Wi-Fi extenders are a very widely used product, but for someone new to this topic, there’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information online.
In this article, we’ll try and sift through the “noise” on this and provide a simple guide on what Wi-Fi extenders/repeaters/boosters are, plus how they work, in clear, non technical terms.
If you’ve got problems with your current Wi-Fi in the home/workplace, we’ll try to explain in simple terms how a Wi-Fi extender may (or may not) be able to help you, plus how to use them and how to even decide if you need one at all.
Let’s get started!
How A Wi-Fi Extender Works (Simple Explanation)
Let’s start off with a simple, non technical explanation as to what these products are and how they work.
Wi-Fi extenders are simple single plug devices that are inserted into a wall outlet, and which “capture” and amplify the wireless signal from the main router, spreading it over a larger area.
And that’s really it in a nutshell. They’re designed to spread Wi-Fi coverage more reliably over a larger area in the home, especially to so called Wi-Fi “dead-zones” or rooms further away from the router that might not be able to get a very good signal from the main router.
You configure the extender by connecting it to your router, and it then sets up and broadcasts it’s own network that you can connect devices to that might be struggling with the signal from the main router.
Therefore, Wi-Fi extenders act as forwarding devices that do rely on the router to function, in that they capture and forward on data via their connection with the router and therefore the wider internet. But they are essentially acting as bridge or midway point between a router and certain Wi-Fi “dead-zones”, where the signal might be weak, unreliable, or just not reach full stop.
Therefore, Wi-Fi extenders are a solution to the problem of a weak or non-existent Wi-Fi signal, providing a separate access point to spread wireless coverage to areas in the home that the signal from the main host router cannot currently reach.
For example, you might find your router signal works fine in most rooms, but it’s just the back bedroom that it won’t reach reliably. Or you might have a few “dead-zones” dotted around the house and want to install a few extenders to cover different areas – you can do this. That’s what these products are designed to help with.
Explaining Some Common Wi-Fi Extender Terms/Features
Let’s de-mystify a few of the common features that are plugged with Wi-Fi extenders and explain in non technical terms:
Range – Lots of extenders will advertize a “up to” working range of several hundred feet or more. In reality, they’re better over shorter to medium distance, in small to medium sized homes. Wi-Fi always degrades over distance anyway, and an extender can increase this range somewhat, but may not work miracles over hundreds of feet. There’s a difference between something “working” and providing a signal/connection that’s actually usable. For longer distances, consider Wi-Fi Mesh instead, which we cover further below.
Supports Speeds “up to” – most marketing material will plug certain speeds “up to” eg. 850 Mbps, but this is mostly unrealistic, since speed almost always drops with extenders because you’re adding more distance and hops to the network. Bottom line – they can provide a better signal if your current signal is poor/unreliable, but don’t expect the same speeds as when plugged into your router or right next to it on Wi-Fi.
WPS Pair Feature – A great feature that allows no nonsense to users to simply set up their extender in seconds, without needing to use any other devices. You just press a button on your router and the extender, and it’s done. We’ll cover this further below. Go for this is you’re non technical and just want to get using an extender as quickly as possible.
Dual band feature – This is really strongly “plugged” in most wireless products, where extenders actually broadcast two different network bands when set up – a 2.4 GHz network and a 5 GHz network. But honestly, I don’t think it’s even important for Wi-Fi extenders. Other articles on this will disagree, but it’s pretty well known in networking that 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi works better over longer distances anyway, because it passes through walls and other solid objects better than 5 GHz. 5 GHz is generally considered better over shorter distances, but that’s precisely when you don’t need an extender anyway in most cases (your router’s signal is usually fine over shorter distance). Most newer extenders are dual band, but most users can just connect to the 2.4 GHz band it creates and forget about it.
Extender vs Repeater vs Booster – Some articles on this topic overthink this topic in my opinion, trying to differentiate between extenders/boosters/repeaters when it isn’t necessary. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s a simple single plug adapter that you plug into the wall and which captures and forwards on your router’s signal, it’s the same thing, and you can use any of these terms to describe the same product. The only differentiation I would make is between extenders/repeaters/boosters and Wi-Fi Mesh Systems, which work on the same principle but are more expensive and advanced. We’ll cover these further below, but extenders, repeaters and boosters are different names for the same product in this site’s content.
How To Set Up A Wi-Fi Extender
You set up a Wi-Fi extender by connecting it to your router, and it’s really easy, there’s almost universal cross-compatibility between extender and router brands, and there actually several ways to do it.
- WPS Method – Quickest and easiest way. Plug your extender in, then press the WPS button on your router, then within 2 minutes press and hold the WPS/Pair/Wi-Fi button on your extender and wait for the two devices to sync. And you’re done and ready to go!
- Browser Method – Allows more customization. Plug your extender in, connect to it’s default open network, and use any browser to log in to the settings panel via the default credentials on the extender label, and manually connect to your router via the “Setup Wizard” or “Quick Setup Guide” within the extender’s menu.
- Tethering App – For TP Link models only. Works very much the same as the browser method, but you do the set up via a special app you can download to your phone, instead of using a browser.
Follow the links for detailed instructions on each setup method – it’s really easy and is normally done in less than 2 minutes. Start by plugging it in near the router when setting it up, and the moving it once it’s configured to try and find where it delivers the best signal (they save settings even when unplugged and moved so you can do this).
Once an extender is set up, it will start broadcasting it’s own SSID/network name, which will most often just be the same as your router but with an “EXT” or “EXTENDER” bit at the end, unless you configure it differently during setup. The wireless password is just the same as your router.
You can now find and connect to this extender access point on any device in range, and you’re now browsing via your extender instead of directly via your router (although the extender is relying on the router for it’s connection). Therefore devices that are getting a better signal from the extender than from the main router can try connecting to this access point instead and seeing if the connection/speed is more reliable.
See also the video below for a good quick demonstration of how extenders work and how to best install them:
Here are some quick pointers to take into consideration to get the best performance out of Wi-Fi range extenders:
- Try placing them somewhere halfway between the router and “dead-zone” where it’s needed.
- In more difficult situations in homes where the router and the “dead zone” are diagonally opposite each other (e.g., the router is in the lower front room and the signal needs to reach the upper rear room), it’s trickier and you may have to do some experimenting. I have this problem now and I get the best results when I connect the extender to the upstairs landing. It’s still close enough to the router to pick up the signal, so it works very well. Try out the downstairs and upstairs outlets and see what gives the best speed/signal.
- Make sure the extender is within range of the router so it can ALWAYS pick up the signal and not drop out.
- Try not to place extenders behind or under furniture or other obstructions
- They work best over short to medium distances, with perhaps one or maximum two walls in the way (eg. boosting Wi-Fi to an home office one or two rooms away from the router)
- In open spaces, try to place the extender in the direct line of sight of the router
When Can A Wi-Fi Extender Be Useful?
A Wi-Fi extender is not necessary or useful in all cases. When deciding whether to use one, it’s advised to always bear in the mind the 50% rule of networking, that dictates that adding an extra “step” or “hop” to a network will in general reduce speeds/throughput by half or more. Therefore, if it’s increased speeds your looking for, an extender often won’t help.
But there are exceptions to this, plus there’s also the reliability of the signal to factor in. Here are some sensible use cases for an extender:
Poor or zero signal – This is where the relative performance between using your router and extender comes into play. If using your router, your current connection is either very weak or inconsistent or just doesn’t work at all, this is where Wi-Fi extenders really come into their own, and is their best use case. They can act as bridge between your router and device, allowing you to get at least a workable signal when you couldn’t before. This is how I’m using my extender right now – I’m in the upper rear room where I’m staying right now, and the signal to the router is terrible. But the signal to the extender is acceptable, and allows me to get online reliably when I can’t using the main router.
Very Poor speeds – Relates to the signal point above. If the router connection is so poor that your speeds are either in the very low Mbps or even the Kbps when tested (when your internet package dictates they should be much higher), then an extender can help as a bridge access point to provide a better signal and better speeds, at least to a couple of Mbps, where you can use it. This is how my Wi-Fi repeater is helping me right now.
Browsing – Again for basic activities like browsing, an extender can be great in allowing this by providing at least a working and much more reliable signal to provide the bandwidth needed for basic everyday browsing (emails, web browsing, shopping etc). Great if your router connection doesn’t work with the reliability needed to allow this.
Streaming – Again, the extender I’m using right now works great with this, providing a good enough connection for YouTube and streaming, when I had no chance connecting to the main router. It might not provide a good enough connection for super HD/4K streaming, but it can turn a very poor, unusable signal from your router into a least an acceptable one for streaming. Using my extender, I’ve no problem watching YouTube or Amazon Video at least in standard 1080p HD, when I had zero chance connecting to the main router.
Gaming/Consoles – A more mixed bag. For slower paced, turn based or non serious online gaming, they can again deliver at least an acceptable wireless signal. For more serious stuff, may or may not be acceptable, and you’re better off using powerline adapters instead.
See our extenders page for links to some popular, reliable models in different price ranges
When Can A Wi-Fi Extender Not Really Be Useful?
All the sensible use cases for an extender above mostly cover when the current signal from your router is so poor or unreliable that using the extender delivers a noticeably better signal and speeds relative to the current connection to the router in that particular part of the house.
But there are lots of cases where using an extender isn’t really necessary and won’t improve speeds:
Already an acceptable signal – If you’re already getting an acceptable or good signal and speed from your router on Wi-Fi, an extender won’t improve this (remember the 50% rule) and will likely reduce it. If your current router is working fine to service all devices, an extender doesn’t really add much. Remember, it’s all relative to the speeds/signal you’re getting initially.
Serious competitive gaming – For really serious online stuff where you want latency/ping at it’s lowest, wireless connections in general are not recommended, even using extenders. Likely to still be high ping, especially on busy networks, and you’re better using wired connections. See the alternative products section below.
Over very long distances – The more distance you start adding, the less likely even extenders are to work reliably, since Wi-Fi always degrades the more walls etc. it has to travel through. They do have a potential range of several hundred feet, but the actual signal/speeds you get might not be usable over long distances. See here for more on this.
Do Wi-Fi Extenders Work Reliably?
Anyone who tries to guarantee that a Wi-Fi extender/repeater will always work is lying, because in truth, it’s impossible to know without trying them. Wi-Fi is so fickle and variable and every home is different in layout, that results will always vary when using wireless home networking products.
Here are some tips if you’re struggling to get a reliable/consistent signal using a Wi-Fi extender:
- Firstly, pick a good model with lots of reviews, and a very high average review score. Because of the variability of wireless technology in general, you’ll notice lots of extenders have very mixed reviews, which isn’t entirely the manufacturer’s fault, since results will always vary with Wi-Fi anyway.
- Try to install at an optimal halfway point between the router and “dead-zone”.
- Try moving them around different wall outlets for a better signal (try upstairs and downstairs).
- Try moving them back closer to the router every now and then for a few minutes to refresh the signal, and then moving them back.
- You can use them in extensions cords/strips if you want, to place them in an area not covered by your wall sockets.
- Try switching bands if on the 5 GHz network (2.4 GHz is generally better over distance).
- Try alternative home networking products like powerline or mesh. Sometimes extenders are not the best solution no matter what you try.
See our extenders page for links to some popular, reliable models in different price ranges
Alternative Home Networking Products
Wi-Fi extenders aren’t your only option for providing better internet/Wi-Fi access in the home. Here are some other products it’s worth considering.
Alternative #1 – Wi-Fi Mesh Systems – If you still want to go down the wireless route, but want something more powerful, Wi-Fi Mesh is the thing to try. They’re basically more expensive versions of extenders, consisting of kits of several “nodes” or “pods” you place at different points round the home. They basically work on the same principle as extenders/boosters, but are more comprehensive solutions with better technology that are designed to systemically spread better coverage over an entire home rather than tackling one specific “dead-zone”. Often better for larger homes and larger areas. See our page on Mesh Systems.
Alternative #2 – Powerline Adapters – A better option for gamers and streamers who have higher bandwidth needs and would do better staying on a wired connection rather than using wireless. Powerline adapters bypass the need for Wi-Fi altogether by routing data through your existing house wiring. Powerline kits have got two plugs, one of which is connected to your router, and the other to your device, and the two plugs communicate via house wiring to deliver a wired connection to devices. Great for lower ping (gamers) and higher speeds (streamers) if your wiring is good enough to allow the adapters to consistently communicate. See our article comparing extenders to powerline.
Click here to view our page on powerline adapters for some popular models.
Wireless models are also available that provide a wireless access point as well as wired ethernet ports for more functionality.