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Need better Wi-Fi while you're bunkered in at home? A range extender can help

© Provided by CNET   A plug-in Wi-Fi range extender like this model from D-Link might be all you need to boost speeds to that back room where you're struggling to stream Netflix. D-Link

By Ry Crist, CNET

If your router isn't sending a strong signal as far into your home as you'd like, then a range extender might be exactly what you need. Set one up and establish a wireless connection with your router, and it'll use its own antennas to amplify the signal in order to help you connect.

Between cheap, plug-in extenders, fancy triband extenders with support for the fastest Wi-Fi 6 speeds, and dedicated mesh routers that come with their own range extenders, you've certainly got a lot of options as you shop. If that's leaving you feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about what to buy, then you've come to the right post. Here's a quick breakdown of your options to help you narrow things down.


Plug-in vs. free-standing

The most affordable Wi-Fi range extenders are small plug-in devices. They look a little like night lights or air fresheners, but instead of spreading light or lavender through your home, they spread a faster Wi-Fi connection.

You'll find extenders from all sorts of manufacturers as you shop, but your best bet is just to stick with the big, established names in wireless networking, such as Netgear, Linksys, TP-Link, D-Link and Ubiquiti. If you can find an extender from the same company that makes your router, great, but most are designed to work with routers from all sorts of manufacturers.

The most basic plug-in models won't cost you more than $50 apiece, and most will promise to deliver speeds of up to a few hundred megabits per second. That's good enough for most. If you can maintain steady speeds above 50Mbps, then you should be able to surf the web, check email, refresh your Twitter feed and stream HD video.

Like all range extenders, your best bet is to place them somewhere in between your router and the dead zone where you'd most like to improve speeds. Unless you've got clear line of sight between the two, then you probably won't want to put it much farther than 30 feet away from the router, and ideally with as few walls as possible between the two, and between the extender and your dead zone.

© Provided by CNET   The Netgear EX8000 is a free-standing, triband range extender that costs about $170. Netgear

The same goes for free-standing range extenders designed to sit out in the open on a table of shelf. These are typically a little more powerful than their plug-in brethren, some promising to deliver speeds of 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) or higher. Prices vary, but you should expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 for an extender like this. You'll find some fancier plug-in models in that higher price range, too, but if you're spending that much, then you might as well get a free-standing model, since they tend to have more room for antennas, ports and other hardware.

For most, I think a cheaper plug-in extender will do just fine, but consider a more powerful free-standing model if you're going to be making a lot of video calls, if you want to play online games or if you have multiple family members who might want to stream video at the same time. The extra oomph of a free-standing extender can go a long way in situations like those.


Dual-band vs. triband

Another key thing to look for is the number of bands your range extender is capable of putting out. A dual-band extender will feature the usual 2.4 and 5GHz networks, while a triband extender will add in a second 5GHz band at a higher cost.

Triband is a useful upgrade if you're already using a triband router that can dedicate one of its 5GHz bands to the range extender alone -- that'll keep the first two bands free and clear for your regular network traffic. But if you aren't using a router like that and you don't plan on upgrading to one, a triband range extender is probably overkill.


Wi-Fi 6 and other features to look for

As for features, you'll want to start by considering basics like antennas and ports. Plug-in range extenders with external, adjustable antennas might offer some degree of fine control over the strength of your connection that you won't get with a model that packs the antennas inside.

As for ports, you'll get the fastest connection from your extender if you're able to wire your device right to it with an Ethernet cable. If that's the approach you want to take, be sure to buy an extender that actually has an Ethernet jack -- some don't.

© Provided by CNET   This TP-Link Powerline adapter is receiving signals from the router directly through the home's electrical wiring. Matt Elliott/CNET

You'll also want to check your router to make sure that it has a Wi-Fi Protected Setup button, because lots of range extenders use that feature to connect. If you do, feel free to buy from whatever manufacturer you like, provided that the range extender has a WPS button of its own. If not, then you'll want to check your router manufacturer's website to see which range extenders will be compatible with your router -- when in doubt, just stick with the same company and you should be fine.

The newest and fastest range extenders will support Wi-Fi 6 -- the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi. If you're a power user who already owns a Wi-Fi 6 router, then an extender like this might be worth it. Most can probably make do with Wi-Fi 5, though. To tell the difference, look at the speed rating. "AC" connotes Wi-Fi 5, while "AX" connotes Wi-Fi 6.

One last option worth considering: Powerline extenders that pass a network connection through your home's electrical wiring, typically with little to no loss in speeds. They look like plug-in extenders, and you'll need at least two of them -- one to plug in close enough to your router for you to wire the two together with an Ethernet cable, and another to place somewhere else in your home where you want to boost speeds. These can be a good alternative if you'd have too many walls or other obstructions between the router and your extender to maintain a strong wireless connection. With the powerline approach, those obstructions don't matter.

© Provided by CNET   A mesh router like the Netgear Orbi, Nest Wifi or Eero, seen here left to right, can make for a great upgrade if you're looking to improve your home network's range. Chris Monroe/CNET


Don't forget about mesh

If you're trying to get better range from your home's Wi-Fi network, it's worth asking yourself if you'd be better off just upgrading to a multipoint mesh router that's designed for that exact purpose. Mesh systems like these include a router and at least one dedicated range extender, and the hardware and software that powers them is typically much more sophisticated and streamlined than what you'll get if you try and piece together a mesh of your own.

Mesh routers are growing in popularity and your options are on the rise -- including lots that aren't too expensive at all. A three-piece, dual-band Netgear Orbi system only costs $199, which is what you'd pay for a single high-end range extender. In fact, as of writing this, the fancier triband version of the Netgear Orbi is on sale for $199, too -- though who knows how long that deal will last.

If you really want to go all-out with an upgrade, look for a triband mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6. My favorite among that crop is the $450 Asus ZenWiFi AX, but you've got other options worth considering, too -- you can read about all of them right here in my rundown of the best mesh routers we've tested.

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