Reach Those Wi-Fi Dead Zones
If you’re trying to catch an episode of Stanger Things while taking in some rays but can’t get an adequate poolside Wi-Fi signal, don’t be so quick to run out and buy a new router. Chances are, a range extender will get the job done. Aptly named, range extenders pick up your router’s Wi-Fi signal, amplify it, and rebroadcast the boosted signal. They are fairly easy to install and come in various shapes, sizes, and speeds, but they have their limitations; they are typically half as fast as your primary router, and they create a separate extended network that makes seamless roaming difficult.
Depending on the size and layout of your home, a mid-to-high-end router may provide all the Wi-Fi coverage you’ll need, but for homes built with dense materials like brick, concrete, plaster, and metal, some level of signal degradation is almost a certainty. Likewise, homes with multiple floors and many walls are more susceptible to signal loss than a one-story home with an open floor plan. In some cases you can relocate your router to a central location to deliver a stronger signal to those areas that were previously out of reach (dead zones). In most homes, however, the router’s location is tied to the room where the internet enters the house, which means relocating the router will likely require running Ethernet cable to the desired area. Range extenders provide a relatively easy way to deliver Wi-Fi without having to run cables.
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Finding the Right Extender for Your Router
When choosing a range extender it’s important to choose one that matches your router’s specs. For example, if you have a dual-band AC1900 router, get a dual-band AC1900 extender (or better). If your router supports Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) data streaming, which provides enhanced performance by sending data to compatible clients simultaneously rather than sequentially, look for an extender that supports this technology if you want to extend your MU-MIMO network.
Desktop or Plug-In?
There are two types of range extenders; desktop and plug-in. Most desktop extenders look just like a typical wireless router and are typically equipped with external adjustable antennas, multiple LAN ports for connecting to devices like TVs and gaming consoles, and USB ports for attaching to peripherals such as storage drives and printers. Plug-in extenders are much smaller than their desktop counterparts and are inserted right into a wall outlet. Some models have external antennas, while others use internal antennas to present an unobtrusive profile. Due to their size, plug-in extenders usually only have a single LAN port and lack USB connectivity, making them less versatile but more affordable than desktop extenders. If you can’t afford to sacrifice a wall outlet, look for a plug-in model that offers a pass-through outlet.
Not very long ago, setting up a range extender required a bit of technical expertise and a good deal of patience to find the best location (ideally halfway between the router and the dead zone). But most of today’s routers and range extenders support WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), which makes pairing the two as simple as pressing a couple of buttons, naming your new extended network, and creating a network password. Moreover, nearly all manufacturers offer web-based setup wizards and illustrated instructions that will help you configure basic wireless settings. Some (but not all) extenders are equipped with LED status indicators that tell you if the extender is too far from the router. Extenders can also offer advanced router-like features such as guest networking, access scheduling, and media server capabilities.
Know the Limitations of Extenders
While fairly easy to configure, range extenders have their limitations. They use a separate network SSID that you have to log into as you move through the house, and Wi-Fi speeds are typically half of what you get from your main router. Most dual-band extenders use both radio bands to transmit data to and from the router, which means devices connecting to the extender are competing for bandwidth with the router. To help alleviate network congestion, some manufacturers let you dedicate a band for router-to-extender communications. Netgear’s Fastlane technology and Amped Wireless’s BoostBand technology are good examples.
When to Go With a Mesh-Based Wi-Fi System
If you’re considering upgrading your network with all new hardware, it’s worth looking into a mesh-based Wi-Fi system before you spend money on a traditional router. Wi-Fi systems are designed to blanket your home with wireless coverage and are made up of several networking components, including a main router and a series of satellite modules, or nodes, that you place throughout your home. They are all part of a single wireless network and share the same SSID and password, which means you can roam throughout your house without having to log into an extended network. Whereas range extenders communicate with the router via the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio bands, most Wi-Fi system satellites use mesh technology to talk to the router, and to each other. Each node serves as a hop point for other nodes in the system, which helps the nodes farthest from the router to deliver a strong Wi-Fi signal as they talk to other nodes and don’t rely on one-to-one communications with the router.
Wi-Fi systems are ideal for users with little or no technical knowledge. They can be installed in minutes and typically come with a user-friendly mobile app that walks you through the installation process with easy-to-follow illustrated instructions. With prices ranging from around $130 for a single-node system to as high as $500 for a three-piece system, Wi-Fi systems don’t come cheap and aren’t very cost effective if you’re just looking to fill in a dead zone. In comparison, plug-in range extenders range in price from around $70 up to around $100, and desktop range extenders go for around $70 up to $170 or so, depending on features.
For more on optimizing your home’s Wi-Fi network, check out our guide to setting up your Wi-Fi router, and 12 ways to protect your Wi-Fi network.
Pros: Fast throughput in testing. Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) enabled. Lots of ports and settings. Easy to install.
Cons: Expensive. MU-MIMO throughput is middling.
Bottom Line: It may be pricey, but the Amped Wireless Athena-EX RE2600M range extender is packed with features, supports MU-MIMO data streaming, and delivers very good throughput.
Pros: Solid throughput in testing. Supports Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) streaming. Easy to install.
Cons: Bulky. No pass-through outlet.
Bottom Line: The Netgear Nighthawk X4 AC2200 WiFi Range Extender (EX7300) installs in minutes, is one of the fastest plug-in range extenders we’ve tested, and supports MU-MIMO data streaming.
Pros: Easy setup. Very good throughput and range performance in testing.
Cons: Bulky. No pass-through outlet.
Bottom Line: The TP-Link AC1750 Wi-Fi Range Extender (RE450) delivers some of the fastest throughput scores we’ve seen, and it’s a snap to install.
Pros: Solid throughout performance in testing. Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) capable. Easy to install. Lots of settings.
Cons: Bulky. No pass-through outlet. Unsightly external antennas.
Bottom Line: The Amped Wireless REC44M brings dual-band Wi-Fi and MU-MIMO streaming to areas of your home that your router can’t reach. It’s not the prettiest range extender out there, but it’s a solid performer.
Pros: Reasonably priced. Strong 5GHz performance. Four Gigabit LAN ports. Many configuration options.
Cons: Middling 2.4GHz range. USB port is only 2.0.
Bottom Line: The D-Link AC1200 Dual Band Gigabit Range Extender DAP-1650 is an affordable four-port range extender that also works as a media server and an access point and offers solid 5GHz performance.
Pros: Easy to install. Generous port selection. Lots of management options. Good 2.4GHz throughput performance.
Cons: Expensive. Middling 5GHz throughput in our tests.
Bottom Line: The Amped Wireless AC1750 Wi-Fi Range Extender (RE1750A) is a pricey dual-band range model that has lots of I/O ports and management options, and delivers solid 2.4GHz throughput.
Pros: Simple installation. Pass-through outlet. Good 2.4GHz performance.
Cons: Bulky. Light on features. Middling 5GHz range performance.
Bottom Line: The Linksys RE6700 AC1200 Amplify Dual Band Wi-Fi Range Extender is a plug-in device that offers relatively good throughput, but comes up short in terms of features and 5GHz range performance in testing.
Pros: Supports Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) streaming. Easy to install. Solid close-proximity throughput performance.
Cons: Lacks pass-through outlet. Bulky. Middling range performance.
Bottom Line: The Linksys RE7000 Max-Stream AC1900+ Wi-Fi Range Extender is easy to install and supports MU-MIMO streaming. While its range performance is middling, it works well in close proximity.
Pros: Good throughput performance in testing. Multiple wired ports. Easy to install and configure.
Cons: Pricey. Lacks USB connectivity. No parental controls.
Bottom Line: The TP-Link AC1900 Wi-Fi Range Extender (RE580D) brings solid Wi-Fi and wired connectivity to areas of your home that your router can’t reach.