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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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.
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.
The best overall wireless extender
Class leading performance on many benchmarks
Video streams with minimal packet loss
Does not block upper outlet
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.
Initial configuration of this Amped Wireless Extender was a smooth process via the Setup Wizard, including an LED to indicate if the positioning is optimal. The interface also allows plenty of granular control of features. Finally, while the REC44M has plenty of horizontal girth, the design has the benefit of still allowing use of the upper outlet.
We run a whole variety of benchmark tests to separate the wheat from the chaff, and it is virtually impossible for any one product to win every last test. However, when we tabulated our results, this REC44M pulled ahead on more tests than any other extender, hence earning our pick. These include the fastest download speed on the 2.4GHz frequency of 195.92Mbps, and the fastest upload speed on the 5GHz of 38.667Mbps. It also had the lowest Ping on Speedtest on both frequencies of 11ms.
While throughput is important, our network congestion test really shows how a device can manage traffic in a more real world scenario, and the REC44M once again showed us how to get the job done. It had excellent scores on our gaming tests, while on 2.4GHz a fps of 37.233, and on 5GHz the leading score of 38.667 fps. Equally impressive are the low dropped frames on the 4K video, with the lowest scores to date of 0.27% on 2.4GHz, and 3.61% on 5GHz.
In short, the REC44M is a great extender that gets the job done well, with a street price of $139.
The Linksys RE7000 provides a solution that offers AC1900 speeds (N300 + AC1733), and can boost range up to 10,000 square feet. It also supports the same SSID, but only when connected to a Linksys router, making the RE7000 behave more like a mesh node, than an add on extender, all in a compact package that is the size of most Powerline adapters. By having the antennas internally located, the unit is more compact, and easier to both fit into an outlet, and integrate into the home’s decor.
The RE7000 also features a Gigabit port, allowing it to function as a wireless bridge while in extender mode to a device that requires a wired connection, such as a Blu-ray player. The RE7000 can also function as a wired access point, giving flexibility in its deployment. The Wi-Fi integrated into the RE7000 supports both Beamforming, and MU-MIMO technologies. The RE7000 also features dedicated backhaul to the router via the alternate frequency, which Linksys terms Cross Band technology.
In our network congestion testing, with a simultaneous video stream, the RE7000 had the highest FPS on the 2.4 GHz frequency at 40.15 FPS, and a respectable score on 5 GHz at 34.483 FPS, while simultaneously streaming 4K video with dropped frames in the single digits.
The RE7000 is our previous best pick for this category, and it still remains a strong contender, even against the new competition. Current shortcomings include a download test on 2.4 GHz of 116.98 Mbps, and a 5 GHz gaming test of 34.483 FPS, which both fall just short of the current leader. It has a street price of $125.
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.
In use, the Nighthawk X6S had strong performance on several of the benchmarks. Showing the value of the dedicated backhaul, on download test, with the 2.4 GHz frequency we managed 154.19 Mbps, and on 5 GHz an even faster score of 187.31 Mbps; upload speeds were full bandwidth. On the network gaming congestion test, while connected on the 2.4 GHz frequency, the FPS were 37.183, along with only 6.76% of dropped frames, although the scores were not as impressive when connected via 5 GHz.
The newer Nighthawk X6S is clearly a step up from the smaller and older Netgear Nighthawk X4S extender. We are choosing it as our best full size extender, and this performance bump commands a street price of $229.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.