A couple of months ago, a big package arrived at the Giz UK office. It was from Google. The company had sent me their new wifi router to try, which is simply called “Google Wifi”. So I took it home with the best of intentions: tonight, I’d plug ‘em in and test ‘em out.
That “tonight” quickly turned into “this weekend”, which turned into “when I get a chance”, because of a combination of how busy I am, and the daunting prospect of having to reconfigure my home network. Changing the router isn’t a trivial task: When you’ve got a house as decked-out in tech as mine is, it means updating the wifi codes on everything. It means reconfiguring dozens of devices and updating hard-coded IP addresses.
Effectively, it was going to be a tonne of hassle for what would surely be something imperceptible from the internet connectivity I have in my flat now. So for the past couple of months, the Google box has sat staring at me while I’ve been sat on the sofa - reminding me of that thing I said I’d review yet never got around to.
Then just the other night I was lying in bed, refreshing tweets and trying to read the latest scoops on the Trump/Russia scandal from the Washington Post and New York Times - who tend to publish them around midnight UK time - and to my frustration they were loading slowly. My bed is at the furthest point in the flat from my BT HomeHub, and clearly it was experiencing lots of packet-loss. This wouldn’t do, so I decided to finally bite the bullet. It was time to rip apart my home network, and rebuild it with the power of Google.
Enter: Google Wifi
Out of the box with Google Wifi, you get two identical cylindrical hotspots. Two, because as per the modern trend, Google Wifi isn’t just a like-for-like replacement of your router, but is for building a mesh network. The more hotspots you add, the further your wifi can travel, and the more robust your wifi becomes.
So I plugged in the first device (powered by USB-C, nice!), and connected it via the included ethernet cable to my BT HomeHub, and downloaded the Google Wifi app to my phone.
Then setup was easy. With my phone, I scanned the QR code on the base of the router and it somehow connected to it (via bluetooth, I guess). I picked a name and a password for my network, and I could connect to it. I plugged in the other Google Wifi device that was included in the box, and using the app it was quickly located and incorporated into the Mesh network. It couldn’t have been easier.
Delighted at how easy it was, I then proceeded to go about my business, and it was only after a long, hard day of arguing on Twitter when I wanted to chill out and watch some YouTube videos that I spotted a problem: Because of the new network setup, my computer could no longer detect my ethernet-connected Nvidia Shield, which has built-in Chromecast capabilities. Damnit.
So I thought I’d listen to some music instead: But annoyingly, my computer - connected to Google Wifi - could no longer detect my ethernet-connected Sonos. Damnit.
After about an hour of frantically googling the problem, I realised a couple of things: First off, though the new wifi connection was working, I wasn’t really doing it properly. Because I plugged it into my HomeHub - which is a combined modem and router, the HomeHub was still, doing the, umm, routing. It was the HomeHub assigning IP addresses, and telling traffic on the network where to go. And then secondly: It turns out that Google Wifi and BT HomeHub don’t play well together.
So some rewiring was once again in order. I dug out my old BT Openreach modem, which had been sat gathering dust in a box since I upgraded from a HomeHub 3 to a 5. I plugged in the connection with the wall socket, and then connected the modem to the Google Wifi. Then… nothing. What I’d failed to set up was the pppoe settings - this is the connection protocol the modem uses to talk to BT. This was simple enough to do - I just needed to add “firstname.lastname@example.org” as the username - but accessing the ability to do this was particularly annoying.
Because of the way Google Wifi works, making your router cloud accessible, it wouldn’t let me update this setting without a connection to the internet. I couldn’t simply connect to an internet-less network, and edit the settings on the local router. And it wouldn’t let me connect to the internet without updating the settings. So I once again had to plug the Google Wifi back into the HomeHub so I could access it via the cloud and update the settings. And then finally, plugging it back in solo, it managed to connect.
I then plugged my ethernet hub into the other port on the Google Wifi, and mercifully my devices started appearing. Google’s DHCP was dishing out IP addresses, and a sense of sanity was being returned to the network.
It wasn’t 100% smooth sailing: Several devices needed a bit of a kick to appreciate the new network, even if they were wired. My Synology back-up drive required a couple of restarts and some manual port forwarding, and I had to effectively completely reset my Belkin Wemo smart plugs, as they connect over wifi. Perhaps most perplexing was the Sonos, where I have a couple of speakers connected via ethernet, and a couple wirelessly - using Sonos’s own built-in and separate mesh network. Eventually, several restarts and a couple of seemingly unnecessary factory resets later, it just started working. I can’t work out if it was because of something I did, or something automatic kicking into life. But what was most important was that it seemed as though everything was finally working.
Software and Settings
Other than a more reliable wifi signal, there’s one other big advantage of Google Wifi: The software. Goodbye BT crapware, hello Google’s top of the class design skillz brought to my home router.
Once your network is setup, the app can perform speed tests on your connection, and it will let you view your devices. Using it, it’s super easy to see what’s currently connected - and you can even give each device a friendlier name so you know what you’re referring to.
On each device you can see which device is using the most data, so you can work out if someone in particular is hogging all of the bandwidth.You can even choose a “priority device”, which will get the lion’s share of the bandwidth for a set period of time - which could be ideal if, for example, you wanted to stream Netflix and wanted to ensure a stable connection.
Parents will also be pleased to see a mode which will enable you to limit the internet time on particular devices - so you can ensure that your kids aren’t wasting too much of their lives.
Perhaps the best additional feature is that Google has made it super easy to manage guests. Say you’ve got people coming over, you can give them a completely separate wifi network to connect to, with a completely separate password. You can even make specific devices available to guests - say, a Chromecast or speaker - with you in control of what devices they get to see, so they can’t just go rifling around through your private files. Brilliant.
Perhaps the only slightly annoying thing - and something that is hypocritical to criticise given my comments above - is that Google Wifi almost makes it slightly too slick. It handles everything, and there are advanced settings in there - but it’d be nice to have the option to look more into the guts of your router setup. And it’d be nice to have a web interface, for those of us with laptops - rather than making us do everything via our phones. I can imagine this being annoying, for example, if you need to set up a lot of different ports to forward or want specific static IPs.
Ultimately though, I’m really impressed with Google Wifi. Yes, I’ve handed over yet more of my life to Google, but it appears to be much more reliable. Having a mesh network in my flat does appear to be making a big difference to the quality of the signal. The packet-loss from the the bedroom appears to have been minimised.
But perhaps most importantly? Now I can stay up late, refreshing tweets on my iPad all the way from my bed. Brilliant.
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