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The best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody – CNET

Even as lockdown restrictions are lifting, many of us are still sheltering in place and working from home due to the coronavirus, making steady, reliable Wi-Fi 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 learned the hard way — dead zones are a real pain.

Enter the Wi-Fi range extender. Like the name suggests, it can help give your network a boost by receiving the wireless signal from your router and reamplifying it further 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 up with your router. In most cases, you can even use a wireless range extender from a different manufacturer than your router. Best of all, you’ve got plenty of options that won’t cost you very much.

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 coveragem. 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.)

Ry Crist/CNET

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.

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 $35. Better yet, it’s currently on sale for a few bucks less. 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. Read more about improving your home’s Wi-Fi.

Other extenders we tested

With 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.

Ry Crist/CNET

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 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.

The Netgear EX3700 wasn’t powerful enough for the price.

Ry Crist/CNET

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.

The Linksys RE6350 left a lot to be desired.

Ry Crist/CNET

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 10-35Mbps 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.

A 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.

Ry Crist/CNET

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.

Speeds 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. 

If that back bathroom were, say, a back office, I’d be miserable. That presented a clear mission for my test extenders. Which one would provide the biggest, steadiest boost to speeds in the back half of my home? 

To find out, I plugged each range extender in one at a time and paired them with my router, connected my laptop to their extension networks, and repeated my speed tests. I placed them in the hall, halfway between the spots where I test in the hallway bathroom and the master bedroom, and close to the edge of where I’m able to get a strong signal from the router. A good range extender should be able to receive a solid signal from the router at that distance, then beam its signal out farther than the wireless network could originally extend.

None of the plug-in range extenders I tested were able to hit blazing fast speeds — but the TP-Link and D-Link were able to sustain speeds in the back of my house that are easily fast enough for streaming HD video or making FaceTime and Zoom calls.

Ry Crist/CNET

In the end, each one was able to maintain my connection in that back bathroom without dropping me, but only TP-Link and D-Link were able to sustain upload and download speeds that were fast enough for full internet usage. TP-Link’s 5GHz band was the strongest overall, with an average back bathroom download speed of about 75Mbps and an average upload speed just above 50Mbps. I didn’t see much variance between test rounds, either, even between daytime testing and evening testing. 

Speeds were strong throughout the rest of the house, as well, which suggests that the TP-Link RE220 offers the best range of the four, too. When I tried using the TP-Link range extender to make a FaceTime call, I was able to move throughout my entire house without seeing any dips in the call quality.

I’ll have a better sense of range once I’m able to resume full testing at our lab and at the 5,400-square-foot CNET Smart Home — but for now, all of that is enough for me to call the RE220 the clear winner here, especially considering that it’s the least expensive option I tested.

Most plug-in range extenders only offer basic features at best, but the TP-Link RE220 also includes a signal strength tester and a High-Speed Mode in the app.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Other things to consider

Aside from my speed tests, I made sure to stream video in my bedroom on each extender’s network, and I made several video calls on each network, too. All four were serviceable, but the TP-Link RE220 was the only one that didn’t present any issues with my internet connection. My video was crisp and quick to load, and my video calls were clear as could be.

Pairing a plug-in range extender with your home network is as easy as pressing the WPS button.

Ry Crist/CNET

I also spent time playing with each extender’s settings. You shouldn’t expect much, but most will at least make it easy to change the extension network’s name or password. Some include app controls with extra features, too.

My top pick, the TP-Link RE220, makes it really easy to tweak settings via TP-Link’s Tether app on an Android or iOS device. Again, the features make for slim pickings, but you can check signal strength or turn on High-Speed Mode, which dedicates the 2.4GHz band for traffic from the router to the range extender, leaving the 5GHz free for your normal network traffic. That mode actually wasn’t as fast as sharing the 5GHz band like normal when I tested it out, because those incoming 2.4GHz speeds are limited, but it still might be a useful option in some setups.

As for setting a range extender up, you should know that it’s about as painless as it gets. Most, including all four that I tested, support Wi-Fi Protected Setup, or WPS, which is a universal protocol that wireless networking devices can use to connect with each other. Just plug the signal booster in, press the WPS button, and then press the WPS button on your router within two minutes. 

It’s also worth making sure that your range extender includes at least one Ethernet jack. If you can connect your wired device (like a smart TV) directly to it, then you’ll enjoy speeds that are as fast as possible.

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A mesh router with its own, dedicated range extenders will do an even better job of spreading a speedy Wi-Fi signal throughout your home. This setup from TP-Link is currently available for less than $200.

Ry Crist/CNET

Should I just get a mesh router?

One last note: If you’re living in a large-sized home, or if you need speeds faster than 100Mbps at range, then it’s probably worth it to go ahead and upgrade to a mesh router that comes with its own range-extending satellite devices. You’ve got more options than ever these days, including three-piece mesh network setups from Eero, Netgear Orbi and TP-Link that cost $250 or less. Any of those would likely outperform a standalone router paired with a plug-in range extender like the ones tested here.

For instance, I had a three-piece TP-Link Deco M5 mesh router on hand, so I set it up and ran some speed tests alongside the range extenders. The connection wasn’t quite as steady as what I saw when I tested a similar three-piece Eero setup last year, but my average speeds stayed well above 100Mbps throughout my entire house, even in the back. Better still, I didn’t have multiple networks and extension networks to jump between — everything was consolidated to a single mesh network. Simple!

Spend a little more on a mesh router, and you can find one that supports the newest, fastest Wi-Fi 6 speeds, or one with an additional 5GHz band that you can dedicate to traffic between the router and the extenders. I’ve got lots of info on systems like those in my full mesh router rundown.

That said, if all you need is for your current router to maintain a steady signal one or two rooms farther into your home, then a simple range extender will probably do just fine — especially if you buy the right one. For my money, that’s the TP-Link RE220.

Read more: Google Nest Wifi review

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