Pros

Very easy to use; robust network controls that parents will appreciate; excellent range

Cons

Flat-out speed not up to par with high-end routers; few tweaks available to power users

Star Rating

The Deco kit

Introduction

Everyone uses wireless networking in some form or another, but most consumers likely don't spend that much time keeping up with the latest in networking technology. In part, that's because a lot of users probably do their best to forget about their routers once they've set them up, hoping that they'll stay connected for weeks, months, or even years without tinkering with them again. The reality, however, is that traditional routers aren't entirely troublefree devices, and as home networks expand to serve more and more connected devices, the limits of standard routers become painfully evident. Signal dropouts, bandwidth limitations, and unpredictable range all get in the way of enjoying the latest in Internet content.

With this context in mind, we were excited to get our hands on TP-Link's new Deco M5 networking system. While not the first of its kind, it is one of the first so-called "whole-home Wi-Fi Systems" released by a major networking manufacturer. These systems, which would more technically be referred to as mesh networks, offer a modular, configurable, and highly-adaptable system for establishing, and more importantly, controlling and expanding a home network.

In our conversations with TP-Link, we learned that the company decided to enter the mesh networking market because owners of larger homes have become frustrated with the limitations of traditional networking systems, which have become more and more apparent as they try to stream video or control Smart Home devices like security cameras at the far edges of their homes. No longer can routers be judged just by how they perform with a desktop PC sitting a few feet away. If your IP video camera at the front door or a tablet streaming Netflix out on the back deck can't get reception, you are going to be more than frustrated. And while network extenders have been available for years, TP-Link has found that the average consumer simply doesn't want to change IDs and passwords or jump from network to network as they walk across their homes. Again, smartphones and tablets have fundamentally changed the home networking environment and how we judge its functionality. In essence, the Deco M5 is functioning a lot like a traditional router with two network extenders, but presents a single unified network to the end user.

Special thanks to TP-Link for providing a review sample of the Deco M5 Whole-Home Wi-Fi System. Read on to find out how it performs!

Update: Check out The Tech Buyer's Guru chatting about the benefits of Whole-Home Wi-Fi on KGW-8's Portland Today Show!

TV Spot

The Products

Description and Features

As with most products that compete in the broader "Smart Home" market today, the Deco M5 has a catchy name. But that's not where the marketing gloss ends: you also find more refined packaging than you'd get with a typical router. Below is what you'll see when you first open the Deco.

Each "node" is identical, and in fact you could use each as an independent router for entirely separate networks in three different homes! This reality is what sets the minimum price that TP-Link can charge, for better or for worse. You wouldn't expect to buy a cutting-edge router today for under $100 or so, and you're basically getting three in the box here.

Accessories

When you dig deeper into the box, you find the accessory package, which includes three power adapters (one of which we've removed from the packaging to illustrate the size and shape), along with a single Ethernet cable to connect to your modem. Each Deco M5 unit is equipped with two Gigabit Ethernet ports, one of which must be used for the modem connection on the primary node, the others of which can be used to hard-wire devices like PCs or TVs. Interestingly each Deco M5 also has one USB Type-C port, which is used for the power adapter, although as TP-Link explained to us, it has another potential use. Specifically, Deco nodes can be wired via Powerline adapters to provide a more robust backbone, in which case the USB Type-C connector provides both the Powerline link and the DC power source.

Some users may be surprised to learn that this sophisticated new product doesn't include an instruction manual (which is one reason the applications for the Type-C connector weren't entirely clear to us). The small envelope in the upper-left of the box simply contains specifications and a very basic reference sheet. While one's first reaction to this might be to think something's missing from the box, it actually reflects the entirely different way TP-Link would like users to interact with the Deco M5. Detailed user manuals are things that most people only crack open when all else fails, and TP-Link probably hopes that users never get to that point with the Deco M5!

In lieu of a manual, TP-Link offers its Deco app. Right off the bat, we encountered a problem with the way TP-Link handles this, as the box instructs users to get the "Deco" app from the app store, but in fact if you type Deco you come up with dozens and dozens of random apps that have nothing to do with this product. Only by searching for TP-Link Deco will you find the correct app, and this minor complication provides a sample of the broader issues that result from reliance on smartphones to set up home tech devices. You are dependent on a third-party ecosystem, which may or may not function the way you want it to. You're also dependent on owning a smartphone, and over time, you're probably going to want (or need) a modern smartphone. We've encountered other Smart Home devices, for example, that will only work with the newer Bluetooth Low Energy standard, which smartphones over a few years old don't support. In the specifications for the Deco M5, TP-Link indicates that the Deco app requires Android 4.3 or later, iOS 8.0 or later, and Bluetooth 4.0 or later. Most current phones will support these standards, but as the app develops further, we'd be concerned that newer operating systems or radio capabilities may be required.

Speaking of the app, it provides a lot of the enhanced functionality of the Deco M5 ecosystem. TP-Link refers to these features as HomeCare, which covers both the parental control and virus protection built into the system. The antivirus and malware detection is provided by Trend Micro, and a 3-year subscription is included with the Deco M5. The service currently costs $120/year, so obviously, some users may not wish to continue with it after the included coverage terminates. That being said, it makes a lot of sense to move this functionality out of individual devices and into the router controlling all Internet traffic, especially given that many devices, like IP cameras and thermostats don't have any inherent ablity to protect against intrusion. As for the parential control suite, it is quite robust, and no doubt has the potential to change the way parents think about how their children use the Internet. Here's a compliation of three screenshots that illustrate some of the features: 

Controls

Parents have the ability to pause the internet for individual users (specifically, any devices assigned to them), as well as to set pre-determined times when Internet service is cut off on a daily basis, either at specified times, or after specified durations. For Internet-savvy but easily-distracted children, these features will most definitely be life savers for parents! Our only concern is that these are device-specific, which works for a smart phone, tablet, or one child's game console, but really doesn't do much at all to control the home PC, an Internet-connected TV, or a game console used by everyone in the home unless parents are willing to force every member of the family onto the same schedule for these devices.

One last feature we'll mention here: the Deco app provides notifications to owner of the system regarding devices that have joined a network, as well as how much data each device is currently using. This could be of benefit to parents who want to make sure kids aren't using the Internet when they shouldn't be, and can even provide some peace of mind regarding children's whereabouts, as their smartphones connect to the home network when they return home.

Test Setup

To get a sense of how the Deco's performance compares, we brought in two other devices into our testing. In addition to the Deco M5, we sampled the Luma system, which was one of the first mesh networking products on the market, first hitting the market in early 2016. We also sampled the Linksys EA9500, which is widely considered to be the best traditional router ever released. Here are all three products with their corresponding selling prices as of our publication date, as well as their MSRPs for reference:

  1. Luma Whole-Home WiFi System - $289 (original MSRP: $400)
  2. TP-Link Deco M5 Whole-Home WiFi System - $300 (original MSRP: $300)
  3. Linksys EA9500 AC5400 Router - $344 (original MSRP: $400)

We mention MSRPs because it's quite typical for home networking products to debut at one price, and then drop in price over time. Such is the case with the Linksys EA9500 and the Luma system, both of which started at $400. In a sense, TP-Link is being aggressive in pricing its system at $300, but looked at another way, it really must compete not based on MSRPs, but based on what consumers can buy competing products for today. In that sense, the Deco M5 is at a bit of a disadvantage, as it obviously isn't being discounted yet (for reference, we're publishing this review two days after the Deco was released). In the current market, products that were previously priced much higher than the Deco M5 are now price-competitive, which is why we chose these particular models as comparisons.

So, let's jump into our benchmarks to see how the Deco M5 performs, and then turn to our conclusion.

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