Going down the Ubiquiti rabbit hole

I have been eagerly awaiting the availability of Gigabit Fiber for my home office. Rumors of AT&T bringing it our neighborhood reached a fever pitch last year; since then I’ve regularly refreshed its availability page. A few months ago, I got the answer I wanted.

Within days, I signed up through Sonic, a local ISP which uses AT&T’s fiber network. I had my eye on that combination since Sonic received five stars in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual privacy rankings (Automattic and WordPress.com also earned that top rating). Soon enough, I was basking in the glory of 1 millisecond pings and consistent, symmetric, jitter-free 925 Mbps connectivity:

With about 3x the speed of my old Comcast connection, more reliability, and the same monthly price, I was pretty pleased.

Then, I started to notice (or perhaps feel) Wi-Fi coverage issues. That 60 Mbps 2.4 GHz network performance in my living room which used to be acceptable? It now felt slooooow. That got me thinking about redoing my home’s Wi-Fi. I considered mesh networking solutions like Eero, Google Wifi, or Orbi, but already have Ethernet around the house so don’t really need one of those. Plus, I was in a geeky mood.

I’ve heard a lot from friends, neighbors, Reddit, and the Wirecutter about a networking company called Ubiquiti. Ubiquiti makes high-end wireless equipment for big companies, internet service providers, even arenas. It uses a modular approach in which many of its products are perfectly-suited (and dearly-loved) by networking geeks. I jumped in.

After a few Amazon orders, and some pleasant hours tinkering, it’s mostly humming. I started with Ubiquiti’s UniFi Security Gateway (often abbreviated to “USG”), the UniFi 60W 8-port PoE switch (“USW”), two of the Unifi Access Points (“UAPs”) the UniFi UAP-AC-Lite and the UniFi UAP-AC-In Wall, and a UniFi Cloud Key (“UCK”, seriously 🤮) to run the UniFi Controller software.

What I love so far:

  • Faster Wi-Fi. I now get consistent ~450 Mbps via 5 GHz. 🎉
  • Better handoff. I use Wi-Fi calling, Zoom, Slack, etc. and regularly pace around my house. With my old setup, I’d often drop audio or video calls. Roaming feels much more robust now.
  • Stats! The UniFi Controller provides fun data on how my home actually uses the internet. For example, we have 32 network-connected devices (eight per person!). Deep packet inspection reminds me what every network I use can see about my activity.
  • Solid mobile apps. The UniFi Network app handles most settings with an interface I prefer to the Controller’s web interface. Another app, Ubiquiti WiFiman, has well-designed tools for Wi-Fi testing.
  • Fewer cables. Ubiquiti’s use of Power over Ethernet, or PoE, means each access point needs only an Ethernet cable and not another for power. To the minimalist in me, this is deeply satisfying.
  • So many updates. Ubiquiti shares builds in between official releases. You can sign up for access to the UniFi Beta Blog. Even as the novelty of near-daily firmware updates fades, I like feeling I can always have the very latest work from Ubiquiti’s software team.

Some other observations:

  • Complexity. The set up is not crazy but it’s not consumer-grade. After years with a pair of Apple AirPorts, five different devices to set up, connect, and configure is an adjustment. It was particularly wonky getting the UniFi Controller software on the Cloud Key to “adopt” the various devices. Also, both my AT&T router and the USG default to 192.168.1.1/24 so I had random weirdness from IP address conflicts until I changed the USG’s LAN IP range.
  • Strong community. The internet seems full of helpful communities of Ubiquiti enthusiasts. The company’s forums are bustling and well-maintained. There’s an active subreddit. Throughout both, Ubiquiti staff set a positive, helpful tone.
  • Hardware limits. Software-defined networking is great until hardware becomes a limiter. For example, the USG’s CPU is pretty lightweight. Routing is done in hardware so can keep up with fast connections. But capabilities which rely on the CPU can struggle. The most noticeable for me is the UniFi Controller’s speed test which runs in software on the USG and can generate only about 300 Mbps of test data. Weirdly, that becomes the max it can “measure.” Intrusion detection is also CPU-limited; using it reduces the USG’s throughput to 85 Mbps.
  • Many, but not infinite, choices. Once you have choices on access points, you want more! I prefer the smaller access points; the larger ones are as big as full-sized frisbees, look ridiculous in my house, and would likely be banished to a connection-limiting cupboard or shelf. None of those smaller APs has an extra Ethernet port so don’t work well in my home office where I also want to plug in my laptop. I could get another switch, but that would be cluttery. I’m trying out one of the “in-wall” APs which comes with two Ethernet ports so sort of works. It’s ugly, though, so I want even more choices.
  • There’s always an upgrade. I started with the entry-level access points. I might switch over to Ubiquiti’s HD series, e.g. the UniFi nanoHD. I don’t necessarily need 4×4 MU-MIMO Wave 2 802.11ac but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it.
  • Reasonable cost. My initial Ubiquiti setup cost about the same as my old setup, two Apple AirPort Time Capsules. Given the additional power and capabilities, that’s pretty impressive.

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