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Note: This review is based on the performance of the Amplifi HD with Mac clients. If you’d like to read a version with analysis based on performance with Windows clients, follow this link.
Ubiquiti Labs is a relatively new player in the consumer router market, but it’s no babe in the woods. It’s a division of Ubiquiti Networks, a well-regarded manufacturer of enterprise and service-provider networking solutions, and an early player in the mesh-networking market. The company announced its first consumer product back in May 2016, but the model reviewed here is significantly better than that one.
The Amplifi HD Mesh WiFi System ($349) is the latest router designed to earn placement out in the open, versus being hidden in the closet. It consists of a dual-band 802.11ac router that comes pre-paired with two 802.11ac mesh nodes (Ubiquiti calls them “meshpoints”). The router is an attractive 4-inch cube with a circular (2 inches in diameter) color LCD touchscreen on its face, and a gigabit WAN port and four-port gigabit switch in the back. There’s also a USB port on the back, but it’s currently dormant (the company says it has future plans for the port, but didn’t provide any hints as to what those might be). There’s a white LED around the bottom border of the router, but you can dim its brightness—or turn it off altogether—if you don’t like the effect. There’s also a night mode setting that will turn the LED and the LCD off automatically.
Is it worthy?
We’ll put this review’s conclusion here, for those who just want to know our bottom-line opinion of the Amplifi HD. If you want to know the ins and outs as to why we think this way, there are oodles of performance charts and an in-depth discussion of this router’s features and capabilities further down.
This is a good time to be in the market for a new Wi-Fi router because there are so many good products to choose from. Is Ubiquiti’s Amplifi one of them? On the upside, it’s very attractive and—perhaps more importantly—it has a four-port switch. It’s easy to set up and its companion app is very easy to use. The mesh network it builds provides good coverage with three nodes—in fact, two nodes would probably be sufficient to cover my 2800-square-foot home. Amplifi HD is attractive from a cost perspective, with a three-node system priced at $50 less than Netgear’s hub-and-satellite offering and $150 less than a three-node Linksys Velop.
On the other hand, both the Linksys Velop and the Netgear Orbi delivered even higher performance than the Amplifi. And both the Velop’s and the Orbi’s mesh nodes support wired backhaul today, if you consider that an important feature (it is if you have lots of ethernet drops in your house, as uncommon as that might be). A two-node Velop system costs slightly more (street price, that is) than a three-node Amplifi, but it performed better in my home. The two-station Orbi beat the three-node Amplifi HD across the board, but it costs $50 more than either the Linksys or Ubiquiti systems.
A node of a different color
The router is different than any mesh router we’ve seen before—and not just because it’s a cube. It operates one network on the 2.4GHz frequency band with a 3×3 radio (three spatial streams in each direction) offering throughput of up to 450Mbps. A second network on the 5GHz frequency band has a 3×3 radio offering throughput up to 1300Mbps. The Eero, Google Wifi, Linksys Velop, and Luma Surround WiFi are all 2×2 mesh routers. The Velop operates a third 2×2 network on the 5GHz band that’s dedicated to data backhaul. The hub-and-spoke Netgear Orbi is a 2×2 router with a third 4×4 network on the 5GHz band that’s dedicated to wireless data backhaul from its wireless satellites.
The Amplifi HD mesh nodes are unlike anything else on the market as well: They plug directly into an AC outlet and have 7-inch long enclosures that mount on a magnetic ball attached to the AC adapter. A stack of five blue LEDs glow to confirm that the mesh node has connected with the router—the more LEDs that glow, the stronger the connection. Signal strength is also displayed in the Amplifi app. The ball allows the antenna to pivot in almost any direction, so you can fine tune its reception in concert with the Amplifi smartphone app.
Let’s say you dedicate however much time it takes to do that: What are the chances the antenna is going to stay in that position for more than a few days—or even a few hours if the node is in any kind of traffic path? Also, each node’s two pieces can also be completely detached—that could be a problem in households with curious toddlers, or clumsy occupants, or rolling suitcases, or…. On the other hand, the mesh points won’t take up table or shelf space. It’s also worth noting that these mesh nodes have three-prong plugs and require grounded outlets. This could be a problem if you live in an older home with only two-prong outlets.
Ubiquiti Labs encourages buyers to place the router in the center of your home, so that the mesh nodes can establish direct connections with the router, versus placing the router at one extreme of your home and deploying the mesh nodes in a path so that data “hops” from one node to the next. In the real world, most routers get deployed on a perimeter wall, because that’s where the broadband gateway is located.
When I test Wi-Fi routers, I place the router on a table outside the closet containing my home-run. But that room is on the far side of my house and the locations I place the client computers (I test with both a PC and a Mac) fan out from there. The Amplifi app nonetheless indicated that each mesh node was connecting directly to the router. Clients are automatically steered to the strongest access point, whether that be the router or one of the mesh nodes.
Unlike the mesh nodes the aforementioned competing systems offer (and the satellite Orbis, in Netgear’s setup), the Amplifi HD mesh nodes don’t have any ethernet ports, so you can’t use a wired backhaul if your home is set up that way And since most outlets are a few inches from the floor, it could limit a mesh point’s range.
One of the two locations in which I’ve been testing mesh routers happens to be at counter height, because I have a wet bar in the center of my house and that’s where I’ve been placing mesh nodes during benchmarking (a fortunate turn of events for Ubiquiti). The company does say, however, that it’s working on a firmware update that will enable the router to be converted into a mesh node. When that happens, you will be able to use hardwired ethernet for data backhaul. You can already configure second and subsequent routers to operate as wireless bridges, so that you can add devices to your network that can’t otherwise connect wirelessly.
Installation and setup
You can perform the earliest installation steps on a Mac with a web browser, but you’ll need to use the Amplifi app—there are Android and iOS versions—to finish. You’ll also need the app to get to the nitty-gritty settings, of which there are many. Router nerds will be pleased—mostly. You can get down to levels of detail such as which channels each network will use, you can set up a guest network with its own unique password, and there are provisions for port-forwarding rules, but it doesn’t allow you to assign one wireless client higher priority over another.
You can also create profiles based on people, groups, or areas of your home; assign networked devices to those profiles; and then establish schedules for when those profiles are allowed to access the internet. During defined “quiet times,” that profile will not be allowed access to the internet. You can create multiple quiet times for each profile by day or group of days (Mondays between 7:00 am and 9:00 am and Monday between 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm for example; the same times Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; designated times on Saturday and/or Sunday; and so on).
This feature is based on a 24-hour clock, and the user interface will confuse you at first glance, but you’ll quickly realize how clever it is. If you don’t want to hassle with setting up profiles, you can easily “pause” any client device from accessing the internet. There also a button that will temporarily block internet access for every device that’s connected to the router; that’s a handy feature when you want to gather the family for dinner or a discussion. One feature we didn’t find: Parental controls (though that’s not something we place high value on).
It takes a while to get to this performance chart with mesh routers, because I first measure the router’s performance solo, without any additional nodes, in four locations inside my home. I then add one node and re-run the benchmarks in those same four spots. If the manufacturer provides a third node, I repeat the testing with three nodes. In the case of the Amplifi HD, this chart shows that operating the router on its own might be okay if you live in a smaller space. Adding a second node resulted in a significant increase in coverage in terms of square footage, but adding that third node didn’t do much to improve things.
At close range, with the MacBook Pro 9 feet from the router with a clear line of sight, the Ubiquiti Amplifi without any satellite nodes was faster than only two of the competitors it was compared to: the Eero WiFi system and the Securifi Almond 3. The first-place-finishing Netgear Orbi was faster by more than 250Mbps.
When I moved the client into the great room, 33 feet from the router with an insulated wall, some plywood cabinets, and a number of kitchen appliances in the signal path, the Amplifi HD moved into third place behind the Eero WiFi System and the Securifi Almond 3, delivering TCP throughput of 195.1Mbps. Ubiquiti’s router did a relatively good job of penetrating the thick walls of the home theater, but now it took a distant second place to the Google Wifi, delivering 36.9Mbps to the Google router’s 62.9Mbps. The Amplifi HD finished third behind the Google Wifi and the Eero when the MacBook Pro was furthest from the router, 65 feet and separated by several walls, but the margins were closer. Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend using this router by itself in a larger home.
Adding one mesh node had a modest impact on near-field performance, and it significantly increased TCP throughput when the client was in the sun room, but competitors were faster at every test location. The Linksys Velop, for instance, was more than four times faster when the MacBook Pro was in the home theater, and the Netgear Orbi was nearly two-thirds faster when the client was in the sun room.
Most people who buy Ubiquiti’s Amplifi HD will likely purchase the router with two mesh points, as the package costs $60 less than buying the components piecemeal. But I saw only modest bumps in performance when I added a second mesh point to the equation (three nodes in all, including the router). TCP throughput at close range and to the great room increased slightly, the home theater numbers doubled, but my longest-range numbers actually declined.
Now look at the chart below: The three-node Linksys Velop placed first in every test location, and by very wide margins in two of the four. What’s more, the Velop operating with just two nodes ($349.99 at Amazon) was also faster than the Amplifi HD operating with three.
In my final benchmark, I set up three pairs of computers (four Windows machines along with an iMac and a MacBook Pro) and measure TCP throughput between while simultaneously streaming 4K video from the internet with a Roku Ultra set-top box. The Amplifi, operating with the router and two mesh points, placed a distant third on this test, behind the Linksys Velop (with three nodes) and the Netgear Orbi (with the router and one satellite).
It’s always interesting to see how much more throughput the Apple computers deliver on this test, because the MacBook Pro is one of the few laptops of any kind that is outfitted with a 3×3 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter.
I won’t repeat everything I said about the Ubiquiti Amplifi HD in the “Is it worthy?” section above. It’s a good router, but it’s not one of the great ones.
Michael is TechHive's lead editor and covers the smart home and home entertainment markets. He built his own smart home in 2007, which he uses as a real-world test lab when reviewing new products. Michael also reviews routers and networking products for TechHive and PCWorld.