Testing an AmpliFi mesh point as a Wi-Fi extender

Ubiquiti recently made their AmpliFi mesh points smarter, they can now work with any router. I kicked the tires on this, hoping it's a better way to extend an existing Wi-Fi network.

Ubiquiti AmpliFi mesh points smarter way to extend Wi-Fi network
Ubiquiti Networks Inc.

When mesh router systems started appearing last year, I purchased a Ubiquiti AmpliFi system for someone whose house was a worst case Wi-Fi scenario. The internet entered the home in the basement on the south side of the house, while the bedrooms are on the second floor in the north side.

I liked the AmpliFi line, sight unseen, because unlike most other mesh systems, it did not require you to register with Ubiquiti and it did not phone home with who knows what data about your network. Still, in October of last year, I griped that the AmpliFi mesh system lacked remote control. This is no longer true. 

Last November, in "Getting started with the Ubiquiti AmpliFi mesh router," I wrote that there were three AmpliFi models. This, too, is no longer true. The AmpliFi offerings have drastically changed. 

The initial three models were all threesomes; a cube-shaped router and two candlestick-shaped mesh points (smart antennas). As described by Ars Technica last year, the models were the Standard ($200), LR ($300) and HD ($350). 

Since then, Ubiquiti has discontinued the two cheaper threesomes (Standard and LR) and added the ability to buy just a router or just a mesh point.

What most intrigued me recently was a new feature of the candlestick mesh points — they can now extend any Wi-Fi network. If you need just a small boost to your Wi-Fi range, it could be a great option.

A stand-alone mesh point paired with a non-Ubiquiti router still comes with some of the nice features of their threesome systems.

Favorite features of AmpliFi mesh point

One of my favorites is the 5 small blue LED lights on the mesh point itself. After initial configuration, these dots indicate the strength of the signal between the mesh point and the router. This makes moving the mesh point to improve the signal as easy as easy could be.

I also like that you can chose the frequency band that the mesh point uses to communicate with the router. If its fairly close to the router, you can use the faster 5 GHz band. If its farther away from the router, you can force it to use the longer range (but slower) 2.4 GHz band. Either way, the mesh point uses both frequency bands to communicate with your wireless devices.

And perhaps the biggest upside is that the mesh point appears to your devices with the same network name (SSID) as the network it is extending. My experience has been that switching SSIDs in different parts of a house is too much hassle for some people.

The mesh point sells for about $110. What follows are my initial experiences with it. 

Basic AmpliFi mesh point setup 

The basic setup procedure is to plug in the mesh point and run the AmpliFi app, telling it to "Setup AmpliFi Standalone Mesh Point." The app should find the mesh point, show you the available Wi-Fi networks, then let you enter the password for the network you want to extend. Wait a minute or so, and that's that.

However, Ubiquiti documents only this initial setup. Anything else, and you're on your own. Even the most basic task of using the app to communicate with the mesh point, after setup, is not documented the Quick Start Guide, and there is no User Guide for a stand-alone mesh point.

The AmpliFi line is targeted at consumers, and industry-wide (not just Ubiquiti) vendors tend not to create useful documentation for consumers. Even if there is documentation initially, it is often abandoned and never updated.

I mention this in part because AmpliFi is that rare mesh system that does not self-update — a downside inherited by the stand-alone mesh points. Not only does the documentation fail to mention the need for firmware updates, but none of the articles I have read about using AmpliFi devices mention it either.

If you own a stand-alone AmpliFi mesh point, open the app, click on the mesh point, then scroll down and click on "Upgrade." My mesh point shipped with firmware version 1.4.2. After an update, it was running version 2.2.2.

My first go-round setting up the mesh point ended up in such a quagmire that I reset it and started over with a different mobile device. Both mobile devices ran version 1.6.0 (released June 16, 2017) of the AmpliFi Android app.

amplifi.mesh.point.700w Michael Horowitz/IDG

My AmpliFi mesh point, plugged into an extension cord (requires three prongs)

My log: Fits and starts of setting up the AmpliFi mesh point

The process starts in the app with the "Setup AmpliFi stand-alone mesh point" option. This required enabling both Bluetooth and Location, which I did, and the app found the mesh point. When you click on the mesh point, the app says "Connecting to AmpliFi mesh point," but its really taking an inventory of the nearby Wi-Fi networks. The inventory is sorted in alphabetical sequence rather than by signal strength.

Ubiquiti AmpliFi Android app set password Michael Horowitz/IDG

Setting up passwords for a new AmpliFi mesh point

According to the documentation, you're done at this point. But there is actually one more question: whether you want to use the Wi-Fi password for also administering the mesh point (shown above). The default is to use the same password, but I picked a new one and suggest you do, too. If you tend to lose track of passwords, write the mesh point password on a label and affix it to the back of the antenna.

After a brief delay for some internal configuring, the mesh point beeped and the lights displayed from the middle outwards, which means it is searching for the network.

It didn't find it.

Ubiquiti AmpliFi Android app unable to locate device Michael Horowitz/IDG

An error message in the AmpliFi Android app version 1.6.0

Instead, there was an error message (pictured above) in the app: "Unable to locate device MichaelNet" where MichaelNet was the SSID of the Wi-Fi network it was supposed to connect with. There was a big yellow button that offered to connect to MichaelNet. This made no sense, as the Android device running the AmpliFi app was already connected to the MichaelNet network.

It turned out that the mesh point was fine; the bug was solely in the Android app.

Using a Wi-Fi Analyzer app on another device, I could see that the mesh point was transmitting as MichaelNet on the same 2.4GHz channel that the existing router was using. Plus, the existing router only transmitted on the 2.4GHz band, so when I also saw MichaelNet on the 5GHz band, that confirmed the mesh point was alive and well.

I tried disabling Bluetooth on my Android device, but it didn't help. At one point, the app was looking for AFi-P-HD-365742, which is the default name of the mesh point. There is no Wi-Fi network with that SSID, and as far as I can tell, there isn't supposed to be. It's confused.

What to do? I took an educated guess and disabled Wi-Fi on my Android device, then re-enabled it. Bingo. The app was happy, it found the mesh point and asked for the mesh point password.

The first thing I did was update the firmware, as described earlier.

The update process started, but then, again, there was an "Unable to locate device" error. As before, there is a big yellow button offering to connect me with the non-existing Wi-Fi network AFi-P-HD-365742.

I restarted the app, but this only switches the error to "AmpliFi devices not found."

The lights on the mesh point are lighting up middle outwards; it is searching for a network. I should have waited until the lights were solid, indicating the signal strength, before bothering with the app. In my defense, the app doesn't warn about this and there is no documentation.

Once the mesh point finished the firmware update process, the app detected it again. When the app re-connected to the mesh point, the first thing it did was ask about configuring remote control. This is a relatively new feature that the updated firmware supports. It, too, is not included in the Quick Start Guide.

Remote control requires either a Facebook or Google account; Ubiquiti does not support old-school Dynamic DNS (DDNS). Remote access can be very useful for a router, not so much for a repeater. I skipped it.

Once the system was up and running, I noticed some other nice features.

You can give friendly names both to devices connected to the mesh point and to the mesh point itself. Something like MichaelsMeshPoint is preferable to the default name AFi-P-HD-365742.

The app shows the signal strength both of the mesh point to the router and of each device to the mesh point. It also shows which frequency band (2.4GHz or 5GHz) each device uses to connect to the mesh point.

In my case, the mesh point was using the 2.4GHz band to communicate with the router, as that was the only option. Had the router been dual-band, I could have chosen either frequency band.

The app also has a speed test that it calls an "ISP test." Without the mesh point, devices in the same room as the router typically test no faster than 45 Mbps down and 12 up. The ISP connection is 100 Mbps down, but the 2.4GHz band and interference from nearby networks slows down the Wi-Fi.

Even though the mesh point was in the same room as the router, the ISP speed test was a miserable 7 Mbps down and 4 up. My Android device, while connected to the mesh point, tested at 5 Mbps down and 5 up using the Speedtest.net app. Later, it tested at 16 Mbps down and 12 up.

The app has a reboot function, so I figured it couldn't hurt to reboot the mesh point.

Seconds after rebooting, the app says "Unable to locate device AFi-P-HD-365742." Here we go again.

This time I ignored the app until the mesh point displayed five solid blue lights. Even then, however, the app still couldn't locate the mesh point.

I tried to "Switch AmpliFi" in the app and go down the path for "I have already configured AmpliFi" but, again, it failed to find any AmpliFi devices. Shutting down the app, turning on Bluetooth, and re-starting the app also didn't help.

I had given the mesh point a friendly name, so perhaps it was still looking for the old name?

I restart the app, this time opting to "Setup AmpliFi Standalone Mesh Point." Still nothing — it looks and looks and looks but never finds the mesh point.

Then, back to my previous hack: I disable Wi-Fi on my Android device, then re-enable it. Finally, the app can see the mesh point.

The ISP speed test after rebooting is 16 Mbps down and 12 up. Better, but not good.

Later, I re-run the speed test and its up to 48 Mbps down and 11 up — just what it should be. Beats me what changed; none of the devices was physically moved. Maybe it's a bit like Plume in that it needs some time to get the lay of the land before the performance is at its best. Just a guess.

As I poke around the app some more, I notice something unexpected. Since the mesh point uses the 2.4GHz band for backhaul (talking to the router), you would think it would prefer the 5GHz band for communicating with Wi-Fi devices, especially those in the same room with a strong signal. Add in the large amount of interference on the 2.4GHz band, and it surely would opt for 5GHz when available.

But no.

The Android device I was using, even though it was a few feet from the mesh point, was communicating over the 2.4GHz band, so too was a 5GHz-capable iPad in another room. This time disabling Wi-Fi on my Android device and re-enabling it did not change anything. It was still using the 2.4GHz band to talk to the mesh point.

I unplugged the mesh point, and it sat overnight. The next day, I put it in a different location, but still in the same room as the router. Like real estate, it seems the key to getting to the best performance out of the mesh point is location, location, location. Again, none of this is documented.

Now, my Android device is using the 5GHz band to communicate with the mesh point, as is the iPad in the other room. And the ISP speed test was better than I could have hoped for at 52 Mbps down.

What conclusions can be drawn from such radically different results? Only that the mesh point must be very directional in nature.

Jim Salter, writing for The Wirecutter, noted that the mesh points are indeed very directional.

... The AmpliFi satellites are directional, as the front side of the antenna module (the side with the LEDs) provides a significantly hotter signal than the rear, top or bottom. This might sound like a feature, but in reality it means you have to fiddle with the positioning to get it just right, and due to the magnetic coupling and shin-level positioning, it’s too easy to knock the antenna out of position afterward.

When he refers to "shin-level positioning," Salter is assuming that the mesh point is plugged directly into an electric outlet. This is how it was meant to be used, judging by the device photos from Ubiquiti. But it doesn't have to be that way.

It's common knowledge that Wi-Fi transmitters, be they routers or access points, work better the higher they are placed. My experience confirmed this, the mesh point performed better when it was higher. The slow speeds occurred with the device on the floor, the faster speeds happened when it was about 5 feet off the ground (see the earlier photo).

As for fiddling with positioning, the signal strength indicator on the mesh points make this easy, as noted earlier. That said, even when my speeds were slow, the mesh point had 5 blue dots (best signal strength).

More to come ...

Get in touch with me privately by email at my full name at Gmail or publicly on twitter at @defensivecomput.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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