The frustration of weak wireless internet signals has been raising blood pressures across the land for many years now. Many homes have dead spots, and it's always disappointing to see the connection melt away when you sit in the backyard.
You can't always place your router in the middle of the house, so what do you do to boost that signal? Enter the wireless range extender.
What is a Wireless Range Extender?
Wireless boosters, or WiFi extenders, are simple devices that are designed to pick up your existing WiFi network and rebroadcast it, so you can get a decent signal when you're far away from the router. You don't generally need any technical know-how to set them up, and they can be a very cost-effective solution to your WiFi woes.
Do You Even Need an Extender?
Before you consider a wireless range extender, you should check out your existing router. If your router is a few years old, then investing in a new one will be the most effective way to solve your problem. You could even use your old one as an extender for the new one, but they will need a wired connection — and that set up can be challenging.
WiFi extenders also can't compete with wired connections in terms of speed. If it's practical for you to wire up devices via Ethernet directly to your router, then you should always do that instead. Any device you take off the WiFi network is also freeing up bandwidth for something else.
You can also buy adapters to extend a wired connection through your home's electrical wiring. You plug an Ethernet cable into your router, with the other end going into an adapter in a wall outlet. A second adapter goes into the wall outlet near the device you want to connect, and you can run a second Ethernet cable from it to the device. This is ideal if you only have one gadget that needs a solid connection, and it will be much faster than an extender.
There are also technologies that create their own separate network. This can work well for something like a Sonos audio system, allowing wireless streaming without increasing traffic on your WiFi network. But if you're looking to extend your WiFi coverage seamlessly for devices like smartphones and tablets, then it's not the way to go because the device will have to disconnect from the old router and reconnect to the new network.
Features to Consider
Compatibility With Your Wifi
The original WiFi standard, IEEE 802.11, came out in 1997 and is now obsolete. Since then we've added A, B, G, N, and AC. There's absolutely no point in buying a fancy wireless extender with the latest standard if your router doesn't support it. Check what standard your router supports first; if it isn't at least N, then you should really think about replacing it before opting for an extender.
Speeds are displayed in Mbps and the range is huge. You might have a 300Mbps N router, or, if you're lucky, a 1,300Mbps-rated AC router. The important thing to remember is there's no point in getting an extender that supports a faster speed than your router, because you won't gain any advantage. Your wireless extender can only rebroadcast the signal it receives.
Single- or Dual-Band
The 802.11n WiFi standard also introduced dual-band support. It covers the long-used 2.4GHz band, but also offers the 5GHz band. Generally speaking, the 2.4GHz band has a longer range, but the 5GHz band supports faster speeds. If you have a dual-band router, then it's probably a good idea to go with a dual-band extender. That said, a single-band extender will often be cheaper and, while it may just extend 2.4GHz to the rest of your home, you'll still be able to connect to the original router with 5GHz where it does offer coverage.
You should look for the latest WiFi Protected Access version, which is WPA2-PSK (AES). You're looking for AES, as opposed to TKIP. It's an encryption method that will prevent anyone without your password from connecting to your network. If your router doesn't support WPA, that's another reason to think about upgrading it.
There are a lot of different designs to choose from, but they mostly break into two aesthetic camps. At one end, you have wireless extenders that are small plastic blocks, designed to plug directly into a wall outlet. They'll have a couple of LEDs on them to show power and signal strength. At the other end, you have wireless extenders that look a lot like routers, with aerials and their own power supply.
Wireless extenders designed to plug directly into the wall are less obtrusive, but make sure they'll fit alongside whatever else you have there, because some of them are quite bulky. The larger extenders tend to have more features.
There are lots of potential extras a wireless extender can offer. The most likely is one or more Ethernet ports. This allows you to plug in a device with a wired connection, which offers better speeds and reduces the number of devices trying to connect wirelessly. If you really just want the extension to serve a TV, game console, and DVR that are all placed together, then a wireless extender with at least three Ethernet ports might be your best bet.
Some wireless extenders also offer audio streaming capabilities. They might boast a port to connect speakers or headphones, allowing you to choose and stream music from your smartphone or laptop.
Ease of Connection
Often, you'll need to know your router's network name or SSID, as well as your password or key, in order to set up a connection. This information can frequently be found on the back or underside of your router.
Some wireless extenders offer WiFi Protected Setup (WPS), which makes things even easier. Simply press the button on your router and then press the button on the wireless extender and they'll connect. The router will send the relevant data to the extender, so it'll be able to reconnect in the future without you having to do anything at all.
You don't have to pay a great deal to get a decent wireless extender. Prices start at around $25 and go up to near $140 at the top end. You can always find discounts off MSRP, so we wouldn't advise spending more than $100.
Have you had success with a range extender? Let us know in the comments below.