What is a WiFi Extender or WiFi Booster?

We’ve all experienced it—one minute you’re happily streaming your favorite podcast, playing an online game, or talking on FaceTime, and the next you stumble into a WiFi dead zone—then everything stops. Every other room in the house gets a full signal, but for some reason, the WiFi just doesn’t want to reach the one you’re in. When other troubleshooting steps fail to improve your connection, a WiFi range extender or may be able to give you the boost you need.

How Does a WiFi Extender Work?

Diagram of a home cross section with wifi

A  Range Extender, WiFi Booster or WiFi Extender is a device that repeats the wireless signal from your router to expand its coverage. It functions as a bridge, capturing the WiFi from your router and rebroadcasting it to areas where the WiFi is weak or nonexistent, improving the performance of your home Wifi. Think of it in terms of baseball, where your router is an outfielder whose job is to get the ball to the catcher. A WiFi extender is the shortstop that stands between the two, waiting to catch the ball and throw it in to home plate.

Pay attention to your device settings when using a range extender, though. You might not think it, but your home WiFi device will remain connected to your router until you manually switch over to your range extender network, even if your range extender is in closer proximity to your device than your router. Advances in range extender technology (such as the dual band Linksys RE7000) are underway to automate this process so that the switching happens “behind the scenes” without the user having to do any work.

Do You Need a WiFi Extender?

WiFi extender plugged in a wall socket near a side table

Sometimes your WiFi router placement is the culprit for your dead spot woes. Before purchasing a WiFi extender, try placing your wireless router in the most centralized location of your living space. If your router is in a far corner of your home, you are probably not maximizing its WiFi reach. By placing your router as close to the middle of your home as possible, you can take advantage of the full 360° coverage of the WiFi signal. However, the layout of your home might not lend itself to put the wireless router in an open, centralized area. Or you also might find that after you put your router in the best possible location, you still have WiFi dead zones. In both cases case, you may want to consider using a WiFi booster.

Choosing the Right WiFi Extender

WiFi extenders offer a great solution to insufficient WiFi coverage, as long as they match the home wireless network capabilities of your current router. Though a WiFi booster will still function with a wireless router that has a different network speed, it won’t improve or “up-convert” your existing router’s capabilities, so don’t purchase a fancy extender with features that aren’t compatible with your older router equipment. Similarly, if your existing router is capable of handling higher frequencies, don’t skimp with an extender that has limited WiFi standards. For example, if you have a MU-MIMO WiFi router, ensure you get a range extender that has MU-MIMO capabilities. The only exception to this rule is if you are future proofing—choosing an advanced range extender such as Wireless-AC with the intention of upgrading to a matching router.

Desktop wifi extender

WiFi extenders also come in a desktop or plug-in. Desktop range extenders look like a small router and usually boast higher speeds. Desktop versions typically have several Ethernet ports, so you can really maximize you internet speed by connecting your device directly. Their size and need to have a space to sit on are their disadvantages.

Plug in wifi extender

Plug-in WiFi extenders, on the other hand, connect directly to the electrical socket of your wall, so it does not need to be placed on a surface. Plug-ins could feature a single Ethernet port and a power-thru so you can still use the electrical socket with the extender connected.

How to Setup Your Range Extender

Diagram showing range extender set up with a mobile app

A WiFi range extender is easy to install and can be set up in a snap—just plug it in, press the WPS button on both your router and extender, and voila! You are ready to connect to the internet. Plug the extender in where the signal range of your home WiFi router is strong, but not too close to the router itself or you won’t find a signal any further out than the router could’ve managed in the first place.

Typically, your best bet is to situate it about halfway between the router and the device you want to connect, though you may need to experiment with placement to get the connection you desire. Range extenders suffer from the same interference as WiFi routers, so avoid obstacles such as concrete walls, metal objects, and microwaves. Many range extenders come with software that can help take the guesswork out of placement—Linksys Spot Finder technology, for example, offers a three-step visual guide to finding the perfect location.

Extend the Signal Even Further

Diagram showing range extension

In addition to covering the dead spots in your home or office, a range extender can boost your WiFi signal to places you otherwise wouldn’t expect it to be, like your backyard, garage, or basement. Why not watch the big game poolside on your tablet? Or follow a YouTube tutorial on how to replace the laminate flooring in your finished basement. Do you have a smart garage system? An extender can push the signal to the garage receiver so you can open or close the door from your smartphone. Just position the range extender at the halfway point between the router and the area you want to cover. For maximum coverage, place two range extenders on either side of your router and triple the reach of your home WiFi network, improving performance and network coverage.

Other Options

Replacing your older router for a newer one could be an alternative to improve your wireless coverage. When was the last time you replaced your router? 5 years ago? You might consider buying a newer, faster, and stronger one. Technology advances at a very fast pace and router technology is no exception. With the advent of MU-MIMO, Beamforming and Tri-Band, WiFi routers have more power and reach than ever before. If your router has older technology, a range extender probably would not solve your WiFi dead spots issues. For example, if you have a N-Technology router, an AC-Technology WiFi extender will not help increase coverage.

Mesh wifi coverage in home diagram

The ultimate option that totally eliminates the need for WiFi extenders is upgrading to a mesh WiFi System. Mesh WiFi or Whole Home Wifi systems consists of a main router that connects directly to your modem, and a series of satellite modules, or nodes, placed around your house. Each node is a router, working together to blanket your home with WiFi. Since it’s like having multiple routers in your home, a range extender is simply not needed.

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