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The best WiFi range extenders

Keep the signal going and going.

Unless you live in a studio apartment, or one of those “tiny houses,” chances are there is a corner of your abode your wireless signal is failing to reach. While the ideal situation is to have the router positioned in a central location, it hardly helps when most setups have the ISP wiring entering through an external wall, putting both the modem and router on one side of the home. Multi-level dwellings also have their challenges as most routers can cover a single floor well, but the signal dwindles away on an upper floor or in the basement. Just like in other addictions, the first step of the “Twelve Step Process” is to admit that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with, and feel free to repeat, “Hi, my name is Xxxx; I have a Wi-Fi deadspot.” 

With some knowledge of networking, there are plenty of ways to solve these connection conundrums, including running Ethernet cable, leveraging existing coax with a MoCA adapter, upgrading the router, or turning to a Powerline kit. A current solution in vogue is to turn to a mesh router kit, which can blanket a home in Wi-Fi. However, this comes at a significant expense, and is overkill for many users, especially if the router is otherwise working fine.

Instead, you might consider adding an extender to the network, which can retransmit the signal from the router. The advantage of this approach is that the same router can be used. The disadvantage of a repeater is that traditionally the bandwidth gets cut in half by both receiving and transmitting on the same frequency. However, more modern extenders work around this issue by transmitting on one frequency, and receiving on another to avoid this loss of bandwidth.

Using the popular Wi-Fi Analyzer app for the Android platform, the increase in signal strength that an extender offers can be demonstrated. The router’s SSID is ASUS, and the extender’s SSID is dlink-D3A0, which has a much stronger signal. Also note that both the router and the extender are transmitting on the same Wi-Fi channels, centered on Channel 6.

As we collected gear for this buying guide, we look at vendor websites, other roundups, and Amazon reviews to identify the products worth going hands on with, and in turn parting with your hard earned cash. Overall, network extenders have become a crowded market segment, with multiple devices sold from all the network vendors; most of this gear is not designed to optimize gaming, but rather range. We also choose to focus on more recent hardware offering potentially more stability and faster speeds.

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Features

  • Antennas: Some models use internal antenna designs for slimmer profiles, while other models feature external antennas for increased range and signal strength.
  • Integrated QoS: While quality of service has become important for router gaming performance, some models apply this traffic shaping further down the stream, and allow gaming, or video to given priority.
  • Compact vs. larger size: This is a choice based on the setup and space for the network. Some of the more compact designs fit neatly into an outlet to be unobtrusive. At the other end of the spectrum are devices that are sized like a router.
  • Backhaul: This refers to how the extender connects back to the router, which is further detailed below.
  • SSID: Some extenders get their own SSID, and when roaming between the router and extender this may require a manual reconnect to the stronger signal. Some better extenders can integrate better onto the network with a single SSID, and allow for smoother roaming. In fact, this kind of becomes a “Mesh lite” type of system, that is often easier to live with.
  • Placement feedback: Locating the extender is a critical step for optimal performance, as it needs a decent signal to both the router and the client to work. Some extenders provide feedback on this, whether by LED’s on the device, or their software interface.

Backhaul Explained

A lot of the performance of the extender does come down to the backhaul. Extenders got a bad rap years ago when they debuted, when all they could do was repeat the 2.4 GHz signal, while cutting their bandwidth in half, earning the other name for this type of device- a repeater. This also made an extender the Wi-Fi solution of last resort, to be used only when there was literally no other solution to get the wireless signal to a location, and made a good argument to run some Ethernet cable.

With the current dual band routers that have both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, today’s extenders can transmit on one frequency, while simultaneously receiving on the alternate frequency. This allows for the full bandwidth to be transmitted by the extender, and avoiding what we term “The bandwidth haircut.” As an aside, this is akin to what most current mesh routers kits are doing these days, with many turning to tri-band solutions.

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The best overall wireless extender

  • Easy configuration
  • Class leading performance on many benchmarks
  • Video streams with minimal packet loss
  • Does not block upper outlet
  • Lowest ping
  • Lower 2.4GHz upload speed

Sporting an unassuming “computer beige” exterior, the Amped Wireless High Power AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender is our pick for the best wireless extender for gaming. Despite the bland outside, it has AC2600 speeds, along with two external antennas, two internal antennas, and a total of sixteen amplifiers. Combine this with a Gigabit Ethernet port for network bridge duty, MU-MIMO and Boostband technology which optimizes speed by communicating back to the router on the 5GHz frequency.

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The best full size extender

  • Tri-band support for dedicated backhaul
  • USB printer support
  • Single SSID
  • Fastest 5GHz download speed
  • Most expensive extender tested
  • High packet loss on 5GHz video streaming

The Netgear Nighthawk X6S, is a tower of black plastic, evoking a sense of wonder akin to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (feel free to fire up the film’s theme music here) with humanoids staring up at a monolith. With a full size extender comes plenty of room for additional features, including four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a quad core processor, and a USB 2.0 port that supports ReadySHARE Print. The wireless sports an impressive feature set that makes lower end networking gear envious, including Tri-band support, Beamforming+, as well as Access Point mode. One of the 5 GHz frequencies of the Tri-band is for dedicated backhaul to the router via a feature dubbed FastLane3.

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The competition

Amped Wireless High Power AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender RE2600M

This Amped Wireless RE2600M was a previous best full size extender pick. This time around, it falls from grace, being pushed aside by both its newer full size competitor, the Netgear X6S, as well as its smaller, but scrappy sibling, the Amped Wireless REC44M. As the RE2600M is unable to exceed 30 FPS on either frequency on our gaming congestion test, we go with other recommendations.

D-link AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender DAP-1860

While the D-Link AC2600 has plenty of antennas, we could not get past its shortcomings, including buggy setup, a large size that partially falls out of older outlets, lower 2.4 GHz scores, and its inability to function on the 5 GHz frequency.

Edimax Gemini Wi-Fi Roaming Kit R11

The Edimax Gemini is the only extender we tested that gets sold as a set of two units with the theory being if you have a wireless deadspot, you probably have another. Setup was fiddly, and required multiple attempts to connect to the router. Another weakness of the R11 really comes down to the backhaul, with the Gemini on setup getting locked to either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequency via a user selectable choice. This makes the Gemini a repeater on one of the frequencies, and contributes to low throughout on Speedtest, an exceedingly large number of latency spikes on PingPlotter 5, a ridiculous latency on PingPlotter 5 of over 700 ms, and a high amount of dropped frames on the streaming test.

 Netgear Nighthawk X4 WiFi Range Extender EX7300

The Netgear Nighthawk X4 Wi-Fi Range Extender is a more recent model to the extender market, with AC2200 speeds of N450 and AC1733 Mbps. We are less thrilled that setup required creation of an online Netgear account, and we hope this is not the start of a trend of networking companies tracking users online.

The Nighthawk X4 ships default as a repeater for both the 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz frequencies, which explains the pokey download speeds that were less than half of the available bandwidth. When testing in this mode, the FPS was excellent at 37.33, but on Pingplotter there was quite a bit of congestion with more network spikes than could be counted, and dropped frames that are 21.1% on our streaming test video, which falls short of the class leaders.

Turning on the FastLane feature enables the Nighthawk X4 to send out only a 5 GHz signal, while connecting to the wireless router via the 2.4 GHz frequency, which establishes dedicated backhaul. With this done, now the FPS are at 34.517, with only 2 latency spikes, and the dropped frames on the video stream drop to 3.8%, an overall improvement on how the extender behaves on a congested network. However, it totally sacrifices the 2.4 GHz frequency, and download speeds on 5 GHz also are lackluster.

This keeps the Nighthawk X4S from getting the recommended nod.

TP-Link AC1750 Wi-Fi Range Extender RE450

The TP-Link RE450 falls short on download speeds, and gaming FPS, although its video streaming dropped frames are decent. It has been replaced by the RE650 as TP-Link’s top extender, which has improved performance.

TP-Link AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender RE650

The TP-Link AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender (RE650) is their latest and top entry into the extender space. This model takes the specs up a notch compared to the RE450, with AC2600 speeds (N800 + AC1733), four external antennas, and an integrated Gigabit Ethernet port that facilitates use as a wireless bridge, or access point. Setup is simple, with the option to have the same SSID as any brand of router, making the RE650 able to pull duty as a “Mesh Lite” unit. The firmware upgrade process has also been streamlined, as the RE650 can locate the file for the upgrade process.

The RE650 seems to have issues with its dedicated backhaul, and is a bit of a dichotomy. Hile it excels on some tests, it trips over itself on others. For example, the 5 GHz download speed of 186.89 Mbps tops the charts, while on network congestion testing the FPS dropped precipitously to 18.383, and we recorded the highest dropped frame rate to date of 46.8% on our video test stream. 

With the performance a bit of a “Hot mess” currently on this model, we look elsewhere, although we will be on the lookout of a firmware update that may bring out the best of this newly debuted product. The street price is currently $129.

How we test

We focused on real world testing, in a residential location with a consistent Wi-Fi deadspot, which translates to poor performance both when PC gaming, and when streaming video.

We used each of the adapters on Speedtest, on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz tests, to see how the bandwidth got affected. This also exposed issues with the extender’s backhaul solution. In addition to the throughput measured, we were also able to see how latency gets affected via the ping result.

We next applied a network congestion model of simultaneous gaming and streaming video on the network, all going through the extender. The game is Medal of Honor: Pacific Theater, played on high game settings with a 720p resolution, measured via FRAPS software to quantitate average, minimum and maximum frame rates, with each of the extender solutions, and a comparison to baseline. We also used PingPlotter 5, both to quantitate latency spikes of over 100 ms when connected to the extender with simultaneous gaming and video streaming, and also ran their ping tests which connect to www.google.com, and provide a latency measurement across time to identify general web surfing connectivity issues. 

The streaming video was provided by a single 4K YouTube video. Using the “Stats for Nerds” tool that YouTube provides, it was verified that the video was streaming at the full 4K resolution. Dropped frames were measured against the total frames streamed for the clip, and this was expressed as a percentage of dropped frames, with lower numbers being preferred.

Best results for the table are indicated in bold, and best results for the category are shown in italics.

Future Directions

This Best Network Extender Guide is intended to help users build out their network, to cover all their Wi-Fi dead spots with wireless connectivity. Extenders continue to mature, offering faster speeds and better backhaul solutions. This product segment now has offerings of a single SSID puts it against current mesh solutions for total household Wi-Fi coverage.