Nest Wi-Fi is a big improvement over Google Wi-Fi. But is it enough?

 Nest Wi-Fi is a big improvement over Google Wi-Fi. But is it enough?

Nest Wi-Fi’s strength is doing many things well, not doing one thing the best.

Google says its new Nest Wi-Fi isn’t just Google Wi-Fi plus a smart speaker—it’s new, improved, and with better coverage. This is good news—despite the impressive sales numbers Google says it has for the original Google Wi-Fi, the product never ranked very well in performance tests at Wirecutter, Smallnetbuilder, or here at Ars.

In fact, Google claimed that the new Nest Wi-Fi would cover “up to 3,800 square feet.” This raised our eyebrows immediately, since one square foot is very much not like another—my own 3,500-square-foot house is a particular bear to cover due to the downstairs floor having plenty of packed earth occluding the line-of-sight between that entire floor and the router, for example.

If you set up Wi-Fi systems in many houses, you’ll also soon discover that even without an occluded sub-basement floor, a house shaped like one long Viking hall is very different from a house with similar volume but arranged in a mostly rectangular or L-shape. And heaven help you once you get into turn-of-the-century chicken-wire-and-daub walls, or apartments with central elevator shafts, and so forth.

The good news is, a two-piece Google Wi-Fi system did cover even my challenging 3,500-square-foot house—an impressive achievement and a clear win over the original Google Wi-Fi.

Nest Wi-Fi is all new

It wasn’t clear from the launch announcements, but Nest Wi-Fi really is more than just Google Wi-Fi plus a smart speaker. The Nest Router is a 4×4 AC2200 access point and router, and the Nest Point is a 2×2 AC1200 access point. Each of the original Google Wi-Fi nodes was also an AC1200 2×2 access point, but Nest Wi-Fi points are updated with a newer and better wireless chipset, with additional RAM and a CPU nearly twice as fast as the original’s. Granted, a lot of that new CPU power and RAM is really there to power the Google Assistant—but also it comes in handy for general network use.

The original Google Wi-Fi really needed at least three nodes to adequately cover the test house, but Nest Wi-Fi managed it credibly with two. Google does still sell three-piece kits, as well as individual Points and Routers that can be added into existing networks, and we hope to update and retest with an additional Nest Point soon.

Although Nest Wi-Fi isn’t just Google Wi-Fi with a smart speaker, the Assistant is a big piece of Google’s sales pitch for the new kit. We don’t feel there’s much to say about it that hasn’t already been said about the other Google Home Assistant products, though.

If you own a Google Home smart speaker, the Assistant in Nest Wi-Fi is going to seem very familiar—in everything from overall sound to listening ability to some occasional bugginess. The smart speaker functionality isn’t in the Nest Router, though—only in the Nest Points. It’s loud without being overpowering, sounds decent without really wowing you (think “that cheap jam box you had in college and liked okay”), and it listens well and accurately from significant distance. It seems to have a hard time coping with hearing around physical obstructions, though.

For the most part, the speaker in our Nest Point worked as you’d expect—we set timers, asked it to tell us jokes, and other normal things. With the Point atop the ten-foot tall island in the living room, it pretty much refused to accept voice commands unless we performed a chin-up and spoke to it without the cabinet in the way. We don’t hold that against the device, though; while atop the island is the best place in my house for the second node in a two-node mesh kit, we don’t expect many people will have similar home layout issues.

Sometimes, though, the Assistant was just plain stubborn. When asked “Hey Google, play House of Pain,” our assistant said “Sure! Playing House of Pain on Google Play Music”—and then didn’t play anything. After five tries in a row, we tried “Hey Google, play ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain,” and that worked. After that, asking for just the band and not a particular song worked fine.

We don’t think this has anything to do with the Nest Point specifically, though, since sometimes the Google Assistant on Pixel phones gets similarly cranky.

Prepare for a long setup process

One of the drawbacks of bundling a Google Assistant with a mesh Wi-Fi kit is the sheer length of the setup process necessary to get both going at once. We were already familiar with the setup process for both Google Home and Google Wi-Fi but still ended up needing better than half an hour to get everything operational. We took thirty setup screenshots along the way—and deleted an awful lot more. There’s a lot of “next” and “okay” and deciding whether to accept multiple different kinds of telemetry to get through before you can start playing.

If you’re really, really excited about your new Nest Wi-Fi kit, this might be okay. For us, it produced significant “setup fatigue”—we feel this process could be streamlined substantially.

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