. One thing to keep in mind is the limited conjuration options which unfortunately in my case since I am living in a place where there are 2.4GHz networks left, right and centre resulting in no free channels available I am required to use the 5GHz band to get a decent connection but the problem is that with the Google WiFi I am not able to specify that I want only 5GHz on and what channel I would like to use – yes in theory the device should choose the best configuration for my scenario but in reality automatic configurations never seem to work as well as intended.

When it comes to the Ubiquiti setup (USG (UniFi Security Gateway) and AP AC HD) the process is a little more laboured but on a good side is that there is a management application for iOS and Android however I have not tested it in regards to setting up the USG + AP AC HD from scratch. For my setup I used a fixed line that goes from my iMac to a switch which the AP AC HD is attached to which is then attached to the USG and the USG is attached to the Chorus Fibre ONT box (I remove the switch out of the equation once). The application is around 100MB in size but keeping in mind the Mac version comes with a bundled version of the Java runtime engine which avoids having to install Java at the system level but I’m unsure about what happens in the Windows world since I only have a Mac available for testing. Funny enough there seems to be a tonne of Mac people who also have Ubiquiti hardware – a preference to pay a little extra for quality hardware with less grief? On a good side, if you go with Ubiquiti they have updated there management tools so now you an easily setup a VLAN for your connection where as in the past you had to login via a ssh session to manually make the configuration changes.

 

Performance and reliability:

The coverage of the Google Wifi was fairly good (the main base station was in the second bedroom, the next base station was in my bedroom, and the third base station was on top of the bookshelf in the lounge room with the average distance between each base station being 8-9 metres with a minimum of one wall that the signal would have to pass through) where the connection in the lounge room was 585Mbps and the connection in the bedroom was roughly around the same. Regarding the latency – it was a lot higher than a single router configuration as with the case of the Ubiquiti setup due to hopping between devices and although the performance would be acceptable in a larger home, which is where the idea of a mesh network really has its strengths, but in a situation like mine where a signal access point does the job the idea of a mesh network is more of a burden rather than an asset. Although the latency wouldn’t affect most scenarios if you are into gaming or using Skype it can make an otherwise enjoyable night into a never ending game of frustration. Unfortunately I don’t have any speedtest numbers but what I can say it is that the mesh network did have a toll on performance even from my laptop which was the closest to the main base station – fast enough to surf and do casual browsing but if you’re really going to push the limits in the form of uploading large amounts of data to the cloud you might find that the reduction in speed will be frustrating.

On the Ubiquiti configuration that consists of the USG and AP AP HD with the setup of WiFi solely on the 5GHz frequency using Channel 52 (DFS) I can achieve from my iMac to the AP AC HD (located in the same room, attached to the ceiling in direct line of sight to the iMac) this is the performance that was reached whilst connected at 1300Mbps (the maximum theoretical connection speed one can attain using the chipset included as standard with the iMac):

Screen Shot 2017 11 13 at 11 49 28 AM

From my MacBook I am able to connect at 867Mbps with the speedtest being roughly the same as with the iMac although I do primarily use my iMac for heavily lifting jobs like compressing videos, writing articles (like I am doing now) and as for the latency it is roughly the same with a few extra ms added because of it having to go through a wall but when compared to the mesh configuration provided by the Google WiFi the connection is stronger and more consistent throughput. Side note, in terms of improving the consistency of the Google Wifi configuration, I did umm and arr the idea of running a ethernet cable from the second room to my room’s base station then from my rooms base station to the one in the lounge room which would make for an interesting hypothetical whether the outcome might be different or maybe using power line networking to connect base stations together particularly for a big house where the signal between base stations might be too week for a wireless mesh network but perfectly find for a wired mesh network.

 

Conclusion:

Google Wifi: Pluses being an easy to setup configuration for the novice especially when you consider the prevalence of smart phones these days so I’m sure some of the ‘Gen Y’ would be happy with that. But that simplicity comes with trade offs which include the lack of configuration options for control freaks like me who want to fine tune the router to do exactly what we want which most end users would find puzzling at best.

Ubiquiti USG + AP AC HD: Huge array of configuration options due to it being designed from the ground up to be an enterprise solution at an accessible price point (keeping in mind that ‘accessible price point’ is relative) so if you’re a technology enthusiast who wants to get the most out of your network then this would be the setup ideal for you. The other great strength is its ability to handle large amounts of data from multiple devices and provide a strong centralised signal over the whole house to ensure that all devices can take advantage of the capacity that is available with its support for 802.11ac Wave 2 MU-MIMO (assuming the wifi chipset in your device supports it).

Which one you choose really comes down to what you’re wanting; are you wanting one that is simple setup with minimal configuration options or do you want something you can tweak down to the most finest detail. There isn’t a ‘good or bad’ product given that they’re targeted at different which have different needs and priorities and choosing the one that suits your scenario best. For me my situation I’m happy with the move back to Ubiquiti, yes, it does come with a hefty price tag but it’ll be something that I can ‘set and forget’  with everything just keeps humming away in the background without having to worry.

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