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Google’s OnHub Router Gets Rough Treatment in Early Reviews

Google announced its OnHub Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and smarthome router just a couple of weeks ago, and released units to a few reviewers for articles that just appeared. The news is not terrific. (Google says OnHub is available for pre-order, but it’s listed as “out of stock” at its own site, and Amazon offers no purchase options except for third-party sellers, who can’t possibly have units.)

While most reviewers praised the ease of setup, the consensus is that many of OnHub’s features aren’t fully baked or fully implemented. Firmware updates will clearly bring improvements, but some problems may be related to hardware implementation. (For more on its features, see my preview, “Google OnHub Router Aims to Simplify Wi-Fi for Everyone,” 19 August 2015.)

In particular:

  • Even though the OnHub is designed as a smarthome hub — supporting Google’s Weave, industry standards Thread and ZigBee (via 802.15.4), and Bluetooth Smart Ready — there’s no way to use those standards in the units that reviewers received.

  • The USB 3.0 port is used only for a hardware-based restore. It can’t yet be used for hard drive or printer sharing.

  • A touted interference-avoiding feature designed to reduce congestion didn’t work for some reviewers and performed inconsistently for others. This feature also may have a key flaw that no reviewers mentioned but I’ll explain below.

  • While the OnHub is a simultaneous dual-band router, there’s no provision to set the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz network names distinctly, as on gear from Apple and other makers. This can be useful for segregating high-throughput devices for video streaming (in 5 GHz) from other gear that just needs consistent and long-range access (in 2.4 GHz).

  • The OnHub can’t access some features — like seeing which devices are connected and changing its name — via the local network if there’s trouble with its Internet connection. Google loves its cloud, and functionality is compromised when the Internet goes down.

  • The way in which cables are plugged in bothered reviewers because there’s not much space inside the outer sleeve. The OnHub comes with low-profile cables, but regular cables may not work.

The reviewers who seemingly tested coverage and features the least had the best things to say about the OnHub; those who performed more complete tests were the least impressed.

Mixed Reviews Recommend Watch and Wait — The Wirecutter had the bluntest and most thorough review because the timing was right to put the OnHub through the testing developed for its wireless router buying guide update. (Disclosure: I did an edit of that update, but didn’t work on the OnHub review.)

In particular, The Wirecutter liked the ease of setup, and the capability to allow someone to configure it remotely, useful for getting a family member or technical friend’s help. They wrote about the OnHub:

This AC1900 [600 Mbps plus 1.3 Gbps] router is half as fast at long distance as routers half its price, and its current features are very limited compared to the competition — even compared to what Google advertises. Like Google’s Chromecast, there’s a lot of potential for Google to update the OnHub and pack it full of amazing features in the future. Wait to buy it then, if you must; don’t buy it now.

Other reviewers’ thoughts:

  • IDG’s Mike Brown was more measured. He, too, is in the middle of 802.11ac router reviews, and was able to benchmark the OnHub against similar routers in the same circumstances. Brown didn’t like Google’s automatic channel reassignment, which didn’t seem to work at all for The Wirecutter, and he thinks power users will find it maddening. Overall, however, he found even the initial OnHub a good choice for a user who doesn’t want to fiddle with settings.

  • Ars Technica frankly admitted it didn’t have a battery of routine tests set up, but the OnHub didn’t fare well in a less formal approach. “It was fast enough and seemed stable, but it couldn’t match the performance of a ‘real’ $200 router.”

  • The Verge had a more upbeat tone. The reviewer found that swapping the OnHub into an existing network with a comparable router resulted in better performance, and it did a good job of filling in dead zones.

  • The Wall Street Journal was very positive, saying “it blows the AirPort away,” but the reviewer doesn’t describe rigorous tests. Rather, he anecdotally noted that an older laptop worked much better with the OnHub than with his current AirPort Extreme.

Don’t Flip That Channel! — Now, my note about interference avoidance. What I didn’t realize from Google’s announcement was that the OnHub’s 13th antenna and software check for network or signal congestion, and then dynamically switch the OnHub to a new channel without rebooting. There’s a huge problem with this approach. The basic Wi-Fi spec doesn’t let a base station tell a client adapter to change channels.

There is a mechanism to do this that’s part of the 802.11h standard, which was adopted way back in 2004 to allow use of the middle part of the 5 GHz band. The standard incorporates a few ways to back off active usage if radar signals are detected, as the U.S. government uses some of that range in parts of the country. A compromise between the military and the FCC allowed the general public and businesses to overlap so long as there was a way for base stations to avoid interfering. (There’s a dispute about whether base stations at their low power level could even interfere, but the deal was settled years ago.)

One part of the standard — Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) — does allow an access point to tell a client to change channels, and coordinates how to time it. This standard is built into all standard Wi-Fi chipsets that are used for client hardware and access points. However, I can’t find any reference to whether DFS is used at all in 2.4 GHz or if it’s used in 5 GHz outside those special channels, numbered 52 to 64 and 100 to 140. Most consumer base stations don’t even offer access to those channels. Any operating system or Wi-Fi chipset that lacks this support for other channels would simply be disconnected. (Thanks to Andrew von Nagy for running down the details!)

In any case, all modern operating systems automatically reconnect to networks with the same network name if they’re unexpectedly disconnected. When the OnHub changes to a new channel, it first disconnects all currently connected devices and then fires up the new set of frequencies. Once that happens, Wi-Fi devices scan and reconnect to the network — or at least, they should.

It’s unclear what happens if you’re in the middle of streaming video, engaged in a download, or using other session-based Internet protocols when the base station does its channel switch. The OnHub allows address reservation, so DHCP-assigned network addresses don’t change when a device disconnects and reconnects, but without that in place, every device could suddenly have a new local address, which would break many “stateful” or persistent Internet connections.

If Google is smart, the OnHub should monitor network traffic, and the congestion switch would occur only during sustained severe degradation or when traffic was extremely light and didn’t include any streaming media. (It could also notify an authorized user when congestion was severe, and suggest this sort of change.) But who knows? It wasn’t tested thoroughly in any of the reviews I saw.

Interim Buying Advice — I haven’t gotten my hands on a review unit yet, so I can’t speak from experience. However, given the clear factual issues plus consistent details from other reviews, Google would need to sort out problems, update firmware, and enable the router’s special wireless and hardware features before I could recommend it instead of an Apple AirPort Extreme ($199 list; $180 at Amazon right now) or Time Capsule ($299/$399), or a less-expensive competing router, like the highly regarded (if ungainly) TP-Link Archer C7 ($139.99 list, $94 at Amazon now).

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