Best Wi-Fi Extenders
No router is perfect, and all but the smallest homes have dead spots where the Wi-Fi signal doesn't reach. But you don't have to suffer in silence in unconnected nooks and crannies, because they can be filled with a range extender that takes the router's wireless output and rebroadcasts it to where it's needed.
Out of the six extenders we tested, the Linksys RE6500 ($82.99 on Amazon) is the best choice. In addition to being the fastest and the one with the longest range, it's small, inexpensive and quick to set up. If you want to extend your Wi-Fi service into new territory, the RE6500 is the device to get.
How Wi-Fi Extenders Work
To those starved for a Wi-Fi signal for gaming, watching movies or just doing homework, it may seem like magic. But extenders don't require networking cables, and you don't need a degree in electrical engineering to set one up. A good extender can add thousands of square feet of coverage to the typical wireless range, and can even add Wi-Fi access to a porch or backyard.
To be considered a good router, the device has to not only move data on both the 2.4- and 5-GHz channels but also blend into your current networking setup. The good news is that you're not restricted to using the same brand as your network's router, because we live in a mix-and-match era of network equipment. You can feel free to pick the best of breed in both categories.
Performance Results and How We Tested
We evaluated and tested wireless extenders both at Tom's Guide's Manhattan offices and my suburban networking lab, to judge them in both an office and home environment. Overall, our rating criteria included range, throughput, ease of setup and what you can adjust (such as channel width and signal strength).
To measure throughput, in our Manhattan office, we used the ixChariot benchmark (http://www.ixiacom.com/products/ixchariot) and the Digital Storm Triton Windows 8.1 laptop with a AC 2x2 wireless card to gauge bandwidth at several intervals. Our wireless extenders were placed 55 feet from the Asus RT-AC87U router we used for testing.
The software simulates traffic in a wireless network while measuring data flow back and forth in both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Results are shown in megabits per second (Mbps), with higher numbers indicating higher performance. Finally, we measured the extender's range with a Toshiba Portege Z10t laptop in a suburban house.
Linksys RE6500: Best Wi-Fi Extender Overall
With its $83 RE6500 range extender, Linksys has managed to squeeze the power of the best-performing extender into a package small enough to unobtrusively hide on a shelf, bookcase or even a windowsill.
At 6 x 4.2 x 1 inches, the black-and-gray device is one of the smallest extenders on the market, but it packs a wallop and has just about everything you could want to fill those pesky Wi-Fi dead spots.
The RE6500 lacks the ability to be plugged directly into an AC outlet, as is the case with the Belkin DB600, D-Link DAP 1520, Netgear WN3500RP and several Linksys models. However, this extender is small and light enough to be Velcroed to its AC adapter. It has mounting holes for screwing it into a wall or under a desk, but unlike other Linksys products — like the WRT-1900AC — the RE6500 doesn't come with a paper template that shows you where to drill the mounting holes.
The RE6500 is a dual-band router that supports the 2.4- and 5-GHz wireless bands. It has a pair of 3dBi dipole antennas on the back that can be aimed, unscrewed and replaced with more sensitive ones to add a little range and bandwidth.
Along its back, the RE6500 has four gigabit wired LAN ports for connecting networked hard drives, printers and other devices. However, it does not include the USB port that many of its competitors provide. The RE6500 has the bonus of a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack for turning it into a media server that can be connected to a stereo. Of the extenders we tested, only the Netgear WN3500RP had better connection potential, with LAN, USB and audio ports.
Instead of a slew of blinking LED lights, the RE6500's lighted bar discreetly shows the extender's status at a glance. It has a recessed reset button underneath for returning the device to its factory settings.
The RE6500 comes unencrypted, and its four-step process doesn't require any networking knowledge. You start by connecting a client to the extender's preset SSID and typing 192.168.1.1 into any browser window; it works just as well with Internet Explorer as Chrome. Then, the software scans for networks to extend and lets you set up the 2.4- and 5-GHz extended networks at the same time.
Credit: Jeremy Lipps / Tom's GuideIts default is to use the same network name and passcodes as the host network, which most people will want. If you want a different setup, as I did, it takes an extra minute to enter the new names and passcodes. After a quick restart, the extender is ready and puts together a printable summary page of the settings.
Once it's set up, you can use the system's Wi-Fi Protected Setup button on the back of the RE6500 to automatically link with a WPS-capable client. It works just as well if you set up its connections manually.
The RE6500's software presents its material in long columns that are fine for notebook and desktop clients but feel cramped on a small tablet or phone. In addition to redoing the networks' names and encryption settings, you can adjust the channel width, which is a measure of how much spectrum each channel is allotted. Unfortunately, the RE6500 doesn't offer the variety of configuration options that the Amped Wireless REA20 can.
The RE6500 has QOS quality of service software built in for prioritizing traffic. It is WMM-based and can speed up VoIP phone calls, as well as online video and games, but there's no adjustments available.
Over the course of two weeks, the RE6500 reliably doled out video, documents and live Web connections to parts of my house, lab and office. I used it with PCs, iPads and Android tablets.
Based on ixChariot benchmark results at Tom's Guide's Manhattan offices, it wasn't the performance winner in either 2.4- or 5-GHz testing. However, it did well enough in each category to claim the title of top overall performer. Think of it as a networking jack-of-all-trades.
In 2.4-GHz mode, the RE6500 delivered peak throughput of 47.9 Mbps. That's off the 53.0-Mbps pace set by the D-Link DAP 1520, but more than enough for several people to watch online TV and videos withoutchoppiness. Its 5-GHz result of 168.1 Mbps was in the middle of the pack, with the Belkin F9K1122 leading at 184.2 Mbps. In both cases, the device hit its peak at 15 feet, rather than 5 feet, from the device.
Put the two channels together, and the RE6500 can move 254.8 Mbps of all sorts of data. That's nearly 30 Mbps more than the DAP 1520's 225 Mbps and 50 percent more than the Netgear WN3500rp's 168.1 Mbps.
It's also the Wi-Fi long-distance champ. My Portege Z10t laptop was able to stay online as far as 145 feet from the extender in 2.4-GHz mode without dropping a frame. That's 25 feet longer than either the DAP 1520 or the WN3500RP.
Like the Belkin F9K1106 extender, the RE6500 includes a two-year warranty. The other extenders we tested come with one-year warranties.
No other extender does so much for so little. At $79, the Linksys RE6500 is the overall performance king. It has excellent range and the ability to connect four wired LAN devices and a stereo. It's the basis for making sure that your network fills your entire home.
Size: 6 x 4.2 x 1 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 2 external / Yes
Wi-Fi Spec: AC 1200 dual-band 802.11ac
Ports: Four gigabit Ethernet, audio jack
Peak 802.11ac performance: 254.8 Mbps*
Extender range in 2.4GHz mode: 145 feet
*Performance peak occurs at 15 feet from the extender.
D-Link DAP 1520: Runner-Up
If you're looking for a small range extender and you don't need ports for connecting hard drives, printers or a stereo, D-Link's DAP 1520 is for you. At 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.3 inches, the white extender is tiny and doesn't hog adjacent outlets, but the minimalist extender doesn't come with a stand and power cord to use if you want to put it someplace else.
The DAP 1520 has no external antennas or places to plug in any cables and has one of the simplest setups. One downside is that it lacks the ability to adjust many important operational parameters, but if you want to see what's going on online, it can display a beautiful timeline that shows the bits flying back and forth.
The DAP 1520 makes up for the lack of a wired connection by providing the best performance in the 2.4-GHz band at 53.5 Mbps. The extender also delivered more than adequate 5-GHz throughput, with the ability to move a peak of 171.5 Mbps. That adds up to 225 Mbps of combined bandwidth available that is well balanced between its 2.4- and 5-GHz bands and just behind the Linksys RE6500. Its 120-foot range in the 2.4GHz band was unimpressive, though.
With other extenders selling for more than double the DAP 1520's $57 price tag, this device stands out as a bargain for those who want an extender and nothing more.
Specs and Speed
Size: 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.3 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 2 internal / No
Wi-Fi Spec: AC 733 dual-band 802.11ac
Peak 802.11.ac performance: 225 Mbps
Extender range in 2.4GHz: 120 feet
Amped Wireless REA20
DIYers, rejoice: Amped Wireless' REA20 has arrived. It's the extender to get if you revel in tweaking settings, because you can adjust everything from channel width and RTS threshold to the devices' signal strength.
You can do all of that in the REA20's Dashboard software, which can show such network stats as packets sent, received and lost. One downside, though, is that the data are presented in a boring, tabular manner instead of a visual graph.
Along its back, the extender has four LAN ports and a USB connecter, but it lacks the audio jack of the RE6500 and WN3500RP. The REA20 can't be plugged directly into an AC outlet, but it comes with a nice stand and has wall-mounting holes.
Inside, there are several signal amplifiers that boost the incoming and outgoing signals. Despite having a trio of large amplified antennas, the REA20 topped out at 199 Mbps of combined throughput (which is less than the Linksys and D-Link) and a disappointing range of 110 feet.
Overall, the Amped Wireless REA20 is big and expensive, and couldn't keep up with smaller and cheaper extenders. But for people who want to customize it exactly the way they want, this is the extender to get.
Specs and Speed
Size:8.8 x 6 x 1 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 3 external / Yes
Wi-Fi Spec: AC1200 dual-band 802.11ac
Ports: 4 gigabit Ethernet, USB
Peak 802.11.ac performance: 199 Mbps
Extender range in 2.4GHz: 110 feet
Size matters, and if you want a minimalist range extender, you'll like that the $66 Belkin F9K1122 is small. However, like its larger Belkin cousin, the F9K1122 had trouble connecting in our Manhattan office.
While the extender has one LAN port, many of its competitors offer four, and the F9K1122 lacks USB or audio jacks. You can swivel the antennas, but they are permanently attached, so forget about removing them to use more sensitive ones.
Unfortunately, the F9K1122 couldn't reliably connect with devices over the 2.4-GHz band in our Manhattan office, which has lots of interference from other networks. It worked well in a less-crowded environment and delivered top-notch 5-GHz performance. It pushed a total of 208.5 Mbps and had a range of 140 feet, making it a worthwhile extender for those who want to think small.
Specs and Speed
Size: 6 x 4 x 1.3 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 2 external / No
Wi-Fi Spec: N600 dual-band 802.11n
Ports: gigabit Ethernet
Peak 802.11.ac performance: 208.5 Mbps*
Extender range in 2.4GHz: 140 feet
Think of the WN3500RP as connection city. It not only has the ability to extend a Wi-Fi network, but with its USB, LAN and audio ports, you can plug in a hard drive, printer or audio system.
The Netgear has its antennas inside and can be plugged directly into an AC outlet or set up with its included stand and power cord.
While it is one of the most flexible extenders available, it was a mediocre performer. The device doled out 168.1 Mbps at a range of up to 120 feet. Still, if you care more about connecting devices away from your router than you do about raw performance, the Netgear is worth a look
Specs and Speed
Size: 4.7 x 3.1 x 1.7 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 2 internal / No
Wi-Fi Spec: N200 dual-band 802.11n
Ports: gigabit, Ethernet, USB, audio
Peak 802.11.ac performance: 168.1 Mbps
Extender range in 2.4GHz: 120 feet
As small and inconspicuous as Belkin's F9K1122 is, the company's F9K1106 is big, iconic and meant to stand out with a dot pattern of a person on its side. It has internal antennas, sits on a stand and provides access to four LAN ports, but it lacks both USB and audio connections.
Unfortunately, the F9K1106 didn't perform well in a crowded Wi-Fi environment. It delivered only 112.7 Mbps in 2.4-GHz mode and connected as far as 125 feet away. This extender mustered roughly half the bandwidth of the Linksys RE6500 and D-Link DAP 5120.
It might seem like a steal at $70, but you might want to keep looking if you want balanced performance.
Specs and Speed
Size: 8.5 x 8.3 x 1.5 inches
Number of Antennas/Removable: 4 internal / No
Wi-Fi Spec: N600 dual-band 802.11ac
Ports: Four gigabit Ethernet
Peak 802.11.ac performance: 112.7 Mbps*
Extender range in 2.4GHz: 125 feet
New and Notable
Since our last batch of Wi-Fi extender reviewers, device makers have rolled out new models. Here are three that have caught our attention.
TP-Link is promising top speeds with this AC1900 range extender that's theoretically capable of pushing out 1.9 Gbps of throughput across its 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The desktop extender also sports a trio of external dual-band antennas and 700mW amplifiers that TP-Link says can extend your Wi-Fi network by up to 10,000 square feet. We're interested in seeing whether the RE580D can handle both gaming and video streaming in a way that lives up to its suggested $150 price tag.
Like the RE6500, this Linksys offering is a AC1200 extender, though this model has fewer Gigabit Ethernet ports and a slimmer profile. Linksys says the $100 RE6400 offers speeds of up to 300 Mbps on its 2.4GHz band and 867 Mbps on the 5GHz band while boosting your wireless range by up to 7,500 square feet. In addition to measuring that performance, we also want to see how well Linksys's Spot Finder can find the optimal location for this range extender.
Instead of relying on software to help you find the best spot, this AC1200 extender from Asus has LEDs that light up to let you know the strength of your wireless signal. The RP-AC56 promises up to 1.167 Gbps speeds across its two bands. The $100 RP-AC56 can act as a repeater, wireless access point or media bridge, according to Asus.
Amped Wireless TAP-EX3
Amped’s Wi-Fi extender brings an out-of-the-ordinary look to the mix, with a 4-inch touch screen display that you use to set up the device; when not in use, the TAP-EX3’s screen doubles as a digital clock and calendar. But the $200 TAP-EX3’s main purpose is to boost the reach of your wireless network by as much as 12,000 square feet, according to Amped. The AC1750 extender touts speeds of up to 450 Mbps on its 2.4GHz band and 1.3 Mbps on its 5GHz band.