Slightly confused by Ubiquiti’s UniFi product line? You’re not alone, here’s the full guide to the 2019 product line and which device is best for you.
What is UniFi?
UniFi is a product by Ubiquiti and is classed as SDN or Software Defined Networking. It is an enterprise level product line which consists of WiFi APs, firewalls, network switches with and without PoE and also Ubiquiti’s VoIP phones and cameras come under this product line too.
The best way to think about it is, in your home network you may have one central router form your ISP or a company such as Netgear, TP-Link or someone else. What that one device is is actualy three seperate network devices lumped into one piece of hardware. In a normal router, you have a wireless AP, usually a 4-port gigabit switch and also a router with some limited firewall options.
In an enterprise environment, such as a hotel, airport, office, stadium or cafe – having one little device does not cut it at all. The Ubiquiti UniFi line separates all of these segments out into different devices, with a separate gigabit network switch, separate wireless AP (or APs if you have a bigger area, we’ll get to this later on) and the router, with much more advanced firewall options.
Why would I need this in my home?
Well, as we get more and more devices in our homes, with IoT devices cropping up everywhere such as smart home devices which are thermostats, smoke alarms, bulbs, smart TVs, smart speakers as well as all the phones and smart watches people have – the list of devices on the network can really add up and a lot of normal ‘all in one box routers’ can’t handle this. Especaily if we start looking at secuity options, which you will need to. (We’ll get to Security later)
Also, in terms of coverage the one router model doesn’t always work. Typically the connection from your ISP comes in to an awkward location in the house which means that is where the router goes and it probably isn’t the best location for it to go in terms of wireless coverage. As walls, metal objects, windows and furniture can block wireless signals. With UniFi, as all the devices are separated out, you could install the ISP modem, separate router and switch all down near where the internet connection comes in and then place an AP somewhere more convenient in the house, or have two depending on how large your house is.
This will make the overall WiFi experience in the house a lot better for everyone, especially if you have a lot of users doing stuff in the evening, video calling, streaming video etc.
When you have the one router model, smaller devices such as bulbs, phones, smart watches and tablets all have smaller antennas – think of it as the ‘listening’ capabilities, the smaller the antenna the less it can ‘hear’ effectively. Also, on smartphones, you have the signal bars in the top right – generally 3 bars means good, but 2 bars can mean anything really. So it is not wise to trust what that is saying. In my experience, 2 bars on an iPhone can be -82 to -69 RSSI.
Larger devices, such as iMacs and laptops have much larger antennas, so they can ‘hear’ better.
Basically, if you do happen to have some issues with some devices in certain locations of the house or office, it is probably due to the signal level of your device. But, on the phone it may show a ‘good’ amount of bars. Having multiple APs may help resolve this issue.
One useful quite recent feature of UniFi is WiFi AI, this sets all the access points to run a scan at on all the APs at a specific time, so if there are any interference issues – for example if you live on a busy street, with lots of neighbours there is the potential for a lot of wireless interference. WiFi AI on the APs will scan at say 3am in the morning, pick the best channel for each AP to help maintain the performance.
Now we have covered the basics of why would you would want or need UniFi in your home. We can now discuss the overall product line. As mentioned, there are WiFi APs, PoE switches, and firewalls. We’ll cover the camera line in a separate article, as it is pretty extensive.
The wireless access points come in three different models:
- UniFI AP AC LITE – Entry level model
- UniFI AP AC LR – Long range model
- UniFI AP AC PRO – Top of the range, features full speed AC
All these models can be mounted on the ceiling using the included brackets and screws, on a wall or just on the desk.
Ubiquiti has around 15 different access point models, ranging from the UAP AC Lite at the £80 price point, all the way up to the BaseStation XG, which is £1,500 but is designed for use in stadiums and sports arenas and can handle over 1000 clients.
There are also some in-wall models, which have very limited range by design but are used in hospital rooms and hotel rooms So you can have a per room AP.
For the purpose of this article, which is aimed at improving home WiFi, we’ll look at the AP-AC-Pro AP, which is priced at around £140 and is good choice for medium sized homes.
Now, this is a very industry standard feature on enterprise networking gear it is PoE, which stands or Power Over Ethernet. What this is doing is using the ethernet data cable to power up the device, inside the ethernet cable there are 8 separate wires, most of the time only a couple are used to transfer data and other ones are reserved for other things, such as PoE.
In the networking world, access points and cameras are the two most common use cases. VoIP phones found in offices are powered up this way too, but we won’t cover that here. Now to power up an AP, you have two options; one is to use a PoE injector, think of it as a separate power supply for the AP, but this can get pretty messy. The best way is to use a PoE network switch, and Ubiquiti sell a large number of models. Again, like the access points, ranging in price and use case. The smallest with PoE is the US-8-60W which is around £130.
The US-8-60W is perfect for a home environment, it can power up 4 devices with PoE and then another 4 ports have no power and can be used for other devices such as PCs, Printer and other things.
Ubiquiti has some specialist models such as the UniFi Industrial Switch and the 48 port PoE switch.
The UniFi Industrial Switch is one of Ubiquiti’s newest models, is around £500 and is designed for super tough locations such as dirty workshops and hot environments. It has no fans, so it can be used in dusty places, can withstand locations up to 50C and each port can provide 60W of power, which is used to power LED roof lights.
The UniFi 48 port PoE Switch is huge and quite loud and as you can tell by the amount of ports, it is used for a large area that needs a large amount of PoE ports. The best use case is a large office with lots of phones that need power on the desks. It also is over £1,000.
When I say router here, most people with think of the Netgear router I reference too at the start of the article. But a router is simply a device which connects your network to your ISP and also handles firewall and security for your network too.
Ubiquiti currently has two models in the UniFi lineup. These are called USG or UniFi Security Gateway, Ubiquiti has two models – the USG 3 and the USG Pro 4. Only one is more suitable for home use as the larger USG Pro 4 makes a bit of noise.
The difference is that the USG Pro 4 can handle a lot more bandwidth, so if you happen to have over 500mbps, then the smaller and also less expensive USG 3 will be just fine. USG 3 is around £100 and the USG Pro 4 is around £240.
Both routers can handle the same things feature wise, such as DPI, IPS, IDS, advance firewall rules, and WAN failover.
At the heart of the UniFi system is the UniFi Controller. This is a software package which monitors the network including the connected clients, data usage, AP utilisation, speeds, firmware upgrades, RF scanning, DPI data collection, frequency allocation and more. This is also the place where the wireless network is configured. As this product is aimed at the hotel market mainly this lets us do some interning stuff such as full guest networking with customisable portals which can be authorised with a password, auto expiring voucher, PayPal payment or anything else. If required guests can be speed restricted, sectioned to a separate VLAN with a restrained DHCP pool in a separate subnet and more. The access points can even broadcast up to four separate wireless networks and on different VLANs with separate rules if needed.
The UniFi Controller is software created by Ubiquiti and it can run on a Windows PC, Mac or Linux machine. Alternatively it can be installed on a Amazon Cloud server, which when using the lower tier it is free to use. Also, a company called HostiFi has been going for around a year now which specialises in pre-configured UniFi Controllers hosted in the cloud. Prices are around £15 per month a server.
However the simplest and easiest is to buy a UniFi Cloud Key device from Ubiquiti, this is a small device that runs a Linux operating system and comes pre-installed with the software on it, just plug it in to the network, it obtains DHCP and go from there. Now, a common misconception is that the UniFi Controller needs to be constantly running in the background and if it is installed on a computer this may be difficult and there are pros and cons on why you might want to keep it running.
The benefits of keeping a UniFi Controller running
- Continuous history reporting for data used, client stats, Deep packet inspection and speed tests
- Remote access from anywhere
- Email alerts for when something goes wrong
However keeping a controller running on a PC may be difficult, so maybe look at the Amazon hosted version or the Cloud Key from Ubiquiti can be used.
The UniFi Controller also has a whole host of advanced features, such as having a VPN that you can connect you which connects you to your own home network, IPS intrusion prevention and detection, DPI Deep Packet Inspection, full featured guest networking with guest portals, cloud access via unifi.ui.com with no port forwarding required and much, much more.
UniFi Cloud Key
As mentioned, the UniFi Controller is advised to be running all the time, and it can be run on any Windows PC, Max, Linux machine, Ubuntu machine or even a Raspberry Pi. But Ubiquiti make their own hardware based controller, called the Cloud Key.
First versions of the hardware, the white plastic version were notorious for database issues where if the device had enough power blips, the database would corrupt and a full reset and reconfigure would be required. Second generations, the Cloud Key Gen2 and Cloud Key Gen2+ have integrated batteries, which had enough juice to keep the device on after a power cut and then gracefully shut the device down.
Ubiquiti also have the UniFi XG server which has UniFi and UniFi Video pre-installed.
I hope this overview of the Ubiquiti UniFi Networking product line was helpful, if you have any suggestions or if we have missed anything please let us know in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This post will be regularly updated as Ubiquiti introduces new products as and when.