Google WiFi is here, and it’s spectacular

My brother loves to play Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s massively popular online shooter. A friend of ours enjoys coming over and using our PS3 to browse movie and music clips on YouTube. And for the past week I’ve been hooked on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

Until Tuesday, entertaining ourselves on two or more of these platforms at once resulted in lag – a pause here, a lost game there – but now, thanks to Google WiFi, which the Mountain View, Calif. tech giant released today, we’ve been able to run all three platforms simultaneously without experiencing so much as a pixellated screen.

While the concept of using routers to extend your WiFi signal might be nothing new – and I’d be a poor journalist if I didn’t acknowledge the Eero, another set of three devices that also function as attractive-looking home décor, reached the U.S. market first – it’s hard to deny that Google Inc. appears to have refined the concept, and made it easy enough to set up at home that I didn’t need to call ITWC’s own IT staff.

The product also has a surprising Canadian connection – during a media demonstration at Google’s Toronto office, senior product manager Ben Brown told me and representatives from several other outlets that the mobile app used to configure the devices was largely developed at the company’s Waterloo engineering facility.

Google’s Ben Brown likens installing the company’s new line of routers to properly lighting your house.

“All of the mobile app features were developed by a great team in Waterloo that has been working on the device for the past couple of years,” he explains. “And they actually built a lot on the software protocols that run on the device too.”

Asked why Canadians had to wait five months for Google WiFi’s Canadian release – the devices were originally announced in October and hit the U.S. market in December – Brown says it was simply a matter of navigating the device through Canada’s certification process, which is far more complicated than the U.S.

“Believe me, we’ve been super excited to launch in Canada for a long time,” he says. “And obviously our engineering team, which has been working on it for the past four years, has been pushing it as hard as it can.”

During his demonstration, Brown repeatedly emphasized the attractive functionality and ease of use his employer aimed for when designing Google WiFi, after noticing during preliminary research that many users would hide their modems, assuming their WiFi signals would reach every corner of the house (they wouldn’t). Hence Google’s engineers deciding to correct the problem by giving their new device a coffee-table-accessory-worthy design that any user would be proud to leave in the open.

And since the user who would hide their modem is unlikely to be a tech wizard, the company designed Google WiFi’s mobile app to guide even the most ignorant user safely through the setup process.

I’m happy to report that the devices are as easy to set up as Google advertises: Simply plug them in, making sure that one device is connected via ethernet to your modem, download the companion app (available for both iOS and Android) onto your mobile device, and you’re on your way.

If there is anything to criticize about setting up the devices it’s that the installation process, though relatively user-friendly, can occasionally veer into both condescension and be frustratingly opaque.

By that I mean: When I accidentally tried plugging my ethernet cable into the wrong port, the app produced a six-step guide that could have been boiled down to, “unplug the modem, then plug it back in.” After I had connected the first of my three devices it automatically sought out the second, but did not seek the third. And I accidentally performed two sets of speed tests before less-than-easily discovering the option that would simply add a third device (it’s the four-button tab in the upper right corner of the main screen, which takes you to “settings,” where you click “network & general,” then “WiFi points,” then finally “add WiFi point”).

Once everything was connected, however, the devices ran even more smoothly than I’d hoped.

Covering your home or office in (WiFi) mesh

Brown likened expecting a single modem to provide WiFi throughout the home to expecting one light bulb to light up every room.

Instead, Google WiFi operates by having multiple touchpoints installed in separate locations around the home or office, with each point providing WiFi network coverage of approximately 1500 square feet. Then, like smartphones with cellphone towers, any device that connects to this network will automatically connect to the nearest touchpoint using what Google calls “mesh” technology.

The WiFi points are easily connected and maintained using a mobile app. (Image courtesy Google)

The devices’ companion app also includes a feature that Google calls Network Assist, which automatically switches your network to the clearest available WiFi channel.

For those (like me) who didn’t know, Brown says there are two main WiFi bands: 2.4 GHz, which is slower but has longer range, and 5 GHz, which is faster but has shorter range. Network Assist runs Google WiFi on both networks in the background, but automatically connects your device to the fastest band based on its location, ensuring your connection retains its high speed.

In fact, though mine comfortably powered three screens, Google claims its WiFi technology is designed to stream up to five 4K video streams at once.

Whatever the truth, it’s hard for me to argue with the results I saw personally: I’m no tech expert, but I can tell you that after installing Google WiFi our PS3’s streaming speed more than doubled, from around 2.8 Mbps to more than six, and that my own computer’s download speed increased from 17 Mbps to 24 Mbps.

The Google WiFi app also has a surprisingly robust suite of options, allowing users to look up their password, check their network speed, monitor connected devices, prioritize one device over others, measure data usage, and even figure out where they can move their touchpoints for maximum impact. They can also create separate guest networks, prevent access by certain users at certain times, or designate multiple users as network managers.

And while I regrettably forgot to ask Brown about the devices’ security, their software is frequently updated – and downloaded automatically.

Starting today, Google WiFi is available at Best Buy Canada, Staples Canada, Walmart Canada, or through Google itself as either a single device for $179, or a pack of three for $439.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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