The 30-Second Review
A WiFi extender is an easy way to add more Internet coverage to your home. The best will deliver fast internet speeds where you want them, without making you pay for expensive features you don’t need. We researched new technology advancements, like protocols and multi-band broadcasting, and combed through over 60,000 customer reviews to find two cutting-edge WiFi extenders that you can rely on to take your internet farther.
One of the most advanced extenders on the market, capable of handling WiFi speeds 1,000+ Mbps. Plus, with MU-MIMO and beamforming, it gets WiFi to more devices, faster.
The Essentials can handle up to 300 Mbps, more than enough speed for the average user. Its features are reliable but basic, meaning some significant savings.
The Best WiFi Extender
The Netgear Nighthawk X4 ($150) is a powerhouse of an extender. It has some high-tech performance features, such as beamforming technology that locates where active devices are and focuses signal in that direction to improve reception. It also comes with MU-MIMO technology, so if you’re a household of gamers or video streamers you can all rely on a steady WiFi connection. The Nighthawk also has one of the highest link rate capacities for extenders (how quickly your device can broadcast or receive data). Capable of handling speeds up to 1,733 (on 5 GHz band), the Nighthawk can handle however much Internet you throw at it, even if its calculated in hundreds of megabits per second (Mbps).
The Netgear Essentials ($40) doesn’t dazzle with features, but to be honest, most of us don’t have or use enough Internet to need the latest advancements in WiFi technology. The Essentials masters the basics: it has an AC class rating, which is one of the most recent protocols for at-home WiFi, it has a link rate of up to 433 Mbps (on 5 GHz band). Since the average WiFi speed is about 80 Mbps, the Essentials can handle more than enough for most users. Like the X4, it has a small indicator light to let you know whether it’s in a good signal area. In exchange for basic features and a lower (but totally adequate) link rate, we can fix our WiFi dead spot for just $40.
How We Found the Best WiFi Extender
We began by researching all WiFi Extenders currently available from top brands, like Amped Wireless, Belkin, D-Link, TP-Link, and Ubiquiti, that pretty much dominate the market. We also looked at popular sellers on Best Buy and Amazon to fill out our list, which helped bring in some lesser known companies like Kasada, Coredy, and BrosTrend. We ended up with a list of 121 products.
We ditched single-band extenders.
WiFi extenders work by catching a strong WiFi signal from the router, copying it, and sending it on — essentially “repeating” the signal. The first generations of WiFi repeaters got a bad rap and for good reason. WiFi signals are prone to interference from everything else that shares the same frequency. Interference weakens your signal strength, and can cause you to lose reception. The first generation repeaters were single-band devices that did help your Internet reach further rooms, but they transmitted on the exact same 2.4 GHz frequency as the router. Like two competing radios, they created a lot of interference, ultimately resulting in slower Internet.
Since then, these devices have undergone a kind of re-branding. They’re now called WiFi extenders (likely to distance themselves from the bad associations of their earlier selves) and instead of “catching” the WiFi and then broadcasting it on the same signal, they now use multiple bands. Most extenders are dual-band (there are multi-band options, but these are expensive and act more like WiFi mesh networks, which are more like routers). They use one band solely to talk to the router and catch the signal, then broadcast on the second band. This leads to better quality of Internet because using both frequencies means less interference.
We only considered AC devices.
When shopping around for extenders, you’ll notice that most of them are categorized “802.11n” or “802.11ac.” The letters at the end are protocols that signify the device’s capabilities. New protocols are developed and published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standards Association to improve on different wireless needs. Each new protocol dictates which frequencies are used to broadcast WiFi, how quickly information can be transmitted, and what kind of range that device can achieve.
What About AD Extenders?While there are more recent protocols (you might see a few routers and extenders described as being 802.11ad), we didn’t consider these devices. AD devices have higher link rates than AC, and operate on a different frequency, so the Internet speed will be faster, but they also have a much more limited range than AC devices, and their signals can’t travel through walls and furniture as easily.
The best protocol for routers and extenders right now is AC, which was first published in 2013. This is partly because most of our daily devices, like smart phones, computers, and gaming consoles, are all using AC protocols. AC extenders will still be able to receive signals from an older router, but your WiFi might be slower. This is because older devices will have lower link rates (how quickly information can be transmitted across a wireless signal), and the extender can’t improve on the speed it receives, only pass it on.
AC is the second protocol, after N, to have dual-band capacity. For extenders, N class speeds cap around 300 Mbps for each of the dual-bands. AC class routers and extenders are still being further developed, but currently their speeds reach upwards of 1,000 Mbps for the 2.4 GHz band, and over 2,000 Mbps for the 5.0 GHz band (more than fast enough for the average American’s needs).
We like MU-MIMO, but we didn’t require it.
Routers and extenders technically don’t stream to multiple devices at the same time, they switch back and forth between each device in use. This switching happens so quickly that we typically don’t notice, but if you are using three or four devices simultaneously, a standard WiFi router or extender will make them all share the same stream, which can slow your internet down.
A MU-MIMO (Multiple User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output) extender separates bandwidth into up to four streams, so it can transmit simultaneously to devices. This is useful if you have multiple people streaming movies or playing video games at the same time. It means the device can send four times the amount of data in the same amount of time it would take a non-MU-MIMO device trying to service four devices. Not something you’d even notice when simply browsing online, but a game changer for multiple gamers and streamers otherwise competing to avoid lag or buffering.
MU-MIMO is gaining popularity both on the broadcasting side, meaning routers and extenders, and on the receiving side, such as smartphones, laptops, and other wireless devices. Which is good, because you need both for the technology to work optimally. Non-MU-MIMO devices can still see some benefit from a MU-MIMO extender, but only if there are compatible devices being used. The extender will stream normally to the older device, but still use the MU-MIMO capabilities to stream separately to the compatible device(s), removing them from the “normal stream.”
Beamforming is another bonus that often accompanies MU-MIMO. Some MU-MIMO devices offer beamforming as well. This is the ability for two devices (e.g. your computer and your router) to focus the data transmitted into directed beams, instead of simply broadcasting signal in every direction. It can improve your network range, and streaming quality by optimizing the signal on a case-by-case basis.
We scoured customer reviews for favorites, flaws, and all-around fails.
A lot of factors affect how well an extender will work. Not only are WiFi signals subject to interference by other nearby devices using the same bands, they also start to degrade when they hit obstacles like walls and furniture. Even the materials that your walls and furniture are made of can have a huge impact on how effective your extender will be at bringing WiFi to more rooms. Residents of sprawling stone castles, beware.
As such, bringing extenders into our airy open-plan office space for in-house testing was unlikely to guide us toward the best extender. Instead, we turned to customer reviews on Amazon to find the products with the highest success rates. To make sure we were looking at devices likely to have been tested in a number of different home environments, we only looked at products with at least 100 customer reviews. Some extenders, like our top pick Nighthawk, share an Amazon landing page with their more or less powerful siblings. This means that reviews are not separated out by specific device, but instead are lumped together. We treated these reviews as one review for that model group.
We were looking at more than 60,000 reviews for our remaining contenders. However, not all of these reviews are real. Some manufacturers trying to boost their overall star rating write fake reviews or, increasingly, hire people to do this for them. We turned to ReviewMeta, a website that analyzes Amazon reviews to figure out which reviews (and reviewers) seem suspicious and which are probably genuine. In addition to weeding out overly positive and often identical (read: paid) reviews, ReviewMeta also analyzes and excludes comments from what they call “brigades” — a group of people deliberately posting bad reviews of a product, usually for business advantage but sometimes just for “fun.”
ReviewMeta found that nearly half of our reviews were fakes, which still left us with 31,224 reviews across 30 different extenders. We removed three extenders at this stage whose review numbers dropped below 100 after pulling out the fakes. From here, we looked at both ReviewMeta’s adjusted star rating (how many stars the review would have if we only considered real reviews), and the percentage of five-star reviews. Both our top picks scored highly, and were the only two devices (out of 30) to have at least a 4-star overall rating. More tellingly, both models had relatively few one-star ratings, and a high proportion of five-star ratings. We discovered patterns linked to star ratings during our research. Devices with higher percentages of one-stars tended to not work with certain devices, had difficult set-up processes (that didn’t always work and needed to be redone), or had trouble connecting to the router. Devices with higher percentages of five-stars tended to be easier to set-up (and those that needed to call customer support weren’t stymied in the process), and had fewer complaints about connection issues.
Link Rates Are Less Important Than We Thought
Link rates describe how quickly information is transmitted across a wireless signal and are calculated in megabits per second (Mbps). The link rate of a wireless device represents the maximum theoretical rate in ideal conditions and is the rounded up sum total of its 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz link rates. Unfortunately, even with dual-band repeaters, there is a huge difference between what the manufacturer says the link rate is versus what you can actually expect to see at home. CNET advises that due to all the inevitable interference, at most you can expect to receive half of the advertised speeds, although in their testing they found that most devices actually only deliver one-third of their advertised link rate.
|Class||2.4 GHz Link Rate||5.0 GHz Link Rate|
Theoretical Link Rates Chart derived from Small Net Builder. The numbers next to the letter class indicate the sum of its 2.4 GHz link rate and its 5.0 GHz link rate. Note: the Nighthawk is AC2200 for which Small Net Builder do not collect data.
Buy an extender as powerful as your router. WiFi can feel like a race to the bottom, where the least powerful device acts as the bottleneck. If you buy an extender weaker than your router, you’ll slow down your WiFi speeds because it has a lower maximum theoretical link rate.
The theoretical link rate means that once you install your extender in your home, you might not see the promised 867 Mbps from the extender. That depends, in part, on what kind of Internet plan you purchased. If you have a 1,000 Mbps plan, this extender won’t be able to handle that much data, and will limit it to its maximum: 867 Mbps. The speed of your WiFi also depends on how far you are from the router, what obstacles (think: walls, furniture, metal appliances) are in the way, and how much signal interference there is (your microwave actually operates on 2.4 GHz, too).
All of the extenders that made it to this point in our analysis were rated for at least a combined 750 Mbps (AC750), which gives you a maximum theoretical link rate of 300 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band, and 433 Mbps on the 5.0 GHz band. Even if you only end up getting one third of this rate, according to CNET, that 100 Mbps is still enough for the average American’s internet plan (80 Mbps). While it doesn’t hurt to aim for a higher link rate, the faster the device, the more expensive it is. If you aren’t paying for super fast internet, getting a device capable of higher speeds is overkill.
Our Picks for the Best WiFi Extender
The Netgear Nighthawk X4 is one of the most powerful WiFi extenders on the market. It has one of the fastest link rates we could find for an extender, reaching a combined speed of 2,200 Mbps for both 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands. If you have Fiber Internet, or are otherwise buying Gigabit speeds, this extender is one of the few that can handle 1,000 Mbps. It won’t reach quite as high on the 2.4 GHz band (AC devices emphasize the 5.0 GHz band and let it have faster speeds at the cost of the 2.4 GHz band), but it can still reach around 600 to 700 Mbps — more than enough for most people.
Speed comes at a priceWith extenders, there’s a strong correlation between how much speed the device can handle and how much it costs. The X4 shows it: paying for the best speeds and latest technology will cost you $150. However, U.S. consumers on average use just shy of 80 Mbps. The X4 will still work with these lower speeds, but you may be better off with our budget pick.
Additionally, the X4 has MU-MIMO technology. This means that it can handle more devices being used at the same time than an extender without this technology, making the X4 particularly good for households where multiple people are trying to use WiFi at the same time. Whether everyone is playing online video games, streaming Netflix, listening to Spotify, working from home, or all of the above, the X4 can communicate with multiple devices at the same time, instead of a trade off for which device gets Internet.
We liked that the X4 is fairly small and self-contained — its antennas are internal, so you won’t have to figure out how to best position them (on the flipside this means you can’t if you want to). It’s a plug-in device that’s about as wide as the US dollar bill, and a little bit taller. We also liked how you can see directly on the device whether it has a good connection. Positioning is important for extenders, and the X4’s glowing green, amber, or red light is a clear indicator of the connection quality. Additionally, the X4 has lights to indicate whether the extender needs to be moved closer to the router to improve performance.
The Netgear Essentials is basic in a great way. It’s cheap, at less than a third of the price of the Nighthawk, but if your purchased Internet Plan looks closer to 100 Mbps than 1,000 Mbps, the Essentials is more than enough machine for you. It’s rated AC750, which means it caps out at 300 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 433 Mbps on 5.0 GHz.
Like the X4 it’s a plug-in device, so you won’t need to clear shelf space to find it a home. Also it’s pretty tiny, just larger than a credit card. Even though it’s smaller, it still has many of the same indicator lights as the X4. One light changes color to demonstrate the connection strength to the router, and another demonstrates the strength to your computer or WiFi device. You’ll be able to tell at a glance if you’re in a good signal area, or if your WiFi troubles have to do with the router or the extender.
You’ll be giving up the high tech features, like MU-MIMO and beamforming, but if you don’t think you’ll need these you shouldn’t have to pay for them. But keep in mind, if you end up purchasing a larger Internet package down the road, you may have to upgrade.
|2.4 GHz Link Rate||Up to 450 Mbps||300 Mbps|
|5.0 GHz Link Rate||Up to 1733 Mbps||433 Mbps|
|Number of Ports||1||1|
|Adjusted Star Rating||4.1||4|
|% of 5-star reviews||73%||59%|
|% of 1-star Reviews||11%||15%|
*Sources: Small Net Builder and PCMag
Did You Know?
You’ll Need to Configure Your Extender
You’ll need to choose whether your extender communicates with the router on 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz. It’ll then use the other band to send WiFi to your devices. Using 2.4 GHz for router communications leaves the less crowded 5.0 GHz band open for your computer or smartphone, but it is more susceptible to interference (blame your microwave). If you’re having a hard time establishing a strong connection, you might need to dedicate the 5.0 GHz band for extender-router communications instead.
It’s Important to Choose the Right Spot for Your Extender
Just as finding the right spot for your router is important, you’ll want to take some time to find the right spot for your extender, too. All of our top picks have indicator lights that make it easy to see if they’re in a strong signal area. Contrary to what you might think (or hope), the extender can’t just be popped into the room with the weakest signal. These devices are repeaters — they receive a signal on one band and transmit it on the other. Placed in a weak signal area, they’ll pick up that weak signal, and transmit it just as weakly. Instead, you’ll want to find an area with strong signal. This is usually about halfway between the router and the area of the house you’re having trouble getting WiFi in. The extender will pick up a strong signal, and pass it along.
Also, keep in mind that a WiFi extender doesn’t give you seamless coverage across your house. Instead, you’ll have your WiFi network based from your router and you’ll have a network based from the extender, with a separate name and password. As you leave your router’s network zone, your internet will drop off and then reconnect to the extender’s network zone. You probably won’t notice this unless you’re actively streaming a video as you walk down the hallway, but it can be inconvenient depending on how frequently you need to travel between zones.
A WiFi Extender Isn’t Always the Right Choice
If you’re having trouble getting a strong WiFi signal across your house, we’ll be honest, a WiFi extender is not going to be the right option for many people. WiFi extenders are best for people who already have a high-quality router, but have a small area in their home where the reception is weak, inconsistent, or nonexistent.
On the other hand, if you’re setting up your home WiFi system for the first time, or if you’re looking to update your WiFi system to the latest specifications, you might want to take a look at a WiFi mesh system. Mesh systems are starting to become more popular for people with large or complex homes. They consist of at least two router-like devices that you spread evenly throughout your home, so that you have consistent WiFi coverage, no matter where you go. They are more expensive than a simple extender, usually around $300 for a starter kit of three units, but can be cheaper than a high-quality router that needs an accessory extender.
Powerline adapters are another option. The receiving adapter plugs into the wall near the router, and uses a cord to plug into the router itself. The broadcasting adapter plugs into any socket in your dead or weak WiFi zone. Together, they transmit the WiFi signal from the router, through the electrical cabling already in your home, and broadcast it into the weak zone. They can be straightforward to use, but users report that how successful they are at actually broadcasting a good signal largely depends on what kind of wiring your house has, and how old it is.
The Best WiFi Extender: Summed Up