Poor Wi-Fi signal is something that affects us all sooner or later. It can be hard to diagnose the exact cause, and there are many possible solutions — but if none of them work, where do you go next?
There are two main options for boosting your Wi-Fi signal, but they’re not equal, and one is not always better than the other. Let’s take a look at both Wi-Fi extenders and powerline adapters and see which is the right choice for you.
What to Know About Wi-Fi Extenders
A Wi-Fi extender is a small wireless device that receives the signal from your router and re-broadcasts it. By positioning the extender in the right place in your home, you can gain Wi-Fi coverage where there were previously dead spots, or even push it out into your back yard.
Needless to say, it’s a cheap and convenient way of boosting Wi-Fi coverage to every corner of your home, and there are several reasons to like them.
Wi-Fi extenders come in two styles: wall plugs and small desktop units. The setup process usually involves little more than entering your normal Wi-Fi password to connect the unit to your network.
Then — as with the router itself — it’s a case of finding the best position to give the best balance between coverage and speed. This may actually be a little closer to the router than you’d expect.
Note that the extender can only re-broadcast the signal up to the quality of the signal it receives. If you place the extender right at the edge of your router’s range, where it receives a weak and unstable signal, it will only be able to re-broadcast that same weak and unstable signal.
Where to Position a Wi-Fi Extender
Most manufacturers recommend sitting the extender about mid-way between the router and the area you want to cover.
Ideally, it would have line-of-sight to both areas, or at least no obstructions by any heavy physical obstacles (e.g. thick walls) in either direction. Such obstructions can reduce the strength of the wireless signal.
Even so, some signal loss is still inevitable because most Wi-Fi extenders only have a single radio. They have to split their available bandwidth between receiving and broadcasting the signal.
One way to minimize the effect of this is to buy a dual-band extender. These have the ability to receive the signal from the router on one band, and re-broadcast it on a separate band. Re-broadcasting on the same band — which is unavoidable with a single band extender — can cause as much as a 50% reduction in potential bandwidth.
While there are no restrictions on mixing and matching brands, a Wi-Fi extender does need to be at least as fast as the router it’s connected to. And if necessary, you can use an 802.11ac extender with an older 802.11n router at maximum speed because Wi-Fi standards are backwards compatible.
You can’t do it the other way round, though — you’ll get a big performance hit if you use an N-rated extender with an AC-rated router.
Mesh Networks Are Even Better
A Wi-Fi extender is a simple and effective way of increasing your Wi-Fi range, but it might still be slower than connecting a device directly to your router. And you may still encounter dead spots.
A newer system based around mesh networks may replace the need for extenders in future. These are available today through companies like Google by way of its new Google Wi-Fi products and the Eero startup.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems have one device connected to your modem and multiple additional devices dotted around your home to provide full wireless coverage. Unlike extenders, which create a separate network with its own SSID (i.e. network name), products like Eero create a single seamless network.
They can also be faster and more efficient. Each unit has two radios — one for receiving data and one for transmitting data — and data can be dynamically rerouted around all the units on the network, rather than moving in a linear direction as on a traditional network.
What to Know About Powerline Adapters
A powerline network helps you overcome poor Wi-Fi performance by transmitting data across the electrical cabling in your home. It works using a series of powerline adapters, which are small wall-plug sized devices that have Ethernet ports (and, in some cases, Wi-Fi functionality).
In other words, powerline adapters turn your regular electrical outlets into Ethernet connections.
To get it set up, you connect one adapter to your router and plug it into a nearby electrical socket. You then plug another adapter into an electrical socket in another room, then connect a device (like your computer) to the adapter. And — in theory, at least — that’s it.
Powerline adapters are better than Wi-Fi extenders because you don’t have to worry about positioning them within range of your router, and you don’t have to worry about wireless dead zones.
But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about. For best results, you should put your powerline adapters on the same mains circuit. While the signals they transmit can cross between circuits, the strength diminishes every time they do.
You should try and keep the distance as short as possible. The signal — and therefore the transfer speed — gets weaker the further it has to travel. The commonly recommended distance is no more than 200m, which includes all of the excess wiring that might be hidden under your floors. It’s not just the straight-line distance between rooms.
A big factor that can hit the performance of a powerline network is noise. Electrical noise is unavoidable, and it can be exacerbated by plugging the adapter into an extension lead, or near another large electrical appliance. In fact, even something as trivial as flashing Christmas tree lights could kill your internet speeds.
Lastly, never use powerline adapters with surge protectors, power strips, extension cords, or uninterruptible power supplies. They tend to filter certain frequencies, which means reduced data transfer speeds (at best) or no data transfer at all (at worst).
Which Is Right For You?
Both Wi-Fi extenders and powerline networks are convenient ways of working around poor Wi-Fi signals — certainly more convenient than laying long lengths of cable around your home from room to room.
Powerline networks are probably the better bet for many users. They may sound more technical but they really aren’t. For most folks, all you’ll have to do is plug them in. Setup will likely take less than five minutes.
There are several benefits to powerlines. They offer greater range. You should be able to extend network access to every room in your home without too much trouble.
You can also get Wi-Fi-enabled adapters, which combine the functionality of powerline with the practicality of a Wi-Fi extender. They’re also easier to use with Ethernet cables, if you wanted a wired connection to a games console, for instance.
Wi-Fi extenders are a quick and easy option, too. However, you should spend a bit extra to get a decent dual-band model. Buying a cheap, single-band unit is a waste of time and money.
And in either case, extenders don’t offer a solution to dead-spots in your home. They can push Wi-Fi into rooms that are beyond the range of your router, but heavy obstacles like thick walls or even a large wardrobe will still reduce your available speeds.
Other Solutions for Poor Wi-Fi
Before you buy into either of these options, you should make sure you’re getting the most out of your existing Wi-Fi setup.
- Upgrade your router. If your router is more than a couple of years old, there’s a good chance you’ll benefit from an upgrade. Routers supporting the latest 802.11ac protocol are three-times faster than older 802.11n routers. The ability to use the 5 GHz band will give you faster and more stable connections.
- Update the firmware. Check whether there are any firmware updates available for your router. These can deliver performance improvements, including a stronger and more reliable connection.
- Tweak the settings. Delve into your router’s settings to make sure you’re using it at its fastest possible speed. Also, look at the channel settings to reduce interference from other nearby Wi-Fi networks (e.g. neighbors).
- Check the position. Read our guide to router positioning and then rethink where yours is currently placed. Moving a router just a couple of feet in any direction can have a massive effect on the strength of its signal. Also think about whether there are any dense obstacles near your laptop, games console, or other device, that could be slowing it down.
Tell us about your experiences with Wi-Fi extenders or powerline networks. Or do you have any other tips for speeding up bad Wi-Fi? Let us know in the comments.