What Is UniFi?
UniFi is Ubiquiti’s line of networking equipment with different models of wireless access points, routers, switches, security cameras, controller appliances, VoIP phones, and access control products. UniFi equipment exists between enterprise and cheap home networking gear. It’s a nice middle ground, offering more flexibility and features than most consumer-grade brands, but lacking the expense and complexity of enterprise.
UniFi networks come in all shapes in sizes: from a small apartment, up to thousands of devices in a stadium, and a lot of networks in between. You choose the pieces that you need, and you are not required to have the full UniFi stack. You can start with one device and build it out over time. If you only need Wi-Fi, their access points can be uplinked to any switch, and served packets from any router. If you need a managed switch or security gateway, Ubiquiti makes those too. There are benefits to having all the pieces, but it’s not necessary.
UniFi OS Software and Applications
Software-defined networking can be a meaningless word, but the basic definition is that the administration is done in software, separate from the actual networking equipment. With UniFi, you use the UniFi network controller. This is free software that can run on Windows, macOS or Linux. You can run the software on any PC you have on a physical server, or in a VM or Docker container. It also runs inside the UniFi Dream Machines and UniFi Cloud Keys.
The controller software is used for configuring and monitoring your UniFi network. If you need to make changes to your settings, add additional devices, or upgrade firmware, you’ll do all of that through the UniFi controller. A few things can be done on the command line via SSH, but in general, UniFi devices are meant to be managed through the controller. The primary way of accessing the software is in a web browser. Ubiquiti also make mobile applications for Android and iOS which have some of the functions found on the web interface.
Here are some of the bestselling UniFi wireless access points:
- AC-Lite: The do-everything workhorse. Unless you are trying to push gigabit speeds or have some really heavy wireless needs in mind, this is a good default option.
- UniFi 6 Lite: The smallest, cheapest Wi-Fi 6 AP. The new baseline.
- AC-LR: LR stands for long range. Features a better antenna that can reach further distances than the AC-Lite. It’s a good option if you are trying to cover the far corners of a house. The LR is only a small step up in price from the lite, and is another good default option.
- UniFi 6 LR: The long range version of the UniFi 6 Lite. Steps up to 4×4 5 GHz radio, allowing for longer range and higher speeds than the 6 Lite.
- AC-Mesh: If you need longer-range mesh or outdoor coverage, this is the one to get.
- AC-BeaconHD: If Ethernet isn’t an option, this is the best indoor mesh AP they offer.
- AC-nanoHD: Newer than the Pro, this is the cheapest 802.11ac Wave 2 access point they make. If you have modern devices that support multiple radio chains on 5 GHz, you can get some fast throughput. 2.4 GHz performance isn’t as strong as the Pro, however.
- AC-FlexHD: Same radios and capabilities as the nanoHD in a different form factor.
- AC-HD: For really high density and/or maximum throughput. Only buy this if you have the need, or the cash to burn. The HD has the best 2.4 and 5 GHz performance I’d recommend for home use. The only step up from the HD is the UWB-XG, which is intended more for places like an auditorium or sports venues (hundreds or thousands of devices in a small area).
And unless you have a specific need for them, you can also ignore most of the specialty models.
- UAP-AC-EDU adds a built in loudspeaker and is EoL.
- UAP-AC-SHD adds an extra radio dedicated to security tasks and RF monitoring, meant for dense and secure environments like a bank, or a hospital.
- The XG series (UAP-XG and UWB-XG) are overkill for 99.99% of home networks – more on those later.
- IW stands for In-Wall. In-Wall APs can be used if mounting a traditional access point isn’t an option. Ethernet should still be run to these, but they also have the benefit of providing two or four Ethernet ports for other downstream devices, thanks to a small built-in switch.
- M stands for mesh. Mesh APs are what you want if you are mounting outdoors. The mesh models (and all 2nd generation or newer UniFi APs) allow you to extend a network without requiring Ethernet cabling, using a power adapter and wireless backhaul. Wireless backhaul will not perform as well as wired, but they can be the best option for certain situations.
Essentially they act as a wireless bridge when you are connected to it. One radio talks to your device, while the other relays that to the next closest AP. This is why wireless backhaul will generally have higher latency and lower speeds than using Ethernet.
802.11AC WAVE 1 VS. WAVE 2
The Lite, LR and Pro models are all 802.11ac Wave 1. The HD models are all 802.11ac Wave 2.
Wave 2 brings a few majors changes which allow for higher performance. Wave 1 AP’s can only use SU-MIMO (Single-User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output) to communicate with only one client at a time.
Wave 2 APs can use MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output) to communicate with multiple clients at the same time — significantly increasing multi-user throughput. MU-MIMO also increases wireless performance and/or serves more clients at the same performance level. At any single time, a 4×4 Wave 2 AP can communicate with the following:
- Four 1×1 clients
- Two 2×2 clients
- One 2×2 client and two 1×1 clients
- One 3×3 client and one 1×1 client
Another benefit of Wave 2 is that up to four spatial streams are available, and more channels can be bonded together. Both of those feature’s help achieve higher speeds. Deciding if the added costs and abilities are worth it is up to you.
One more thing to keep in mind — while a lot of models have equivalent radio performance, there are differences in their antennas, and how those antennas perform. Generally speaking, the LR, mesh and HD models have higher-gain, and more sensitive antennas. Equivalent radios with better antennas lead to better performance.
If you want maximum performance in one area, you can have one Pro or HD covering that, and use AC-Lite’s or mesh APs to extend the network into less used areas. Alternatively, if you want to expand coverage in the future, you do not need to match the AP’s you currently have. You can add any of them at anytime, anywhere you need them.
Check out Ubiquiti UniFi Access Point Prices