Poor Wi-Fi signal is something that affects us all sooner or later. Unfortunately, it can be hard to diagnose the exact cause, and there are many possible solutions—but if none of them work, where do you go next?
There are two main options for boosting your Wi-Fi signal. However, they’re not equal, and one is not always better than the other. Let’s take a look at both Wi-Fi extenders and powerline adapters and see which is the right choice for you.
What to Know About Wi-Fi Extenders
A Wi-Fi extender is a small wireless device that receives the signal from your router and re-broadcasts it. By positioning the extender in the right place in your home, you can gain Wi-Fi coverage where there were previously dead spots or even push it out into your backyard.
Needless to say, it’s a cheap and convenient way of boosting Wi-Fi coverage to every corner of your home, and there are several reasons to like them.
Wi-Fi extenders come in two styles: wall plugs and small desktop units. The setup process usually involves little more than entering your normal Wi-Fi password to connect the unit to your network.
Then, as with the router itself, it’s a case of finding the best position to give the best balance between coverage and speed. This may actually be a little closer to the router than you’d expect.
Note that the extender can only re-broadcast the signal up to the quality of the signal it receives. If you place the extender right at the edge of your router’s range, where it receives a weak and unstable signal, it will only be able to re-broadcast that same weak and unstable signal.
Where to Position a Wi-Fi Extender
Most manufacturers recommend sitting the extender about mid-way between the router and the area you want to cover.
Ideally, it would have line-of-sight to both areas or at least no obstructions by any heavy physical obstacles (e.g., thick walls) in either direction. Such obstructions can reduce the strength of the wireless signal.
Wi-Fi extenders aren’t perfect, mind. You’ll experience some signal loss, no matter the Wi-Fi extender make or model you use; it’s just an inevitable fact of the technology. All Wi-Fi extenders split their available bandwidth between receiving the Wi-Fi signal (i.e., communicating with your Wi-Fi router) and broadcasting to other devices.
You can minimize Wi-Fi extender signal loss by ensuring you buy a dual-band Wi-Fi extender rather than an older single-band model. The dual-band Wi-Fi extender will boost the 2.4GHz signal (which has a larger range but slower connection speed) and 5GHz signal (which has a smaller range but faster connection speed). Boosting both means all your Wi-Fi connected devices have a better chance of receiving a decent Wi-Fi connection.
Furthermore, some Wi-Fi extenders allow you to dedicate one band for communicating with your router and another band for communicating with your devices. For example, Amped Wireless’ BoostBand technology:
“Will utilize the 5GHz channel between the Range Extender and the Router. If the 5GHz connection is not available or it is too weak, it will utilize the 2.4GHz connection with the Router. With BoostBand enabled, both 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices will still be able to connect to the Range Extender, however traffic between the Extender and Router will only use a single band.”
While there are no restrictions on mixing and matching brands, a Wi-Fi extender does need to be at least as fast as the router it’s connected to. If necessary, you can use an 802.11ac extender with an older 802.11n router at maximum speed because Wi-Fi standards are backward compatible. You can’t do it the other way round; you’ll get a big performance hit if you use an N-rated extender with an AC-rated or AX-rated router. Repurposing an old-ish router is a great way to extend your Wi-Fi without forking out for a new bit of hardware.
Mesh Networks Are Even Better
A Wi-Fi extender is a simple and effective way of increasing your Wi-Fi range, but it might still be slower than connecting a device directly to your router. And you may still encounter dead spots.
A newer system based around a mesh Wi-Fi network may replace the need for extenders in the future.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems have one device connected to your modem and multiple additional devices dotted around your home to provide full wireless coverage. Unlike extenders, which create a separate network with its own SSID (i.e., network name), mesh Wi-Fi creates a single seamless network.
They can also be faster and more efficient. Each unit has two radios (one for receiving data and one for transmitting data), and data can be dynamically rerouted around all the units on the network rather than moving in a linear direction as on a traditional network.
What to Know About Powerline Adapters
A powerline adapter network helps you overcome poor Wi-Fi performance by transmitting data across the electrical cabling in your home. It works using a series of powerline adapters, which are small wall-plug-sized devices with Ethernet ports (and, in many cases, Wi-Fi functionality).
In other words, powerline adapters turn your regular electrical outlets into Ethernet connections.
To get it set up, you connect one adapter to your router and plug it into a nearby electrical socket. You then plug another adapter into an electrical socket in another room, then connect a device (like your computer) to the adapter. And—in theory, at least—that’s it.
Powerline adapters are better than Wi-Fi extenders because you don’t have to worry about positioning them within range of your router, and you don’t have to worry about wireless dead zones.
But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about. For best results, you should put your powerline adapters on the same mains circuit. While the signals they transmit can cross between circuits, the strength diminishes every time they do.
You should try and keep the distance as short as possible. The signal, and therefore the transfer speed, gets weaker the further it travels. The commonly recommended distance is no more than 200m, including all excess wiring that might be hidden under your floors. It’s not just the straight-line distance between rooms.
A big factor that can hit the performance of a powerline network is noise. Electrical noise is unavoidable and is exacerbated by plugging the adapter into an extension lead or near another large electrical appliance. Even something as trivial as flashing Christmas tree lights could kill your internet speeds.
Lastly, never use powerline adapters with surge protectors, power strips, extension cords, or uninterruptible power supplies. They tend to filter certain frequencies, which means reduced data transfer speeds (at best) or no data transfer at all (at worst).
Powerline Adapter vs. Wi-Fi Extender: Which Is Right For You?
Both Wi-Fi extenders and powerline networks are convenient ways of working around poor Wi-Fi signals. They’re certainly more convenient than laying long lengths of Ethernet cable around your home from room to room.
A powerline adapter is probably the better bet for many users. They may sound more technical, but they really aren’t. For most folks, all you’ll have to do is plug them in. Setup will likely take less than five minutes.
There are several benefits to powerlines. They offer greater range, and you should be able to extend your network access to every room in your home without too much trouble.
You can also get Wi-Fi-enabled powerline adapters, which combine the functionality of powerline adapters with the practicality of a Wi-Fi extender. They’re also easier to use with Ethernet cables, for instance, if you want a wired connection to a games console.
Wi-Fi extenders are a quick and easy option, too. However, you should spend a bit extra to get a decent dual-band model. Buying a cheap, single-band unit is a waste of time and money.
And in either case, extenders don’t fully offer a solution to dead spots in your home. They can push Wi-Fi into rooms beyond your router’s range, but heavy obstacles like thick walls or even a large wardrobe will still reduce your available speeds. In addition, you’ll have to daisy chain multiple Wi-Fi extenders to get full coverage, suffering signal loss each relay.
4 More Solutions for Poor Wi-Fi Speeds
Before buying a powerline adapter or Wi-Fi extender, you should ensure you’re getting the most out of your existing Wi-Fi setup.
- Upgrade your router. If your router is more than a couple of years old, there’s a good chance you’ll benefit from an upgrade. Routers supporting the latest 802.11ac protocol are three times faster than older 802.11n routers. The ability to use the 5GHz band will give you faster and more stable connections. The latest Wi-Fi 6E standard introduces a new 6GHz Wi-Fi band, offering greater capacity than ever.
- Update the firmware. Check whether there are any firmware updates available for your router. These can deliver performance improvements, including a stronger and more reliable connection. Installing a router firmware update is easier than you think!
- Tweak the settings. Delve into your router’s settings to ensure you’re using it at its fastest speed. Also, look at the channel settings to reduce interference from other nearby Wi-Fi networks (e.g., neighbors). Changing the Wi-Fi channel can provide a boost to your speeds.
- Check the position. Read our guide to router positioning and then rethink where yours is currently placed. Moving a router just a couple of feet in any direction can have a massive effect on its signal strength. Also, consider whether there are any dense obstacles near your laptop, games console, or another device that could slow it down.
You Can Have the Best of Both Worlds
When it comes down to it, the obvious solution is a Wi-Fi enabled powerline adapter. They offer better performance than a regular Wi-Fi extender, and you have the option to use a wired Ethernet connection when you desire.