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The coronavirus illness COVID-19 has more and more state governments ordering more than 80 million Americans to stay at home. To help you deal with remote work, we've been shoring up guides and recommendations on staying focused, picking the right monitor, laptop, and noise-cancelling headphones, how to sanitize your tech. We recently added to that a guide to shopping for a new Wi-Fi router (and previously shared the newest Wi-Fi 6 routers out there). For some, however, a new Wi-Fi router might not cut it or be unnecessary to begin with, given the functionality of a mesh Wi-Fi system or even Wi-Fi network extenders. Since a wonky Wi-Fi network can literally bring your house’s online traffic to a halt, it could negate the benefits of smart home decides like a smart thermostat, on top of slowing down your work.
SKIP AHEAD Best Wi-Fi range extenders | Best mesh Wi-Fi systems
Where to place your wireless router for the best Wi-Fi connection
If you have problems with your Wi-Fi coverage, first be sure you’re setting up your current configuration for success. Simply put: You need to give your router the best chance to reach as far as it can. Here are some things you can do:
- Make sure your router is centrally located in the house.
- Place it out in the open rather than letting books or furniture obstruct it.
- If your router is a few years old, you might want to consider getting a new Wi-Fi router before adding a slew of other equipment.
However, if you live in a very large house or it’s got old plaster walls that impede the signal, some extra equipment can help ensure you cover every inch of your home — and it doesn’t have to be a new router. You have a few different options for making this happen: range extenders and mesh Wi-Fi networks.
What is a Wi-Fi range extender?
You’ve probably heard of range extenders before: they’re those little plug-in devices that help broaden — or extend — the coverage of your home network. “A range extender regenerates a signal from your router,” explains Rowell Dionicio, managing director of Packet6 and a Certified Wireless Networking Expert. “The router isn’t aware of the range extender.”
Should you get a wireless range extender?
Compared with mesh Wi-Fi setups (which we’ll get to below), extenders are a bit more clunky to set up since they don’t integrate as seamlessly with the router. But they also demand less investment. And depending on the extender, the wireless signal solution comes with a few downsides: namely, the signal might be slower.
“You have signal where you need it, but it can be half (and sometimes less) the speed you think you have,” explains Dionicio. The extension of the signal takes a bite out of its speed, in other words.
- You can alleviate some of this with a “tri-band” extender — like the Netgear EX7500 — which dedicates an antenna to communicate with your router (which is known as “backhaul”).
- Some models allow you to plug in an Ethernet cable and connect it back to your main router, which is the best possible option as long as your home allows for it.
- Some lower-end extenders require you to create a separate Wi-Fi network — like “Smith_EXT” — that you have to manually connect to every time you walk through that part of the house. Higher-end extenders won’t require this so it’s something to look out for.
Best Wi-Fi range extenders
The Netgear EX7500 is one of the better extenders out there, and it'll work with any existing network, either over Ethernet or as a wireless repeater. You’ll be able to extend your coverage to any dead zone in your home. And, since it’s tri-band, you’ll be able to do so without as much slowdown as other extenders on the market.
Low-cost extenders are a tricky area, since many can be clunky to use. If you have less to spend, try the TP-Link RE200. It’s rated at lower speeds than the Netgear model above but will work in a pinch if you need to cover a dead zone and want something more affordable.
You might also check out the TP-Link AV1300, which is a powerline extender that uses your home’s electrical wiring as an Ethernet substitute for that backhaul connection. Note that powerline models doesn't work in all houses. Consider trying it out for yourself to see if your home’s wiring can handle it properly (which means a generous return policy matters more than otherwise with this purchase).
All that said, there is a much better way to extend your network — as long as you’re willing and able to spend a bit more: That is the mesh Wi-Fi system.
All told, I’d recommend equipping your home with a Wi-Fi mesh system over an extender any day.
What is a mesh Wi-Fi system?
Ever wonder how schools and businesses are able to cover such a large area with one single Wi-Fi network? They use something called mesh networking: the ability to create one network with multiple devices scattered around a space, intelligently communicating with each other. While this technology has been around for a long time, it hasn’t always been easy for just anyone to set up at home.
But that’s all changed in the past few years. A number of consumer-oriented mesh Wi-Fi kits have hit the market, and they’re a bit different than the old “Wi-Fi extenders” we mentioned above.
Unlike extenders, mesh Wi-Fi systems contain multiple units, all of which are aware of each other’s existence. “New mesh systems, such as Eero, work in a synchronized fashion to provide an improved signal throughout your house, using a single network," Dionicio advises.
Should you get a mesh Wi-Fi system?
Amazon’s base-level Eero mesh Wi-Fi system, for example, contains three small units you place around your house. You can connect them to each other using Ethernet (if you have Ethernet wiring in your home), or they can repeat the signal to each other wirelessly.
Since each node in the system is designed to work with the others, mesh Wi-Fi networks are easier to set up than extenders. You have just one app that manages all your settings, and each node is smarter about managing what data goes where.
But it has the same speed challenge as wireless extenders: If you use a basic dual-band mesh system without Ethernet, you’ll lose speed as the devices sling data to one another. That’s why I wholeheartedly recommend using a mesh system with Ethernet, if at all possible — many electricians can add Ethernet lines to additional rooms if you don’t have them there.
Best mesh Wi-Fi systems
Eero was one of the pioneers in the consumer mesh Wi-Fi space, and they've since been acquired by Amazon. While the base Eero system is affordable, Amazon’s Eero Pro system is going to perform much better. Why? It’s tri-band, which means it has an entire antenna dedicated to sending data between each unit. That means you get significantly faster speeds than you would with less expensive systems, which is important if you don’t have Ethernet in your home to wire each node together. It also equips the latest Wi-Fi 6, which provides better speed and congestion management than the older Wireless AC standard.) Finally, it has the same easy setup as the rest of the Eero line, which is great for non-technophiles.
If you don't have quite that much to spend, Google’s Nest system is a decent alternative to Eero Pro. It only uses Wi-Fi 5, but it's easy to use and performs decently well for the price. Plus, each unit contains a microphone for Google Assistant, so you’re basically getting a Google Nest built-in to each node.
Netgear’s Orbi system is another popular (and powerful) option. Like the Eero Pro, it’s a tri-band system so you’re getting the best speeds possible when set up wirelessly. Orbi also gives you access to the Disney Circle parental control system, which is great if you have kids. There’s even an Orbi unit with Alexa built-in and a new Orbi system with Wi-Fi 6 — though the latter is a bit too expensive for me to wholeheartedly recommend just yet.
Typically, you’d replace your current router with a mesh system. But if you have a router you really like (or you’re stuck using the modem/router combo that comes from your internet provider), you can connect that device to a mesh system like the above and set it to “bridge mode” for the best of both worlds.
All told, I’d recommend equipping your home with a Wi-Fi mesh system over an extender any day. They’re easier to set up and manage, communicate with each other intelligently, and generally provide a better overall experience. An extender will work if you don’t have as much to spend. But the less you spend on it, the closer you’ll find yourself to getting stuck with a clunky system that’s almost as frustrating as no Wi-Fi at all.