Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Eero wants to change the way home wifi and routers are suppose to be

While many of the devices we use every day depend on WiFi -- everything from our smartphones to our TVs -- most home WiFi networks are still woefully slow compared to their wired alternatives. Enter Eero, a small San Francisco startup that aims to bring home WiFi into the future. How? By combining the functions of a router, a range extender and a repeater into a single device, thus making the Eero a complete WiFi system for the home. Wirelessly connect two or more Eeros together and you've got an instant mesh network, no IT degree required.

The idea seems a little far-fetched at first, but Eero has some pretty good credentials backing it up. Amongst its advisors is former Apple exec and Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein. Fred Bould, who's part of the design team behind the Nest thermostat and smoke detector, the designer behind the GoPro Hero3 and the latest Roku boxes, is not just an advisor, but also the creative mind behind the Eero's industrial design. Its founding team -- Nick Weaver, Amos Schallich and Nate Hardison -- are all Stanford graduates who come from strong backgrounds in networking. Many of its employees are from Google and Silver Spring, a company that built one of the largest mesh networks in the world. It seems that Eero might know what it's talking about after all.

Let's start with the hardware, which is perhaps the most beautiful networking device I've ever seen. It has an adorably small footprint (measuring 4.75 x 4.75 x 0.85 to 1.26 inches) with an elegant, high-gloss plastic curve on the top. Internally, it has a 1GHz dual-core processor, 512MB of RAM, 1GB of flash storage, dual WiFi radios for simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections and support for 802.11a/b/g/n/ac. It also has Bluetooth 4.0 built right in, which lets you sync it up with a mobile app for easier setup and configuration.

On the back are a couple of auto-sensing Gigabit ports that you can connect to your cable or DSL modem, plus one networked device. If you're wondering, gee, two ports seems kinda skimpy, well, Weaver (who's also Eero's CEO) says there's a reason for that. "We wanted the box as small as possible, so that's a limiting factor. But we also realized that even if you have four to five ports, you're always running out." Most people who have a lot of Ethernet devices end up buying a port switch anyway, he says.

Here's how the whole thing works: If you want, you could just get one Eero and it'll work just fine as a regular router. But the real magic of the Eero comes in when you buy multiple Eeros -- that's why the company is also offering the system as a pack of three. The first one you plug into your cable or DSL modem becomes your master device. From there, you launch the app on your iOS or Android device, which connects to it via Bluetooth. Then, simply enter in what you want to call the network as well as your desired password and this will set up all three devices at the same time. Take the other Eeros, plug them into any power outlet around the house -- Weaver says you'll probably need one for every 1,000 square feet or so -- and they'll come online automatically. It's that simple.

And that's not all -- there's also a cloud component with the Eero, which means its software will get updated automatically. "If there's ever a security issue, we can update your router instantaneously," says Weaver. The cloud component also provides the link for the aforementioned mobile applications to talk with the different Eeros, so you know what speeds each device is getting. "We're always monitoring your connection, and we run speed tests. If your network goes down, we'll alert you and let you know there's a problem."

But perhaps one of the most useful features of Eero is that if you ever have guests who want to use the WiFi, you can use the app to send them a text message with all the network information already on it. And if they have the Eero app installed too, you can just add them to your network without them having to enter the password at all. Speaking of which, you'll also get an alert every time a new device joins the network, just so you know what's going on. As for the speeds? Well, that does depend on your ISP somewhat, but Eero says it's optimized the software to help you get the fastest speeds possible.

"As consumer devices change, we've seen two things happen," says Weaver of the problems the Eero is designed to solve. "First, streaming video is going through the roof. The number of hours, of people streaming video content in their homes is the highest it's ever been." Secondly, he says, there are more devices connecting than ever before. With these two things together, you're never going to have one router cover multiple devices in one home -- they just weren't designed to do that, he says. "We need coverage that works, and we need to have a more distributed system."

Why not just get a repeater, or a range extender? "Repeaters have been this Band-Aid that people have used," he says. "It's hard to configure; it creates multiple networks; and you can only extend the network by one hop." Additionally, repeaters sometimes cut bandwidth by half, if not more. "In typical homes, you're going to need to have multiple access points. The software [in existing routers] was never designed to do that." Indeed, he says some of the software hasn't changed in almost a decade.

So the team decided to scrap it and start from scratch, rewriting all of the firmware to combine the three different functions -- router, repeater, range extender -- in one device. "Because we wrote the software, we condensed all of that into one physical piece of hardware. We're able to simplify everything." This, he says, lets them concentrate on the design and make sure you're getting the most out of your monthly internet bill.

The company has been around for about a year, but it's been operating in stealth mode. Today, that changes as it gets announced for the first time. Also launching today is the ability to pre-order an Eero from the company website: The price for a single device is $125, while a set of three will cost you $299. But those prices won't be the same forever -- the final retail pricing will be $199 for one and $499 for a three-pack.

As for the name? Eero was named after Eero Saarinen, a famous Finnish American designer who's responsible for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport, Dulles International Airport and, interestingly, Weaver's elementary school, located in the suburbs of Chicago. "Design is a really huge focus for us," says Weaver. "From the name down to the design of the site, the product and the user experience. The sweeping form of the top of the device, the nice clean lines -- it's all influenced by Eero."

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