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Superior WiFi, but with a cost

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Fast WiFi connections throughout your house • Good range • Gorgeous design • Easy-to-use app

Larger pods take up more space • Subscribing to WiFi is a tough sell

If you’re still using a regular router, the Plume SuperPods will be a big upgrade… as long as you’re willing to subscribe to your own WiFi.

In case you’ve been living in a wireless bubble, mesh WiFi is where it’s at.

Over the past few years, mesh WiFi routers have jumped from promising products to the go-to router type for anyone who knows better. Sure, if you live in a small apartment, chances are whatever router you got from your cable or phone company will work fine. But for anyone with even a modest amount of square footage, mesh routers can fill in any wireless dead zones you might have, bathing every last square foot of your house in reliable WiFi.

The basic idea is there’s power in numbers. No matter how good a single router may be, a sole wireless access point means your WiFi connectivity will suffer when you get further away from it. But a mesh scatters multiple WiFi “pods” throughout your house, meaning your devices don’t have to work as hard to maintain a robust connection.

The mesh WiFi space was pioneered by the likes of Eero, but there are now several mesh routers on the market, including models from Netgear and Google. One of them is Plume, whose distinctive silver hexagonal pods, which come six in a pack, are almost the definition of austere.

Plume's WiFi pods have a simple, pleasing design.

Plume’s WiFi pods have a simple, pleasing design.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

Plume recently debuted a new type of pod called SuperPods. The SuperPods are larger than the silver first-gen pods, with better features, and they come with just three in a pack, for $199. Plume says that these three pods do as good a job if not better at creating a mesh WiFi network than the old silver ones.

I wanted to see if that was true so I asked Plume to lend me a pack of the new pods. I’m actually a Plume customer already — a first-generation set of pods serves as my house’s WiFi network, so I was in a good position to judge whether the SuperPods were up to the task.

The adventures of SuperPod

As WiFi routers go, Plume’s pods are pretty cool-looking. They’re basically hexagonal prisms, with one side smaller than the other so they’re easy to grip. The have a matte-silver metallic finish, a power plug on the small side, an Ethernet port on bottom, and the teeniest, tiniest LED on the front.

While the first-gen pods were about the size of a clementine, the SuperPods are more like a proper orange. The ones I got were a “Plum” purple finish, but you can get them in Walnut or Champagne finish, too. Their larger size makes them slightly more inconvenient for some power outlets, depending on what else you’re plugging in there, of course.

How the Plume SuperPods compare to the size of the first-generation pods.

How the Plume SuperPods compare to the size of the first-generation pods.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

The SuperPods are better than the first-generation pods in a few ways. You may have heard of dual-band WiFi, which is basically the standard now for most devices and makes for faster connections than single-band. SuperPods are tri-band, which allows for even better speed and increased range. Where the first-gen pods have one Ethernet port, the SuperPods have two, letting you easily connect wired-only gear.

The Plume SuperPods have two Ethernet ports, so connecting wired gear is easier.

The Plume SuperPods have two Ethernet ports, so connecting wired gear is easier.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

The Plume app makes setting up a network easy. One of the good things about having startups like Plume “disrupt” the WiFi space is that it’s turned the setup process into a friendly, mobile-first experience. The app walks you through the whole process, from plugging in your first pod, which connects to your modem, to connecting your gear.

My favorite part of the app has to be viewing the pods in my network on a cool diagram, which shows them as big white dots, and the devices connected to them as tiny circles orbiting those dots, almost like electrons. You can check on your network and its connectivity anytime, from anywhere.

My network with the original six pods.

My network with the original six pods.

My network with just the three SuperPods. The app "remembers" my first-gen pods, even after I disconnected them.

My network with just the three SuperPods. The app “remembers” my first-gen pods, even after I disconnected them.

Since I had a Plume network already, things were even easier. You can mix SuperPods with first-gen pods, just as long as the primary pod — the one that connects to your modem — is a SuperPod. Once I subbed that out, it was easy to add the other two SuperPods to my network.

The app lets you give every individual pod a name. You can have fun with this and name them after your favorite TV characters, food, or family members, but I was pretty unoriginal and just named them for the rooms they were in.

The Plume app makes setting up a network and adding pods easy.

The Plume app makes setting up a network and adding pods easy.

You can rename pods to whatever you want.

You can rename pods to whatever you want.

Even though I am an existing Plume user, I wanted to test the SuperPods as if I were a new customer, so after I named and placed my SuperPods in the right places, I unplugged all of my regular pods. I watched on the app’s network diagram as all the white dots representing my current pods disconnected from the new dots representing the SuperPods, and turned red.

I took a moment to think about what just happened. I had just completely changed the hardware of my network, yet the network itself was completely intact. All my devices now connected to the SuperPods, using the same login info, instead of the previous pods. My WiFi network had basically taken on a life of its own, independent of the hardware creating it.

Faster than a speeding data packet

Ontological issues aside,  I set about figuring out if it was worth the upgrade. The SuperPods promise greater range and speed than the previous-generation pods, meaning connection speed should be even greater in far-flung parts of your house.

With the three SuperPods fully active — one connected to my cable modem in my living room, one in my home office on the second floor, and one in my bedroom (also on the second floor) — I went to the furthest corner in my attic on the third floor to check the connection speed with Ookla’s Speedtest app. (Disclosure: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, Mashable’s parent company.)

To give a baseline, I tested the connection speed with a “regular” router, an Apple AirPort Extreme, which was my go-to router until I replaced it with the Plume pods earlier this year. My ISP promises 50Mbps upload and download speed on my plan, but in the attic, I didn’t get even close to that:

  • 2.00 Mbps download speed

  • 5.09 Mbps upload speed

  • 16-millisecond latency

With my six first-gen pods (including one in the third-floor attic, about 10 feet from the testing location), the results were much better, and I could actually get something close to the promised connection speed:

  • 45.9 Mbps download speed

  • 13.6 Mbps upload speed

  • 14-millisecond latency

I was doubtful the SuperPods be able to beat that, especially since I didn’t put a SuperPod on the third floor. But beat it they did, and I was kind of shocked to see the download speed was even faster than what my ISP was promising!

  • 57.1 Mbps download speed

  • 34.2 Mbps upload speed

  • 12-millisecond latency

So the Plume SuperPods are definitely an upgrade, even if you already have mesh WiFi. But that’s not the last word on whether you should get them.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a subscription?

Before you dive into getting a set of Plume pods, you should know that the company’s business model isn’t just about selling hardware; it sees WiFi as a service you subscribe to. And it makes a good case: In today’s world, where everyone is constantly connecting more and more devices to your network, with different needs and different levels of security, managing it all is becoming an arduous task.

You can choose to just buy the hardware and manage it yourself, and that’s been the default since home networks became a thing. But Plume and a few other companies are stepping up to essentially be your home’s CIO, managing a secure home network for you so you don’t have to.

Plume calls this “adaptive” WiFi. The service will continuously manage your network traffic, get to know the needs of individual pods in specific rooms to optimize your connections. It’ll also make sure those connections are secure, monitoring the behavior of devices for signs of hacking, malware, and the like.

You get three SuperPods in a standard $199 pack.

You get three SuperPods in a standard $199 pack.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

The bad news: It means yet another subscription fee. Plume charges $60 a year for its network management, with the first year free with purchase. You can also buy a lifetime membership for $200. (If you were already a Plume customer before the SuperPods launched in June, you get grandfathered into a free lifetime subscription.)

We’re all subscribing to services (Netflix, cloud storage, Office 365, etc.) that we weren’t before, but home WiFi? Even at $5 a month, that’s a tall order. And to be clear the SuperPods will still work if you don’t subscribe, you just don’t get the benefits of “membership,” which includes parental controls, the ability to create “guest passes” for your network (not the same as a guest network), speed testing, and 24/7 customer support.

If all that sounds like stuff a router should do anyway, then you should look at in terms of the “lifetime” subscription, which elevates the cost of a three-pack of SuperPods from $199 to $399. That’s pretty expensive, as routers go, but I would agree that I found the Plume experience — from the design to the app to the ultra-fast speed I got in my attic — to be a significant premium over a single, regular router.

Two other things to consider are security and privacy. It’s certainly true that the internet is a more dangerous place than it was a few years ago, and home networks, with all kinds of random gadgets connected to them, are potential breeding grounds for things like botnets. Maintaining security on those networks requires constant vigilance, and there’s a cost associated with that. A few companies, like BitDefender, make this the primary selling point of their subscription-based routers.

Then there’s the privacy question, which, in the wake of data scandals like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, is more relevant than ever. Since Plume’s business model is based on user subscriptions, it has no need to use customer data for marketing or advertising purposes, and the startup claims it has no intention of ever doing so.

In the end, though, the security, privacy, and simplicity that Plume promises are “intangibles,” which makes the subscription more akin to insurance. There are definite performance benefits to switching to a mesh router like Plume, but most won’t see the value of paying a monthly fee until something bad happens, like a nanny cam hack or a teenager gobbling up your network’s bandwidth with an intense Xbox session.

Want to end-run those unfortunate possibilities, while keeping your home WiFi simple, fast, and — let’s face it — kinda cool-looking? That’s the reason to get Plume, and after using it and liking it a lot, I’m not so sure it’s that bad a deal.

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