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

Real-World Performance

While a lot of wireless networking tests focus on in-network transfers, we recently invested in a Century Link 1Gbps fiber connection to allow us to test networking performance the way most users do: by actually connecting to the outside world. Our Deco app indicated that the main router was connected to the Internet at 475Mbps, which suggests that the Deco simply doesn't have the capacity to handle the full bandwidth available on 1Gbps fiber (our Linksys EA9500 can receive data at 900Mbps).

But in the real world, you'll never receive any data that fast - the backbone just isn't in place to support those kinds of speeds. The maximum throughput we've measured in hard-wired tests is about 350Mbps, so this will be the aspiration for our wireless devices, if not quite the goal. We start with a Speedtest.net benchmark at a moderate 25-foot distance. For typical routers, this is close to a best-case scenario, but as we learned, mesh networks are a different animall all together. In this benchmark, our traditional router comes out way, way ahead. Its massive throughput just can't be beat in this "straight line" test. We'd consider this the equivalent of a 0-60mph test for automobiles. In this analogy, the Linksys EA9500 is most definitely the muscle car of the group.

25ft

A few other things worth mentioning here: unlike with previous-generation networking equipment, upload speeds are almost always going to be faster than download speeds, which may have to do with the way 802.11ac networking works versus 802.11 b, g, or n standards. Alas, upload speeds aren't all that important to most users, and in terms of download speeds, the Deco M5 doesn't impress all that much. Luckily, it beat out its direct competitor the Luma quite handily, and the Luma's poor performance in our tests is the main reason we never published a dedicated review of that product. It just wasn't worth buying.

Another thing to note about the short-range test is that when only one Deco M5 unit is in use, download speeds were a bit higher. Perhaps part of the reason for this dropoff in performance may be the added overhead imposed by adding additional nodes. To do so, some of the available bandwidth is utilized for backhaul (i.e., communication between routers), which eats into available throughput for user data. TP-Link confirmed to us that the Deco M5 doesn't have a dedicated backhaul channel, and that adding one would push the price closer to $500. While some of TP-Link's competitors have gone this route (specifically, the Linksys Velop), TP-Link believes that the target market for the Deco M5 would be willing to trade off some performance for a lower price, especially in light of the added functionality that the Deco M5 offers, like the parental controls and the extended range that additional nodes can provide.

Speaking of greater range, let's see how the Deco M5 avails itself at a 75-foot distance:

75ft

Here we start to see the true promise of a well-designed mesh network system. The Deco M5 actually beats the massive Linksys EA9500 in terms of upload speeds, and does pretty well in terms of download speeds too. If you flip back up to the previous table, you might say something must be wrong here. Clearly, we got our data mixed up, because the Deco M5 does better at longer range than at shorter range. Well, the truth is that mesh systems fundamentally change how home networks should be judged. It's no longer all that relevant how far away the "router" is; what matters is how close the nearest node is. And in our "long-range" test, one of our nodes was just 5-feet away from our test PC. While we didn't test an average $100 router in this test, based on previous experience we know it probably wouldn't have turned out as well as using the Deco M5 setup.

The one thing we were a bit disappointed about was the direct hard-wired performance. When we connected our PC's Ethernet port directly to that Deco M5 five feet away, performance dropped considerably. We contacted TP-Link about this and they didn't have an immediate explanation for the results, but in our opinion, users looking to use the Deco M5 as a more robust link to high-bandwidth devices like streaming 4K TVs or game consoles may want to look elsewhere.

One last issue that we should raise before we get to our conclusion is that given how significantly the performance varies based on where the client device is, we would have liked more guidance from the app as to where to place the two auxiliary nodes. The main "router" node was placed next to our 1Gbps fiberoptic modem at one end of our home, but we had to guess where to place the other two nodes. While the Deco M5 was easy to setup, it really wasn't clear how to fine-tune performance of this advanced system.

Deco M5

Conclusion

Overall, we were very impressed with the TP-Link Deco M5. While it didn't match our high-end router in terms of flat-out speed, we think it offers a fantastic overall networking solution for most households. In the end, modern 802.11ac are more than fast enough to keep up with the speed of typical Internet services available in most countries, and this is most definitely true of the Deco M5. With 20Mbps service still considered "high-speed", and 50-100Mbps considered premium service, the Deco M5 is more than fast enough.

What really sets it apart, and makes it a better pick than a standard router, is its ease of use, robust parental and security controls, and it's nearly limitless range, thanks to the ability to add additional nodes. Once we begin judging routers less as single-purpose devices and more as active elements of our home networking experience, the added functionality of the Deco M5 clearly justifies the price. Consumers have come to expect that devices are more than a compilation of transistors and specifications; they must deliver an experience, one that is very much defined by ease-of-use and the ability to provide feedback to the user. The Deco M5 truly belongs to a new class of wireless networking devices, ones which must be judged not just by short-range speed or the tweaking options available to highly-technical users, but by the overall suite of services they provide to the average Internet user, i.e., the vast majority of people today. In this regard, the Deco M5 is a true home run!

The TP-Link Deco M5 Whole-Home WiFi System is available for $299.99 as of our publication date, and it picks up a recommendation as the ideal mid-range mesh networking system. As always, to see our top picks in every category of home networking gear, check out our Networking Buyer's Guide, updated quarterly!

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