Fed up with slow Wi-Fi and patchy network coverage around your home or office? We put 16 extenders through their paces in real-world tests. On the following pages, you’ll find repeaters and powerline kits from the big names in networking. Find out which is the perfect extender to banish the “not spots” and make your downloads fly.
Seven steps to the perfect extender
THIS ONE PURCHASE COULD BOOST THE WI-FI SIGNAL ALL OVER YOUR HOME OR OFFICE, BUT THERE ARE SOME GOTCHAS TO AVOID – AND YOU MAY NOT NEED ONE AT ALL
Extending the range and speed of your Wi-Fi can be as simple as plugging a small box into a mains socket and pressing the WPS button to connect it to your router. So should you rush out to your nearest retailer and pick one at random? Definitely not. If you want to get the best performance – and the best value for money – there are some key issues to consider. You may not even need to buy one at all…
1. UNDERSTAND WHAT AN EXTENDER DOES
An extender relays the wireless connection from your router to another area of your home or office, so that the signal there is almost as strong as it would be next to the router. This can provide a fast, stable connection in rooms that previously suffered a slow and intermittent service (or no service at all), and it often means a big performance boost for your local network.
However, when it comes to internet browsing, the limiting factor could be the speed of your service rather than your wireless network. You can use a free speed-testing website such as speedtest. net to measure your download speeds at different distances from your router and see whether this is the case. Before you shell out on an extender, it’s also worth experimenting with different radio bands or connection modes (see below), since this may enable you to achieve a better signal from your existing equipment.
2. BE REALISTIC ABOUT NETWORK SPEEDS
Wireless networking is nowhere near as fast as the manufacturers would have you believe. As our feature table shows, extenders promise data rates as high as l,733Mbits/sec – but these are theoretical maximums. In your home, where the signal has to cope with all sorts of obstructions and interference, you’ll be lucky to see a tenth of those speeds. In our real-world tests this month, the highest download rate we saw from any device was 17.8MB/sec (equivalent to 142Mbits/sec); the average was just 6.8MB/ sec (55Mbits/sec). If your extender’s performance is in such a range, don’t take it back to the shop – it’s working as expected. And, for now at least, this is enough bandwidth to keep up with all but the very fastest fibre-optic broadband connections.
Wireless performance will be affected by a huge range of factors, including the layout of your home
Be aware, though, that wireless connections don’t just smoothly slow down as the signal gets fainter. Lower speeds reflect an increasing incidence of dropped data packets. Consequently, when the data rate drops below 1MB/ sec, you can expect to see noticeable problems, such as web pages timing out and LAN connections intermittently hanging.
3. REPEATERS VERSUS POWERLINE KITS
Wireless range extenders come in two types. The simpler choice is a wireless repeater – a standalone unit that connects to your router’s network and retransmits it over a wider area. It’s a neat solution, but for optimal performance the repeater itself needs a strong connection to your router, which means it can’t be placed too far away from it. That may limit your ability to extend the wireless network to the farthest reaches of your home or office.
The other approach is to use a powerline extender kit. This includes two units, a base and an extender, which communicate over your main domestic circuit. The base unit is connected directly to your router via an Ethernet cable. The extender can then be plugged into any other socket in the house, from where it will act as an access point for the wireless clients.
Powerline networking provides more freedom than a repeater to locate your wireless extender where it’s needed; some manufacturers also sell additional extender units, so you can set up multiple
Use free speed-testing sites to measure your download speeds
access points around your home. However, data rates can be affected by the distance between the base unit and extender, and some models simply work better than others. Asus’ powerline kit, for example, delivered download speeds of 22MB/sec to our hallway socket.
4. SINGLE VERSUS DUAL-BAND WI-FI
Modern routers let wireless clients connect on two different radio bands: the 2.4GHz band associated with the original Wi-Fi specification; and the 5GHz band, introduced in 2009. Older or cheaper devices might only support a 2.4GHz connection, but if 5GHz is available, it’s usually a better choice – it’s less susceptible to interference from other electrical appliances and supports faster connections, as we detail below.
However, several of this month’s cheaper extenders are 2.4GHz-only, and if you’re on a budget and don’t require top-tier performance then you may be tempted to make do with that. Nevertheless,we suggest you carry out your own tests to find out if 2.4GHz performance is acceptable for the needs of your home.
5. 802.11N AND OTHER STANDARDS
Any router you buy will support the old 802.11b and 802.11g standards -and these days, the effective lowest common denominator is 802.11n. This works on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, at speeds up to a theoretical 300Mbits/sec, and anything you’ve bought in the past five years is likely to support it.
For the best speeds, though, you want to be using 802.11ac. This newer standard allows devices to send and receive multiple data streams in parallel for faster transfer speeds (the MIMO approach, short for multi-input, multi-output). On paper, 802.11ac can deliver six times the speed of 802.11n, and while you probably won’t see that sort of benefit, you can certainly expect a boost from making the switch.
All 802.11ac gear is backwards-compatible with 802.11n, and all of this month’s dual-band extenders support it, meaning it isn’t a difficult decision to make. It’s a good bit of future-proofing to ensure that you get the best from new devices – and, if need be, you can still add 802.11ac capabilities to an older computer using a cheap USB adapter.
6. ETHERNET PORTS
While Wi-Fi is this month’s focus, most of the extenders on test offer one or more Ethernet ports. There are a few reasons why you might find this useful. Some devices, such as printers and set-top boxes, may support only wired connections, meaning you can use an extender to get them online via a short length of network cable.
A cabled connection will also be faster and more stable than wireless, so if you’re extending your network into a study or home office, it makes sense to wire up your desktop PC. Certain extenders offer multiple ports, so you can connect a slew of devices; if yours doesn’t, you can simply connect it to a multi-port network switch.
Remember, though, that the speed of your Ethernet connection will be limited by the incoming wireless or powerline connection. You probably won’t see anything similar to the throughput of a direct connection: the best wired speed we saw this month was 307Mbits/sec. If you choose an extender with a 100Mbits/ sec port, rather than 1Gbit/sec, then that may limit speeds further.
7. OPERATION MODES
In addition to regular Wi-Fi extending duties, several of this month’s appliances support alternative roles. The most common is to act as a wired access point, which connects directly to your router via its Ethernet port. In this way, you can make a cable-only connection – of the sort you might find in an office or hotel room -available to wireless clients. If you don’t mind running cables around your home, you could also use AP mode to position a repeater further from the router than a wireless connection would allow.
The TP-Link model can additionally assign and manage IP addresses, allowing them to be connected directly to an ADSL or cable modem without need for a router. This probably isn’t something most of us will need to do often, but we can see it being useful in an emergency.
Finally, some extenders offer the ability to segment the network so the repeater connects to the router over 2.4GHz, while clients connect over 5GHz (or vice versa). In theory, this can deliver a performance benefit by reducing interference.
In practice, we found that keeping everything on 5GHz was faster than relying on the 2.4GHz band – and besides, ensuring all your clients are on the same band isn’t always practical or desirable.