You’ll either love or hate the new OnHub Wi-Fi router that Google and TP-Link have cooked up. If you’re of the “I just want it to work” mindset, you’ll dig it. If you’re an enthusiast who likes to bend hardware to your will, tweaking knobs and being aware of everything that’s going on under the hood, it will drive you nuts.
The OnHub is a dual-band router co-designed by Google and TP-Link (manufactured by the latter) that operates networks on both the 2.4GHz (802.11b/g/n) and 5GHz (802.11n/a/ac) frequency bands simultaneously. But both networks use the same SSID, and the router decides for you which network each client should use. As I discovered during benchmarking, those assignments can change without notice if the router decides it can provide better service, but it’s not always right.
The only way you can set up the OnHub is with a smartphone or tablet (Android or iOS) and Google’s app. Punch in the router’s IP address on a web browser, the way an enthusiast would configure a router, and you’ll see a polite message telling you to open the Google On app if you want to change any of its settings. The app will helpfully guide you through the process of connecting the router to your broadband gateway. The speaker at the top of the router is supposed to emit a tone that automatically pairs your Android phone to the router. That didn’t work during my installation, so I had to type in a code that was printed on the bottom of the router (as I would have done if I’d set it up with an iPhone).
The setup process is very simple, because there’s not all that much for you to do. You don’t need an admin password—the phone pairing establishes that level of security—and you can’t finish the installation without setting a Wi-Fi password (the same one is used for both its 2.4- and 5GHz networks). You don’t have to write the password down, because you can look it up on your phone.
The OnHub will even recognize when you’re installing it behind the crappy modem/router combo your ISP gave you and offer to operate in bridge mode (but it won’t advise you to turn off that router’s Wi-Fi radio—if it has one—and OnHub will end up competing with the router for bandwidth if you don’t).
Apart from that, the Google On app is excellent, popping up with useful information at appropriate times, and offering oodles of context-sensitive help. It will also run tests on your network and your Internet connection for you.
Rather than let the app put the OnHub into bridge mode, I configured my ISP’s modem/router to operate in bridge mode, so that the OnHub would handle all routing duties and I’d get a more accurate picture of its performance. (That’s also how I have the modem configured when it’s connected to my usual router.)
The OnHub has one gigabit WAN port (as is typical of home routers), but it also has just one gigabit LAN port. Most routers have four; Apple’s AirPort Extreme and Airport Time Capsule each have three LAN ports).
There’s nothing to stop you from connecting that one LAN port to a stand-alone switch with as many ports as you need, of course, but Google would really, really like you to put the OnHub out in the open where everyone can admire its industrial design: a blue (or black) cylinder that flares out just a bit at the top (the part you see is actually a sleeve that slides over and covers most of the router). Unfortunately, that sleeve has a very small cutout at the bottom, from which the power and ethernet cables emerge. If you don’t use the ribbon cables that come in the box, you might not be able to lock the sleeve into place, because the hoods on more conventional cables will get in the way.
Google wants you to put the OnHub out in the open for two reasons: It will perform better than if you hide it behind the doors of a closet (duh), and they want you to advertise that you’re using their router. I can’t argue with the first reason, and I can’t blame Google for the second. What Google seems to forget, however, is that you’ll need to hardwire its beautiful router to the invariably ugly modem/gateway your ISP gave you. So for most people, router placement will be dictated by where they can put the gateway.
This is less of an issue for the tech enthusiast, who is likely to have a homerun closet where all of the home’s phone, ethernet, and coaxial (for TV) lines terminate. In that case, you put the OnHub anywhere in your home with two ethernet ports in the wall (one to connect to the modem and one to connect to the rest of your network). But the OnHub is clearly not intended for the tech enthusiast.
Regardless of your interest level, you’ll want to know that the OnHub is missing some features commonly found in routers in almost every price range these days. For instance, the OnHub is outfitted with one USB 3.0 port; most routers have one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, so you can share both a printer and storage on your network. You can’t do either with the OnHub. The sole function of its USB port—for now, at least—is to restore an image of its operating system should it get borked.
Because you can’t share storage via the OnHub, its designers decided they didn’t need to put a DLNA media server inside it either (it does have a UPnP server). That’s not a big deal if you stream all your media from commercial services such as Netflix, Apple Music, Hulu, or Google Play, but it will suck if you rip your own music and movies and store them on a USB hard drive. Then again, enthusiasts are more likely to store their media on a NAS box or even a home server, so maybe they won’t care.
Google also made no provision for setting up an FTP server so you can access an attached storage device over the Internet. You can’t configure the OnHub to perform as a wireless access point, nor can you set it up to operate as a wireless bridge (even though with just one LAN port, you wouldn’t want to). The OnHub has no VPN server, either.
There are provisions for port forwarding, using different DNS servers, assigning static IP addresses, and the like. You can also access and manage the OnHub via the cloud (using the app), and you can grant permission to other people to manage the router this way. If you’re looking for a router to recommend to friends and family who look to you for tech support, the OnHub is a good choice.
The OnHub does have several features not commonly found on consumer routers; unfortunately, most of them aren’t very useful right now. One feature that is useful the OnHub’s trusted platform module, a component more commonly found in enterprise-class hardware. The TPM prevents the OnHub from booting if it doesn’t recognize what’s installed on it. Google tells me the OnHub’s firmware, kernel, and user space code—and all updates—are cryptographically signed by Google. That’s a great idea that should prevent even sophisticated hackers from hijacking the router, but it also means that it will probably never be able to run alternative open-source firmware. Here again, something only enthusiasts will care about.
Three other features related to the Internet of Things could be useful someday: Support for Bluetooth Smart (a very low-power version of the popular wireless protocol), Weave (the protocol Nest devices use to communicate with each other), and IEEE 802.15.4 (a connected-home standard that is the basis for ZigBee).
Google’s product literature says “This means that OnHub can evolve along with your connected life,” but that presupposes that the evolution of your connected life will involve Bluetooth Smart, Weave, and ZigBee. Competing initiatives such as AllJoyn, Z-Wave, IoTivity, or even Insteon or something else that’s yet to emerge could end up being the de facto connected-home standards instead. Don’t buy an OnHub today in the name of future-proofing your home, because the future is too hazy to see right now.
Performance with a PC
As simple as the OnHub looks to be on the surface, it was difficult to benchmark because I never knew which of its networks my client laptop would end up connected to. I use JPerf to measure TCP throughput between a server and a client. Fortunately, I use a third PC outfitted with a Metageek Wi-Spy DBx spectrum analyzer to monitor the RF activity while I’m testing routers. The Wi-Spy can identify routers operating within its range, tell me which frequency band they’re operating on (2.4- or 5GHz), and ascertain which channels they’re using (and if they’re bonding channels). It’s a supremely useful tool.
As I reported earlier, the OnHub operates networks on both the 2.4- and 5GHz frequency bands simultaneously, but it doesn’t allow you to assign clients to particular networks. It does that on its own, and it doesn’t provide any visibility about its decisions. With the Wi-Spy, I could “see” the data as it traveled from the server to the client and know which network the wireless client was connected to.
Google classifies the OnHub as an AC1900 router, meaning it supports a maximum link rate of 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band. According to Google’s documentation, the OnHub is outfitted with 13 antennas: 12 for transmitting and receiving data, and one that evaluates network congestion so the router can automatically switch clients to different channels to achieve maximum performance. In my tests, the OnHub didn’t always choose well.
When I benchmark 5GHz Wi-Fi routers, I configure the router to use channel 153, because the higher channels offer a little more bandwidth. The first time I benchmarked the OnHub’s performance on the 5GHz band, using a laptop equipped with an Intel Centrino Ultimate-N Wi-Fi adapter, the router decided channel 36 was best. The benchmark results were disappointing, to say the least, as the OnHub delivered about half the throughput of the five routers I compared it to. At one point, the router even switched the client to its 2.4GHz network (which offers better range, but less bandwidth).
The second time I tested the OnHub’s performance with that 802.11n client, after power-cycling it, it decided to use channel 149 on the 5GHz band, but its performance still wasn’t very impressive. That changed when I plugged D-link’s DWA-192 802.11ac USB Wi-Fi adapter into the client. The OnHub used channel 149 once again, but this time it delivered higher throughput than the rest of the field when the client was in the same room, nine feet from the router, and when the client was in my great room, 33 feet from the router with one insulated interior wall in between. It delivered much less throughput at long range, however, trailing the field by a wide margin when the client was in my sun room, 65 feet from the router with two insulated interior walls in between.
Note: The OnHub arrived while I was working on a roundup of five AC3200 routers, which I had just finished benchmarking using channels 36 and 153. I did not go back and retest those five on channel 149, but it shouldn’t make much of a difference.
Performance with a Mac
I use Access Agility’s WiFiPerf to measure TCP throughput between a server (an older iMac with an Intel Core i7 CPU) and a client (a late-2013 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i5 CPU and an onboard Apple AirPort Extreme 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter). The first time I powered up the OnHub, it decided to use channel 36 on its 5GHz band. As I said earlier, I generally prefer to use channel 153, because it offers a little more bandwidth, but the OnHub doesn’t let you choose. After power-cycling the router, it decided to use channel 149, so I was able to test performance on both bands. This behavior was not consistent, however, which complicated my benchmarking routine.
With Mac clients, interestingly enough, the OnHub delivered higher throughput on channel 36 than it did on channel 149—at least at close range (with the client in the same room, nine feet from the router). The OnHub significantly outperformed Apple’s 802.11ac AirPort Time Capsule, too. The more-expensive Asus RT-AC3200U ($279 average online street price), on the other hand, crushed both of the other routers, especially at medium range (with the client 33 feet from the router, separated by one insulated interior wall). (Note: the AC3200 designation shows that the Asus promises to deliver 600Mbps on its 2.4GHz network, 1300Mbps on one 5GHz network, and 1300Mbps on a second 5GHz network).
When I managed to get the OnHub to use channel 149, its performance at close range dropped, and its long-range performance (with the client 65 feet from the router, separated by two insulated interior walls) stayed about the same, but its midrange performance almost tripled. The AirPort Time Capsule, meanwhile, performed slightly better at close range on this channel, and was much faster when the client was further away. The Asus’s performance dropped at close range, was slightly faster with the client at mid-range, and was much faster with the client at distance.
Should you buy an OnHub?
If you want a router that just works and handles the basics well, with minimal intervention on your part, the OnHub is a good choice. It’s also a good choice for a power user to recommend to the tech-savvy family and friends looking to them for network tech support--the price and performance are good, and the OnHub will make troubleshooting easier. You don’t even need to worry about making sure the router always has the latest firmware—it will automatically download and install it for you.
Power users, on the other hand, won’t be as satisfied with the OnHub for their own use. It’s a strong performer, and it has some innovative features—including that TPM module to foil hackers—but its feature set is much too limited: The OnHub won’t let you share storage or a printer over your network; it doesn’t have DLNA, ftp, or VPN servers; and it has just one LAN port.
While I appreciate hardware that recommends settings it thinks will deliver the highest performance, I want the freedom to override those recommendations if I don’t agree with them. You can’t control which channels the OnHub operates on, you can’t choose the network your clients join; heck, the OnHub doesn’t even provide for a guest network.
Google is currently working with Asus on the design of a second OnHub model. Given Asus’s history of delivering high-performance routers stuffed to the gills with features, here’s hoping that that collaboration yields a router that will be more appealing to power users.