Luma Nation – into the land of mesh networking

Luma Network HealthMy Time Capsule died back in January, and about that time I began noticing some ads for a wifi mesh system called “Luma” out on the web. I’ve been aware of the concept of wireless mesh networks for years, but most of the implementations about which I’ve known were either too expensive, or needed each of the nodes to be hard-wired into the network. I had neither the time or money to set one up.

Luma, however, promised a fully wireless mesh system in addition to some more advanced features – among these were the ability to pause the internet for individual users, and a means to grant network access to client devices through a smartphone app. The device also promised to handle network security, and the ability for Parents to see what sites their kids were surfing1. The release date was set for “Spring 2016.”

Luma’s combination of simplicity and power intrigued me, and before January was out I placed a pre-order for a Luma 3-pack in grey. Then, I waited. For several weeks I heard very little for the company, but as March wore on Luma began to issue updates which I found encouraging. They received a new round of funding from Amazon, beta testing began, and images of the manufacturing process began to be posted on their Facebook page. They did, indeed, begin shipping in June – but their color options got reduced from three color options to “white.” About the same time Luma seemed to make a decision to begin a partial retail distribution through Best Buy while their pre-orders were still being filled. The color change didn’t annoy me2, and Luma even gave pre-order customers a $25 Amazon gift credit for their trouble. Not waiting to begin retail distribution until after all preorders were shipped has people calling, “Foul!” While some of vitriol is over the top, I do feel it was a poor decision.

Pre-orders were open for several months before I placed mine in January, so I didn’t expect to be anywhere near the front of the queue when units began shipping. This was confirmed when my shipping date was announced for late in July. I was bummed at having to wait that long, but remained patient. After having a frustrating relationship with wireless routers for years, I wanted to see how this system worked.

It turns out Luma is a bit of a mixed bag in practice. Allow me to explain.

Speed

Luma’s claim to fame was fast and reliable wireless, and their speed promises are certainly true. On my previous routers my internet download speed would top out around 50mbps. With my Luma setup I’m well over 100mbps. Streaming is noticeably faster, and the video feeds in the Theotek podcast were impressively improved.3

Reliability, is a bit of a mixed bag. There was a window of a few hours this morning when the Luma network would suddenly drop our connection to the internet, stopping streams and resetting our smart TV’s video apps. I noticed this before I went to work, and my daughter confirmed the problem continued to happen later in the morning. By the time I returned home in the afternoon, however, the network was working with no issues. As I wrote this passage, my wife was watching a webinar, my children were streaming videos, and I was uploading a backup of my data to a new cloud backup service. Luma handled the load like a champ.

I’ll see if I can replicate the issue tomorrow morning, but when the mesh is on it’s game, it’s fantastic.

Features

As was shown in the video, Luma is configured via a smartphone app. This app allows users to easily set up a both private and guest wifi networks, create users and assign devices to specific users, check network health, pause the internet, and send invitations to people to join the guest network. What’s there is nice, but it’s rudimentary. There’s no way, for instance, to assign an IP address to a client, or set your IP scheme to a specific range. There also is no way to discover anything other than the host name of connected devices. The ability to see a connected device’s MAC address would be extremely helpful, especially if Luma isn’t able to display the client’s host name for some reason. The network is doing real-time security scanning, but the one warning I received wouldn’t allow me to see which client attempted to visit a slightly nefarious site4 – this makes the warnings unnerving, but not useful. If a device is attached to a user’s profile, you at least know which pool of devices is having issues, but the actual culprit is not identified. This needs to improve.

The advanced features, such as user-specific internet pausing, are noticeably absent. I was hoping for a system which relied on more than the password model for security and the ability to limit user’s connection to a specific duration of time5. None of these features are enabled yet, and this is disappointing. The seed of these ideas is present, and the ability to create users is once such indication this is so. This gives me hope they will arrive in due time, but the absence of such selling points at launch is a let-down.

Support

I’ve seen people posting on the Facebook page complaining at a complete lack of support from the company. There are a number of overly irate people on Luma’s fan page at the moment, so I knew to take their opinions with a few dozen grains of salt, but I must admit I didn’t know what to expect when I began a support ticket this morning about my sudden disconnects.

The response was phenomenal. I have been involved in an occasional email exchange with their support staff throughout the day and they have been both personable and helpful.
The first exchange provided some simple trouble-shooting steps for the system, such as making sure the Luma nodes weren’t spread too thin. I explained my network map showed my mesh to be very healthy, and informed them the nodes were all well within range. I then went on to describe the issue in a bit more detail and support wrote back that I had, indeed, found a bug and to expect a software patch over the next week.6 I wasn’t blown off, or given the run around through the same trouble-shooting again and again7.

My limited exposure to a Luma network aside, my experience with the support ticket functionality is what gives me hope serious improvements are on the horizon.

Final Thoughts

Is Luma better than the network I’d been running?

Generally speaking, yes. My network throughput has been consistently higher8 than I’ve ever seen, and there are no dead spots in my home as far as I can tell. Even in the basement my network is screaming fast9.

On the other hand, Luma seems to have out-Apple’d, Apple. Every single technical setting in the wifi mesh is completely hidden from view. I realize these nodes are meant to work together and self-configure, and people hacking different settings could derail that process. On the other hand, it would be really nice to have the ability to change the IP scheme, set DHCP reservations, enable port-forwarding, and set up custom DNS settings. Lack of port forwarding is a huge problem for anyone who wants to run a server behind a Luma Network.

Is the Luma worth the extent of the extra cost it takes to purchase this over a traditional router?

Not yet, but with extra emphasis on the “yet.” The speed is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but many people are doing just fine on a traditional router and for them the Luma is over-kill. At least for now.

This is the odd thing about Luma as it currently stands. There are clear indications of what’s to come, both in the way their app is designed and in the promotional video they released months ago. Should these features are fully implemented, as I hope they will be, Luma will be an absolutely amazing network solution. But right now it simply has yet to fully arrive. Luma promised the stars, and they managed to reach Mars. It’s still impressive, and I wasn’t expecting the stars right from the get-go, but I would have been more pleased had they at least reached Pluto.


  1. This is a bit creepy, but it’s supposed to be able to be turned off. 
  2. Though the lack of a warning as shipping ramped up would have been appreciated 
  3. A podcast for Christian tech nerds. 
  4. An internet ad hijacker. 
  5. Both features were shown in the promotional video. 
  6. I realized I was getting an entirely new networking system, I expected SOME bugs. They seem to follow me around. 
  7. This isn’t because tech support thinks people are stupid, by the way. It’s because most people actually lie about actually trying the steps. I know this from experience. 
  8. When my discovered bug isn’t causing problems. 
  9. I’ve not gotten one complaint from my son about lag on his Xbox One. This is a minor miracle. 
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