Out of the dozens of pieces of gear I’ve evaluated this year, how did I come to the conclusion that the UniFi Dream Machine (UDM for short), a one-year-old combo access point/switch/gateway/controller, was the best I’ve used all year? Two reasons. One—good network hardware makes all the other gadgets in your house work better. And two? The UDM is the best network hardware I’ve ever deployed.
And in a year dominated by home networking there could be no other choice for my Gear of the Year.
What Is It?
The UniFi Dream Machine, released in late 2019, is an all-in-one device that combines multiple network components into one compact device. It’s a 4-port gigabit switch, a 4×4 WiFi access point, a security gateway, and a network controller.
For those of you saying “you just described a common consumer router,” you’re not wrong. Most network hardware on the market today contain these elements, but the UDM is the first device to take commercial-grade components that you would normally purchase separately and put them all into one device.
The 1.7 quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM might not make it the most powerful network device on the market, but what it does with that power is what makes the UDM stand out.
How Does It Work?
On its own, the UDM is a capable WiFi access point that easily pairs with UniFi AP Mesh Beacons to quickly create a whole-home network. The 4-port gigabit switch in the back of the unit ensures that your hardware bridges or network-connected storage devices have more than enough bandwidth.
Setup is an absolute dream. The UniFi app is intuitive and will have your new network up and running in no time. But it’s what you can do with the UDM and the network it creates that propels it beyond your common consumer network devices.
The app provides an insane amount of detail on your network. The UDM performs regular speed tests on your network and keeps an eye on the performance of all devices, delivering an overall score. It also lets you know if you’re maxing out your WiFi utilization and what devices are the most data-hungry on your network. Additionally, it will let you know when it’s blocked threats if you’ve enabled threat management in the browser interface (more on that later).
You can also drill down into each device. It provides an “experience” score, allowing you to quickly see if performance is degraded to certain devices. But you can also see activity, packets up and down, signal, channel, MAC address, and more. Basically, if it’s on your network, you can find out everything you need to identify and analyze a device. You can also view historical data for the device and configure it.
It’s when you pop into a browser on your home network and enter “unifi/home” that network nerds will rejoice. Here you get the full UniFi network management experience. You’re greeted with a dashboard that offers more customization and information than you’ve ever had for your home network.
You want deep packet inspection for your IoT devices? You’ve got it. You want to set up threat management based on geolocation data? You can do that too. Want to create a VPN? You have the power. What about setting up a second “honey pot” network to catch bad actors trying to access your system? You can do it and then do deep analysis on whoever connects.
This is the first interface I’ve ever used that gives me total control over my network. With most consumer routers, there’s always some element that falls just a little short. Either they won’t let me dive deep enough into the data or don’t give me enough control over individual network devices. With the UniFi dashboard, the only limit is your knowledge of network infrastructure and operation.
In fact, if I were to level any criticism against the UDM it’s that. If you’re looking for a “set it and forget it” network, then maybe the UDM is too much for your needs. You have a vast amount of control, but it also means you have more than enough leeway to break things if you don’t know what you’re doing. Blindly toggle settings and it’s very possible to end up hobbling your network instead of helping it. A lot of things that are done behind the scenes for you by consumer devices (like creating guest networks) are left in your hands.
Without a doubt, this is a “prosumer” device that requires you to level up your knowledge to get the most out of it.
Is It Worth It?
Since I installed the UDM and two HD Beacons in my home a month ago, I’ve enjoyed a level of insight and networking freedom I’ve never before experienced. When devices start acting up, I can quickly analyze what the issue is and tweak my network accordingly.
Not that I’ve had anything but incredible performance from the UDM since I powered it up. UniFi makes networking hardware that acts as the backbone of small and large businesses alike. Deploy it in your home and you’ll enjoy reliable service without any of the dropouts or restarts that plague consumer routers.
The expandability over time is something to keep in mind as well. As UniFi rolls out WiFi 6 hardware and additional devices for their Protect lineup, you’ll get even more out of your UDM.
If you’re ready to take the next step and not just consume your home wireless network but truly control it, the UniFi Dream Machine is for you. It simply makes everything about networking at home better. Get started by visiting the UniFi site.