Routers! They’re the blobfish of gadgets; aggressively unattractive, and hidden well out of the way. That’s changing, though, thanks to a new generation of devices that don’t just make your Wi-Fi more reliable. They look good doing it.
Eero. Luma. Starry. Orbi. These aren’t household names, but they are household upgrades. Most surprising of all, they’re routers that feel more at home in Architectural Digest than they do deep under a desk. And they didn’t get that way simply because networking engineers had a fashion epiphany. The reason these routers look so good is a byproduct of a fundamental shift in how routers work.
The Dead Bug Approach
To understand why routers suddenly look better, you need to start with why they’re also performing better.
Think of the router you probably own. It’s probably a chunky black box of some sort, maybe with an antenna or five sprouting from its black plastic carcass. This is the design language routers have settled on for multiple decades.
“We call that the ‘dead bug’ approach,” says Joshua Terrell, product design engineer at Luma. “A lot of the design of traditional routers has been pushing more towards function over form. Placement was an afterthought.”
Compounding a routers’ design challenges is the fact that a whole lot of technology still needs to fit in these devices.
That’s not for laziness, but for how routers have typically been deployed. You hook one up to your modem, and pray to the connectivity gods that its signal can reach the farthest corners of your home. That those modems tended to be stuck in offices or behind entertainment centers meant that routers generally weren’t placed for optimal performance, but for the most part, they still got the job done. And since they were out of sight, they were free to look like a Sweded Blade Runner prop.
A fundamental shift in how we consume the Internet at home, though, has made that model inadequate for many. We use more than ever, but more importantly, we use it in more places than ever. A study this month from network-equipment provider Sandvine found that the average American household had over seven devices connected to the Internet on a given day. More than 25 percent of households had 10 or more connected devices under their roofs.
This is a lot of devices! And they’re not all just refreshing Twitter.
“The types of streams are changing pretty quickly,” says Netgear senior product manager Brandon McEntire, who helped oversee Orbi’s development. “Recently it’s been streaming Netflix, but it’s changing even from that.” Younger kids are streaming more YouTube than Netflix, says McEntire, adding to the network strain. Meanwhile, a new generation of cloud-leaning security cameras challenges the traditional router model on two fronts: They upload live video, meaning large chunks of traffic aren’t exclusively heading downstream anymore, and they’re placed on the periphery of a house, extending the range of where a house needs strong Wi-Fi.
Those are just two examples; you can probably think of a handful yourself. Maybe it’s the Echo you put in the guest room, or the connected toaster you immediately and rightly regretted buying. A single, tucked away router often can’t keep up anymore. But you know what can? Two routers. Or three. Or more.
You could just keep making that one router more and more powerful, but at a certain point that’s wasted energy. You can also use Wi-Fi range extenders, which are often frustrating and bad. The far more efficient way to resurrect Wi-Fi dead spots is to use a mesh network.
That’s what Eero, Orbi, and Luma are. (The Starry Station is a traditional router, but will also be compatible with Starry Internet, a new technology from the creator of Aereo that enters beta this fall. The Starry Station router also benefits from open placement). In a mesh network, multiple routers conspire together to deliver the strongest signal wherever it’s needed, rather than all of your Wi-Fi originating from a single hub. It’s a deceptively simple solution to a variety of nuisances.
“These new mesh network routers are seeking to address several key areas of concern for home networking infrastructure; namely performance, coverage, aesthetics, and security,” says Brad Russell, and analyst with Parks Associates.
But here’s the catch. (Well, other than the cost; these systems generally cost well into the hundreds of dollars). For a mesh network to be effective, at least one of the routers needs to sit out in the open in your home. And that’s just not going to happen if it looks like a giant plasticine cockroach.
“The home environment is really personal. You might be OK with a fairly ugly box at multiple points in your office, but you wouldn’t be OK with that in the home,” says Sean Harris, head of marketing at Eero. “It’s got to be something that blends in elegantly with the background.”
But not too much. And not in the same way everyone else’s does. A router that’s destined for your living room or kitchen can’t just look good; it has to fit in. Everywhere.
A Common Denominator
This new vanguard of attractive routers are maybe most appealing in how reserved they are. These are soft lines, clean colors, and unobtrusive builds. That’s also, well, by design.
Take Netgear’s Orbi. It looks like it could be a baby humidifier, a flattened vase, or the result of a very boring but proficient afternoon at the kiln. It’s nice, but not too nice. This is, after all, still a router.
“For the majority of the time you don’t want people to notice it too much. But you do want it be interesting enough that people will pick it up and buy it, or a friend will notice it,” says Netgear’s McEntire. “It’s a pretty fine balance.”
Luma and Eero wrestled with those same contradictions.
“If you want a really strong accent piece in a room in your house, you probably buy a piece of art, or have a really cool vase or something,” says Harris. Luma’s Terrell, meanwhile, stresses the importance of being “visually minimal but at the same time still appealing.”
Compounding the design challenges is the fact that a whole lot of technology still needs to fit in these devices. All those antennas you remember from your dead bug didn’t go away; they’re just hiding under a sleek plastic sheath.
“We’re bumping up against the limits of physics when you talk about the size of this thing,” says Netgear’s McEntire. “Antennas have to be spaced a certain distance apart for them to work well, and we’re at the minimum limits of that.”
Another problem facing these routers is heat. Namely, routers throw off a lot of it, meaning they need ample venting to help keep from frying components. Orbi opts to hide its vents, but Luma eventually opted to make them a focal point, by invoking (why not!) a legendary muscle car.
“We went through 20-plus different styles and designs of venting until finally settling on horizontal slats, which drew spiritual inspiration from the rear detailing of the iconic Ferrari Testarossa,” says Terrell.
Eero, meanwhile, had to overcome a related problem. Its units sit flat, making them awfully tempting to use as a coaster or to stack books atop. Those are both excellent ways to ruin your Wi-Fi signal. Rather than assume customers know that, though, Eero turned to design.
“We purposefully curved the top,” says Harris. “That gave us more space inside for the antenna architecture, and prevents people from putting anything on top of the device, so the signal’s not obstructed.”
Not everyone needs a mesh network. They’re expensive, and mostly pay off in homes that require coverage over many thousands of square feet. But even if you have no need for their Wi-Fi signal strength, at least be grateful that they’ve given our ugliest technology a serious makeover.
This article has been updated to reflect that Starry works as a traditional router, not just as part of the forthcoming Starry Internet service.