Editor’s Note: We have supplemented this review with additional testing at the request of Plume. The additional tests did not differ significantly from our first results, and have not changed our conclusion.
It’s no surprise that wireless technology keeps moving forward in terms of sheer performance. Today’s fastest routers are engineered to support ever-increasing numbers of connected devices. It’s no longer the case that you worry about making sure your notebook can connect to the internet at a couple of megabits per second. Now it’s notebooks, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, streaming media devices like Fire TV and Chromecast, webcams, gaming consoles, and more.
That’s where the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solution comes into play. The company has created a new kind of networking that competes with “mesh network” solutions to replace the single monolithic router with smaller devices that are scattered around a home.
Plume is a bit different, though, in that it doesn’t simply seek to repeat a network and provide wider coverage for a larger home. Instead, Plume aims to actively shape the network and adapt to its unique characteristics. A variety of network data is constantly uploaded to the Plume cloud, where it’s analyzed for physical location, traffic patterns, and interference from neighboring networks. Over time, the “Adaptive Wi-Fi” kicks in, as Plume applies its algorithms and theoretically improves performance.
But does the theory work out in practice? Let’s find out.
They’re cute and oh-so-simple
Plume calls its little mesh router components “Pods,” and that’s a good name for these intelligent plug-in devices. They’re attractive, and comparing them to contemporary routers evokes words like “tiny” and “cute.” Pods are available in champagne, silver, and onyx, allowing them to fit in with a variety of decors.
Setting up the Plume could hardly be easier.
That’s a good thing, because Pods aren’t meant to be hidden in a wiring closet. Instead, they plug straight into a wall outlet, and in fact are designed so that they don’t take up both plugs. They’re otherwise simple, with each possessing a single Ethernet port. The Pods also have a single tiny LED on the front that indicates initial power and connectivity, so there’s no bright lights to be distracting in a bedroom or living room.
On the other hand, that also means there’s no persistent external indication that a Pod is turned on and active. You’ll rely instead on the Plume app to check on a given Pod’s status. If you’re used to checking your router’s lights for a quick idea of how it’s performing, then this lack of visual feedback might be disconcerting.
Setup is easy, until it’s not
Setting up the Plume infrastructure is a simple matter of resetting your modem, plugging one Pod into it via Ethernet cable, and then plugging the Pod into a power outlet. Basically, Plume recommends that you purchase a Pod for each room in your house that requires a Wi-Fi connection, and so eventually you’ll walk around your house and plug in each remote Pod.
Fire up the Plume app on your iPhone or Android device, and then run through the setup routine.
One huge caveat is that you’ll need an internet connection to create or log into your Plume account and throughout the setup — meaning the easiest way is to use a smartphone with an active cellular data connection, because you won’t have Wi-Fi internet until setup is complete.
Once the first Plume Pod is connected to the internet, then you’ll be prompted to add it to your smartphone Wi-Fi configuration. Once that’s done, you’ll proceed to connect the rest of your Pods. It’s incredibly simple. You just plug in your Pods in the desired location, and the app tells you when each Pod is recognized and connected. Continue until all Pods are connected.
That’s the process for the simplest of setup options, however, which assumes you’re connecting your Plume directly to a cable or DSL modem. If you have a more complex infrastructure, such as using an existing wireless router that has wired Ethernet devices connected to it, then the process is a bit more complicated. In that case, you’ll turn off the router’s Wi-Fi connection, reboot the modem, and plug the first Plume Pod into an Ethernet port.
Then, you’ll need to go into the Plume app’s Advanced Settings menu and switch from “Router Only” to “Auto.” Once the Plumes reset, then your existing router will take over and provide all network services.
Or that’s the theory. In practice the process required numerous resets of the existing router, modem, and Plume Pod. The iPhone app used for the setup is also in beta, and it crashed numerous times during the installation. By some combination of luck and trial-by-error, we got the network up and running.
Connecting existing wireless clients to the Plume network was a simple as selecting the network name that was configured during setup and entering the password. To clients, the Plume network looks like any other Wi-Fi network, and we didn’t have any problems connecting any of our devices. You can also send an email or text message to users with the network information.
Note that if you have enough Plume Pods to support your wired devices, then you can forego your router entirely and connect them via the Ethernet ports on remote Pods. In that case, you would keep the app setting at “Router Only” and the Plume network will provide all required network services.
Simple configuration means few deeper options
If you’re used to going into your wireless router’s configuration panel and poking at a bunch of configuration options, then you’ll be disappointed with the Plume network. Simply put, other than the option of telling the Plume devices how to connect as described above, there’s no configurations to speak of. You can change the name of the network, update the password, and rename or remove remote Pods, but that’s it.
That’s probably fine for anyone who’s not technical by nature. In fact, configuring wireless routers can be a pain, and most people don’t want to deal with things like adaptive quality of service (QoS), channel bandwidth, encryption settings, MAC filters, and all the other myriad router options. Instead, most people would likely prefer exactly what Plume provides — a simple set-it-and-forget-it concept where the network just takes care of itself.
In this respect, it succeeds. The question then becomes, does Plume’s intelligence manage to provide a performance advantage over standard, single router setups?
Performance is a real mixed bag
The test environment used to evaluate the Plume’s performance is a challenging one when it comes to home networks. Simply put, it’s the home of a technology writer and his family, who are heavy technology users themselves. At any given time, as many as 25 wireless devices can be connected to the network. It’s a combination of desktops, notebooks, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, an Xbox 360, and various streaming video devices. Time Warner Cable provides the internet service, which is 100 megabytes per second down and 20Mbps up.
The existing router that handled all this traffic with aplomb was an Asus RT-AC5300. It’s a massive router with eight antennas that provides two 5Ghz channels and one 2.4GHz channel, and they can all be combined into a single network using Asus’s Smart Connect technology. It’s a very robust router that’s highly configurable and has served the household’s connectivity needs without issue.
As the name implies, the RT-AC5300 provides up to 5.3Gbps of wireless bandwidth, and it uses beamforming and other buzzwords to ensure that all network devices get the bandwidth they’re requesting. In short, the RT-AC5300 is a robust competitor to the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solution, and presents a serious challenge to any modern wireless router.
Comparing the Plume network to the RT-AC5300 router is a bit different than comparing two typical routers. The biggest difference is in terms of visualizing where the tests are being conducted.
Note that while the distances listed are from the RT-AC5300, there’s a Plume Pod in each room unless indicated otherwise. That means that the Plume network reduces the distance from the wireless signal device and should theoretically resolve signal and performance issues in a larger house.
The Android app Wi-Fi Analyzer was used on a Nexus 6P to test signal strength in each location. Results are measured in negative decibel-milliwatts, or -dBm, with higher (close to zero) scores indicating better signal strength.
|Test Location||Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi||Asus RT-AC5300|
|Location 1||-29 dBm||-28 dBm|
|Location 2||-49 dBm||-46 dBm|
|Location 3||-46 dBm||-33 dBm|
|Location 4||-43 dBm||-45 dBm|
|Location 5||-40 dBm||-57 dBm|
|Location 6||-61 dBm||-64 dBm|
|Location 7||-44 dBm||-67 dBm|
|Location 8||-56 dBm||-71 dBm|
Except for Location 3, which was an unexplained outlier, the Plume’s distributed Pods offered better signal strength overall. They essentially act as repeaters, extending the network signal farther away from the signal provided by the single RT-AC5300 router. Signal strength provided by the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi network was more consistent for the most part, with distance being less of a factor than with the RT-AC5300.
But better signal didn’t translate to better performance
The iPerf utility was used to test data transfer rates across both networks. It has a client-server architecture, and a desktop connected to the router/switch via Ethernet cable was the server. A Surface Pro 4 Windows 10 2-in-1 acted as the client. Each test was run three times and then averaged, with a minute delay between each test to emulate real-time performance.
The first test run immediately after the Plume network was installed and configured demonstrated very inconsistent performance. On advice from Plume, another test was run after 48 hours to allow the Plume cloud to optimize things. Note that results are measured in megabits per second (Mbps), with higher numbers indicating better bandwidth, and that a sixth Plume Pod was placed in Location 8 to improve performance there.
|Test Location||Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi||Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi (after 48 hours)||Asus RT-AC5300|
|Location 1||236 Mbps||231 Mbps||331 Mbps|
|Location 2||134 Mbps||125 Mbps||206 Mbps|
|Location 3||94 Mbps||114 Mbps||255 Mbps|
|Location 4||137 Mbps||114 Mbps||308 Mbps|
|Location 5||88 Mbps||65 Mbps||123 Mbps|
|Location 6||24 Mbps||11 Mbps||33 Mbps|
|Location 7||49 Mbps||72 Mbps||51 Mbps|
|Location 8||36 Mbps||50 Mbps||24 Mbps|
Results in the second run were a bit more consistent, but again the Plume network performed relatively poorly compared to the Asus router. Plume managed better performance only in Locations 7 and 8, the latter of which is the worst location for the RT-AC5300 router. Everywhere else, the Plume’s performance was not quite as good. These results are somewhat surprising, because theoretically Plume performance shouldn’t vary as much between locations given the similarity in signal strength.
File copy performance
In another test, a 420MB file was copied from a network attached storage (NAS) device to the Surface Pro 4. The NAS was attached to the router via wired Ethernet connector. The file was copied three times with a minute between each copy, and then the average throughput in megabytes per second (MBps) was recorded. Again, a second test run was conducted after 48 hours to give the Plume network time to adjust.
|Test Location||Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi||Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi (after 48 hours)||Asus RT-AC5300|
|Location 1||30.2 MBps||16.3 MBps||19.5 MBps|
|Location 2||24.5 MBps||15.3 MBps||18.3 MBps|
|Location 3||12.5 MBps||14.5 MBps||19.0 MBps|
|Location 4||23.5 MBps||12.5 MBps||18.7 MBps|
|Location 5||11.5 MBps||12.4 MBps||16.5 MBps|
|Location 6||4.7 MBps||3.8 MBps||14 MBps|
|Location 7||7.5 MBps||9.2 MBps||15.2 MBps|
|Location 8||6.5 MBps||5.3 MBps||3.6 MBps|
This test demonstrated that the RT-AC5300 was mostly unaffected by distance in this smaller house, with copy speed falling off dramatically only in the farthest location. The Plume Adaptive WiFi network, however, was all over the map on the first run, no pun intended, in some cases providing significantly greater throughput and in some significantly less. Location 8 was a marginal strength for the Plume network as in the previous test.
After 48 hours, the Plume network performed more consistently but with generally slower performance than immediately after it was configured. It’s as if the Plume cloud was aiming more for consistency than maximum performance.
Plume provides a standard 1-year warranty from the time the Pods are delivered.Our Take
The Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solution is a dead-simple way to set up a wireless network that can span a larger location than a single wireless router can likely cover. Each remote Plume Pod acts as a repeater, extending signal strength into the most remote corners of even the largest house. It will cost you, however. Each Plume Pod is $69 by itself at the Plume store. A pack of three Pods is $179, and a pack of six is $329. Obviously, the larger your house, the more it will cost you to cover it with intelligent wireless connectivity.
Is there a better alternative?
The Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi is going to be compared both to typical standalone routers like the Asus RT-AC5300 used to test the Plume, and with other emerging Wi-Fi mesh network products like the Eero. If your house is small enough for a single router to cover, and if you don’t have tons of network interference from neighbors to worry about, then you might be better off with a standard router unless you really like Plume’s simplicity.
If your house is extremely large, you have lots of interference from neighboring networks, and you don’t want to mess with adding more complicated repeaters, then the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi holds appeal. It makes the most sense for homes that struggle with obtaining strong Wi-Fi from a single router.
The DT Accessory Pack
Note that other mesh network products like the Eero and Almond 3 offer other features, like Amazon Alexa support. Eero is also more expensive, however, with a single Eero unit costing $200 and a three pack coming in at $500. The Almond starts at a lower $150, but a lone Almond 3 router isn’t very impressive. You’ll probably want the $400 three-router bundle for serious coverage.
How long will it last?
How the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solutions lasts over time depends entirely on how well the company keeps it updated. Overall, it provides adequate performance for network-centric households that accommodates today’s typical internet speeds. As gigabit connections and higher become more prevalent, then the Plume solution might become unable to keep up over time – however, the same can likely be said about other router solutions as well.
Plume doesn’t provide specifications for its Plume Pods, so there’s no information readily available as to whether it explicitly supports Wi-Fi technology like MU-MIMO. Therefore, it’s hard to tell if the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solution is entirely future-proof, at least for the most imminent wireless technologies.
Should you buy it?
You should buy the Plume Adaptive Wi-Fi solution if you want a wireless network for your home that’s as easy as pie to setup and maintain, and you’re okay with buying a Pod for each room where you want wireless coverage. It works particularly well for large homes.
Don’t buy the Plume, however, if you want control over things like QoS and enhanced security options, or if you want maximum performance for devices close to the router. Our testing showed that while Plume offers good signal strength, it can’t outrun the best traditional routers when they have a good connection.