ProsGood combination of speed and range for the price
ConsTerrible smartphone app; limited USB functionality
Everyone uses it, everyone curses it from time to time. We're talking of course about wireless networking. While the various standards within the 802.11 series have improved over the years, they've barely kept up with the massively-expanding use of WiFi in the average home. At the beginning, WiFi use was exclusive to laptop computers, but today everything from smartphones to TVs are demanding ultra-fast throughput, while everything from thermostats to smart light bulbs are dependent on stable, long-distance connections. It's a bit of a catch-22 from a physics perspective, as the speed and distance of a signal are essentially inversely proportional (thanks to the relationship between frequency and wavelength).
But where there's a good engineer, there's a workaround, and the solution that hit the market a few years ago is the meshed network. Unlike traditional network extenders, mesh networks operate as one system, offering a more seamless experience for users as they roam around their homes, while also having the potential to dramatically improve performance far from the main router. While mesh networking began with a few small upstarts, now all the big name networking manufacturers have thrown their hats into the ring, making it a very crowded field. So what's a smaller company to do? Compete on price and features of course!
In today's review, we'll be looking at the new EnGenius ESR530 Smart Mesh Router system, which hit the market in April 2019. This is the first mesh networking product from EnGenius, but certainly not its first networking product, as it's been a significant player in the traditional access point, switch, and telephony business for a number of years, primarily catering to small businesses. With the ESR530, EnGenius is clearly aiming straight for the mainstream consumer market, which is most definitely a much bigger target, as well as a very different area in which to compete.
We'll therefore be paying close attention to the full user experience offered by the ESR530, from the industrial design to the software suite, and then we'll pit its performance against some of the best networking gear we've reviewed over the past few years. Can it slay giants? We'll find out soon enough!
Special thanks to EnGenius for providing a review sample of the EnGenius ESR530 Smart Mesh Router 2-Pack System.
Description and Features
The ESR530 can be purchased in a variety of configuration, starting with a single node, which will operate just like standard router. We tested a two-node configuration. Each node is identical, so while some competitors (notably Netgear), are offering components that may be better tailored to specific tasks, EnGenius is going the more common route of making the system as versatile as possible, while reducing complexity. Each ESR530 node is 5" in diameter, and a fairly chunky 2.5" tall. While reasonably attractive in glossy white, the ESR530 won't win any design awards for innovation.
Hidden away underneath the ESR530 router are all the connectors, including power, WAN, LAN, and a USB 2.0 port. We'd give EnGenius major points for this design, which greatly reduces the cable spaghetti that sticks out of the back of competing mesh systems, except for one major problem: the USB port won't fit most USB drives! This is a major design oversight, and we attribute it to a lack of real-world beta testing. Yes, you can plug in an external SSD drive that uses an extension cable, but most users of a low-cost router that's limited to USB 2.0 speeds like this one are going to want to stick a thumb drive in there, and frankly, most simply will not fit. The only ones that we could insert without running into the side of the router were thumb drives that were no wider than the USB port itself, but most drives tend to include a casing that will get in the way.
Right out of the box, we encountered problems with the ESR530, as the EnMesh app used to set it up could not connect to the router. The QR reader built into the app had a target area that was way too big, meaning we couldn't get it to scan the tiny QR code on the bottom of our router. It was totally out of focus. Then we tried inputing the 6-digit code manually, and the app told us it was an invalid code. Seriously? Finally, we went through the hassle of manually connecting to the router via a WiFi connection, and that allowed us to set it up as a router. But we were now about 15 minutes into our testing, and this was not a good first impression.
Alas, the EnMesh app had more surprises in store for us, and none of them were good. We found it was riddled with bugs, including numerous typos, examples of improper grammar, and very disconcertingly, a bad link for the "Advanced" tab that took us to an insecure URL for 192.168.1.1. That's just not good. Furthermore, it was just plain slow, taking several seconds to flip between its menus.
And now we're going to get just a bit nasty: companies that aren't based in the U.S. really have to suck it up and hire people who are fluent English speakers to write the text in their smartphone apps. Yes, we know the English-speaking world is only one target market, but it's an important one. The screenshot of the "Factory Reset" function we provide here just begs the question of whether EnGenius wants to make its app look legitimate, and when you're selling networking gear that must offer strict security controls, appearances are important.
We held out hope that EnGenius would redeem itself with the USB interface we mentioned before, because while it didn't allow most USB drives to be inserted, at least it was there. None of the other mesh systems we've tested have even supported external storage. But EnGenius went and gummed up the works with a hard-to-use, impressively weak software package called EnFile. It's completely separate from the main EnMesh app, and it confusingly provides two distinct services: a catalog of your phone files (the main function, which we had no interest in), and the Personal Cloud, which makes use of the storage attached to the router. Yes, we could access files on our attached drive, and perhaps this would be of interest to certain smartphone users, but honestly, we want our network attached storage to actually be accessible on, you know, our network. That means computers, and smarthphone apps don't run on PCs!
So, at this point, it was clear that EnGenius had some work to do in terms of its presentation, but how was its performance? We were still interested in finding out, so let's get into how we tested.
To get a sense of how the ESR530's wireless networking performance stacks up, we compared it to our two favorite networking products, the TP-Link Deco M9, which is TP-Link's best mesh system, and the TP-Link Archer C5400, among its best traditional home routers. Here are all three products with their corresponding selling prices as of our publication date, as well as their MSRPs for reference:
- EnGenius ESR530 Smart Mesh Router 2-Pack - $141
- TP-Link Deco M9 Plus Mesh WiFi System - $247 (original MSRP: $300)
- TP-Link Archer C5400 Router - $204 (original MSRP: $400)
We mention MSRPs because it's quite typical for home networking products to debut at one price, drop in price relatively quickly after release, and then continue dropping to compete in a different product class over time. Such is the case with the Archer C5400, which was once the most advanced router on the market, and is still quite powerful. It now occupies the $200 pricepoint that was once the realm of merely really good routers. Similarly, TP-Link's Deco M9 was relatively competitive at $300 when it debuted in mid-2018, given that most of its competition was in the $350-$400 price range. Today it's at $250, which means it's still a premium product, but as it continues to drop in price, it will get closer to the $140 mark where the ESR530 currently sits.
Flip to the next page to see how the inexpensive ESR530 system compares!