Compared to sexy Google projects like self-driving cars and balloon-powered Internet, the company's new wireless router, OnHub, may seem like a modest undertaking. But it's one that addresses a common need. A majority of Americans already own wireless routers, and about as many have cursed them on more than one occasion. A wireless router is like a sump pump: No one cares how it works until it breaks. The difference is that when a wireless router malfunctions—at the most inopportune time—you play the plumber.
Google set out to make a smarter wireless router, one that's easier to configure and effortless to maintain, by adding a host of antennae and the convenience of a smartphone app to address issues. For several weeks I traded my Apple Airport for a Google OnHub, and while I retain some lingering loyalties, Google largely delivers on its promises.
Manufactured by TP-Link to Google's specifications, OnHub looks like a next-gen router. About the size of a cocktail shaker, sheathed in a blue or black matte cylindrical shell, OnHub trades an array of blinking lights for a glowing status ring at the top of the device. The ring glows blue during setup, green when active and amber should something go awry.
Whereas a typical router relies upon inscrutable combinations of flashing lights, OnHub defers to a mobile app for configuration and maintenance. Once you've downloaded Google On to your iPhone or Android, you register the device using your Google account. The setup process takes about 90 seconds, and the most difficult step is entering a code from the base of the router.
OnHub packs all the latest Wi-Fi tech, including a circular array of (count 'em) 13 antennae: six 2.4 GHz antennae, six 5 GHz antennae and a "congestion-sensing" antenna. In English, that means better reception at longer distances. For instance, I live in a prewar building that is almost certainly lined with lead and asbestos. Whereas my Airport suffered delays at the opposite end of my apartment, OnHub sustains a wireless connection, and typically at faster download speeds.
The Google On app is good, though not great. You can track devices on your network, prioritize bandwidth and run network checks, but don't expect to do much more. For instance, one night I found my connection running at 23 percent efficiency; the app recommended I relocate my router, which felt about as helpful as Time Warner customer service. OnHub also doesn't support commonplace features such as parental controls and guest networks.
Given that the device is always on (hence the name), OnHub will likely gain features with software updates, and unlike my Airport, they won't require my intervention for installation. That's the appeal of OnHub: You can forget it when it's working, and fix it without learning Morse code.