A mesh WiFi solution on a budget

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Now that broadband internet has reached high penetration in the country and with JioFiber just around the corner, people are starting to realize that setting up a single access point doesn’t really do it anymore. Not with the countless number of wireless devices that every household now has in every corner. Getting that Wi-Fi coverage in the farthest corner (slight exaggeration) of your home has become more or less the minimum expectation for people looking to install Wi-Fi in their homes. Unfortunately, this required buying one of the best performing models on the market. These routers aren’t exactly cheap. Mesh Wi-Fi systems or “whole home Wi-Fi systems” as they are often marketed seem to be a better option. These systems come in the form of two- or three-node packets, and they usually cost as much as a top-of-the-line AC router. Not anymore. The cheaper units started appearing themselves last year. The first of these was the D-Link COVR1203. And now we have the TP-Link E4 triple node system which is even more economical than the COVR1203.

Build quality

Each node of the TP-Link Deco E4 is quite long at first. We’re looking at a height of about 190 millimeters, which is in line with some Netgear and Linksys units we’ve seen in this segment. The top of the node has an RGB indicator LED that communicates the status of the network. You can easily turn this LED off if the lighting becomes a nuisance, but we’d leave it on given how discreetly they’re placed.

The back of the device has one WAN and one LAN port, both suitable for 100 Mbit. And the outlet is on the bottom with a small tab to route the power cable through. The overall look is very clean and aesthetically pleasing. It’s also quite heavy, which is unusual for cheap routers. If your Ethernet cable is stiff, the weight will keep the device from tipping over. There are no physical WPS buttons.

Inside, we find a single PCB within the node. There are no external antennas and no daughter boards. You can see that by reducing the components within the unit, TP-Link has managed to cut costs.

One strange thing we noticed was that the solid sheet of metal that adds the extra weight didn’t touch the SoC shield. Even on the inside of the shield we found no thermal pads on the SoC, a QCA9561. We tried looking for the SoC’s datasheet to find out what kind of cooling it requires, but we couldn’t find anything official. Even the FCC filing has kept the relevant information confidential. The best we can say is that it is an improved variant of the QCA9531. Seems like an easy missed opportunity. The QCA9561 would be the chip that controls the WLAN, for WLAN2 we see a QCA9886 that can handle the 5 GHz band and has a peak bandwidth of 867 Mbps. For the memory, the Deco E4 uses an ESMT M14D1G1664A that is DDR2 clocked at 400 MHz. Each node has two internal antennas etched onto the PCB.

Performance

The Deco E4 competes with the D-Link COVR1203, in terms of the number of nodes made available in the package. The COVR has 3 internal antennas and Gigabit Ethernet ports, while the Deco E4 makes do with 2 internal antennas and 100 Mbit ports. Both devices use Qualcomm SoCs for the WLAN and it seems that the E4 has a better combination on paper. When running bandwidth tests with a pc-node-node-pc configuration, we managed to get about 84 Mbps on the downlink and about 82 Mbps on the uplink when connected to the 2.4 GHz band and on the 5 GHz band we got 557 Mbps on the downlink and 553 Mbps on the uplink. On the LAN front, the 100 Mbps link is lower than most of the competing products we tested. In terms of coverage, the triple node setup easily offers more range than two node setups.

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