Modern society would crumble if Wi-Fi technology disappeared overnight. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s hard to deny that we’ve grown so attached to wireless networking that we’d be lost without it.
And within the next decade or so, we’ll have next-gen innovations like the Internet of Things and Wi-Fi Aware to look forward to (despite the potential threats in security). Wireless connectivity is so ubiquitous that you can even get free Wi-Fi almost anywhere today.
Except in your own house.
It’s possible that you don’t have the right wireless router for your needs and a common symptom is a Wi-Fi signal that doesn’t reach every room in your home or office with enough strength. If that’s the case, you need a Wi-Fi extender.
Wi-Fi Extenders Are Simple
Wi-Fi extenders, which are sometimes called Wi-Fi repeaters or Wi-Fi boosters, are auxiliary devices that can boost the signal from your wireless router, effectively extending its range.
Even though many wireless routers claim to be able to reach distances up to 250 feet or more, the actual distance covered may be as low as 100 or 50 feet depending on interferences. Before buying a Wi-Fi extender, first try optimizing your home layout for better Wi-Fi coverage.
But if you still need more range, then Wi-Fi extenders may be exactly what you need.
In short, you can think of an extender as a “second router” that connects to your primary router. The extender takes the primary signal and rebroadcasts it, effectively becoming a second network that devices can connect to — so on your smartphone or laptop, you’ll see both main router and secondary extender in your list of available access points.
Most modern extenders are easy to set up using Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), where all you have to do is press a button on your main router and a button on the extender to securely and automatically pair the devices. If WPS isn’t available, step-by-step setup isn’t too difficult either (but be sure to read your device’s manual).
What to Expect From a Wi-Fi Extender
All of this sounds great on paper, but there are a couple of caveats that you should be aware of before going ahead and buying an extender.
The first consideration is that traditional Wi-Fi extenders have a massive glaring flaw: reduced throughput. For any given user, an extender has two connections — one to the device and one to the main router — and can only communicate with one at a time, resulting in a 50% reduction in throughput rate.
So for a traditional single-band extender rated at 100 Mbps, you’d be getting 50 Mbps at best. In reality, extenders come with inefficiencies that can reduce throughput even further, so 50% is more like a best-case scenario.
However, modern extenders have found a way around this problem using dual-band Wi-Fi. Wireless routers can communicate on two bands: 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. The 5 Ghz band is a newer specification so older devices don’t have that capability.
Dual-band extenders can communicate on both bands simultaneously, dedicating one as the connection to the main router and the other as the connection to end users. This gets around the loss in throughput.
N300 to AC1200
When purchasing an extender, be aware that the four most common types of dual-band models are N300, N60, AC750, and AC1200.
N300 devices can be single-band or dual-band, but dual-band devices are capped at 150 Mbps on each band. N600 devices are guaranteed to be dual-band with a maximum of 300 Mbps on each band.
AC750 and AC1200 are more recent types with more bandwidth, but are still on the cusp of widespread adoption. AC750 extenders can transmit up to 750 Mbps on the 5 GHz band while AC1200 extenders can go up to 1200 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. Speeds are slower on the 2.4 GHz bands due to limitations in the frequency.
With that out of the way, there are a few more caveats to consider.
To minimize risk of incompatibilities, try matching the brand of your extender to the brand of your main router. While Wi-Fi specifications are global and standardized, each brand may have special proprietary features that are only compatible with other devices from the same manufacturers.
Also, older generation extenders cannot repeat the signals from newer routers while newer models tend to be backwards-compatible, so make sure your extender can handle the same standards as your main router (i.e. 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standards).
Our Recommended Wi-Fi Extenders
The Netgear EX6200 is a powerful dual-band AC1200 extender that’s pretty much the best consumer model on the market at the time of writing this. It’s a bit pricey for casual weekenders, but it comes with a few nifty features that make maintenance and troubleshooting a bit easier.
For example, it comes with LED indicators that help you find the best spots for wireless coverage. It also has 5 Ethernet ports (while most extenders only have one) that let you use a wired connection when you need that stability. A solid purchase if you can front the cash.
The D-Link DAP-1650 is another dual-band AC1200 extender that is more affordable than the Netgear EX6200. The extension range isn’t as long as the EX6200’s — then again, few extenders can actually beat it — but there’s a lot to like about this model.
The main benefit of the DAP-1650 is that it can connect to your main router through an Ethernet cable, which the EX6200 can’t do. It also has four Ethernet ports for connecting devices, which is one less than the EX6200 but still enough for most homes.
The Belkin F9K1106 is a more primitive dual-band extender without some of the advanced features you’d find in the two models above. However, it’s certainly more affordable, making it a great choice for those who don’t feel compelled to have the very best and are okay with settling for good enough.
This is an N600 model so you get a maximum of 300 Mbps on each band, but that should be fine for most users. It comes with four Ethernet ports for wired devices. We wouldn’t recommend going much cheaper than this one due to potential performance hits and quality issues.
Wi-Fi Extenders Can Work Well
Wi-Fi extenders should not be your first solution to problems with Wi-Fi range and signal stretch. If you’re using an older router, definitely upgrade it to a more recent model before doing anything else, and make sure the router is situated where it will have minimal interference.
But if you’ve tried everything and still need more range on your wireless Internet, then an extender is probably what you need. As long as it’s a relatively recent dual-band model that’s compatible with your main router, you’ll be fine.
With all that being said, remember that wireless networks are vulnerable to attacks and hijacks so make sure that you’re using a secure encryption mode and that you haven’t made any of these wireless network setup mistakes.
What have your experiences with wireless extenders been like? Which models would you recommend today? Share your expertise and thoughts with us in the comments below!