Photo: Patrick Lucas Austin (Gizmodo)
I've always had a frustrating relationship with the Internet thanks to where I lived. Long hallways or brick walls were in the way of a strong connection, requiring me to get inventive with Ethernet cables, antenna extenders, and SSID names. Mesh networks, which use multiple routers working in tandem to eradicate dead spots, have largely solved those internet issues, though they also cost more than traditional routers. While we always encourage people to spend as much as they can afford on a router (you use it every day!), the additional cost of a mesh network can be a tough pill to swallow. To make its high-end mesh network setup more affordable, Plume is trying a different sales model: It's using a good ol' fashioned subscription service. I should hate it on principle, and yet... I kind of love it.
Editor's Note: this is currently only available in the United State and the website says they don't ship to freight forwarders. But they do apparently intend to sell to our little corner of the world in the future.
Modern routers do more than connect you to the Internet. They come with apps, include device management, and offer other helpful features depending on what you do with your devices (or your kids' devices). Plume ties these features to a paid membership program, one that also includes significant hardware discounts and a rolling warranty, making its upfront costs much easier to stomach compared to its competitors.
Because it's competitors are expensive! Mesh networks might blanket your entire home in wi-fi, but they don't do it cheaply. Eero's home wi-fi system costs $US400 upfront. Netgear and its Orbi mesh system starts around $US270 ($365), and that's for a three-pack of its previous-generation RBK23 model. Linksys has even pricier options, while Google Wi-fi, the search giant's mesh router system, is about $US290 for a three-pack.
Plume costs just $US40 up front for a 1 to 2 bedroom set up, which includes one beefy tri-band pod and two dual-band ones (more on what that means in a moment). From there it's $US60 a year for the subscription, or $US200 for a lifetime subscription. With the yearly subscription it would take you four years to reach the same price as most other mesh networks demand upfront.
That seems like a deal! But the subscription also includes a number of features the other mesh routers have for free. If you want to use the accompanying Plume app or parent controls you'll need to subscribe.
And in case you're thinking you can spend $US40 for the 3-router setup and just ignore all the potential benefits of the subscription — you can't. The first year's subscription is required, which means no matter what you'll need to spend at least $US100 on the system. Yet that's still a cheaper entry point than any other mesh network and it makes fast internet more of an impulse buy than an investment, something I can definitely get behind, and something everyone should experience. Bad routers suck, so having more good options to choose from that won't empty your wallet is always a nice thing!
Photo: Patrick Lucas Austin (Gizmodo)
And once you get past all the messy and kind of confusing subscription stuff you're left with an actually dang fine router. The Plume Pods and SuperPods are wall-wart style mesh routers that plug directly into your outlet. They fit in the palm of your hand, come in a few different muted colours, and look like the product of some industrial design firm with an indecipherable home page.
Setup is easy as pie. Plug in your Plume Pod, connect it to your modem via Ethernet cable, launch the app, and follow the instructions. After the initial setup, you can plug in the rest of the routers, follow the instructions (which require you put your smartphone in front of the newly connected router), and boom, you've got internet.
Plume's SuperPod is a tri-band router, which means it has a third 5GHz radio (in addition to its dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios) intended for better coverage. And boy, is it a great connection. My Internet speed tests using Plume's app were in line with the numbers I got using the Google Wifi mesh network and app, but my speed tests were consistent everywhere.
Google Wifi (left) and Plume (right) offered pretty equivalent network speeds, with each slowing slightly when connected to the mesh router furthest from the primary one.Screenshot: Patrick Lucas Austin (Gizmodo)
In-depth testing from Ars Technica also shows Plume doing quite well when it comes to throughput and handling internal network traffic, meaning streams from your Netflix (or your Plex server) should have no trouble dealing with someone making some Skype calls at the same time.
There's a downside to buying a router that went to art school, however. If you're familiar with wall-wart adapters like the one that came with your Nintendo Switch (or your dad's Casio keyboard), you'll know how annoying they are to add to your existing outlet setup. The Plume SuperPod's novel shape and size make it a headache when you have anything besides a standard two-port outlet. With two three- and four-port outlets in my apartment, one SuperPod essentially requires two outlets. Even with the standard two-outlet setup, the SuperPod makes it impossible to fit any of my smart outlet plugs, forcing me to find either a new outlet for my smart plug or a less ideal location for the SuperPod.
Power outlets are also usually located near your floor, next to large pieces of furniture like bookshelves, televisions, and couches. With no way to move them around, your location choices are effectively limited to your home's blueprint. Sure, you can plug the routers into something like an extension cord or power strip in a pinch, but it messes with the aesthetic, and makes it a little fussier to set up.
Plume's app looks great, and makes it pretty easy to see how much data your devices are eating at any given point.Screenshot: Patrick Lucas Austin (Gizmodo)
Plume's app lets you quickly see the topology of your network, determine which devices are connected to which Plume router, and how much data they have been gobbling up. Parental controls let you cut the connection to whatever device your precious little angel is using whether they like it or not. Device management lets you set schedules, ban devices, and quarantine your nerdy brother's laptop on a guest network, complete with a totally different password, whenever he comes over. These are great features, but nearly every other router, mesh or otherwise, has these features standard. Hiding them behind a subscription is irritating, and means you'll need to pony up $US60 a year if you want to make changes to your system or easily diagnose network problems.
So is Plume worth a $US60 a year subscription? For a lot of people I'm inclined to say yes. These things are fast, affordable, and cute. Not everyone's got $US300 to drop on a new Internet setup that will let them properly enjoy the other subscription services slowly leeching cash out their bank accounts. $US100 now gets you an excellent mesh network, and allows you to put off paying more for a whole other year. Honestly, that might be the smartest way to get people on board with mesh network routers. If you've been reluctant to invest in better wi-fi, Plume has created a reasonably priced point of entry. Yeah it's another dumb subscription, but it's not all up front.
Plume's SuperPods need more than a pixel-sized LED to indicate its status at a glance. Photo: Patrick Lucas Austin (Gizmodo)
- Fast as hell.
- Mesh network routers with a subscription plan that doesn't hold your Internet hostage.
- Connectivity is great.
- Big, beautiful wall-wart design looks pretty, but lacks adaptability.
- Plume app is nice, but the lack of desktop management is a travesty.
- Discounted hardware is nice, as long as you don't mind annual subscription fees.
- It's real hard to beat a $US100 mesh network.