Exclusive: Plume’s new “Superpod” hardware is here—and it’s fast


Plume fill in a splash into the burgeoning Wi-Fi mesh scene a couple of years ago by cheering to do things differently. In a market where vendors vie with each other to put the biggest, nastiest-looking armaments with the biggest possible numbers on the box, Plume seemed to say, “That’s not how you really fix Wi-Fi.”

Instead, the small, crowdfunded startup started by taking a jeopardize on selling tiny, low-powered devices with cloud-based smart board of directors. And the strategy proved to be successful, despite the devices’ individual low power and zip. Fast-forward to today, Plume is now releasing a second generation of hardware—got “Superpod”—that keeps the small form factor, nimble deployment, and comprehensive network reliability of its first product. And after getting a little pre-release hands-on, Plume’s newest try also appears to add the raw speed its predecessor was missing.

Plume's new Superpod design is shown here next to an Orbi RBS-50 satellite, an Eero router, and an Eero beacon. The Superpod is roughly the size of Orbi's power brick, without the actual Orbi.

Enlarge / Plume’s new Superpod model is shown here next to an Orbi RBS-50 satellite, an Eero router, and an Eero fire. The Superpod is roughly the size of Orbi’s power brick, without the real Orbi.

Quarter-mile times aren’t everything

Before talking with regard to this particular product’s performance, we need to talk about how to quantity Wi-Fi performance in the first place. When I’m not busy building my own routers, I’ve emit the last couple of years learning about and improving methods of check Wi-Fi systems in ways that actually matter for real-world use. Wireless AC go like greased lightning ratings are complete mumbo-jumbo, and simple iPerf3 runs don’t get the job done, either.

Wi-Fi reviewers typically by a hairs breadth blast a giant TCP stream across a system from one laptop, moderation the big number, and call it a day. But Plume tested its own product differently—the company set up a assess environment in a real home with lots of devices, and it used a proprietary collection called ixChariot to model actual traffic that you might see trusted humans and their devices producing. Instead of looking for one big speed examine number, Plume wanted to see relevant metrics: could the downloader get masses of throughput? Could the 4K stream continue without buffering? Could a VoIP visit go on without stuttering and a Web browser load pages quickly and responsively?

In these sequence of events, Plume demonstrated its product kicking the crap out of a competitor or two (impressing me in the system). But the company did so on its own ground, with its own tools, and with plenty of time to set obsessions up carefully and stack the deck in its favor. I liked what I saw, but I knew I needed to up my own assay game rather than just take Plume’s word for it.

In days gone by, I’d used ApacheBench for its intended purpose to test webservers and apps in my reasonable sysadmin career, and I used the tool again at Ars to put “gigabit” consumer routers to a official test. I figured I could use this again to model a traffic cascade… and I was wrong.

I’m stubborn, though, and rather than give up, I doubled down and noted my own small suite of network modeling tools. Armed with a new network scheduler that make orchestrate jobs among a group of laptops with millisecond fidelity and a test tool that could pull HTTP traffic from a Web server at any yearning rate with extremely detailed results, I was ready to model inadequate networks. I began doing just that, in fact, as an occasional Wi-Fi paraphernalia reviewer at Wirecutter.

From pods to Superpods

Inspired by Plume’s test plot summaries, I initially set up four laptops to emulate a download session, a 4K streaming conference, a VoIP call, and a Web browsing session. This did a much better job transmuting between Wi-Fi products; I was now able to put real numbers behind qualitative idiosyncrasies I’d seen between similar systems rather than just talking at hand how one “felt more frustrating” than another.

The bad news—at least, for Plume—is that while these symbol did well on the new tests, they weren’t the best for long. When adversaries that brought more firepower to the table learned to optimize their networks for myriad instruments, too, Plume fell quickly to the middle of the pack. I still liked these tools—and they were still the easiest thing for aesthetes or “technically challenged” clans to deploy and live with—but Plume’s first-gen offerings quickly weren’t on top of the playing heap.

In my own testing and others’, top honors repeatedly went to Orbi, Netgear’s “muscle car of trellis-work.” Plume clearly noticed, because the company’s brand-new Superpod format is basically a highly miniaturized Orbi RBR-50. Each scheme is a tri-band design running on the Qualcomm IPQ4019 SoC—a quad-core Cortex A7 ARM CPU and dual-band, dual-stream 802.11ac ripple 2 Wi-Fi radio—with a Qualcomm Atheros QCA9984 providing the following 5 GHz radio. The QCA9984 is a 4×4:4 device (four input antennas, four productivity antennas, and four simultaneous MIMO streams), and it’s a real cannon. In Orbi’s RBR50/RBS50 chassis, with one laptop wired to the assistant and another to the router, I measured the QCA9984 providing an eye-watering 750+ Mbps throughput across the expanse of my 3,500 sq ft house.

In Netgear’s configuration, the QCA9984 is reserved for backhaul use merely; Orbi uses it exclusively for communications between its satellites and router, and your own artifices are only allowed to connect to the IPQ4019’s lesser 2×2:2 radios. The hypothesis is that, by reserving the more powerful radio for backhaul, you’ll always be proficient to utilize the IPQ4019’s full capacity. This worked out very expressively in practice, and up until now, the Orbi RBK53 (one router + two satellites) has been the unchallenged throughput king.

As usual, Plume again took a different overtures to—with Superpod, the company is using its Cloud Optimizer to allocate the boom boxes dynamically. I was more than a little skeptical of how the extreme miniaturization would strike performance, not to mention the use of anything but the big 4×4:4 radio for backhaul. But at least disputable designs make for fun testing.

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