Even if the thought of setting up your own mesh network terrifies you, we'd still recommend trying Asus' AiMesh system on its extendable routers. You'll save cash not buying a pre-packed mesh kit and completely miss the headaches that often come with Wi-Fi range extenders.
Stuff recently reviewed (and was impressed with) the Asus ZenWiFi XT9 mesh kit but that system is overkill for most users. We asked Asus to show us something a little more accessible. Something that still feels like a meaningful upgrade and uses the latest tech but won’t obliterate your bank account.
We were initially surprised to find two more routers in the box until we saw the ‘Extendable router’ sticker on each.
Extending Wi-Fi the not-so-smart way
‘But why do you need two routers?’ we hear you ask. Well, technically, you don’t. If your standard ISP-issue router reaches all the places you require coverage, then great. Also, what’s living in a shoebox like?
If it doesn’t cover every corner, as many can probably attest, then you have a few options. You could keep your ‘free’ barebones ISP router and add one (but usually more) Wi-Fi range extenders to cover the dead zones.
What you may not know is that those sorts of devices generally suck. They’re usually the cheapest option but there’s a reason for that. All they do is catch an existing Wi-Fi signal from your main router and rebroadcast it to out-of-range devices.
Usually, that existing signal is already a little weak, depending on where you’ve put your range extender, so you’re unlikely to see any speed improvements. And even if your extender isn’t garbage and you carefully place it for optimal signal rebroadcasting, there could be other drawbacks to this setup, like poor roaming functionality. That’s not to mention how easy it is to buy a mismatched extender for your existing network.
Another option is to ditch the ISP router and splash out on a whole-home mesh system. If you can afford one of those, they’re often the best way to go. But that convenience is usually quite expensive. That’s where these Asus extendable routers come in.
We have AiMesh at home
If you’ve picked up an Asus router in the last couple of years and ventured into the settings, you might have come across a feature called ‘AiMesh’. This feature, now present in every new Asus router, allows you to combine two or more supported units (those that bear the ‘Extendable router’ sticker) into a single mesh network.
While this might sound like a clear win over the often expensive pre-packaged mesh kits – the two extendable units we received are just over half the price of the XT9 kit – it’s a little more complicated than a simple price comparison. It involves more work on your part, mostly in the setup phase, but there’s a chance you may need to spend some time tinkering with settings and node placement to get the most out of your network.
But before we get to that, here’s a brief look at the two units that made up our AiMesh network.
The outgoing RT-AX58U
The Asus RT-AX58U lands somewhere in the middle of Asus’ crop of ‘budget’ Wi-Fi 6 routers. It might not look as slick as other routers these days, bearing four unsightly external antennae, but its low-profile black body isn’t as garish or intimidating as some of the company’s other routers.
It’s a dual-band router rated for a max throughput of roughly 3,000Mbps – 574Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 2,402Mbps on the 5GHz band for Wi-Fi 6 devices. Wi-Fi 5 devices can enjoy a throughput of up to 1,733Mbps.
It also supports many of Asus’ proprietary features like AiProtection Pro for added security, robust parental controls for protecting the little ones, and VPN client and server capabilities among others. While it is still currently available for R2,800 at the time of writing, it will soon be replaced by the second router.
The incoming RT-AX59U
The RT-AX59U will soon supplant the RT-AX58U. We doubt Asus sent them coincidentally. If folks are upgrading their router, and it happens to be an Asus extendable router, they are more likely to buy another Asus extendable router to take advantage of AiMesh than switch to a different brand. At least, that’s how Asus tells it.
The RT-AX59U is functionally the same as its predecessor. The only notable changes are the design and increased speed across the board. Instead of the traditional ‘flat box with external antennae sticking out the back’ aesthetic, Asus has moved the antennae inside, rounded the corners, and turned it on its side.
The internal processor gets another core, the antenna count increases by one, and the max throughput has increased to 4,200Mbps – 574Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 3,603Mbps on the 5GHz band for Wi-Fi 6 devices. Wi-Fi 5 throughput has also increased to 2,600Mbps.
The number of ethernet ports remains the same, as does their speed. Additionally, there’s a second USB-A port on the back but it uses the slower USB 2.0 standard. The RT-AX59U isn’t yet available for purchase, but we’re told it will be later this month with an expected market price of R2,500.
A few AiMesh notes
Before you decide you want to go the AiMesh route, there are a few things you should know. Firstly, this is Asus’ proprietary tech so it’s only going to work on Asus routers. Thankfully, you aren’t as limited to which Asus routers you use in your system. As long as they’ve got the ‘Extendable router’ sticker on the box, they should theoretically work. How well a given pair will work together is a different question and with a staggering number of possible combinations, it isn’t easily answered.
The next important consideration is how comfortable you are with fiddling in the settings page. A benefit of buying a mesh kit instead of doing it yourself is that they’re made with the express purpose of connecting to each other, with no tinkering required.
That isn’t to say the AiMesh setup process will always be a mission – we found it to be surprisingly easy – but that might not be true for everyone.
You’ll want to start by picking your best-performing device and setting that up as the primary node. In AiMesh networks, the primary node dictates the features of the rest of the network. For Asus routers, you can do that via the web interface or through the Asus router smartphone app. When you’re done, it’s time to connect your satellite nodes.
How’s your backhaul?
Before you do that, you’ll need to decide how they’re going to chat with each other, called the ‘backhaul’ connection. This can be a wired connection via a physical ethernet cable or wirelessly on one of the available Wi-Fi bands.
For most people, it’s probably best to leave it on ‘auto’ and let the system decide which of the available connections is best. If you’re after speed and stability, wired backhauling is best. On the other hand, a wireless connection offers an easier setup process and versatile node placements. But keep in mind, for wireless connections, the bandwidth of the chosen wireless band is halved to accommodate the backhaul traffic.
During our test of the ZenWiFi XT9 kit, we noted how fast our speed tests were, even with a wireless connection between nodes. That’s because the system offers three separate Wi-Fi bands with the option to dedicate one for backhaul traffic, allowing the other two to run at full speed. That price should start to make a little more sense now.
In our setup, we only had two Wi-Fi bands to work with. Since we weren’t going to get our landlord to install a new network cable just for this review, our nodes were connected wirelessly. We manually set the backhaul connection to use the 2.4GHz band lest we incur the ire of the rest of the office should the system automatically switch to, and slow down, the faster 5GHz band.
In doing that, we did notice a slight reduction in speed on devices connected to the satellite node’s 2.4GHz band when we ran our local speed tests. Although, that could be chalked up to us specifically looking for discrepancies and comparing speed test numbers. Depending on how your network is set up and the number of devices connected, and your tolerance of network speeds, you may not even notice a difference.
While our experience was mostly trouble-free, it isn’t hard to imagine how the opposite could be true in different setups. For example, you might have a few IoT devices in your home (usually limited to the 2.4GHz band). In that case, first prize is to make sure your mesh nodes support tri-band Wi-Fi. But as we said, those are usually expensive. So second prize is a wired connection between nodes.
Asus extendable router verdict
Summing up Asus’ AiMesh technology is a little tricky. While we had a pretty good time during setup, management, and day-to-day use with these two extendable routers, your mileage may vary. Especially if you’re expecting a plug-and-play solution. If you’re the type to call the IT guy when the Wi-Fi drops, you might need to make friends with your smartphone’s internet search feature during your AiMesh setup. Or just get your IT guy to do it.
We still think AiMesh is worth exploring if you’re looking for ways to improve your home network, no matter how little you may think you know about networking. Asus tries to make it as easy as possible through its smartphone router app. Just keep in mind that you don’t get the same convenience as a pre-packaged kit.
If you aren’t intimidated by network terminology, already have an Asus extendable router, and need to expand your Wi-Fi coverage, AiMesh is an answer. As far as expanding your Wi-Fi coverage, it’s a well-placed middle ground between dealing with cheap Wi-Fi extenders and forking out eye-watering sums of cash for high-end mesh kits.