Are you sick of unplugging and plugging back in the box your internet service provider gave you? For users whom a solid Wi-Fi/internet connection is important, or a challenge — telecommuters, owners of larger homes, people who have a growing number of devices AKA nearly everyone — a Ubiquiti UniFi system can be a high-performance alternative to a mesh system. Tons of power, speed, reliability, and customizability are yours, with the drawback of a much more difficult installation process (compared to a mesh system) and an intimidating level of control that might be more built for a professional sysadmin.
When our long-serving Apple Airport Extreme started to show signs of dying out, and my partner started to look at a new job that would involve a lot of tele-commuting, I recalled Ars Technica’s well-titled article “Ubiquiti UniFi made me realize how terrible consumer Wi-Fi gear is”. The Extreme put out pretty good speeds, but range could be an issue, and optimal placement meant cables were strung across the floor for an unsightly mess.
Our home is a detached three-level split with about 1600 sq. ft of floor space, including the basement. We have around 30+ network clients (man, they add up) between the two of us, including two Nest Outdoor cams monitoring the back and side of the home, as well as an August Doorbell Cam and lock, all of which have struggled on the periphery of the Extreme’s coverage. We also have a few devices I prefer to be wired in with Ethernet, like our entertainment centre Mac Mini and our 4K TV for that crystal-clear, high-bandwidth picture.
Why the UniFi system? The Ars article does a good job explaining some reasons, but for us, the reasons included:
- # of devices — most consumer routers are only good for up to 50 devices, which, in our increasingly Internet-of-Things-pervaded world, add up fast
- Reliability — if someone’s job is going to rely on rock-solid internet, it’s worth the extra outlay
- Power — We don’t want any dead spots on the property, and we want good speeds
- Future-proofing — the ability to add more access points and switch out modules as technology improved
- Advantages over mesh — Anyone who has a little networking knowledge will tell you that wired>wireless, full stop. It’s faster and it’s more reliable; it’s just a pain to set up. Mesh systems have come a long way, but when a 3-pack Orbi system costs nearly what we paid for this and isn’t going to provide as good an experience, if you’re willing to deal with the setup, this will work better
I’m not a networking professional, but I am that nephew that everyone asks for help with their iPhones during family gatherings, so I felt that with some help from Google, I could figure the system out. Ubiquiti’s community forums are also an invaluable resource. As it turns out, while this isn’t a system you can buy at Best Buy, it’s more user-friendly than you would think.
Considering all that, and after doing some research, we acquired a UniFi Security Gateway for routing duties; a UniFi Switch 8–150W (8 for number of ports, 150W model puts out 150W of combined power, to all 8 ports); two access points, a UniFi AC AP Pro for primary Wi-Fi duty, and a UniFi AC In-Wall for a super clean way to fill the front of the home with Wi-Fi and supply the entertainment centre switch with a wired connection; and finally, a UniFi Cloud Key for controlling the system.
The most difficult part of the installation is the physical running of cable and locating your APs. If you have the opportunity to get this installed as part of a new home build/renovation, I envy you! It will be a million times easier to do an install and future-proof when there’s no drywall in the way, but I didn’t have this luxury. Look at this great write-up of such an install from Troy Hunt if this is your case.
The first step was planning — we had to decide on final AP placement, and where to put all the routing/switching gear, and the internet service provider’s modem. The coax cable for our modem runs through our basement laundry room, adjecent to the wall beside our entertainment centre, thankfully already featuring a utility box for the coax connection, easily substitutable with the In-Wall AP (Note: In-Wall units do need a utility box to mount). We initially thought we’d ceiling mount the Pro AP in our upstairs area, but I took one look in the attic and the layer of spray insulation, and decided that’d be was more trouble that it would be worth. We decided to wall-mount, which would require drilling through some baseboards and running an ethernet cable between the studs behind the drywall. One big setup plus; the APs pull Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) from the UniFi switch, so we didn’t have to worry about providing power to them, but they do include power injectors that plug into the wall, for people who don’t use a PoE switch like the 8–150W. Ubiquiti makes PoE camera setups too, which we might consider replacing our Nest Cams with in the future.
Locations chosen, I did some rough measuring, added a little insurance to my numbers, and ordered Cat6a (for future-proofing) ethernet cables and a new surge protector from Primecables (Canadian Monoprice, basically). If you’re doing more runs or longer runs than I (my longest cable was a 50ft), you might buy the cable in bulk and crimp RJ45 connectors after you run it, but that looked like a pain, so I went and ordered a 3/4in drill bit too (big enough hole to fit a RJ45 plug). I also went to Home Depot and was given a scrap piece of plywood to mount on the wall of my laundry room, to wall mount all the gear (thanks Home Depot guy!).
A quick note on ethernet cable: there are a number of different specifications of cable available, which are generally interoperable. The most common is CAT5e, which most homes run with ethernet cable will feature, and will get the job done! If you have existing wiring in your home, retrofitting any ethernet wall plates in your home with In-Wall APs would be relatively easy, and you’ll get gigabit speeds from the existing CAT5e cabling. I chose CAT6a cabling for my setup. It’s theoretically capable of 10 gigabit speed, and while that sounds crazy fast, it wasn’t that long ago where 100 megabit connections were cutting-edge. The drawback is the cables themselves are thicker and less flexible, making them tougher to run.
A few days later, supplies in hand, I started with the easy part. The USG and the switch both came with wall-mounting hardware, so it was fairly simple to get everything put together. Again, planning was key, as I only got 1ft Cat6a cables to go between the modem-USG-switch, and 6a is much thicker and less bendy than I realized, so I had to play around with the placement, following the Quick Start guides in the boxes for where things needed to be plugged in. The modem didn’t have any provisions for wall mounting, so I had to get creative with zip-ties. Next, I took the coax wall-panel off of the utility box I’m using for the In-Wall AP, installed the In-Wall, and ran a 10ft cable to the switch. I ran a 15ft cable from directly above the laundry room upstairs to our home office switch, around a furnace duct, making it easy (if not necessarily super clean).
The hard part was running cable from where we wanted to put the Pro AP to the switch. After measuring and re-measuring at least half-a-dozen times, I was pretty sure I’d figured out where to drill from the basement into the space between the studs on the upper floor. With trepidation, I took the unnervingly large drill bit and went for it. Following the AP’s quick start guide, I installed the wall mount and drilled the hole for the cable, started running the cable down from there, ran downstairs to look through the hole, and… salvation!
There it was. The problem then was getting the electrical-taped head of the cable through the hole, which is where the logic of using cables without big RJ45 plugs pre-installed became apparent. I ended up expanding the hole in the floor big enough to bend the cable through, and with some persistence, a bent-up wire hanger, and my surgical finger-work (*cough*) finally ran the cable between the rafters to the laundry room, and plugged it into the switch. I then had a beer, mounted the AP to the mount plate (simple), and hit the switch on the surge protector to turn everything on.
Let’s first examine the UniFi Controller.
The UniFi Controller is how you set up and monitor the entire system. The insight and control is part of what sets something like UniFi gear apart from consumer gear; there isn’t much in your local Best Buy that comes close to this level. I’ll get into that later, but I’ve got to first get into the Cloud Key and how you set things up.
First mistake I made was not setting up the Cloud Key first. If you didn’t buy the Cloud Key, you’ll use the UniFi Controller software that you downloaded to do the setup (which I did), which will run the controller from your Mac or PC. In my research, everyone seemed to suggest the Cloud Key was a really good idea, but I never fully understood why. What I figured out afterwards was the Cloud Key is basically a mini-computer running the Controller on its own. You can run the Controller on your own computer, or a server, but if your computer is turned off, or if you turn off the controller software, it won’t be monitoring anything, and you won’t get to keep any of the insights and data the system generates or access the system settings. The Cloud Key is always running the controller, always keeping track of everything, and allows you to access the controller from any computer, and also through the UniFi app through the cloud from anywhere! Really, really cool. So, after some googling, I figured out how to back up the setup I’d already done in the regular controller app, reset it, and use the Cloud Key instead.
In any case, once you’ve set up the controller through a wired connection to the switch, which will create your wireless network name and password, you can then Adopt (basically, turn on, also called provisioning) all your UniFi items in the controller to activate them. You’ll also want to update the firmware (called “Upgrading” in the controller software) on everything. And then… well, I was pretty much good to go! It was way more painless than I’d anticipated. I kept the same SSID and password as my old network, so I didn’t have to re-setup any of my devices.
First, the results. Coverage is predictably excellent, with our cameras connecting nearly instantaneously and more consistent 5Ghz connections for most of our devices. It’s only been a couple weeks, but the system has been absolutely bullet-proof, which you’d expect for a system you might run in an arena. Everyday-functionality wise, it is damn near perfect.
For the control-freaks out there, this is where it gets really cool. Through the Controller software, you can get very granular. Some examples:
There is so much to the UniFi Controller that it’s a little bit intimidating, and without knowing what the heck 85% of what you can play around with even is, I sometimes wonder if I got a little out of my depth here. That being said, I got everything to do what I needed them to do without too much trouble, so I suppose all the extra options are superfluous for a lot of home setups. There are arenas, schools, libraries, and office towers using this same gear, so it makes sense that these options are there.
I’m definitely going to continue to play around with the setup, but at this point, I think we’ve gotten to the part where the system just hums along, doing exactly what we need it to do in the background, not really causing any problems. At the end of the day, that’s what the best Wi-Fi setups are going to do, and I can say that this is definitely doing that.
If you do end up doing a home setup like this, I hope my experience will give you an idea of what to expect when you do your install. If you have any questions, please leave a comment.
If you’re looking for a way to improve the connectivity in your home, and you’re willing to put in the effort in the setup, this will blow you away with how solid and powerful it is, and you can make the coverage as great as you’d like.
- Great coverage
- Super reliable
- Can hide away the ugly bits
- Customizable as heck
- It’s definitely a little more expensive up-front than most solutions
- You’ll need a central place to locate all your devices, like a utility room, where you can locate your modem
- You’ll probably need to run some cable, which always sucks
- Could be intimidatingly complex for the non-tech-savvy