It’s been interesting to see how longtime home wireless vendors have been approaching the new wireless mesh market, in which startup products like Eero, Luma, AmpliFi and Almond have hit the scene – in addition to Google, which doesn’t qualify as a startup, but is new to the Wi-Fi market.
Companies like Netgear (with its Orbi product) and D-Link (with its recently announced Covr offering) have taken a hybrid approach – providing systems that deliver “whole-home coverage” but use a router-and-satellite framework, unlike the “three-pack” systems where each unit in the package is equal (at least until you connect the first one to act as the ‘router’).
Home wireless veteran Linksys (a division of Belkin) has taken the latter approach – its new Velop system is a three-pack of wireless nodes that promises “whole-home coverage” (up to 6,000 square feet) packaged in a very sleek offering. Like the other wireless mesh systems, setup is done via mobile app, and offers features such as easy guest network access setup, parental controls and some basic device prioritization. The company sent us a three-pack to try out and test in our unofficial “Cool Tools Testing Home”.
Look and feel
Each Velop node is a rectangular column that looks more like a Bluetooth speaker system than the smaller, fatter wireless mesh nodes from other companies. The top of the unit contains a colored light to indicate whether the system is working or not, but other than that it’s an all-white design. These systems are aimed to be part of a room’s décor, so there’s no giant antennas or other protrusions coming out of the Velop node.
In fact, Linksys has done a good job to attempt to minimize the number of cables that come from the unit. The cable connections (power, two Ethernet ports) all go into the recessed area on the bottom of the device, and Linksys has designed a flexible corner piece that clumps and holds the cables together. This gives the appearance of one cable coming out from the unit instead of two or more – you could even use cable ties to make it look less cluttered if you wanted. For the nodes that become part of the mesh away from the modem/router unit, you’ll likely only have the power cable coming out from the bottom of the Velop node.
One small dislike on the cabling – the power ‘brick’ part that connects to an outlet is a large square thing, making it tricky to place on a power strip (even on the end point, it blocked a second open outlet). Connecting the brick to a wall outlet didn’t block the second port there – just on the power strip. This is a pet peeve of mine, because this means that I end up having to string together a few power strips in areas where lots of electronics merge.
Smooth setup via mobile app
Setup is handled through the Linksys app – having done some testing with other Linksys products, I already had a Linksys account. If you’re new to the Linksys world, you need to set up a free account and then login to the app. The app took me straight to a section where it asked if I wanted to set up a Velop, possibly because it couldn’t find any existing Linksys networks – there’s also a link in case I was looking to install a separate Linksys product.
The setup process was similar to other mesh systems – step-by-step instructions on the app that were easy to follow, with confirmations on connections and locations along the way. The first node sets up next to the modem and acts as the ‘router’ – once that was configured I could move on to setting up nodes 2 and 3.
I did have one small hiccup while setting up Node 3 – the system couldn’t locate it or it couldn’t find one of the other nodes – I got an “oops” notification on the app, but then it succeeded on the second attempt. The system does take a few minutes to go through its processes of finding the other nodes, confirming that the placement is optimal and testing the mesh, but the app does a good job of letting you know what it’s doing. It does take longer to set up a mesh network than with a standard Wi-Fi router, but it’s not more difficult.
While the Velop utilizes dual-band frequencies for its network (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), it does this in the background – users don’t need to create separate (or similar) names for those frequencies, like you would with other traditional routers. Instead, you create one name for the network and the Velop system decides in the background whether the data travels over the 2.4 GHz space or the 5 GHz space. My best guess is that this depends a lot on whether the client supports 5GHz, as well as the distance/signal strength of the client to the closest node.
This meant the speed tests we performed were only for the overall system in our three different locations, not for each frequency band. However, because the Velop supports MU-MIMO technology (where users can get a dedicated stream of traffic when multiple users are on the netework), we were able to perform a “multi-user” test as well.
These speeds were not as fast as some recent routers we’ve tried (the Netgear Nighthawk X10 and Linksys’ own WRT3200ACM come to mind), but were still impressive nonetheless. The MU-MIMO test saw a slight dip in traffic rates (as expected), but were still very nice. (Note to self – we may have to increase the number of users in our MU-MIMO tests).
Mobile app and dashboard features
The Linksys app has a clean Dashboard view that lets you know if the Internet is working (a globe and a checkmark), how many devices are accessing the network, and then tabs/options for other features.
Clicking the “Wi-Fi” option/tab shows you the name and password (via asterisks) of your network. Clicking a ‘Share’ icon on the password part then shows you the password, which you can then also send via text message, email or copy to the mobile clipboard. The other three areas on the dashboard include options for enabling/disabling Guest Access, the Parental Controls section and the Device Prioritization section. Accessing other features, such as the Internet Speed Test, advanced settings, Notifications settings and Linksys Account section is done through the “hamburger tab” on the upper left section.
Linksys also does a good job at providing advanced features and options for more seasoned users via the app – I’ve seen many apps that try to strip away the advanced features in favor of an easy-to-use app. In the case of Linksys, the advanced features remain on the mobile app for more advanced users, but don’t mess up the UI for the non-techie users.
Having reviewed a bunch of other devices that specifically let parents control the types of content their kids are viewing (as well as setting time limits and other options), the parental controls option on the Linksys app was a bit disappointing. The controls are handled as such – you choose a device that has attached to the network and then type in a specific URL that you’d like to block (such as Facebook), or you can “Block Manually” which then turns off the Internet for the entire device. You can only block up to 10 sites via this method.
Being able to block category types (for example, block all gambling sites), services or apps would be a nice feature to have. There’s also no indication for user profiles – my kids access our network with many devices, so I’d have to control each device separately, rather than control via a user named “Kid#2”. Blocking access via specific times (like between 7 pm and 8 pm ET) can only be done through the Linksys Web-based interface, not the app.
If you have many users fighting for bandwidth at the same time, you might want to enable device prioritization, so your device can access the Internet when the kids are also trying to watch Netflix or stream YouTube (or, if you’re being more noble, to let them do their homework while you’re gaming).
The app lets you choose three devices to receive “priority usage” of your Internet connection. When you add a device to the list, the app runs a speed test of your system to determine how much bandwidth to save for that device, giving the leftover scraps to other devices on the network. There’s no indication of how much bandwidth that is, whether it saves the bandwidth forever (like an unused reserved table at a fancy restaurant) on the off chance that the device pops onto the network, or whether it’s first-come, first-serve until the device shows up. If it’s the former (the reserved table scenario), then you’ll likely have the ‘have-nots’ complaining about access during busy usage periods. In addition, any likely bandwidth bottlenecks will be at the Internet broadband part of the router, which the device prioritization doesn’t address – this only prioritizes LAN traffic. It’s like a carpool lane that ends five miles before the real backup starts.
I like the approach that Linksys is taking with Velop – provide customers who want a wireless mesh or whole-home coverage offering, but with the backing, knowledge and expertise that a wireless veteran is known for. In addition, it’s good that Linksys isn’t taking existing technology (like a centralized router and extenders) and slapping a ‘whole-home coverage’ label on it – these are brand new units that offer customers a different (and easier) approach to providing home wireless coverage.
Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five).