Unless you live in a studio apartment, or one of those “Tiny houses,” chances are there is a corner of your abode that the Wi-Fi could be improved upon. While the ideal situation is to have the router positioned in a central location, it hardly helps when most setups have the modem positioned by an external wall, putting both the modem and router on one side of the home, and away from the center. 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—feel free to repeat, “Hi, my name is xxxx, and 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.
We've been testing more range extenders but our primary pick, the Linksys RE7000, still takes the place of best overall range extender for most people. It's got checkboxes in all the right features: performance, features, price, and will fill WiFi gaps in most homes.
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.
Rather, another approach is to add 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 is that traditionally routers on the single 2.4 Ghz frequency cut their bandwidth in half by having to handle both transmitting and receiving. Some newer products in this space work around this issue by transmitting on one frequency, and receiving on another to avoid the “bandwidth cut.”
As we collected gear for this buying guide, we looked at vendor websites, other roundups, and Amazon reviews to identify the products worth going hands-on with, and in turn worth your hard earned cash. Realize that network extenders have become a crowded market segment, with multiple devices sold from all the network vendors. Most of this gear was not designed to optimize gaming, making the process more complicated. We also chose to focus on more recent hardware offering potentially faster speeds.
- 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.
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 some current mesh routers are doing these days, although most of them are turning to tri-band solutions, and keeping the second 5 GHz band hidden, and not available or even visible to the user for the connection between mesh nodes.
The lowest ping was obtained at 10 ms in a closer location, with the Edimax Gemini R11 having the lowest ping among the extenders on 2.4 GHz, and the TP-Link RE450 the longest ping. None refers to no extender used in the Wi-Fi fringe area, and note how the ping increases to 12 ms, a 20% increase as the signal from the router weakens. The ping was measured via Speedtest.
The shortest ping of 10 ms was obtained on the 5 GHz frequency at the closer location. There was a tie among the extenders of 12 ms for the shortest ping, and the TP-Link RE450 once again has the longest time (14 ms). The D-Link was unable to complete testing on 5 GHz.
The best download speed was obtained by the Amped Wireless RE2600M extender, at 68.32 Mbps showing the value of the larger size extender and its Boostband backhaul solution. The slowest was the Edimax Gemini R11, at 33.32 Mbps which cut the download speed in half, and indicates its more traditional extender performance.
It was a virtual tie with the Amped Wireless, Linksys and TP-Link solutions all achieving 68+ Mbps on the download via Speedtest testing, indicating full bandwidth on the 5 GHz frequency. The D-Link was unable to complete the test, and the Edimax Gemini was the slowest at 51.76 Mbps.
The average frames per second (FPS AVG) on our test game of Medal of Honor: Pacific Theater (720p, high settings), with a simultaneous 4K video stream to the same client to simulate network congestion in a fringe wireless area. The baseline with no extender is 17.9 FPS, and all the extenders are able to improve the frame rate. Our highest FPS was achieved with the Linksys RE7000 at 37.1 FPS, a clear victory on this test, with all the other extenders under 30 FPS.
Once again, the Linksys RE7000 has the highest FPS score of 27.4 FPS, although all of the extenders (aside from the D-Link that could not connect on 5 GHz) did improve from the baseline without an extender of 17.3 FPS.
This test uses PingPlotter 5 to measure the amount of latency spikes > 100 millisecs during the gaming session, with the 4K YouTube video streaming in the background. On the 2.4 GHz frequency, the Linksys RE7000 had the best result with 0 spikes, while the Edimax Gemini R11 had a total of 24 spikes. These spikes roughly correspond to slowdowns within the game, and poor video streaming performance.
The Linksys RE7000 is the only extender on the 5 GHz frequency to complete the gaming session and 4K streaming video with 0 latency spikes > 100 millisecs. The D-Link could not complete testing on 5 GHz, and all the other extenders had 1 latency spike.
This test quantitates the percent of dropped frames while simultaneously gaming on our YouTube 4k video, as reported in the “Stats for Nerds” available on the video stream, and which corresponds to poor video streaming performance. The highest was the D-Link extender at 44.4%, but with no extender, and the Edimax Gemini R11 were both also above 40%. The best performance was the TP-Link RE450 at 2%, followed by the Amped Wireless RE2600M at 8.4%, and the Linksys RE11 at 12.9%.
Here we look at the percent of dropped frames on the same test while connected on the 5 GHz frequency. The best score achieved is the TP-Link RE450 at 12.2%, while the worst score is the Edimax Gemini R11 at 43.4%. The D-Link adapter could not connect on the 5 GHz frequency.
D-link AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender DAP-1860
If we were giving out awards for the most antennas, the D-link AC2600 Wi-Fi Range Extender would win as it was only wall mounted unit to deploy four external antennas. Spec-wise, it has AC2600 speeds, support for MU-MIMO, integrated Gigabit Ethernet port and an LED indicator for optimal positioning. Its large size also made it easy to partially fall out of some of our looser electrical outlets due to the weight and size.
Setup of the DAP-1860 was the most difficult of any of our units tested, although using the WPS proved to simplify things compared to the manual pathway that often hung. Although the product supports other manufacturer’s routers, it worked better when connected to a D-link router (DIR-879) than the Asus router we used in our testing for the other routers. Once connected, the lower download throughput, and highest percentage of dropped frames on 4K video streaming (44.4%) made this product hard to recommend. In addition, while we could obtain test results on the 2.4 GHz frequency, it could not connect at all on the 5 GHz frequency, despite multiple wireless adapters tried.
Edimax Gemini Wi-Fi Roaming Kit RE11
The Edimax Gemini RE11 is the only extender sold as a kit of two units, and therefore the most like a “mesh lite” type of networking solution. Each unit was among the smallest extenders tested, making them discrete, and an easy fit in the electrical outlet. According to the Edimax website, the RE11 is the first in a coming family of products under their Gemini moniker.
Setup was fiddly, and required more than one attempt to be connected to the router, but was accomplished. The weakness of the RE11 really comes down to the backhaul. While other extender solutions connect on the alternate wireless frequency dynamically, the Gemini on setup gets locked to either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequency via a user selectable choice. This contributed 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. While the price is affordable at just under $100 for the set, the consistently poor performance on multiple tests resulted in the Edimax Gemini RE11 not making our list of recommended products.
Netgear N300 EX2700
The Netgear N300 EX2700 is the current best selling network extender on Amazon. While it is certainly affordable at $25, the limited N300 speeds, and lack of 5 GHz frequency support, did not allow it to make our cut for testing with more robust choices available.
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 was 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 in the full 4K resolution. The 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.