5 min read

Covr review: Mesh fails to fix WiFi woes

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill WiFi blackspots. Attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time Covr misses.

The kit first arrived months ago. Early attempts to get it working failed. The story almost ended then, but after another try this week, it managed to work after a fashion.

Yet, as we shall see, Covr is disappointing.

If you have a fast internet connection, WiFi will be your speed bottleneck. Data travels a breakneck speed until it reaches your house where it can slow to a crawl moving from your ONT (optical network terminal) box or similar entry point.

There is a slew of products which, on paper, promise WiFi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. In practice, none of them come close yet.

When it arrives WiFi 6 should iron out those home network speed bumps.

Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing Covr worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking. Everything used to be hard work.

If you were there you’ll understand. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading WiFi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the WiFi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a child’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor WiFi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products. Most suffer from similar flaws. This suggests the technology isn’t ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. D-link calls them nodes. One is the main unit or node.

Each node has its own power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables attached to the nodes are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near your power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. Although even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work in testing. Which took us back to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In testing this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could the iPad Pro. It didn't work with an Android phone either. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work.

Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. From here I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I used a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a WiFi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white.

Let’s hope all your WiFi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point we had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But there were strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. Nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers. It just gave up.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network.An hour troubleshooting got nowhere, nothing could change things.

Eventually I rebooted everything and started once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Covr performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in WiFi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same WiFi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any WiFi black spots.