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Does it matter which Wi-Fi range extender you use? Turns out yes

by Rozella Foley (2020-08-09)

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Many of us are still sheltering in place and working from home due to the coronavirus -- and that means that steady, reliable Wi-Fi is more important than ever. And if you've tried to set up a home office that's a little too far from your router, then you've probably learned the hard way -- dead zones are a major pain. Enter the Wi-Fi range extender. As the name suggests, it can give your network a boost by receiving the wireless signal from your router and re-amplifying it farther out into your home. Most are a cinch to use, too -- just pick a good spot, plug it in and press the WPS button to sync it with your router. In most cases, you can even use a wireless range extender from a different manufacturer than your router's. Best of all, you've got plenty of options that won't cost you very much.

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But don't start thinking these things are interchangeable. I picked out some of the major manufacturers' most popular, budget-friendly options and spent a few days testing out their wireless coverage. Most were underwhelming, which isn't too surprising when you're talking about a hunk of plastic that costs $30 or $40. One was an absolute standout, however, and strong enough for me to say that it's the best pick for just about everybody. (Just note that I'm testing from home and working with a limited sample size of devices -- once I'm able to test more, I'll update this post accordingly.)

Best Wi-Fi range extender for almost everybody

TP-Link RE220 WiFi Extender

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At $35, the TP-Link RE220 was the least expensive range extender I tested, but that didn't stop it from outperforming everything else I tested at every turn. It's fast, it's reliable, it works with just about every router out there, and it's really easy to use. And, as of writing this, it costs even less than I paid for it -- down to just $30 on Amazon.Plug it in and press the WPS button to pair it with your home network, and it'll begin broadcasting its own networks on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands. Both offered steady speeds throughout my entire home, including average download speeds on the 5GHz band of at least 75 megabits per second in every room I tested, along with strong upload speeds, too. The RE220 never once dropped my connection, and its speeds were consistent across multiple days of tests during both daytime and evening hours.Nothing else I tested was able to match that level of performance, which makes the RE220 a steal at $30. All of that makes it a great choice for anyone looking to boost the signal to a back room that sits a bit too far beyond the router's reach.

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$30 at Amazon

Other extenders we tested Enlarge ImageWith two adjustable external antennas, the D-Link DAP-1620 is pretty powerful for a budget-priced range extender, but it wasn't as consistent as our top pick.
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D-Link DAP-1620: This was the only range extender that ever managed to hit triple digits during my tests, with an average speed of 104Mbps in my bedroom during evening hours. Setup was just as simple as what I experienced with TP-Link, too. I was able to stream HD video, browse the web and make video calls on the extender's network without any issue. Network speeds were inconsistent though -- and much slower in daytime hours, with a bigger dropoff than I saw with TP-Link. The device also dropped my connection at one point during my speed tests. The app was too finicky for my tastes, too, refusing to let me log in and tweak settings with the supplied device password, and ultimately forcing me to reset the device. Software woes aside, the hardware seems pretty good with this range extender, and since it's not quite the newest model from D-Link, there's a good chance you can find it on sale somewhere. One seller has it listed new on Amazon for about $40, but I wouldn't spend more than $30 on it, given what the superior TP-Link RE220 costs. netgear-ex3700-wi-fi-range-extenderEnlarge ImageThe Netgear EX3700 wasn't powerful enough for the price.
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Netgear WiFi Range Extender EX3700: It's a dated-looking device, and it wasn't a terribly strong performer in my tests. The 2.4GHz band was able to sustain workable speeds between 30 and 40Mbps throughout most of my home, which was strong enough to stream video with minimal buffering, or to hold a quick video call with a slight delay. But the 5GHz band was surprisingly weak, often dropping into single digits with only a single wall separating my PC or connected device from the range extender.  I wasn't a fan of the web interface, either -- it seemed more interested in getting me to register for the warranty (and opt into marketing emails) than in actually offering me any sort of control over the connection. There's an app you can use instead, but it's only available on Android devices. WPS button-based setup lets you skip all of that, which is nice -- but still, with most outlets offering it for about $50, this is one you can safely skip. linksys-re6350-wi-fi-range-extenderEnlarge ImageThe Linksys RE6350 left a lot to be desired.
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Linksys RE6350: My speeds were consistent with the RE6350 -- they just weren't very fast.  By default, the device automatically steers you between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, but with download speeds ranging from 10 to 35Mbps throughout all of my tests over multiple days, it might as well just default to the slower 2.4GHz band. The device supports automatic firmware upgrades, which is nice, but you can't use the Linksys Wi-Fi app to tweak settings -- instead, you'll have to log in via the web portal. On top of all that, the RE6350 seemed to be the least stable of all the extenders I tested, with more than one dropped connection during my tests. At about $50, that's just too many negatives for me to recommend it. tp-link-re220-range-extender-speed-before-and-afterEnlarge ImageA before and after in my back bathroom, where it's often difficult to maintain a strong Wi-Fi connection. The TP-Link RE220 (right) did a great job of boosting speeds.
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How we tested them Like lots of folks, I'm working from home these days, so I tested each range extender out on my home network, a 300Mbps AT&T fiber connection. My house is pretty small -- just 1,300 square feet -- but the router AT&T provided struggles to maintain a strong signal in the back of the house. You can see the situation clear as day when you look at the average speeds in each part of the house. With my trusty laptop in hand, I moved from the living room where the router is located to the adjacent kitchen, then a hallway bathroom, then my bedroom, and finally, a bathroom in the very back of the house. In each room, I ran multiple speed tests and logged the results. Then, I repeated the process in reverse, connecting in the back bathroom and then working my way towards the living room. Finally, I repeated the whole process during evening hours and averaged everything together. wi-fi-range-extenders-control-speedsEnlarge ImageSpeeds in my home fall off a cliff in that that back bathroom, the farthest room from the router.
Ry Crist/CNET
Sure enough, my average speeds plummeted in that back bathroom, the farthest room from the router. The overall average across all tests was about 60Mbps, but that's overselling it. Upload speeds where typically in the single digits, and in most cases, my connection would drop after a few minutes in the room. In the worst of my four test runs, the average download speed in that back bathroom was just 15Mbps. You'll want a steady connection of at least 20Mbps in order to stream video and browse the web comfortably. Make that 50Mbps if you want to stream in 4K. Same goes for video calls, where you'll also want sturdy upload speeds to match.