Vilo’s $20-per-node mesh network: A hands-on report
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Vilo’s new budget Wi-Fi wireless mesh network costs $70 for a pack of three wireless routers. Many competing systems cost hundreds more. So is there a catch? After testing it ourselves, we’d saw nothing that one more of these low-priced little routers couldn’t solve.
Vilo charges $69.98 for a three-pack of the Vilo Mesh Wi-Fi System, as it’s known, plus $20 per additional node ($27.98 with shipping). Essentially, Vilo is asking you the question: Would you buy a Vilo wireless router that’s based on slightly older technology, but at a price that’s even less than what that older technology should cost?
Vilo’s mesh routers aren’t predicated on the latest Wi-Fi 6 or bleeding-edge Wi-Fi 6e technology that powers the vast majority of new, more expensive routers. Instead, Vilo selected Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac), which uses radio specturm in the 2.4- and 5GHz frequency bands to transfer data throughout the home. Essentially, that’s the same technology that powered 2016’s Google Wifi, which, even discounted, still costs $219 at Amazon. Buying $220 technology for $70? That’s Vilo in a nutshell.
From a performance standpoint, the dual-band 802.11ac technology selected by Vilo should offer a theoretical maximum of 300Mbps on its 2.4GHz network and 867Mbps on its 5GHz network—speeds you’ll rarely, if ever, experience in real life. Throughput associated with Wi-Fi 6 is partially dependent upon the number of wireless channels allocated to the router, and the channel width that router uses. Typically, however, Wi-Fi 6 delivers bandwidth of between 3Gbps all the way up to 14Gbps. Wi-Fi 6e adds a third frequency band—6GHz—to provide even more bandwidth.
That extra bandwidth comes in handy when you’re transferring very large files across your network. But when you’re downloading files from the internet, you’ll like hit the maximum speed your internet service provider can deliver long before you max out your router.
Setting up a Vilo mesh network
Vilo sent us a three-pack of Vilo’s mesh routers at our request. Because of the pandemic and a pending change to our home networking test setup, I tested Vilo’s mesh system in my home, a 2,000-foot “split level” in the Bay Area hills. My home covers two stories, but three levels, with a downstairs office, upstairs bedrooms, and a kitchen/dining room/living area in between. Routing a signal from my cable gateway in my downstairs office up and throughout my home has always been complicated by the numerous floors, ceilings, stairs and walls.
Originally, I set up Vilo’s network to accommodate T-Mobile’s 5G home gateway, which necessitated putting one Vilo device in my son’s bedroom, one in the kitchen, and one in the master bedroom. That, as it turned out, was a great setup. I also later reconfigured the network to mirror my traditional setup, with one node downstairs and the others upstairs, with one in the kitchen and the other in my son’s bedroom.
Each Vilo is small and white, measuring 2.7 x 2.7 x 5.9 inches. Naturally, they’re all powered, via a small jack. Unlike some Wi-Fi repeaters, they’re also freestanding, requiring a small space for them to perch. Each has a tiny signal LED that lights blue if they’re properly connected, and will flash red if they’re not. This LED can be disabled via the associated Vilo app so as not to disturb one’s sleep.
There is no “primary” router until you designate one as such. Each device includes a pair of ethernet cable ports on the back, and the first Vilo router you pluck from the box simply becomes the primary router. It’s worth noting that only the three-pack includes an ethernet cable to connect the Vilo to your broadband gateway. Otherwise, you’ll have to supply your own.
It’s worth noting that setting up Vilo’s routers requires agreeing to its Terms of Service, which Vilo also puts on its site for you to review. During the review process, I reached out to Jessie Zhou, the chief executive and co-founder of Vilo, about a statement in the ToS that asks users to agree to “irrevocably waive any and all ownership, legal, and moral rights to their user content” when using Vilo’s “services.” A separate clause notes that Vilo could interject ads, as well.
Zhou responded, clarifying that the “services” in question simply referred to the company’s website, specifically reviews, profile pictures, and other content users uploaded. “Vilo does NOT collect information about searches or browses or any other content users access on the Internet when using our services,” Zhou wrote, and said that the company would clarify its terms of service accordingly.
Like so many devices, Vilo’s setup is facilitated by an app for either Android or iOS. You’ll also need to sign up for an overarching Vilo account. Setup was a breeze: I simply downloaded the app, scanned a QR code printed on the bottom of the router, and let the app do the work. As I stepped through the setup, I had the opportunity to change the SSID and password. Vilos use WPA2 encryption by default.
Adding additional Vilos was also extremely simple. Physically, setting up each additional router was as easy as finding a location and plugging it in.
Vilo then asks you to open the app and the “My Vilos” page, navigate to the bottom, than click the “plus” icon above where a “Add another Vilo” appears. You’ll then have the choice to either add a Vilo from the same package, or “another” Vilo. The first option implicitly tells Vilo to carry over your settings and network passwords from the first Vilo router to the second. The same process can be used to set up the third Vilo, too. (Presumably, adding a fourth Vilo means simply associating that router’s SSID and password to your existing Vilo mesh.) Each mesh router took about a minute to connect.
The app also allows you to assign nicknames to the routers (“Kids Bedroom,” for example) to more easily associate them with their physical locations. About the only glitch I noted was that changing the SSID midway through to something a bit friendlier didn’t quite take. I had to change it within the app a couple of times.
Vilo’s app appears to be roughly comparable to the capabilities offered by my default setup, Netgear’s Orbi “mesh” network. (I have a gateway and one Orbi satellite set up in my home.) About its only weak point is a large “system dashboard” icon that dominates the home screen without really doing anything. Instead, it’s a button that leads to a secondary dashboard on another page.
Vilo’s app seems relatively thorough compared to the competition, with such features as per-device parental controls, guest networks, and an overall usage report. Vilo clearly labels how many devices are connected, what the signal strength of each device is, and—if you click on each device—how much data each has uploaded and downloaded in the past day, week, or month. Vilo doesn’t offer the type of value-added services like Circle or BitDefender, which other networking companies have partnered with to provide network security or preventing adult content from being seen. On the other hand, you might not need those services, anyway.
Vilo performance: Decent, for what it does
The Vilo router system arrived in the middle of my separate hands-on with T-Mobile’s 5G home gateway and Internet service—which, due to the quirks of the service, necessitated putting T-Mobile’s gateway far away from my cable gateway in my basement office. That meant I ended up testing it twice, in different configurations.
I tried to test three things: the consistency of the signal, the available throughput, and the coverage area. The first was simple: I connected the Vilo mesh and T-Mobile gateway to the the tablets, game console, and PC that my kids gamed, chatted, and otherwise used nearly non-stop during this pandemic summer. (Even while reading, my youngest son will leave a voice chat app running with the screen off to talk with his friends as a nearly perpetual party line.) I let my kids complain about any interruptions in their service, and they reported one of just a second or two during that time. I didn’t notice any signal drops when running Vilo on top of my standard cable gateway.
According to Vilo, the three-pack mesh router system will adequately blanket a 4,500-foot-home with coverage. To test that claim, I compared it to my existing setup, which uses a Netgear Orbi RBR40 and a single wall-plugged satellite—coincidentally, also with a dual-band 802.11ac (WiFi 5) chip inside. (While the RBR40 is no longer manufactured, Netgear’s comparable Orbi RBK13 has been heavily discounted from $229.99 to $96.99 on Netgear’s site.)
To test the coverage, I tested both the RBR40 and Vilo’s mesh router inside and out. I walked the periphery of my yard, measuring the signal strength of both networks with the Network Cell Info Lite app for a Samsung Galaxy S21 phone. While the Orbi’s signal was slightly stronger, the app reported significantly higher available link speeds for Vilo’s mesh.
Inside my home, however, the story differed somewhat.
To test Vilo’s performance, I used two different configurations. I first connected the Vilo router to the slower T-Mobile 5G gateway, placed in my son’s east-facing upstairs bedroom near the front of the house. The two Vilo satellites were placed in the northwest corner of my master bedroom, and in the southwest corner of in my kitchen. I placed the main Vilo router next to my broadband gateway on the floor berneath the main bedroom, and also in the southeast corner of the house. I placed Vilo satellites in the kitchen and in my son’s bedroom, as before.
Vilo’s mesh uses band steering, which promises to steer client devices to the frequency band that will deliver the best performance, including the 5GHz band if the client supports it. While I didn’t notice any issues with that, I occasionally discovered that the mesh network didn’t immediately reassign my device to the closest node. In an extreme case, I had to disconnect my device from the network and rejoin it to get the full benefit of the closest node.
Using Google’s built-in speed test, I measured throughput in three areas of the house. I then compared it to the Netgear Orbi RBR40, with a router and single satellite. Using my 400Mbps broadband connection, I achieved speeds of 347Mbps over Wi-Fi next to the main router via the Orbi, and 415Mbps using Vilo. Using the T-Mobile signal as a source, Vilo’s throughput maxed out at 146Mbps next to the router. Those are represented as the “baseline” figures in the chart, below.
What we’re concerned with is the efficiency of the signal. For both the T-Mobile gateway and the Comcast gateway, the input signal into the Vilo router is the baseline. We’ve included the baseline first, followed by the router signal. In the charts below, the important data is the difference between the baseline and the throughput as the signal moves through the house. (In certain cases, the measured signal was higher than the baseline—that’s basically because the gateway’s signal fluctuated somewhat, too.)
Below, we’ve added the upload speeds and latency as well. The Vilo’s terrific upload speeds are due to the T-Mobile router’s increased upload capabilities.
Netgear’s Orbi performed nearly as well as the Vilo in the outer reaches of the house, where the signal had more trouble connecting. But what the data seems to say is that, in my home, Vilo would need another satellite node or two to provide comparable signal strength to what my Orbi setup already offers.
Conclusion: should you buy Vilo’s mesh?
Based on my tests, Vilo’s claim that its router three-pack will cover a 4,500-square-foot home may indeed be true. It’s more likely that this hypothetical dream home would likely be a single story ranch design, with minimal walls blocking the signal. In my house, I’d probably invest another $20 into a fourth, intermediary Vilo satellite. That would bring the total price up to $100 or so, but would probably increase the throughput, too.
If you’ve shopped Amazon for mesh-networking devices, you know that the prices tend to range from $120 or so all the way up to a few hundred dollars. We certainly wouldn’t say that the Vilo mesh system would offer the performance of those premium systems. Vilo does offer some hidden costs, too; since the individual routers aren’t plug mounted, they’ll require a small surface to set them, in addition to needing an AC outlet to plug them into.
The coverage, as we’ve seen, might also not be as thorough as routers using more modern technology. Wi-Fi 6, and especially Wi-Fi 6e, offer other benefits, too. If you’ve already invested in a Wi-Fi 6 network, we wouldn’t try and convince you to rip it out and replace with a Vilo system.
Still, you can’t argue with Vilo’s price. And from what we’ve seen, the performance is good enough, too. If you have an older network and are seeking a quick, cheap upgrade, Vilo is definitely worth a look.
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As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats.