ProsEasy to use; incredible speed and range; HomeCare suite offers fantastic options for parents
ConsNo USB device support; Zigbee-based Smart Home feature is clearly at a beta stage
If there's one thing that every user of the Internet dreads, it's the network dropout. And since just about everyone uses the Internet, including everyone reading this review, there's a lot of anguish to go around. Luckily, wireless networking has improved greatly over the past few years, first with the advent of the seriously-fast 802.11ac protocol, and then the arrival of mesh networking systems, which promised to deliver the speed of 802.11ac, but with extended (and potentially limitless) range. These first appeared from smaller manufacturers, and those first-generation products were good at extending a network, but they were not fast. Muddying the waters a bit was the fact that a number of established players got into the marketing game with what they were calling mesh systems, but what were actually just bundled router/extender packages. Simply put, this isn't remotely similar to a mesh network. If you've used an extender and think you know all about what mesh can and cannot do, think again. A true mesh system uses identical nodes, each fully capable of serving as a stand-alone router, and delivers a seamless wireless experience as you pass from node to node. Even so, however, there's always the issue of losing speed as you get further away from the hard-wired node.
With this context in mind, we were excited to get our hands on TP-Link's new Deco M9 Plus mesh networking system. While not the first of its kind, nor even the first mesh system from TP-Link (that would be the Deco M5 we reviewed last year), it is one of just a very few mesh systems that features an "dedicated backhaul," a highly technical term for "way better". With a dedicated data lane for sending data back and forth between nodes, it doesn't suffer from the same kind of slow-downs that simpler mesh systems can experience. Linksys was the first to the backhaul party with its potent but pricey Velop system in early 2017, so to a certain extent, TP-Link is playing catchup here. But we've been very impressed with every piece of TP-Link networking gear we've tested here at TBG, so we were looking forward to seeing what TP-Link could do to shake up the high-end mesh networking market.
Special thanks to TP-Link for providing a review sample of the Deco M9 Plus Mesh Wi-Fi System. Read on to find out how it performs!
Description and Features
The Deco M9 Plus is simply packed with features, some better than others, so we had our work cut out for us in getting familiar with them all. We're going to start with a basic description, and then jump into what the M9 Plus brings to the table in terms of features.
Unlike many of the first- and second-generation mesh systems, which came in packs of three, the M9 Plus comes as a two-pack. Your first impression may be that TP-Link is cheating us all a bit by cutting back, but the reality may be quite different, as we'll soon see. In any event, you get two UFO-like nodes in the package, along with two power adapters. Right out of the box, we were surprised at how heavy these devices were compared to the earlier M5 model that we tested, and the heft is no doubt very much related to the additional radios packed into the M9 Plus, as well as its higher power draw. The power adapters, which are surprisingly large and may be hard to place in some locations, deliver a hefty 2A, up from the 1.2A of the original M5. This is despite looking identical.
Each M9 Plus node is in fact a stand-alone dual-stream (867Mbps) 802.11ac router, and can function entirely on its own. In that sense, you could start to compare each to a traditional $150 router and decide what you think of the features based on that comparison alone, but honestly, you shouldn't. Many $150 routers operates are triple-stream (1300Mbps), and each node has just two Ethernet ports (compared to the typical five of a $150 router), and one USB port (versus two), which is frustratingly disabled on the M9 Plus. Interestingly, the USB port has been disabled on every mesh system we've tested, and we have a hunch no one has actually figured out how to implement shared printing or storage on a mesh network, but someone sure hopes to, otherwise we wouldn't see USB ports at all. In any event, it's non-operative as far as we can tell. Another strike against the M9 Plus. While we generally like the shape that TP-Link has come up with for the Deco line, it's not nearly as easy to place as the vertical nodes developed by competitors Linksys and Netgear, and it also suffers from an odd asymmetry in its rear panel, such that the ports and power adapter are not at all lined up with the centerpoint of the node. As shown below, the power adapter in particular juts out at a very strange angle.
Some users may be surprised to learn that this sophisticated new product doesn't include an instruction manual (which is one reason it's hard to figure out what the USB port is there for). 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 M9 Plus. 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 M9 Plus. In lieu of a manual, TP-Link offers its Deco app. That does mean you'll need to own a smartphone to set this system up, but it also means it's a pretty pain-free process.
Speaking of the app, it provides a lot of the enhanced functionality. 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 M9. TP-Link hasn't made it clear how much it would cost to renew (competitors typically charge $5/month), but a lot can change in three years, so we partly understand the ambiguity, and definitely appreciate that this isn't a trial that expires in a month. We really like the idea of moving antivirus 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 (and routers themselves have been compromised in many instances). During our testing of the Deco M9, we found that certain website content was blocked by Trend Micro as infected, specifically some resturant menu and reservation scripts. Clearly, these weren't illicit, and it's unclear exactly what triggered the block, but it could be that the scripts have been compromised in some cases and Trend Micro was being overly cautious.
What we really love about HomeCare is the control it gives to parents. HomeCare grants the ability to pause the internet for individual users (specifically, any devices assigned to them), as well as the option to shut off Internet service on a daily basis, either at specified times (e.g., bedtiem), or after specified durations (e.g., after two hours). For Internet-savvy but easily-distracted children, these features will most definitely be life savers for parents! HomeCare also allows parents to filter out certain types of content on a per-device basis, like social networks, gambling, video chat services, or adult sites. When a user of that device attempts to access prohibited content, a warning screen appears indicating that it is not allowed, as shown in the screenshot here, and the TP-Link Deco app sends a notification to the owner (i.e., parent). Who says parents don't have eyes in the back of their heads?!? Honestly, this is a feature that could have prevented an entire generation of young minds being exposed to the darkest elements of the Internet. It alone is worth the price of admission for parents, as far as we're concerned.
With all that said, there is one highly-touted feature that was unique to the M9 Plus that turned out to be a bust in our testing. TP-Link has integrated a Zigbee radio into the M9 Plus, which in theory allows it to control Zigbee-compatible Smart Home devices. This is the same protocal that Amazon incorporated into its Echo Plus, so it's definitely mainstream at this point. It's also a protocol that has long been used in dedicated Smart Home hubs, including the Wink Hub 2 that we reviewed. Alas, the Smart Home space is still a bit of Wild West, and TP-Link's only previous experience in building a hub was the SR20 Smart Router, and which did not catch on. Our guess is that this is because it didn't work very well, and indeed, the M9 Plus was likewise a huge disappointment in our testing. We spent hours upon hours staring at the message in the accompanying screenshot, attempting to get the M9 Plus to connect to our GE- and Sylvania-branded Zigbee bulbs, but to no avail. This is despite the fact that our Sylvania bulb actually flashed the "connected" signal during the process. Whatever the case may be, the Smart Home capabilities of the M9 Plus are clearly a work in progress, and at this point don't come close to getting our recommendation. For what it's worth, we had our Sylvania bulb connected back up to our Wink Hub 2 in about 30 seconds, so yes, it can work, assuming you have a working Zigbee hub!
To get a sense of how the Deco M9's wireless networking performance stacks up, we compared it to three other devices during our testing. In addition to the Deco M9, 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 tested the Deco M5, TP-Link's first-generation mesh system. Finally, we included the TP-Link Archer C5400, its top-of-the-line traditional home router. Here are all four products with their corresponding selling prices as of our publication date, as well as their MSRPs for reference:
- TP-Link Deco M9 Plus Mesh WiFi System - $300 (original MSRP: $300)
- Luma Whole-Home WiFi System - $130 (original MSRP: $400)
- TP-Link Deco M5 Whole-Home WiFi System - $220 (original MSRP: $300)
- TP-Link Archer C5400 Router - $280 (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 Archer C5400 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. Several of its competitors, notably the Linksys Velop AC2200 system and the Netgear Orbi RBK50 system, offer similar specifications, and while they debuted at much higher prices, they are now just above what the Deco M9 Plus has debuted at (around $330 versus $300). While we don't have those competiting products on hand to test, it will certainly be interesting to see whether TP-Link's $300 solution for 2018 (namely the two-node M9 Plus) outperforms its $300 solution from 2017 (the three-node M5 that we previously reviewed).
Flip to the next page to see how it all shakes out!