Are WiFi Extenders Worth It?
| technology | networking - David Zomaya

Are WiFi Extenders Worth It?

Whether you are a wireless pro or are studying for a wireless cert, WiFi dead spots and signal issues are a pain. They can derail VoIP calls and video conferences, slow down your work, and cause Netflix to buffer. As a result, solutions that can minimize wireless issues and help ensure you have a strong WiFi connection are popular.

One of the more popular solutions is WiFi extenders. However, there are plenty of recommendations against using WiFi extenders, and they have a bad rap in some IT circles. Part of the reason for this is simple: A WiFi extender isn't a cure-all for WiFi issues. Sometimes running a cable is a better solution.

The key is knowing what wireless problems you need to solve and selecting the right tool for the job. Here, we'll look at how WiFi extenders work, the different types of extenders, and the use-cases where using one might make sense.

As we go, keep in mind that many wireless devices can serve multiple functions. For example, WiFi routers can often be reconfigured to act as extenders. Additionally, all the standard rules and best practices around WiFi device positioning, 802.11 protocols, and WiFi bands and channel widths still apply.

WiFi Extenders vs. Repeaters vs. Wireless Access Points

The term WiFi extender can mean different things depending on the context. For example, "WiFi extender" and "WiFi repeater" are often used interchangeably to refer to devices that retransmit wireless signals.

At the same time, there are plenty of attempts to explain the differences between extenders and repeaters online. Add to that the fact the term WiFi booster gets thrown around to mean the same thing as WiFi extender, and things can get confusing fast.

Unfortunately, we can't make marketers everywhere agree to a standard set of definitions. However, we can help boil things down to what the different terms generally imply and look at the technical differences.

Wireless: Repeaters vs Wireless Extenders vs Boosters

In most cases, WiFi extenders, WiFi boosters, and WiFi repeaters refer to devices that rebroadcast an existing network's wireless signal. When you add a wireless extender to a WiFi network, you can boost the signal range.

For example, suppose you only have WiFi in 80% of your home. A properly placed extender could help with that last 20%. That's great, but there are tradeoffs to be aware of. Let's think about what adding an extender to a simple wireless network does.

When clients connect through the extender, data will be sent from the client to the extender to the wireless router and then to its destination. Inbound packets will then follow the same path in reverse. As you might expect, the additional retransmission of the signal can add some latency.

In many cases, wireless extenders split their bandwidth between router communication and client device communication. This can result in cutting your throughput in half or more. Additionally, when operating on the same wireless bandwidth and channel, client devices and extenders compete for bandwidth, which increases network congestion.

Some dual-band extenders can be configured to dedicate a radio for backhaul communication with the router. However, wireless backhaul comes with some performance tradeoffs.

Wireless extender pros:

  • No need for a wired network connection
  • Can provide coverage in existing dead spots

Wireless extender cons:

  • Can introduce additional throughput and latency issues
  • Potential interference challenges

Wired: Wireless Access Points vs Wired Extenders

A device that connects to an existing network using a wired connection and creates a new WiFi network is known as a wireless access point (WAP). Keep in mind: WAPs are sometimes referred to as wired extenders.

The fundamental difference between a WAP and a wireless extender is that WAPs use wired backhaul and create a new wireless local area network (WLAN). The wired connection will generally have more throughput and be more reliable. A new WLAN will also minimize congestion and interference issues relative to the wireless extender approach.

The downside to using a WAP is obvious: you must run a cable. Getting a cable where you need it isn't always practical — even if you are knowledgeable about cabling.

WAP pros:

  • Reliable wired backhaul connection
  • Dedicated WLAN avoids throughput, interference, and latency issues of wireless extenders

WAP cons:

  • The need for a cable limits placement flexibility

When to Use a WiFi Extender

Now that we understand the differences between extenders/repeaters, WAPs, and mesh systems, let's look at some use cases for wireless extenders. Managing remote teams is challenging, and many of these solutions may need help from an IT resource.

The general use case for a WiFi extender is straightforward: a relatively low-cost way to extend the signal range. Keep in mind the tradeoffs related to performance and interference that we previously discussed. If you have a network throughput or a congestion problem, a wireless extender probably isn't the right tool for the job.

Here are some cases where a wireless extender may help:

  • Extending WiFi signal between floors. Suppose you have a 3-story building, and your WiFi router is on floor 1. The signal is still strong on the 2nd floor but doesn't quite reach the 3rd. Placing a wireless extender on the 2nd floor can give the connection the extra boost required for the 3rd floor.
  • Obstacles are Blocking the WiFi Signal. Physical objects can impede radio signals like WiFi. If there are physical obstructions between your client devices and the WiFi router, a strategically placed wireless extender may help. As with our first example, make sure to position the extender somewhere the signal is still strong.
  • Your client devices are too far from the router. Even if there aren't physical obstructions between your devices and the WiFi router, distance may be an issue. Adding an extender to the mix may help in this case as well.

5 Types of WiFi Extenders

There are plenty of different devices out there that get labeled as WiFi extenders of some sort. Not all of these fit neatly into the above wireless extender vs. WAP definition. Let's look at some of the more popular options.

Single-band WiFi Repeaters

Single-band WiFi repeaters are the most basic example of a wireless extender. They will either support 2.4 GHz or 5.0 bands. They generally must use the same WiFi frequency and channel to communicate with clients and routers. As a result, single-band repeaters can be very susceptible to the throughput reduction and network congestion issues we covered.

Single-band repeaters are also generally low-cost. If you're looking for a low price point extender, a single-band WiFi repeater may do the trick. Make sure to confirm the extender is compatible with your router's specifications.

Dual-band WiFi Repeaters

Like dual-band WiFi routers, dual-band WiFi repeaters support both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi frequencies. By supporting two separate bands, some dual-band repeaters can dedicate one for backhaul traffic to the router and the other for clients. This can reduce some of the performance tradeoffs associated with single band repeaters. However, it isn't a given that a dual-band repeater will support dedicating a band to backhaul. Be sure to look for the wireless extender to call out "dedicated backhaul" or similar if that is a feature you want. Additionally, technologies like beamforming and MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple-input multiple-output) can help improve performance.

In most cases today, if you're going to invest in a wireless extender, you'll probably want to go dual-band. It gives you more flexibility and a broader range of support.

Wired WiFi Extenders/WAPs

What many of us know as wireless access points are sometimes referred to as wired WiFi extenders. If the device uses a wired connection for backhaul to the router and creates a new WLAN, it falls in this category.

As a rule of thumb (at least until 5G and WiFi 6/6E become more prevalent), when looking into WiFi extender solutions:

If you can run a cable and can't afford any performance degradation, you should probably just run the cable.

Powerline Adapters

Powerline adapters aren't WiFi extenders per se, but you will sometimes see them marketed as a comparable solution. A powerline adapter transmits network data over the existing electrical system in a building. Some powerline adapters support WiFi access in addition to wired connections. While there are some usage caveats, these adapters can prove useful in getting WiFi to otherwise hard to reach spots.

Mesh Networks

WiFi mesh systems have seen a recently rise in popularity. Solutions like the Google Nest, Dell's Eero, and Netgear's Orbi are three popular examples of WiFi mesh systems. Under the hood, these systems work similarly to a WiFi router and wireless extenders. They are a network of access points that send a wireless signal back and forth between one another, to clients, and to the upstream router.

At a high-level, this means WiFi mesh systems have the same tradeoffs as using traditional WiFi repeaters. However, the mesh system's upside is that all the mesh access points are designed to work together to provide optimal coverage in a given area.

The idea is that mesh should provide a lot of the upside wireless extenders can deliver while minimizing the downside. While the devices' positioning is still important, mesh can take many of the configuration and management hassles out of the equation. As a result, mesh systems can provide an advantage over more traditional router and extender configurations, particularly for less tech-savvy users.

3 WiFi Extender Recommendations

If you've done your research and decided a WiFi extender is what you need, the next step is choosing one. To help you with your search, we've selected three WiFi extenders that stand out based on the opinions from around the Internet, specifications, and user reviews (with the help of FakeSpot to weed out suspicious reviews). For this list, we're focusing on wireless extenders that would make sense for home or small business use.

TPLink RE650

The dual-band RE650 WiFI range extender can act as a wireless extender or WAP (in AP mode). It supports 4×4 MU-MIMO to simultaneously transfer data to multiple devices (clients must support 4×4 MU-MIMO). Beamforming allows the RE650 to send targeted signals to improve connection strength for select devices.

Overall online feedback on the RE, there are plenty of users with a positive experience with the RE650, and the overall 3.9-star Amazon rating holds up on FakeSpot as well.

NETGEAR EX3700

Chances are, if you're looking into getting a WiFi extender, you don't want to break the bank. The EX3700 is a popular dual-band wireless extender available for around $40 at the time of this writing. It still supports 802.11ac, as well as 802.11b/g/n, despite the lower price tag.

It doesn't offer beamforming, MU-MIMO, or comparable technologies you might find in more expensive extenders. However, if you're looking for a lower budget option, EX3700 specifications and user reviews hold up well.

NETGEAR EX7700

The EX7700 is a tri-band WiFi extender, and one of the bands is a dedicated link for backhaul to the router. This approach to extending WiFi can help limit the throughput loss with other extenders. Additionally, the EX7700 supports WiFi mesh and NETGEAR's FastLane3 technology.

One red flag that stuck out to us was FakeSpot indicated a high number of unreliable reviews for the EX7700's Amazon and Walmart pages. However, some users have reported success with the EX7700, and it has features that set it apart from many other WiFi extenders.

WiFi Extenders are Absolutely Worth It (Usually)

If you understand the tradeoffs and use cases where wireless extenders make sense, wireless extenders can be a practical fix to a real problem. The key is knowing when a WiFi extender makes sense and when it doesn't. Cost, performance, and your requirements will all come into play.

With WiFi, there are too many moving parts for a one-size-fits-all solution. It's up to you to know how to diagnose them and pick the right tool for the job.

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