If one router fails to provide every corner of your home with adequate Wi-Fi coverage, mesh network systemsand range extendersare great ways to strengthen Wi-Fi signal and fix dead spots in your home. But which one is best for you?
Optimize Your Current Wi-Fi Network
A lot of people come to me asking how they can solve their slow internet — can a mesh Wi-Fi system do the job, even in a small Manhattan apartment? It's important to note that range extenders and mesh systems aren’t a magic bullet that improve speeds in every situation. If your problem is caused by congestion from your neighbors, a poorly placed router, or a cheap internet package with slow speeds, a mesh system isn’t going to solve your problem.
“Mesh systems and extenders are primarily designed to solve one problem: bad signal strength,” says Joel Crane, a Certified Wireless Network Expert and Wi-Fi Engineer at Juniper Networks. “Before making an investment in a mesh Wi-Fi system, check to see if you have any signal strength issues in the places where you need to use Wi-Fi.”
He recommends using a free tool like InSSIDer Lite (Opens in a new window) to map your home’s signal strength — as you walk around the house with the tool running, make note of any spots that have poor signal. “Any signal strength between -67 and -30 dBm is good,” he says. “Once you dip below -67 or -70 dBm, performance will start to degrade. Below -80 dBm, things probably won't work reliably at all.” (Remember, those are negative numbers, so -80 dBm is lower than -67 dBm.)
If you don’t have any dead spots, then the problem is with your internet package, rather than your Wi-Fi network. If you do find dead spots, make sure your router is optimally placed out in the open, in a central location. If it’s stuffed inside a closet on one end of the house, you might be able to solve your problem by moving the router instead of buying new hardware. Check out our top 10 ways to boost your Wi-Fi signalfor more tips before resorting to extra devices.
Wi-Fi Range Extenders Merely Repeat a Signal
If you do need some help extending your Wi-Fi, you’ll have to choose between a range extender and a mesh system. “Wi-Fi extenders typically connect to your existing wireless network, broadcast a new network name, and blindly relay traffic back to your wireless router,” explains Crane. “This usually means that you'll see two network names: one network offered by your wireless router, and another network offered by the extender.”
You’ve probably seen this before, where a home’s network has a "SmithHouse" for upstairs and "SmithHouse_EXT" for downstairs. Your devices will often stay on one until it's completely out of range. This means you'll still have slow Wi-Fi at multiple points in your house unless you manually switch back and forth between networks as you move around, which is a huge hassle. Repeating the entire Wi-Fi signal is also inefficient — that extender merely listens to every packet and rebroadcasts it. There's no internal logic that sends packets to the right path.
More importantly, though, range extenders can often slow things down. Wireless is “half duplex,” which means a wireless device can't send and receive information at the same time — every device on the same channel has to take turns talking, including devices on your neighbor’s Wi-Fi networks. Range extenders exacerbate this inefficiency, says Crane, since they have to repeat every single thing they “hear” — like someone following you around all day, repeating everything you say before someone else can talk.
Finally, managing these extenders is often a pain. Many routersrequire you to go to a web page to alter settings or download updates, and if your extender is from a different brand, you'll be dealing with two sets of software. In many cases, that software can feel complex and archaic.
There are exceptions to all of these points, of course. Some range extenders have more modern software and can overcome some of the bandwidth issues when paired with routers from the same manufacturers that are designed to be used together. But there's no guarantee you'll be able to do it with your existing router, and at that point, the line between extender and mesh system gets a bit blurry.
Our Top-Rated Wireless Range Extenders
Mesh Network Systems Are More Seamless, Efficient, and Quick to Update
Unlike an extender, which you can add to an existing Wi-Fi network, mesh systems are typically complete replacements for your home Wi-Fi. You can use them in tandem with your current router, but there's usually little reason to (unless your ISP requires it). They're designed to replace your complicated router-and-extender setup with multiple identical units placed around your house that are used together.
While replacing your current router might scare some folks off, remember that this is currently a much more attractive option than in previous years since routers supporting the Wi-Fi 6 (or Wi-Fi 6E) standard are becoming more common. Wi-Fi 6 offers significant improvements in both bandwidth and security, so replacing your older router with either a Wi-Fi 6 routeror a compatible mesh system makes sense now that prices are coming down.
Even without Wi-Fi 6, however, mesh systems have several advantages over traditional extenders. “Home mesh systems like eero, Google Nest WiFi, and Linksys Velop use mesh ‘access points,’ which are all aware of each other, and can wirelessly forward traffic around the network as needed,” says Crane. “They all broadcast the same network name, which enables your Wi-Fi devices like phones and laptops to roam between mesh access points as they choose.” That makes the handoff more seamless than extenders.
Furthermore, because mesh units run the same software, they're able to relay traffic more intelligently. That means if you're connected to the second node on the far end of your house, it's only going to rebroadcast packets if the client in question is actually connected to it.
In addition, mesh systems can overcome some of the speed problems that extenders have by using multiple radios to send and receive information simultaneously. “They can use a 2.4GHz channel to communicate with the client and then use their 5GHz channel to relay data to the other mesh access points on the network,” says Crane. Some mesh systems may even have three radios — one radio dedicated to that backhaul communication to the router, and two radios for communication with laptops, phones, and other client devices. This is particularly useful when you have a lot of devices on the network.
If you can buy a tri-band model, I’d recommend doing so. It’s still not perfect — ideally, you’d connect your mesh access points to each other with Ethernet for the best speeds — but if you don’t have Ethernet wiring in your home, it’s a step up over dual-band mesh systems and traditional range extenders. One of the latest such offerings is the Amazon Eero Pro 6, a tri-band mesh system that supports Wi-Fi 6 and includes a Zigbee smart home hub built into the core router. Alongside its lower-end sibling, the Eero 6, Amazon's lineup is a relatively affordable way to jump into mesh networking.
Finally, setting up and managing your network is much easier with modern mesh systems. Instead of dealing with multiple configuration pages, you can manage the entire network from a smartphone app. Many mesh systems also update their firmware automatically, which is a huge step up over most routers, which require you to check the manufacturer's web page for updates, download a file, and send it to your router manually. Most users don't even go through this arduous process, leaving them vulnerable to security threats. With an all-in-one mesh system, you're more likely to get regular updates, which improves usability and security. That's huge.