With working from home now looking to be the default for millions as we emerge from a global health emergency, there’s never been a more appropriate time to consider improving your home Wi-Fi. If Zoom calls regularly freeze and web pages are slow to load in your home office, then you'll be looking for a solution.
And that's precisely why you're here, of course. Before we get to recommending products to buy, you should know a few things about Wi-Fi extenders. They can be a good, inexpensive way of fixing Wi-Fi ‘not spots’: those parts of your home where Wi-Fi coverage is either non-existent or not good enough.
But there are other options which, while a bit pricier, are far more capable of improving your home network situation. For example, you might consider buying a new router if you’ve not upgraded in a while, or if you live in a busy household with lots of people and devices all clamouring for Wi-Fi, invest in a whole-home mesh Wi-Fi system.
If Wi-Fi reception in your home is generally good, but there are one or two rooms where it’s patchy or doesn't reach at all, then picking a Wi-Fi extender might well be the answer. Even then, an alternative - which might prove more effective - is to buy a Powerline adapter which uses your home’s mains wiring to transmit the internet signal to exactly where you need it. Just note that you'll need a pair of adapters, one of which has built-in Wi-Fi. You can only get away with the cheaper non-Wi-Fi adapters if the computer or device you're connecting (such as a PC) doesn't have Wi-Fi and needs a network cable connection.
If you think a Wi-Fi extender is right for you, here's what to look for.
Are Wi-Fi extenders worth it?
Yes – but only in the right situations. If there’s one room or area in the home where the Wi-Fi signals broadcasted by your router simply aren’t reaching your devices, then a single Wi-Fi extender in the right location can save you a lot of bother, and as they’re largely pretty cheap, they can be a good short-term investment.
Having said that, after having tested a number of Wi-Fi extenders, I couldn’t wait to turn my mesh WiFi system back on again.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, a Wi-Fi extender – also known as a Wi-Fi booster, Wi-Fi repeater or Wi-Fi amplifier – is designed to connect to your existing router via Wi-Fi and also broadcast a Wi-Fi signal of its own.
This means it needs to be plugged in roughly mid-way between the router and the room which doesn’t have good Wi-Fi coverage. You can't (as you can with powerline adapters) put a Wi-Fi extender in the room with poor (or no) coverage.
How fast are Wi-Fi Extenders?
Second, there's the issue of speed. Wi-Fi extenders effectively split their wireless bandwidth in two. One half of it has to handle the signal from your router, and the other half to broadcast that signal to the devices that need it. If you don't need much speed, that's not a problem, but you'll be disappointed if you're expecting the speeds you see plastered all over a Wi-Fi extender's packaging.
The speed you'll get will depend on the specifications of the model you buy, but also on the general layout of your home, and how many devices you have using Wi-Fi at the same time.
For example, devices with Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac) are often sold saying that they will in theory give you a top Wi-Fi speed of 1200Mbps.
The theoretical top speeds on the 2.4GHz band are 300Mbps, and 867Mbps over 5GHz (which has a shorter range than 2.4GHz). That's 1167Mbps in total, which if you rounded it up, is 1200.
In reality, then, most devices will use 2.4GHz and, because of the way Wi-Fi extenders work, only half that speed is available to use. And because that 300Mbps is a theoretical maximum, you'll actually get less than half of that, which could be 100Mbps. Which is one twelfth the claimed speed. It may be enough for you, but at least now you know.
Can a Wi-Fi extender make Wi-Fi worse?
If a Wi-Fi extender and your Wi-Fi router are sending signals on the same Wi-Fi channels, then yes, this can result in congestion which will see wireless speeds drop and generally make for a bad service overall.
Naturally, this is something you’ll want to avoid – but you can read our guide on changing Wi-Fi channel for an in-depth explanation on how to do this.