In case it’s not clear, I’m not a fan of Wi-Fi extenders — often incorrectly referred to as “Wi-Fi boosters.”
The best way to scale up Wi-Fi coverage is via a mesh system, preferably one with wired backhauling.
But extenders are always the easiest way for the job and sometimes even the only way — not all of us have the luxury or skill of drilling holes to run network cables.
If you gotta do it, why not do it at its best? That’s the point of this post.
You’ll find here the concept of wirelessly extending Wi-Fi, how to pick the best extender for your home, and when to avoid them completely.
Wi-Fi extenders and their pros and (mostly) cons
As the name suggests, a Wi-Fi extender — or range extender — extends the Wi-Fi range of an existing broadcaster (a router or an access point.)
Specifically, an extender connects itself to a Wi-Fi network — just like any Wi-Fi device — and then broadcasts its own Wi-Fi network to relay the connection of the original one. For this reason, extenders are often correctly referred to as Wi-Fi repeaters.
Some extenders have network ports to host wired clients. In this case, it also works as a media bridge or a Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet adapter.
In any case, extenders are convenient by design, as a method to quickly scale up the Wi-Fi coverage of any existing Wi-Fi network in a home where it’s not possible to run network cables.
Place an extender at a good distance from the original broadcaster, program it accordingly and now you have Wi-Fi signals everywhere.
And convenience is generally the only upside of using an extender. Following a couple of major shortcomings with this type of Wi-Fi approach.
Having to do both receiving and delivering a Wi-Fi extender can’t deliver the same speed as the original broadcaster. Specifically, its Wi-Fi band has only 50% of capacity for either end: the backhaul to the original broadcaster and the fronthaul for clients.
Backhaul vs fronthaul
A Wi-Fi connection between two direct devices occurs in a single band, using a fixed channel, at any given time.
Generally, when you use multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters — in a mesh network or a combo of a router and an extender — there are two types of connections: fronthaul and backhaul.
Fronthaul is the Wi-Fi signals broadcast outward for clients or the network ports for wired devices. It’s what we generally expect from a Wi-Fi broadcaster.
On the other hand, backhaul, a.k.a backbone, is the link between one broadcaster and another, be it the main router, a switch, or another satellite hub.
This link works behind the scene to keep the hardware units together as a system. It also determines the ceiling bandwidth (and speed) of all devices connected to the particular broadcaster.
When a Wi-Fi band handles backhaul and fronthaul simultaneously, only half of its bandwidth is available to either end. From the perspective of a connected client, that phenomenon is called signal loss.
When a Wi-Fi band functions solely for backhauling, it’s called the dedicated backhaul.
In a mesh system, only traditional Tri-band hardware — those with an additional 5GHz band — can have a dedicated backhaul band without ostracizing clients of the same band.
Generally, it’s best to use a network cable for backhauling — wired backhauling. And that’s an advantage of mesh hardware with network ports. In this case, a hub can use its entire Wi-Fi bandwidth for front-hauling.
In networking, network cables are always much better than wireless in speed and reliability.
Consequently, clients connected to the extender will get at best half the speed compared to when connected to the original router.
Some Wi-Fi 5 extenders, such as the Netgear Tri-band EX8000, have an additional band that works solely for the backhaul link. However, starting with Wi-Fi 6, extenders generally don’t have this dedicated backhaul band anymore.
As a result, signal loss is generally inevitable when using an extender, and with that, the slow real-world sustained Wi-Fi rates.
It’s important to note that an extender’s actual Wi-Fi speed has little to do with how strong its signals are. Your device might have full Wi-Fi bars when connected to one yet still gets slow Internet or does not even get online — the extender’s backhaul link plays a big role.
Possible interference with existing network, hard to manage
Since an extender has an independent Wi-Fi network of its own, its Wi-Fi signals don’t play well with the existing environment and might interfere with those of the original network it extends, adversely affecting the speeds of both.
On top of that, even when you program the extender’s SSID (or network name) to share the same name and password as that of the original router, you still have two independent Wi-Fi networks in the same air space. And that means:
- You can’t manage them in one place — if you change the SSID or password on the router, you’ll have re-set up the extender or it’ll be disconnected.
- There’s generally no seamless handoff when you move around the house. Clients tend to cling to their current broadcaster until you disconnect and reconnect them manually.
So managing a home network that includes an extender can be a pain.
The issue with virtual MAC addresses
When using Wi-Fi extenders, keep in mind that most of them use virtual MAC addresses for connected clients.
Specifically, devices connected to an extender will register to the network using a random MAC address instead of their own.
Consequently, any features that rely on MAC to identify a device, such as MAC filtering, IP reservation, Parental Controls, and so on, will not work well, if at all.
Specific IoT (Internet of Things) devices also need to connect using their real MAC to work. At the very least, the MAC address change will cause the device to get a new IP address each time it connects to the network, and that alone can be problematic, as described here.
Depending on the situation and hardware, there might be ways to overcome this virtual MAC issue, but the process is quite involved.
Wi-Fi extenders: The recap
Extenders tend to be terrible at real-world speeds due to signal loss and overhead. Most of them are also of low Wi-Fi tiers, further lowering their real-world performance.
Still, they are popular Wi-Fi “quick fixes” due to the fact they can conveniently give users the full Wi-Fi bars at a location where you used to get low or no bars at all. In a way, they are an illusion of “better Wi-Fi.”
These bars are also the base for lots of false advertisements on this type of device, claiming they are fast and “plug-and-play”. I’ve seen many folks literally plug an extender in a power socket, and that’s it, thinking it’ll somehow magically make things better.
The reality is this: Most of the time, extenders are much worse than general expectations. But they work and can work pretty well, even very well, if you know how to pick the correct one.
And that brings us to the next part.
Picking the best Wi-Fi extenders: The real-world tips
To get the best of anything it’s always about applicability. So let’s see when an extender makes sense and when it doesn’t.
When getting an extender makes sense and when it doesn’t
Extenders don’t make sense in situations where you can avoid them or need the best performance. Specifically, if:
- your home is wired with network cables, avoid extenders and go with access points instead. (Wi-Fi access points are similar to extenders except they use a network cable for the backhauling.)
- you need the fastest-possible Wi-Fi performance, or if you have Gigabit-class or faster, then you need to think of running network cables around the house.
- you need to use more than one extender to cover the entire home. That’s time to get a mesh system instead.
Extra: Extenders vs wireless mesh satellites
A mesh system consists of multiple broadcasters that work together and can be managed in one place such as a mobile app or the web user interface of the router unit.
In a mesh with wireless backhauling, each satellite unit of the system is essentially a managed Wi-Fi extender.
In a mesh with wired backhauling, each satellite unit of the system is essentially a managed access point.
Using individual extenders or access points in a network is not ideal from the management’s perspective. You’ll generally experience no sealless handoff and get slow performance in the extenders’ case.
On the other hand, getting an extender makes sense when:
- you only need to extend the coverage just a bit more to fully blanket the area.
- you are OK with modest connection speeds — something that is sustained at around 200Mbps or lower.
- you have no better option.
The most important thing to note is that not all extenders are created equal. That brings us to what to note on picking the actual hardware.
Picking the right Wi-Fi extender
A couple of things to note in choosing the right extender.
- Network port: If an extender has a network port, chances are it can also work as an access point. It’s a great option in case you get your home wired later on. The ability to host a wired device never hurts, either.
- Wi-Fi standard: It’s best to pick an extender of the same Wi-Fi standard (and tier) as the existing router. So if you have a Wi-Fi router, get a Wi-Fi 5 extender. Rocking a Wi-Fi 6 network? Pick a Wi-Fi 6 extender.
- Mesh mode: All extenders work as a generic device by default and will fit in any Wi-Fi network. However, some extenders, when coupled with supported routers from the same vendor can become a managed mesh satellite unit.
That said, it’s best to get an extender from the same hardware vendor as your existing router.
But the point is this: If you can avoid it, don’t pick a generic no-name extender. The performance and reliability will suffer. Instead, when possible, pick one that’s designed to work well with the particular router you have.
In the best-case scenario — and you won’t need to look very hard — you’ll end up with a real wireless mesh system, which is much better than the combo of a standard router and a standard extender.
If you’re in a hurry, below are my three top choices.
Best three Wi-Fi 6 extenders to bring home today
These Wi-Fi 6 extenders will work with any network, but they all can form a mesh if you use them with the correct router.
1. Asus RP-AX56: An excellent extender for an AiMes router
The RP-AX56 works fine as a generic extender or access point. However, it’s part of Asus’s AiMesh ecosystem and therefore can be an excellent mesh satellite unit for those with an AiMesh router.
Alternatively, you can pick any other AiMesh-ready extender — pick one of the same Wi-Fi standards as your current Asus router.
Reliable and relatively fast Wi-Fi with good coverage
Can work as an Access Point, a Media Bridge, an Extender, or an AiMesh node (via wireless or wired backhaul)
Convenient design, excellent web interface
No 160MHz bandwidth, modest specs
The Initial firmware is a bit buggy (at launch)
Bulky for a snap-on device
2. TP-Link RE715X: Excellent for those with an OneMes-ready router
The RE715X is one of the latest and “highest-end” Wi-Fi 6 extenders TP-Link makes for its OneMesh ecosystem. It’s an excellent choice if you have one of these Archer routers and need to extend the Wi-Fi just a bit more to that far corner of the house.
Alternatively, you can pick any OneMesh-ready extender, of the same Wi-Fi standard as your router, to get a similar experience.
Versatile and easy to use; can work as an extender, an access point, or a OneMesh satellite
160MHz support, reliable performance with decent data rates and coverage
Convenient design, full web interface
No wired backhauling as a OneMesh satellite
Super-bulky, no pass-through socket
Slow performance as a standard extender with virtual MAC address issue.
3. Netgear EAX80: An excellent Wi-Fi 6 access point
I haven’t tested the Netgear EAX80 for an in-depth review but have used a few units for personal and business purposes and they proved to be reliable and fast — for an extender that is.
Most importantly, the EAX80 has four Gigabit ports and can work as an access point, making it also an excellent buy for a wired home.
Sharing the same Netgear Nighthawk app, the EAX80 works best with a Netgear Nighthawk router but it can work as a standard extender for any existing network.
Top Wi-Fi 6 tier with fast performance
Four Gigabit ports; can work as an access point
Easy to set up, helpful mobile app
The final thoughts
Wi-Fi extenders are somewhat of the last resort in scaling up your wireless coverage. Generally, the result range from good (best case scenario) to really bad. Your mileage will vary somewhere in between.
But it’s safe to say you’ll never get a great Wi-Fi network with extenders. Even in the best-case scenario — like when you pick one of the above and use it with a supported router — you’ll only get a wireless mesh system.
And wireless mesh system is never as good as using a standard access point, which by default works via wired backhauling. And for that check out this post on how to pick the best access points for your network.