Google has thrown their hat in the router and smarthome ring at once with the introduction of their OnHub router, a router that promises to be the easiest and most hassle free router experience you’ve ever had with super easy setup, automatic security updates, smarthome integration, and more. Does it live up to that promise?
What is the Google OnHub?
The Google OnHub is Google’s first offering in the home router/home automation hub market (but it should be noted not their first smarthome equipment as they’ve previously purchased Nest and Dropcam). The device, manufactured to Google’s specs by the well established networking company TP-Link, is an unconventional looking router by traditional standards that sports a cylindrical body with no external antennas. Unlike many of the recent routers we’ve reviewed, such as the Netgear Nighthawk X6 or the D-Link DIR-890L, it doesn’t look like a cyborg beetle or a spaceship but instead like an understated speaker (and, in fact, everyone that saw it asked us if it was a new speaker).
Why a tall cylinder instead of a traditional box with bristling antennas? It’s not just a stylistic choice but a practical one given Google’s goals for the OnHub. The biggest selling point for the OnHub is that it is a dead simple and powerful router that you’ll place in a prominent location in the center of your home to maximize Wi-Fi coverage.
To that end not only is the OnHub designed to be pleasant enough to look at (your opinion might be different on that matter but we can all agree it looks more subtle sitting on a side table than a traditional LED-bedazzled router with antennas hanging off the back), but to blast out Wi-Fi in an omni-directional fashion thanks to the circular layout of the antennas, seen below in a product diagram, around the cylinder.
The device sports a 2.4Ghz 3×3 array and a 5GHz 3×3 array, as well as an auxiliary 2.4Ghz 1×1 array that exists solely for monitoring network congestion (more on that when we dig into the feature set).
In addition to Google’s push for easy setup and excellent Wi-Fi coverage, the OnHub also receives automatic security updates. At first glance this might not seem like a huge deal, but given the number of high profile router security issues we’ve seen lately (and how infrequently people take the time to manually update their routers) it’s a huge step in the right direction.
Before we dive into the actual setup process, let’s take a quick peek under the shroud surrounding the core of the router for a closer look at the physical ports. With the shroud removed for a closer look we can see the physical layout of the device is pretty spartan: one gigabit Ethernet input, one gigabit Ethernet output (for peripheral devices to connect to the router via Ethernet), one power port, and one USB port (which is available for use via future firmware but is currently disabled).
Speaking of currently disabled, in addition to the host of Wi-Fi radios on the device there are also two additional home automation-oriented radios: a Bluetooth radio and a ZigBee/Thread radio. Both will be, presumably, activated in future firmware iterations to unlock home automation connectivity. Other indicators that Google is positioning itself to have a combination router/home automation hub is the present of an ambient light sensor in the device as well as a 3 watt speaker. Curiously, the device lacks an on-board microphone (ala the Amazon Echo); although we’d prefer it as is, sans microphone, when we first heard Google’s announcements on the matter we assumed it would have on in order to accept voice commands.
The OnHub comes in jet black or a deep navy blue (we’ll admit we didn’t realize we had the deep blue one and not the black one until we scrutinized it closely) and retails for $199; good luck getting your hands on one at the time of this publication, however, as they are sold out practically everywhere.
Setting It Up
Setting up the Google OnHub is easy peasy once you get over one big hurdle. Don’t worry, it’s not a real hurdle that prevents you from getting right down to setting up the router, it’s a mental one. Are you ready for this? You don’t use your web browser. Seriously, after years of setting up our networking gear with a web-based portal (the old http://192.168.0.1 routine) Google mixes it all up and takes that away from us.
You don’t use a browser-accessed configuration portal on the router to set it up, you download a smartphone app for your iOS or Android device. While we fully realize the probability of somebody going out and buying Google’s new premium router and not having an iOS or Android device of some sort is most likely zero the design choice still doesn’t sit well with us. There’s really no good reason why the device couldn’t have the snazzy smartphone app and a fallback router interface you could access via local computer on the network. Supposedly future updates will include a web-based interface, but given that every other router on the market from bargain basement brands to premium routers all have this simple feature we were pretty surprised to see it missing from the OnHub.
That said the router setup was a total breeze once we got over the geek-shock of the missing web interface. To set up the OnHub you simply download Google On (iOS/Android) from the appropriate app store, install it, launch it, and follow the simple steps.
You select the Google account you wish to manage the application with, a simple tutorial guides you through the physical setup (plug everything in, place it in a central location, etc.), and then you’re shown how to connect, wirelessly, to the device to complete the configuration. If you’ve done any smarthome setup you’re likely familiar with the routine: you connect your phone directly to the device (which is setup in a Wi-Fi ad-hoc mode for the initial setup), configure it to your liking, and then restart it.
Power users will find the whole configure-it-to-your-liking bit to be rather Spartan. The big angle Google is going for with the OnHub is powerful Wi-Fi coverage with dead-simple user interactions. As such the sum of your entire customization process is picking an SSID name, setting a password, and, once you restart it with the new networking info, possibly making a few tweaks if you need it (like static IP assignments and port forwarding).
If you’re used to mucking about the depths of a complex router control panel (or the even murkier depths of a router flashed with DD-WRT or other third-party firmwares) the whole experience feels so incredibly simple and frictionless. There are few options to toggle, everything is straight forward, and you’re done in two minutes or so. The price you pay for the frictionless experience, however, is a router devoid of all the advanced features that take time to set up.
Test Driving the Specialty Features
We review a fair number of routers here at How-To Geek, and we typically spend the “Specialty Features” section outlining and digging into the, well, specialty features like print servers, attached storage, parental controls, and so on.
In this regard, our review of the OnHub is going to break a bit from tradition in a few different ways. First, there aren’t any traditional specialty features to speak of on the OnHub. There’s no parental controls page, there’s no USB support yet (even though the port is on there) so we won’t be walking you through how to attach a network drive or a printer, and the home networking component (controlled by the Zigbee/Thread radios) is, at present, disabled. Second, the best features of the OnHub are invisible to the user as they are designed to be automated and friction free. We can tell you all about those features but there’s really no way for you, the end user, to access them or see them in action.
Regardless, let’s dig into the features of the OnHub, starting with the few features that are actually very tangible to the user and interactive.
Built-In Speed Testing
This was, by far, our favorite feature of the OnHub. It has a built in speed test that’s remarkably useful. Not only does the speed test perform the basic function you would expect of any speed test (it measures your upload and download speed) it also measures signal strength and your physical relationship to the router.
So not only do you get an upload/download readout, you get a readout for the strength of the Wi-Fi signal and a little explainer indicating why your speeds are good (or bad). It’s a feature that made us go “Huh. That’s useful. Why isn’t this included in modern router interfaces?” We’d love to see this feature built into the software of other routes: on-router speed testing with Wi-Fi strength feedback if the test is conducted via a Wi-Fi device.
Simple Credential Sharing
Another handy feature is a built-in system for sharing your Wi-Fi credentials. Whether your friend is right there beside you or they’re coming in a week to house sit (and you want to send them the credentials in advance) it’s extremely easy to share those credentials with them via any sharing method your phone supports (AirDrop, email, text messaging, etc.)
The router even features, seen center panel above, a simple way to show them the router password so they can copy it off your phone screen. It’s a simple thing, to be sure, but it is just one element of the whole frictionless-user-experience Google is going for and we appreciate the effort.
Nearly every router supports remote access, that’s a given. What makes remote access different on the OnHub is that the remote access is authorized through a login at the external IP/router level (like traditional routers) but through a Google account and the OnHub app. Whether you’re away from your own home or you’ve said up the OnHub for a relative, you can always fire up the OnHub app, the same one you used to set everything up, and control the router.
You might not be able to control much (the OnHub is still pretty light on features) but the remote access experience is butter smooth and easy to use.
Simple Indicator Light
Maybe you like the indicator lights on your router to look like the control bank for a shuttle launch but most people don’t. The OnHub eschews the bright-blinky-blink-blink bank of lights found on most routers for a simple and understated light ring located around the top of the router. Everything cool? The ring is a solid blue/green. Network problems? It blinks slowly in a shade of orange.
Given how rarely (if ever) we actually study the complex router lights for any kind of feedback it’s nice to see a push toward this kind of easy to digest ambient information. From across a room you can easily see if the router is happy and humming along or malfunctioning.
Further, you can adjust the brightness of the indicator ring from within the control application so that it’s just bright enough to alert you without being a nuisance.
Automatic Channel Adjustment
Now we’re getting into the invisible-to-the-user territory. One of the primary reasons people get poor Wi-Fi performance on the 2.4Ghz band is because of channel interference. The channels, or sub-divisions, of the portion of the 2.4Ghz band allocated for Wi-Fi and other radio communication, usually overlap each other and as such if you’re running your router on a channel close to the channel your neighbor is using then it can decrease the effectiveness of your Wi-Fi network. Add in a couple more neighbors (if you live in a tightly spaced apartment) and you’ve got a recipe for slow cruddy wireless Internet.
Remember that extra 2.4GHz Wi-Fi antenna we mentioned earlier in the review? The OnHub has a 3×3 array of 2.4GHz antennas for actual data transmission but it has an extra 2.4GHz antenna whose sole purpose is for testing and diagnostics. That extra antenna checks out what is going on with your local 2.4GHz spectrum and automatically switches the OnHub between channels with no input from the user.
This dedicated antenna coupled with automatic detection and shifting is an enormous step up from manually checking and changing the channels (and still a big step up from the “auto” function found on some routers that lack a dedicated antenna).
While we were at first a tad dubious about the utility of the function, after we tested it out, turned on a bunch of old routers nearby to try and throw it for a loop, and monitored the whole process we have to admit it is really smooth and completely automatic.
Speaking of automatic updates, the biggest selling point for the OnHub (simple user interface aside) is automatic updates. Google’s big pitch is a well founded one: most router companies do a poor job keeping their routers up to date with security holes patched and, further compounding the problem, most people never update their routers in the first place. There are millions of people around the world running 5+ year old routers with 5+ year old firmware. That’s a problem.
Google’s solution is for the OnHub to receive frequent and automatic security updates in the background that don’t require user input, don’t wipe your settings and force you to reconfigure anything, and function largely in the same seamless and nobody-really-notices-it way updates happen on platforms like iOS.
Although the router is so new we haven’t had a chance to test out (or, more accurately, observe) the update process, Google claims the update process is so smooth that it won’t even disrupt connectivity during the update and, as such, you shouldn’t even notice it happening. We’ll see about that. Fingers crossed that it’s really that smooth.
Performance and Benchmarks
Performance in the router world has become something of an arms race. At this point every router we review is more than adequate for our needs, completely covers our house with wall-to-wall Wi-Fi, and outside of actually running strict performance benchmarks we truly don’t notice a difference. In fact, dare we say, benchmarking has become kind of boring. Who cares if one car can max out at 220MPH and another can max out at 225MPH when everyone is just driving around at 45MPH picking their kids up from school?
To that end we, dutifully, ran benchmark tests on the OnHub and compared them to past router reviews like the recent D-Link flagship router the DIR-890L. Did it beat the super premium routers in a toe-to-toe showdown? No, not it did not. In fact in some categories it couldn’t even compete (because it has no network-attached storage functionality at the moment, for example, to test router-to-client speeds). The real question is, does it matter? No, no it does not. We’re reaching a point in the router arms race where, aside from serious duds and screw-ups in the design and manufacturing process, routers are beefier than ever and really exceeding the needs of the average consumer the way super powered street-legal sports cars really exceed the needs of the average commuter.
The OnHub is fast. With the hub centrally placed in our test home we were able to completely max our broadband connection in 80% of the house, almost max it out in the remaining 20% of the house, and even get a Wi-Fi signal in places we don’t even need a Wi-Fi signal (like the middle of the street almost a whole block away from our house).
The OnHub might lack for power user features like multiple USB 3.0 ports (or even a USB 3.0 port that’s enabled for that matter) but it’s plenty fast and the radial design with the multiple internal antennas really blasts the signal out.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After setting up, bench marking, and then using the OnHub as a daily driver router, what do we have to say about it? Let’s break it down.
- It’s really good looking. Google wants you to put it out in the open and you likely won’t mind putting it out in the open.
- Wi-Fi coverage and speed is excellent. You’ll saturate your broadband connection before you even come close to making the OnHub break a sweat.
- The built-in speed test/Wi-Fi signal strength checker is great.
- Overall, despite our reservations about the simplicity of it, the app-based interface is super simple to use.
- Credential sharing and remote access is very user-friendly.
- Sure you might want to put it out in the open, but if you’re like us then all your network gear isn’t sitting out in the living room (which means moving everything or running extra cables).
- “Power user” settings are missing; setting static IP addresses and port forwards are limited and advanced features are nonexistent.
- Too many features are disabled (or missing) at the moment: home automation radios but no support, USB port but no support, web portal for router missing (but promised in the future).
- Single Ethernet port means you’ll need additional networking hardware if you want multiple physical connections.
- It’s as expensive as current gen premium routers without all the premium features.
It’s difficult to write a verdict on the OnHub because it feels as if we’re writing a verdict on a half-actualized product. Google’s big thing is that the OnHub is a smart router with plenty of onboard storage and onboard gear that will be activated in the future so that the router grows with the technology. The reality, however, is that the inactive features in the OnHub are needed now. The USB port isn’t the technology of the future, it’s the technology of yesterday and people expect it now. The home automation stuff? That’s the technology of right now and it baffles us why Google didn’t release a product with cutting edge home automation integration ready to rock. What are they waiting for? They already own Nest, they already bought Dropcam, they’re already clearly building a home automation ecosystem (albeit piece by piece). Why on earth wouldn’t they roll out their home router in a fully-baked state with all these features ready to go? We don’t want home automation features in a future update or in OnHub 2.0 sometime next year; we want them today.
Now, perhaps you might think it is unfair we drive so hard on that particularly point, but it is a fair criticism. If you’re just buying a plain old router then the OnHub is not worth $200. It’s a good router. It’s extremely user friendly. In fact, if all you want for yourself (or a family member) is a very powerful but dead-simple router it might even be the best value on the market right now in terms of a power-to-simplicity balance. But if all you want is a router then $200 will get you more router for your buck with more features.
So our verdict is thus: if you want the router with the easiest to use interface on the market and one that handles automatic channel selection and security updates like a champ, go ahead and get the OnHub. You’ll get exactly what you want: a no maintenance but beefy router. If you’re interested in the OnHub because it integrates network routing with home automation, don’t get it (yet). Sit back. Wait awhile. See what the future updates or a totally new OnHub 2.0 brings. We have a feeling when it all gets ironed out it’ll be pretty great, but at the moment we’re more than a little disappointed that Google shipped a router packed with so many features left unrealized.
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