A New Router Experience: Google Wifi Is a Surprisingly Polished and Underrated Google Product
I never thought I'd see the day where I'd be excited about the future of my router
This October’s multi-Google-device launch brought us a better glimpse at the now-released Google Assistant, arguably the most talked-about Google project of the year. Months later and with the release of the Pixels and Google Home, discussion on Google’s new ecosystem has only grown louder.
All the buzz surrounding Google’s AI works, smarthome developments and incursion into virtual reality overshadowed what was received as one of the most boring announcements Google made in 2016 — Google Wifi. These are tiny and inconspicuous Wi-Fi routers which Google showed alongside its more-ambitious projects, and given that the routers and service have taken a while to arrive to the masses, not much has been discussed since. Indeed, on its face Google Wifi is essentially a router, albeit one that aims to be fast and reliable for its $129 price-point, and also one that’s very easy to mesh with other Google Wifi pucks. Even then, though, not many of us care much about our routers — we often take them for granted, and they mostly sit in a corner of our house, unattended and unnoticed, for the majority of their lifespan. A router is hardly something to get excited about, yet Google felt it was its duty to make not one, but three of these things: before the tiny white Google Wifi, we had (and have) the towering OnHub routers by TP-LINK and ASUS. Back then, Google’s efforts at marketing a better “router experience” (whatever that means) were even lamer than they were today, but those devices did kindle some level of curiosity on certain enthusiast subgroups.
I happened to be one of the few that jumped aboard the Google OnHub, with a reasoning surprisingly similar to what Google intended from its target demographic: I was moving to a new neighborhood, finally being able to access sweet Fiber internet, and I wanted to make the most out of it. However, given I have a girlfriend obsessed with the aesthetics of our home, placing a traditional router in the middle of our house (for optimal coverage) wasn’t something she was willing to accept, and the less antennae and cables it had (or the less it looked like a spider) the better. The OnHub looks surprisingly pleasant for a router, and I also wanted to give its “smarter” network management and app a go. Plus, I was very interested in what Google could do with the device in the future given it had so much unused hardware at the time, not to mention an interesting software foundation. We even have (pretty dead) Google OnHub forums here at XDA, so as a Google Services user, I had all the excuses to buy into this wacky experiment.
How Can a Router be More Engaging?
Almost a year has passed since I bought my OnHub, and I must have interacted with the physical device no more than three times since. It was very much the “fire and forget” setup that Google advertised in this regard– they made setting up an internet router as simple as it can possibly get. Network speeds have been expectedly great, and I haven’t had a single complaint regarding my internet… something extremely satisfying after living in the third world for twenty years. But none of that is necessarily exceptional or out of the ordinary for an expensive router, and I would say that great coverage and consistency alone probably wouldn’t justify the hefty $200 price I paid for my OnHub. Truth be told, most routers at that price should give you the same level of “internet quality”, only perhaps with a bit more effort and fine-tuning. The OnHub’s strengths and uniqueness ultimately don’t come from traditional router functionality anyway, and I grew happier with each OnHub app update bringing new features and more polish, leading up to the point where the app finally turned into Google Wifi with the release of the new router.
“The Google Wifi app is extremely easy to use and tidily organized”
I would go as far as calling it my favorite Google app in terms of design and considering what it’s supposed to do (which it pulls off magnificently, in my opinion), as I’ve never experienced any bugs or odd app mechanics and every update has made it more feature-rich without muddying up the user experience. But what makes Google Wifi as a service so special?
The setup process is the first thing that stood out to me, as it was done entirely on the app and it was as simple as setting up any Google product, like the Chromecast or Google Home. After that’s done, the app greets you with a simple screen showing a diagram of your internet, router and connected devices, and tapping on any of them will bring up more information. For example, by tapping the internet icon you can access usage statistics going back to 60 days, and you can also view usage in real-time. The router also runs routine speed tests and keeps a log of your network speeds on each day. All of this is useful to understand your usage, but it’s not something you wouldn’t find on other routers — it’s just simple to use, easy to access and nicely displayed. The same goes for the screen showing your connected devices, where you can easily check up on what kind of traffic each of your gadgets sees, or has seen over the past couple of months. Each device can also be expanded individually to better track download and upload statistics, or prioritize it for faster download speeds (this can also be automated or scheduled). Of course, you can also kick or pause devices on your network.
The Google Wifi app also has an “Assistant” tab to inform you of recent changes and the new features that arrive to the service. The right-most tab of the main view hosts a variety of features: one of the more useful ones is a quick network check, which you can use to test either your internet speeds or the network strength of your particular device at range. A neat touch to the speed tests is a little graph telling you of what your internet is capable of based on its speed, informing users whether they can, for example, stream 4K video without issues.
There are also a couple of useful and well-implemented features, such as the ability to put devices in groups to temporarily pause their internet connection — Google mostly aims this feature at parents wanting to get their children to do their homework, but I can see other usecases being adopted by non-parents (cheeky example shown to the side). Setting up a guest network is also very easy on Google Wifi, and you can easily copy or share the network’s password from the app. An interesting feature which has been very useful when hosting parties or having friends over is the ability for people on guest networks to even access certain Google Wifi features and home device control.
This is done through the OnHub’s web platform, accessed by going to “on.here” on a browser while connected to a network. From here, guests can access your controllable devices should they want to easily stream a video or control your house lights — that’s right, Google Wifi can integrate with Phillips Hue, and the on.here hub allows any device with a browser to easily manage all of the connected lights, including the ability to change their color through an extremely simple interface. Is this overkill? Perhaps. Is it useful? Certainly, and I personally enjoy the ability to control my lights from my browser on my computer, as it’s sometimes easier than taking out my phone or yelling “OK Google” across the room. These little conveniences are the kind of touches that make Google Wifi a valuable experience, even if they aren’t particularly unique.
IFTTT integration is also a nice feature that Google Wifi allows for, and while recipes are limited, the potential for automation is there. I personally have mine set to log every device that connects or disconnects to the network, so that I can better keep track of whether I was home or not at a particular time. Finally, the OnHub has gained better configuration over time as well — while you can’t customize to the degree that other premium routers allow for, you still can tweak DNS and WAN settings, forward ports, etc. Also, granting network management privileges to a house mate or significant other is extremely simple and only requires the person’s e-mail, and the app only needs your Google account to manage the network, so setting it up on new devices or ROMs is as easy as downloading the app again.
A Great User Experience Powering Your Home Internet
Google’s incursion into the router space of all places might have sounded odd a year ago, and while many dismissed the OnHub as a simple companion to their Fiber efforts, few would predict it’d become the foundation for a new proper service – Google Wifi – that would neatly integrate into their Internet of Things strategy. The Google OnHub and Wifi routers are still not as interesting as Google Home or a new smartphone, but I am also pleasantly surprised at the level of quality and satisfaction that the experience provided to me. It’s undoubtedly well-made with a nifty app and extremely accessible features — I personally know friends and family who dread dealing with router issues, from resetting a network to forwarding ports. To my older relatives, their routers are mysterious black boxes with blinking lights and a mesh of cables behind them. The OnHub and Google Wifi routers solve this problem on every level — from their inconspicuous appearance to their simple setup and network management options. It might not offer the same level of granularity as a top-of-the-line router, but for people who want the best out of their home Wi-Fi with as little hassle as possible, Google Wifi is surprisingly effective.
I have a strange feeling of excitement for my router’s future updates
And this is, perhaps, the biggest surprise: I’ve been routinely disappointed by Google releases these past couple of years, and our community does have a tendency to overhype each and every new Google thing. With Google Wifi, the story is different — it wasn’t discussed much, even after the update properly hit the OnHub and the new hardware went on sale. It’s great that Google didn’t abandon their OnHub platform and delivered on its promise of software updates, and after the last major changelog, I have a strange feeling of excitement for my router’s future updates. That’s the magic of Google Wifi if there is any at all: the router goes from a passive instrument in your house to something you can easily interact with, customize, make the most out of, accessible and that gets better over time. And unlike Google Home, the OnHub in particular has been great from the start — barring some unavailable configuration options, it has never failed me thus far, and updates have added cool features like IFTTT integration and now the Google Wifi features and revised app, additions I only half-expected given Google’s support track record.
The OnHub and Google Wifi offer the rare kind of service that simplifies a process so much that it actually becomes more engaging, and makes you want to interact with the product more frequently as a result. I find myself opening the Google Wifi app at least once a day, whereas I never really interacted with my routers or Wi-Fi settings in the past unless I had to fix an issue or forward a port for gaming. In this sense, Google Wifi is transformative: it made the cumbersome Wi-Fi management experience more attractive and even fun; other routers might be able to ultimately achieve the same features, but Google’s solution is intuitive and integrated into their ecosystem in a way that makes everything flow extremely well. I never thought I’d ever write an editorial on how much I enjoy my fidgeting with my router, so in this sense, Google Wifi has been the “sleeper hit” of 2016 for me.Check out XDA’s Google OnHub Forum!