JR: Computer people, what is the absolute, most amazing and powerful wi-fi extender I can get? My current extender is slow and totally unreliable, needing to be reset frequently. I’ve read reviews online, but can’t seem to come up with an obvious choice.
It’s a great question with a few possible answers. First, let’s make some assumptions about the environment. Like most folks in this situation, I’m betting that this is a larger house with the router located at one end and that the wi-fi reception on the opposite end is the real problem. Upstairs and downstairs variations are likely not the issue. There could be obstructions in the middle of the house the interfere with the signal. These are typically kitchen related. The refrigerator and stove can really tank a wi-fi signal.
So what’s the best way to extend the range of the wi-fi router? There are extenders, but as the question suggests, your mileage may vary. What are the alternatives?
Option 1: Replace the Router
Replacing the main wireless router with an 802.11n or an 802.11ac version could be the ticket. If the original router was 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g, then these newer versions offer greater ranger in most situations. But there’s a catch. To take full advantage of that greater range, the wireless adapter that’s part of your computer should also be 802.11n or 802.11ac. If it’s not, you’re not going to get the full range extension. And upgrading the hardware at the computer could be impractical (adding a card of some kind) or impossible (some laptops, and all tablets). At some point, the price becomes an issue and option 1 might not be the best route if you’re dealing with legacy hardware.
Also keep in mind that 802.11n and 802.11ac routers drop in performance to match the requirements of the oldest connecting device. This means that, if you have an old device (only 802.11b 22Mb), your super fast 100+Mb wi-fi will down-step the performance of the entire network to accommodate that old device. Some of the latest hardware circumvents this issue by putting the older hardware on a different frequency, but in far too many cases, having an old device on a modern network will cause the entire network to slow down. Worse yet, depending on the router, it might also limit the range of your wi-fi network as it works to accommodate those older specifications. Few people see that coming. It’s difficult to anticipate and even more difficult to diagnose, so be aware.
Option 2: Network Power Line Adapters
Network power line adapters (PLA’s from now on) have come a long way in recent years. Prices have dropped, reliability has improved, and speeds have increased. The idea is to turn the electrical wiring inside your house into a data network. A PLA has a network cable port on it. You plug that into your existing wired network, then simply plug it into one of your homes electrical wall sockets. After that, just trot on down to the other end of your home and plug in a matching power line adapter and plug it into the wall. The 2nd adapter also has a network port that provides a computer friendly interface to your home’s electrical/data grid.
Ideally, someone will want to attach a wireless access point to the far side power line adapter, rather than a single computer. This would light up the far end of the house with its own wi-fi, independent of the main wi-fi provided by the main router. Keep in mind, in this situation, you would be looking for a wireless access point (WAP), not another wireless router. Two routers on the same network is a recipe for endless heartache. Just attach a WAP to the distant power line adapter and be sure to give this WAP its own network name and use a channel that is different from the one used on the main router. That will cut down on interference and ensure performance. The down side to this configuration is that, when you take a computer to the far side of the house, you’ll need to select the different wi-fi network manually. But the benefit is that the signal will be reliable and you won’t have any doubts about what your computer is doing or how it’s connecting. You’ll know you’re getting the best signal possible at every point.
While we’re at it, a word about power line adapters (PLA from here on): By attaching this device to your home’s electrical grid, you’re essentially turning that power grid into a data network. And since your home’s power grid reaches beyond the confines of your house, so too might your data. Most PLA’s now utilize encryption to secure your data as it crosses your power lines. That way, if your data does wander out onto the power grid and down the block, only you have access to the information. The packets are encrypted just before they hit the power line and decrypted right after they leave it.
It’s a lot like the encryption on a wi-fi network. If you don’t use wi-fi encryption, the next door neighbor might be able to join your network and use your internet access as well as see what is happening on your network. The same could potentially apply to a PLA that did not utilize encryption. So, the moral of the story is to select a PLA that supports encryption. Most modern devices do because someone would be foolish not to utilize it.
The encryption that’s built into a PLA brings up another point about the adapters. Unless the adapter you purchase is specifically designed to allow more that 2 adapters in your home, odds are that you can’t add additional adapters in the future. The encryption between the two devices would prevent the new adapters. It’s another reason why adding that wireless access point to the distant PLA might be a good idea.
A few caveats. Not all homes are ideally suited for this type of system. Some power lines seem to be “noisy,” or otherwise polluted and not well suited for data transmission. You might see this represented in less than ideal transfer speeds. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing you can’t tell until you try it out. Reports of issues are almost impossible to anticipate, and likewise troubleshoot. Someone might have problem with a home that is wired across more than one circuit while dozens of others have no trouble using the same hardware under the same conditions. One home might work perfectly while the neighbors house is entirely unreliable using the same configuration. It’s still hit and miss. That said, the technology and the hardware has improved greatly over the last several years. I would even go so far is to suggest that, if you tried a failed with PLA’s five years ago, try again with the latest hardware. Based on recent reports, you might be surprised by the results.
Option 3: Hard Wire
Without question, nothing is better than a hardwired network line. If you have the means, run a physical line to the other end of that house rather than using a PLA. There’s nothing better for reliability, speed, and security. If you can run a line, go for it. It’s time well spent and the cost is negligible. And once the network line is on the other end of the house, you can set up a wireless access point as described in option 1.
Option 4: Apple’s Airport Network
You don’t have to use Apple computers in order to take advantage of what Apple’s done with the Airport line of network hardware. Some of the features can be duplicated with hardware from other vendors, but not as easily. If you replace your main network router with an Airport Extreme router, the latest hardware uses the current 802.11ac specification. To extend the network, you need one more of the Airport Express base stations. They use the same specification and work with the router in tandem. The Express devices can be used to extend the main wi-fi network, but here’s the beauty of it. First, Apple has made the process much more user friendly and easier to configure (I still wouldn’t call it “simple”). 802.11ac is backward compatible with all of the older network specs (802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n) so all of your old hardware will work. But the main router and the Express’s (extenders) talk to each other over 802.11n (Airport Express are not yet 802.11ac capable) which means that while legacy devices talk over older and often slower and more limited specs, the main network hardware talks to its self over the faster specification that is capable of the longest range. This means that you get the legacy support for the older devices while you have extenders that are not limited in range by their backward compatibility.
It’s fair to say that you pay a price premium for the Apple version of the wireless networking gear. It’s always more expensive than alternatives from the likes Linksys and Netgrear. That said, I can’t tell you how many Linksys and Netgrear routers I’ve buried over the years. My Apple hardware has outlasted everything I’ve ever used. I use it on client networks whenever possible as a result. It’s simply worth the extra money. Not only is it more user friendly, but it’s reliable and it works. It doesn’t matter if your network will ever have a Macintosh or Apple product on it, the Apple networking hardware is a solid investment.
Another point that’s worthy of note: In option #2 I suggested setting up a second wireless access point on the far end of the house when using a power line adapter. That suggestion included giving that 2nd access point a different network name and switching between then networks as needed. If you go with the extended network on the Apple devices as I’ve described, you will blanket your home in a single wi-fi network that is seamless as far as your devices are concerned. You can take your tablet and walk through the house and the device will move from one transmitter to the next, as needed, without you having to switch to a different network manually. It’s seamless, and brilliant!
Hopefully one of these configurations will fit the bill for your home or office. Personally, I’m running option #4. I’ve blanketed my home in 802.11ac using an Airport Extreme router and two Airport Expresses. And, for the record, I didn’t even need that 2nd Express. But the Express devices have the added ability to act as USB print servers plus they let you plug a home stereo into them and stream music to that device from iTunes on your Mac or PC. So I use the hell out of the extenders and my wi-fi network!