Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine Review: For Those Who Are Serious About The Home Office Network
When you think of a Wi-Fi router for homes, you probably think of something which is basic, simple and plainly as close to plug-and-play as it can be. You most certainly do not think of advanced security layers, intelligent monitoring of your network and also the ability to scale up the home network as and when you may want it in the future. The consumer-grade Wi-Fi routers for homes do not necessarily do all this—apart from maybe a cursory firewall or maybe a paid subscription-based solution for malware protection. But then again, didn’t you always believe the more pro-oriented networking hardware is complex. And maybe even an overkill. That is where the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine steps in to tell us that is absolutely not true. And what you have been missing out on all this while.
If you dislike Wi-Fi connectivity that is inconsistent and dodgy to say the least, you may want to really know what the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine can do. For starters, take it as a traditional Wi-Fi router that you may own. It sets up the same way and works the same way. Yet, does everything on those aspects, better than the consumer-focused products. Setup is incredibly more intuitive and the range as well as reliability of connectivity is certainly more robust too. That means, less chances of your laptop or phone dropping the internet as you move from one room to the other. I have tried Ubiquiti’s more consumer centric AmpliFi HD products too, and they are incredibly impressive. Yet, the UniFi Dream Machine is, as the name suggests, a dream machine for those who like to tweak and really get their hands dirty with the internet and Wi-Fi settings. Perfect then, if you want to set up a more pro” Wi-Fi setup at home.
And once you are done coming to terms with how the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine is pretty much an infinitely more reliable and stable version of the internet router that you thought you wanted, you start to understand what all it can do. For starters, this can be a mesh system, if that is what you need to get the Wi-Fi working across your whole home—as and when and depending on your requirement, you can add on the other UniFi wireless products to this—including the UniFi FlexHD (around Rs 18,746), the UniFi AC Lite (around Rs 9,195) or the UniFi AC Pro (around Rs 15,480). Subsequently, for home offices and smaller establishments, you can expand the setup with switches, access points and all you will need is the integrated controller in the Dream Machine to manage all of this. Servers and network attached storage (NAS) are just some additional elements that will work with this. Basically, the Dream Machine takes the different elements that may make up a home office network, including a security gateway, a switch and APs, and puts them in one.
Let us look at the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine itself for a moment. Powering this really powerful networking device masquerading as an admittedly pretty looking Wi-Fi router is a 1.7GHz processor with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage. It needs all that power and storage to run the cloud-based applications for security and monitoring, for instance. At the back are five gigabit ethernet ports, though one could perhaps now argue the need for 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps or 10Gbps capable ports. Nevertheless, for most networks and for most prosumers, the gigabit ports will be enough.
Setting up the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine is a delight. For starters, you plug this into the modem provided by your internet service provider (ISP). If your ISP provides a router, you might want to put that in Bridge mode—if you are sure of what you are doing, that is. Download the UniFi app on your phone—this app is free for Android phones and the Apple iPhone, though in my case, the setup was seamless when using the iPhone and not so much with an Android phone. Not exactly sure what the reasons were, but the network setup crashed a couple of times midway. What you will love is that when the Dream Machine is powered on, you get a very Apple AirPods-esque pop-up asking if you would want to set this up on your network. Of course! It doesn’t take long for this to be done and is a visually immersive experience where you feel a part of it, not where you tap an option and then watch things happen in the background. There are even visual guides for which cable needs to be plugged in where, in case something is confusing you.
One thing that I have to point out is that Ubiquiti does pay attention to the finer details. Such as the length of the power cable. It is quite long with the Dream Machine, as it is with the AmpliFi HD, and that gives you a lot of flexibility with the router positioning. Ubiquiti appreciates that you may not always have a power socket exactly where you want it, a problem with most homes, and a longer cable really helps.
One note of caution though—do turn off the Auto-Optimize option for the Wi-Fi network during this setup. With that enabled, I noticed web traffic was getting into a queue and that was having an impact on the speed test results—on a network where I get around 240Mbps (you’ll see that later) regularly, this was limiting me to around 120Mbps downloads on the same line. Secondly, you may notice upload speeds are lower in speed tests, and this was most apparent because it is 200Mbps symmetrical on my line. Go deep into settings and turn off a feature called Smart Queues. Not exactly sure if it is more a configuration clash with how the fiber broadband line is set up or maybe it is just something to do with how Ubiquiti have optimized it to reduce network load, but if speed is your game, turn these off.
And once you’ve done that, the UniFi app on your phone will give you a lot of data that will perhaps initially be a bit overwhelming. But persist, and you’ll soon get the hang of it. What you do not understand in the settings and options, leave as is—Ubiquiti does a good job of keeping everything ticking over as far as monitoring and security are concerned. I even got an email notification within seconds of the UniFi FlexHD AP going offline. If you are worried about the security and integrity of your home office network, for instance, this sort of proactive monitoring should really put you at ease.
You can set up different Wi-Fi networks for your computing devices, for media streaming devices and even the smart gadgets at home. You can also create VLAN partitions on the networks with different rules. You must at some point log in on the UniFi account via the web browser on your laptop or desktop, because the web version has even more features that the app doesn’t offer.
Once your network is set up and all devices are connected, you get to see a full list of everything that is connected to the Wi-Fi network. You can assign proper names, give then fixed IP addresses and what you also get in return is a complete data of how much activity they have done on the network complete with the amount of data used, the uptime as well as the signal strength that is currently available to them. The last bit is particularly great news if you wish to understand the contours of the Wi-Fi network range in regard to the physical layout of your home or home office. If there is a device that has low signal strength or high latency, all that is logged and presented to you on the web dashboard.
There is also network traffic monitoring in place, and you get a complete picture of not just which device is more active than others, but also exactly which app or service is consuming data based on usage. It is good for home users to keep a log on which devices are consuming more data perhaps with an eye on the monthly broadband FUP, if you are not on an unlimited plan. For a home office environment, this is a better way to flag any devices that may be exhibiting weird usage trends on the network, which could be a sign of a bigger problem. The monitoring aspect of this is it’ll flag and block malicious traffic on your network.
Everything is just incredibly customizable with the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine. That is really its party piece. At a time when most of us are still working from home at least for the foreseeable future or working on setting up home offices, and that includes individuals logging into a company network or those running a home office, a Wi-Fi router that goes beyond being just a Wi-Fi router has perhaps become more essential than ever before. And it is particularly true in a prosumer environment that a basic Wi-Fi router or a consumer grade Wi-Fi router may not get the job done. At least no router purely meant for home usage offers such a wide and deep set of tools at your disposal. That is what makes the Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine all the more worth it for a lot of usage scenarios, with a price tag of around Rs 31,626 (you can buy it here). The Dream Machine, as I like to say, is a beauty and a beast.