BT Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi Review
Declared Interests: The author of this review works for BT as his day job. He bought these devices with his own money having tested them along with other commercially available mesh Wi-Fi products on the market in the UK and USA. He also had a small part to play in BT bringing this product to market.
That said, like all our reviews on this website, this is will be an impartial review of this product with a clear view of the real-world performance and issues experienced in setting it up and using it.
As people's broadband speeds get faster and faster, the expectation on Wi-Fi grows. People expect to be able to use all of their broadband speed all the time and from anywhere in their home. The reality is that there are very few services that need huge amounts of bandwidth into your home and even less on mobile devices that use Wi-Fi. Where you will most notice improvements in Wi-Fi performance is when shifting data around you own home, e.g. backing up a laptop over Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi is a complicated technology and has many limitations in the real world. Most modern Wi-Fi devices are 'dual band', using both the older 2.4GHz frequency band and the newer 5GHz frequency band. Only more modern devices support 5GHz Wi-Fi though. Whilst 5GHz is a lot faster it does have much shorter range than 2.4GHz and cannot pass through walls as well. This means that as devices get more distant from your BT Home Hub they need to swap over from the 5GHz radio to the 2.4GHz radio, to maintain a Wi-Fi connection. This obviously means that the more radios you have in your home, the more likely you are to be close to one and the better the performance you will get. This is why we like mesh Wi-Fi, because one of the 3 (or more) discs are more likely to be close by.
My family have never asked me for faster Wi-Fi but they will let me know the instant they have a poor connection or the Wi-Fi is not working. This is the main issue we hope to resolve using mesh Wi-Fi technology. If I can remove the frustrations of our current Wi-Fi then it will be money well spent on this product. That said, I also want our Wi-Fi to be fast enough for all the things we currently do and plan to do in the next few years.
So whilst this review is driven by new Wi-Fi technology, the thing I'm really looking to improve is the end user experience. I want our Wi-Fi to be really simple to use and to just work reliably, all the time and with any Wi-Fi connected device.
If you really want the best possible speeds in your home then wired Ethernet is the answer. It can transfer data at 1Gps with Cat5e/Cat6 cable (100Mbps using Cat5). If you want to use the latest cables and (expensive) hardware, 10GBps is possible too. It's extremely reliable and uses a dedicated channel (i.e. the cable) to transfer data. It's more secure and much less prone to external interference.
In our home, much of our networking is wired. We use Wi-Fi for convenience on mobile Smartphone and tablets and for those devices that only connect via Wi-Fi. This includes things like the Amazon Echo, Wi-Fi connected bathroom scales and other smart home devices. We realise that installing cables is not an option for many people though and that is why reliable Wi-Fi with good coverage is so important.
Our current home is a fairly average, four-bedroom, detached house, on two floors and with an integral garage. We have a front drive that is about 10m long and a back garden that is about 20m long. We have tested many BT Home Hubs and our current BT Home Hub 5a can provide good coverage around the ground floor but it won't reach all the rooms upstairs (particularly the study) or to the far end of our back garden. We have also tested the latest BT Home Hub 6 and whilst it has a better range it still won't cover all our rooms and the garden reliably.
We have used a secondary access point in our conservatory but this creates issues with some devices being reluctant to swap between the Home Hub and the secondary access point (often called the 'sticky client' issue). We would also like to utilise the higher speeds of 5GHz Wi-Fi all around our home and it's limited range compared to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi means this is much harder.
We have a huge number of networked devices in our smart home when compared to the average UK home. Over 100 IP-networked devices and many of those using Wi-Fi. This includes 8 mobile phones (Apple, Android and Windows), both Android tablets and iPads, TomTom satnav, 4K TV, Roku 3, Apple TV, LIFX smart bulbs, home cinema amplifier, Amazon Echo, amazon Echo Dot, Withings scales, NAS, PCs, laptops, etc. In addition we have many other networking technologies in use in our smart home too including 433Mhz, Z-Wave and ZigBee. It is safe to say that our home is a tough test environment for any networking technology!
When we started looking at mesh Wi-Fi products and testing them in real-world applications, it was clear that this technology is the best way forward in providing a great user experience with good coverage and reliable, high speed Wi-Fi around our home and garden. We were fortunate enough to be able to test a number of commercial products and this led to us buying the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi product reviewed here.
You can use repeaters and extenders to improve Wi-Fi coverage around your home and these may be the best solution for your situation. In our experience extenders and repeaters are not as reliable and have lower performance than we would like. A secondary access point (another dedicated Wi-Fi device connected via a wired Ethernet connection to your home network) is also a good solution but can result in a 'sticky client' issue (where a device stays connected to a radio, when a better network connection is possible).
The equipment arrives in a big box! It measures 41.5cm × 26.5cm × 21cm high. It is very well packaged in two layers.
On opening the box, the top layer contains two of the discs.
On opening the bottom layer you find the third disc, 3 plug-in power supplies and an Ethernet network cable.
Installation & Setup
The BT Whole Wi-Fi comes with 3 discs and we plan to install one in the lounge at the front of our house, next to the BT Home Hub 5a currently installed. The second will be placed just inside our conservatory, to provide full Wi-Fi coverage around our back garden. The conservatory is separated from the lounge by a dining room. The third disc will be placed upstairs in our study, which is at the top of the stairs and towards the back of our house. This is just about in range of the disc in our lounge and is also in range of the disc in the study. This disc will provide full coverage around the upstairs rooms and also inside our garage (which is integrated into the front of our current home).
The plug-in PSU units are white and quite large. They are rated at 12Vdc at 1.5A.
The setup is best done using the app. We are using the iOS version but there is also an Android version available. It is found in the Apple app store by searching for 'btwholehome'. This product will work with any brand and you don't have to have BT Broadband or a BT Home Hub to use it.
The first disk must be connected via Ethernet to your existing hub/router. This cable could be very long but we are putting the devices close together using a 1.5m Ethernet cable. Bear in mind that all the Wi-Fi traffic will now pass through this first disc, so it makes sense to use a Gigabit connection on your Home Hub and a Gigabit Ethernet cable (there is one supplied in the box). This will ensure best performance.
Once connected and powered up, you wait for the blue light on the front to go from purple, to flashing blue, to a solid blue light. This means it has connected to your home network and is ready to be installed.
You then need to go into your phone's setting and connect it to the new Wi-Fi network. This will start with 'BTWholehome-'. The name and key are written on removable tabs on the back of each disc and also on a sticker underneath this tab (in case you lose the tab). The admin password is also written on the tabs and stickers. Note: If your discs are going to be near a window, make sure no one can see the tab details from outside your house. You can also rename the SSID used and change the password later, which is a good idea.
You are then asked to choose a name for this disc. There are also some pre-defined names to choose from. We called the first one 'Lounge'.
All being well, the app should then show the success screen and your new Wi-Fi network is up and running, albeit with just one single disc.
You now need to install the second disk. This process is slightly different because it will be connected wirelessly. The app provides guidance on choosing a good location and then allows you to stand in your chosen location and run a test to check it is a good location. This basically checks the distance and signal strength between the the second disk and the first one, providing you with a rating. Ideally you want this to be 'Excellent' but a 'Good' connection will also work. Anything worse than this and you may have to try another location.
When standing in the doorway into our Conservatory, we got told by the app that this was an 'Excellent' location. When we moved behind the thick external wall to go inside our conservatory this dropped to 'Good'. Because the 'back haul' connection used between the discs is using a high speed 5GHz radio, the distance allowed between the disks is limited to about 20m. It will be less if there are walls in between the discs and solid brick or stone walls will reduce this distance a lot. We wanted to put the disc on the window ledge in our conservatory, so we went with a 'Good' location knowing that we will also add a wired Ethernet connection later. If you do this then the 'back haul' of data will be done over the (in our case Gigabit) Ethernet connection and this will improve performance and reliability. You don't have to do this though and we have tested the performance to be very good using wireless connections only.
We then plugged in and turned on the second disc. You will then go through the same process of naming the disc. We chose to call this one 'Conservatory'. After a short wait the success screen is shown again.
Installing the third disc is exactly the same, though our study is a bit too far away for an excellent connection and there are too many walls between this location and the other two discs. This meant that the light would not turn solid blue initially and we have to move the disk onto our landing, to get it to work.
Once connected we moved it back into the study and it still worked. We did see the occasional indication on the app of a poor connection though. This is why we plan to connect it using an Ethernet cable to our home network. The other option in large houses is to simply install it in another room or to use more discs.
The discs could be daisy-chained if you wish to provide coverage in a long, thin house.
BT Home Hub Changes
It now makes sense to switch of the Wi-Fi on your BT Home Hub because this will interfere slightly with the new mesh Wi-Fi network slightly, reducing performance a little bit. If you also have device configured to connect to both, the Whole home Wi-Fi will not be able to disconnect the device from the Home Hub Wi-Fi and on to most appropriate disc. With your Home hub Wi-Fi switched off, the Whole Home Wi-Fi has full control and can make sure devices connect to the disc that provides the best Wi-Fi connectivity.
You should not need to make any other changes to your BT Home Hub in normal operation.
SSID & Passwords
The final bit of the set up process involved using the app to change the SSID of the Wi-Fi network and the associated password. We also changed the admin password for the disks.
You can manually set the channel for each band if preferred, using the web interface.
The discs detect a DHCP server and switch off their own so you can use the existing DHCP server provided by the BT Home Hub. Most people will not want to change this.
It's worth pointing out that we live in a modern housing estate with quite a few other Wi-Fi access points close by. It's quite a challenging environment for Wi-Fi. Speed tests that involve using an Internet service are going to be affected by your Internet connection and other factors, so this is not an ideal way to test your Wi-Fi performance. It does provide a pretty good indication of how well things are working and how good the coverage is. For accurate Wi-Fi performance testing, you need to eliminate your Internet connection from the tests and we will be doing this later.
Test 1 - Basic Coverage & Performance
This first test was done using the second and third discs connected wirelessly. To set a benchmark we ran a speed test on a PC with an (wired) Ethernet connection to our Home Hub we saw speeds of 62.7Mbps down and 16.5Mbps up. This is a bit slower than we normally see and our broadband is more typically around 75Mbps down and 18Mbps up but, it you do get slight variations due to factors outside your home.
We then used the Ookla SpeedTest service and the app on an iPhone 6S. If the BT Whole Home Wi-Fi can deliver the same kinds of speeds all over our house, garden and front drive we will be very pleased. Our patio is at the furthest end of our back garden. We also did this test at the far end of our front drive.
The results we measured using the app on an iPhone 6s were:
- Study - 59.7Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Bed 1 - 62.0Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Bed 2 - 62.2Mbps up, 16.7Mbps down
- Ensuite - 60.5Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Bed 3 - 61.3Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Kitchen - 61.6Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Dining Room - 63.0Mbps up, 16.6Mbps down
- Lounge - 62.2Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Conservatory - 61.8Mbps up, 16.5Mbps down
- Patio - 59.8Mbps up, 17.8Mbps down
- Front Drive - 51.4Mbps up, 15.3Mbps down
- Garage - 55.4Mbps up, 16.4Mbps down
This is pretty impressive. These results show excellent coverage all around out house and garden. The speeds achieved are impressive too, plenty fast enough for any applications we currently use. Wi-Fi only seems to be a limiting factor on our patio, on the front drive and inside our garage. Everywhere else we can utilise the full speed of our broadband.
Test 2 - Throughput Testing
This test uses a PC running an iPerf3 server and a tool running iPerf3 tests on an iPhone 6S. This will allow us to measure real throughput over Wi-Fi. This test eliminates the impact of the Internet and our broadband connection from the test results and provides an accurate view of the Wi-Fi speeds possible around our home. It basically involves sending 100MB over the network and timing how long it takes to send.
To get a benchmark, we tested a BT Home Hub 6b and saw speeds of around 245Mbps in our lounge. We could get an intermittent 2.4Ghz connection to this HH6b from our patio but the transfer speed was measured at around 17Mbps.
The results we have measured so far using the iPerf tool with the BT Whole Home equipment were:
- Study - 88Mbps
- Bed 1 - 94Mbps
- Ensuite - 80Mbps
- Kitchen - 85Mbps
- Dining Room - 93Mbps
- Lounge - 239Mbps
- Conservatory - 132Mbps
- Patio - 63Mbps
These results show that the overall Wi-Fi performance is a lot faster than our current broadband connection and that the speed of the Whole Home kit is comparable to the latest BT Home Hub 6b, when you are connected to the primary (wired) disc. On our patio, the Wi-Fi range is definitely the limiting factor on the speeds achieved.
Test 3 - Wired Back Haul Connections
This test will be the same as the previous but this time the discs will all have wired Gigabit Ethernet connections to carry traffic between the discs. The goal is to see what kind of performance improvement this change makes to our installation. The assumption is that there will be no change when connected to the primary disc, which is already wired. What we do expect to see is big improvements in speeds for devices connected to the second and third discs though.
BT Home Hubs
With an existing BT Home Hub, you can leave the Wi-Fi on but we don't advise this. The hub Wi-Fi will be a local source of interference to the Whole home installation. If you have devices that can connect to both wireless networks, then they may well be confused as to the best one to connect to. With just the one wireless mesh network, the Whole Home Wi-Fi has complete control and can force a swap over to the best disc and wireless network connection. The BT Whole Home Wi-Fi has no control over devices connected to your BT Home hub's Wi-Fi.
The discs can work in bridge mode. This means that you can use the Ethernet port on the back of each disc to connect a wired device to you home network. Using a switch, this could be many wired devices. For example, this could be a set-top box in a remote room in your house.
Whilst the discs work perfectly well using the Wi-Fi for the 'back haul' of data between the nodes, performance is improved if they are connected into your wired network using the Ethernet port on the back. This would also allow them to work better when at the edge of their range or even beyond it. We have added a wired connection to all three of our discs.
The app is used to set up the discs but it can also be used to control settings and view status information. The app can only be used when you are at home and connected to your home network.
In our experience the app is not as useful as the web-based admin interface and it provides less information. Occasionally it also displays inaccurate information. The main app features are:
This basically shows the connected discs and their status. The image presented implies some kind of representation of the network topology (how the discs are linked together) but the connections shown do not change if you add wired connections, or daisy-chain the discs.
There is also a web-based administration interface, which provides more controls and more information than the app. Because this runs on the first disc, you need to know its IP address (which was probably given an IP address via DHCP) to access the web-based admin interface. Alternatively you can type 'https://mybtdevice.home' in the browser address bar and this will resolve it for you. This only works on machines connected to the network via WiFi as it is resolved by the discs, not your Home Hub. You may also need to accept a security certificate exemptionas it uses a self-signed certificate for the HTTPS protocol.
The main thing missing from this product is guest access capability. To enable guests and visitors to connect to your home Wi-Fi network, you will have to provide them with the SSID and associated password. This is something we don't like to do. You could provide guest access using the Wi-Fi on your BT Home Hub though.
To provide full coverage around our home we have two secondary access points for guests to use (both on the same guest SSID and at the far ends of our house). These can be switched off when we have no guests to improve security and also save power.
We have yet to see the discs advertised as being sold individually. In theory you should be able to add more discs in larger homes to further extend the reach of your Wi-Fi.
With the 'tab' removed, the discs have a hole that suggests they can be hung on a wall. There is no obvious way to remove the chrome stand though that we can see, to enable this to work.
99.9% of people don't want faster Wi-Fi. What they really want is reliable Wi-Fi and better coverage in their home. The BT Whole Home Wi-Fi product aims to fix both these common problems and in our view it does it really well. It is perfectly fast enough for all of the applications we have tested and performance can be further improved by adding wired back haul connections to the discs.
Mesh Wi-Fi is a new 'premium Wi-Fi' technology that simply allows you to make most of the broadband connection that you have already paid for. It isn't the cheapest option on the market, but it is one of the best ways to stay reliably connected all over your home. What we like about mesh Wi-Fi technology is that it solves common Wi-Fi problems simply and easily by using clever hardware. It does this whilst providing a simple set up experience and good user experience in use. Traditional repeaters and extenders cannot do this easily and often don't provide good performance. They can also be complicated to set up and require technical knowledge that many people simply don't have.
Mesh Wi-Fi is a much more flexible solution and can be made to work in any home. Discs can simply be moved about to make it work and three discs provided should be enough for most detached family homes in the UK. In homes with complex problems it can be made to work simply by adding more discs (though there is an associated cost).
Mesh Wi-Fi also addresses the 'sticky client' issue where Smartphones and tablets won't let go of a wireless connection even though there is a better one nearby. The mesh hardware will force the device to change to the best disc to use in your home.