There's something important you should know about wireless range extenders before you buy one: they're not very good. If there are dead zones in your house where Wi-Fi signals can't reach, there are better ways to improve your coverage than Wi-FI extenders. But if you're set on one, the Netgear WN2500RP is the least bad.
You probably shouldn't buy an extender. The first thing you should try is moving your router to a central location in your house, if possible. Better placement may solve all your problems. If that doesn't work and the router you have is a few years old, I recommend getting a new one like the ASUS RT-N56u or the ASUS RT-N66u, our top picks. I'll explain why, and lay out all the alternatives to a wireless extender that I think will work better for you. After the explanation, if you still decide you need a Wi-Fi Extender, I'll tell you why the Netgear WN2500RP is the one I'd get.
Briefly: The Problem with Wi-Fi Extenders
Wi-Fi extenders (sometimes called wireless repeaters) seem like the obvious choice for helping a wireless router cover an entire house with Internet access. Essentially, they pick up a wireless signal just like your tablet or laptop, then rebroadcast that signal, giving you a second access point to connect to. But there's a big problem with that, which kind of cripples the functionality of extenders. Networking expert Tim Higgins wrote this about extenders on SmallNetBuilder in 2011:
"No matter what they are called or technology they use, repeaters start out with a minimum 50% throughput loss. The reason is that a repeater must receive, then retransmit each packet using the same radio on the same channel and with the same SSID. If the repeater is very efficient, then your loss will be close to 50%. But if it's not, throughput loss can be higher."
Thanks to that 50% loss in bandwidth right off the top, just about all wireless extenders suck.
Thanks to that 50% loss in bandwidth right off the top, just about all wireless extenders suck. But the technology has gotten a little better in the past year. If you have to get a Wi-Fi extender, it should be the $80 Netgear WN2500RP, which has a dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio. The extender can use one frequency to communicate with a router and another frequency to communicate with client devices, which bypasses that 50% hit to bandwidth.
Even so, a Wi-Fi extender is the last thing you should buy to improve your wireless network. The simple truth is that there are two better alternatives to consider first:
Getting a new, faster router with increased range
Setting up a hardwired network using Ethernet, MoCA or powerline that will blow any Wi-Fi extender's speed out of the water
These options are faster, and they'll give you a lot more bang for your buck.
The Benefits of Buying a New Router
If your network is already running on a good wireless router–one that supports 802.11n and dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz–this section isn't for you. Upgrading to our favorite router won't solve any dead zones you may have in this case. Maybe your house is too large, or there are too many obstacles between your router and certain spots in the house. If so, jump down to the next section.
But if your network is based on a router that's several years old–like one of those old black-and-purple Linksys WRT54G models everyone had at one point–replacing it with a newer model could seriously extend the range in your house. If you're connected to your router via the old 802.11g wireless standard, it's time to upgrade.
I talked to SmallNetBuild's Tim Higgins about extenders and alternatives, and he pointed out that the 802.11n standard itself doesn't affect range; the 5GHz band also doesn't have the same reach as 2.4GHz, even though it can often be faster over shorter distances. But upgrading to a modern router like the ASUS RT-N66u can make a big difference for a couple reasons. Iteration in technology usually means better components–like radios–being used over time, and higher speeds at extreme range can make the difference between a dead zone and usable speeds.
SmallNetBuild's router reviews offer proof. They test routers at different locations and distances based on a standardized procedure. Let's look at that ancient Linksys WRT54G relic as an example. In a 2005 review, that router managed between 2.5 Mbps and 6.6 Mbps under these conditions: "Client on same level, approximately 50 feet away from AP. Three interior, one exterior wall between AP and Client."
In a 2012 review, the ASUS RT-N66u managed between 7.5 Mbps and 26.7 Mbps under even tougher conditions: "Client on upper level, approximately 65 feet away (direct path) from AP. Four to five interior walls, one wood floor, one sheetrock ceiling between AP and Client." With more walls in the way, and a greater distance between router and laptop, the N66u still put out a much stronger signal–its minimum speed at that distance was better than the old Linksys' maximum speed.
Hold onto your old router, because you can turn it into a second access point with a hardwire connection, which will be far faster than any Wi-Fi extender.
A 2010 review of three 802.11n routers from Trendnet, Netgear and D-Link shows that, in some cases, they couldn't even reach the location that the RT-N66u handled with ease. In a medium-size house, that router might reach every nook and cranny. The lower priced ASUS RT-N56u managed between 4 Mbps and 12.8 Mbps in the same distant location–slower than our favorite router, but still much better than any old 802.11g router.
We know $170 is a lot of money, but you're getting a great router in the ASUS RT-N66u–read about why it's our favorite router if you need convincing. And if it still can't manage to push a Wi-Fi signal into those hard-to-reach places–maybe you've got a really big house or some lead walls–the purchase won't be a waste. You'll still get faster speeds, in general, than you were getting before.
And this part is important: Hold onto your old router, because you can turn it into a second access point with a hardwire connection, which will be far faster than any Wi-Fi extender.
Run a Cable to Your Second Access Point
Absolutely the simplest way to get great wireless speeds in your whole house is to connect two Wi-Fi routers with Ethernet cables (for $10, you can buy 100 feet of cable on Monoprice). Remember, the big issue with most Wi-Fi extenders is that they have to use the same radio to both receive and transmit a signal, and Wi-Fi is never as fast as wired Internet to begin with.
"The one way to get reliable, high-performance whole-home (or office) wireless coverage is to use multiple access points connected via wire," says SmallNetBuilder's "The Best Way to Get Whole House Wireless Coverage" guide.
Routers either have 100 megabit or gigabit (1000 megabit) Ethernet ports, and turning an extra router (say, that old model that you replaced with a new ASUS RT-N66u) into a secondary access point is almost as easy as plugging a cable into each one. There are a few settings you'll have to change, and I recommend Will's straightforward guide; it's easy enough to follow and will work with basically any kind of router you have.
If you don't plan on upgrading your main router, pick up a cheapie like the $65 Linksys E3200 for your new access point. It's our favorite cheap router. And running Ethernet cable is really cheap, too–it'll give you the fastest network for the least amount of money.
The hard part, of course, is dealing with that pesky Ethernet cable. If your house isn't already hardwired, it may be difficult or impossible to run a cable up in the attic or through the floor or through walls. Or maybe you can't or don't want to do that kind of drilling in your house. We get it. It's a pain.
Don't give up just yet–there are two more wired options to consider.
MoCA (Coaxial) to Ethernet conversion basically takes wired Ethernet data and lets you transfer it over a coaxial cable like the one you probably use for a cable TV connection. If your house isn't already wired for cable, this option's out. Skip it.
If your house is wired for cable, you'll need two MoCA adapters like the Actiontec Ethernet to Coax Apapter Kit, which costs $120. One adapter you'll plug into your primary router, and then the wall coaxial port; the second you'll plug into another room and connect to the second router, which will be serving as a wireless access point. Voila–you've got a wired connection between rooms without drilling holes in your walls.
There are, of course, drawbacks. "Our testing showed that MoCA can provide up to 70 Mbps of very stable throughput for one connection and up to 110 Mbps of total throughput for multiple connections," writes SmallNetBuilder. "MoCA's downside is that it doesn't play nicely with satellite TV or work backwards through distribution amplifiers and may require some sleuthing to uncover and upgrade old low-bandwidth splitters."
Gigabit Ethernet is far, far faster than MoCA, but a wired connection still beats the pants off Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, very few companies sell coax-to-Ethernet adapters–Netgear introduced one in 2009 that is now discontinued–but Actiontec's model has garnered a 4.5 star average with 110 reviews.
Even if you have the coaxial setup in your house to support MoCA, we realize that an extra $120 is a big investment (remember that you'll need two routers for this kind of setup to work–the MoCA adapters are substituting for an Ethernet cable). Here's the last alternative, which is a bit cheaper: Powerline Ethernet.
Our favorite powerline Ethernet adapter, the TrendNet TPL-401E2K is about $70. As I wrote in that review: "On SmallNetBuilder, our go-to site for network benchmarking, the TrendNet 401E2K averaged downlink speeds of about 81 megabits per second, which is actually faster than the average wireless speed of our favorite Wi-Fi routers."
But like MoCA, powerline has drawbacks. The kind of wiring in your house can have a big impact on performance, and so can the distance between two power outlets. Netgear's powerline product manager told me that the more circuits a powerline connection has to cross, the weaker it gets, and things like lamps plugged into the same sockets can create "noise" that weakens the signal.
Still, I found that, in general, powerline was better over distance than Wi-Fi. It's difficult to quantify the speed benefits of powerline Ethernet vs. a Wi-Fi extender because there are just so many variables at play. The type of wiring in your house and distance between outlets can hurt powerline; the number of walls and floors in between router and extender can hurt Wi-Fi and overlapping frequencies from your neighbors can get in the way.
In most cases, we'd recommend any wired solution over a wireless extender, but if you can't run Ethernet cables through the house, and neither MoCA or powerline sound like good alternatives, here's why you should get the Netgear WN2500RP.
The Wi-Fi Extender to Get: Netgear WN2500RP
The Netgear Universal Dual Band Wi-FI Range Extender, or WN2500RP, hits a pretty average price point for a repeater. I surveyed a total of 10 wireless extenders by checking out the most popular devices on Amazon and checking for recommended and reviewed devices on CNET and SmallNetBuilder. Prices ranged from a low of $50 to a high of $140. As mentioned above, there's a simple reason to recommend the WN2500RP: Because it supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, one can be used to communicate with the base router, while the other can be used to connect to client devices like your laptop or tablet. This bypasses the major problem most extenders have (losing 50% of their throughput to transmitting and receiving), giving the extender decent transfer speeds.
In addition to the dual-band wireless, the WN2500RP has four 100 MB/s (sadly not gigabit) Ethernet ports and supports WPS, or Wi-Fi Protected Setup, to make it easy to sync up the extender with your router. The WN2500RP has 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon with 234 reviews, but a few users noted that the setup isn't as easy as it should be. A majority of the reviews–131–award it five stars, which is great, because this is the kind of product that lives and dies by user reviews. That’s due to the fact that most professionals don't review many Wi-Fi extenders because so few of them are strong products, and the category plays second fiddle to proper wireless routers.But there are a few reviews out there.
ABC.net.au did review the WN2500RP, and found that it delivered double the speed of a connection to the router itself, which was set up further away, from 10 Mb/s to 23 Mb/s. They wrote that "Not surprisingly the extender provided a much stronger signal for all of our devices when at distance from the main router. Latencies and ping times were impressive enough but the connection is not something you'd want to rely on in the middle of a war or an online quest. If you can't afford to wire your house with Ethernet cables (or can't because you rent) it makes a great choice. However, if you have the opportunity to try powerline networking units, do so if you are wanting to primarily network your main computer."
Of the 10 most popular extenders I looked at on Amazon, quite a few were easy to dismiss out of hand. Eight of the 10, in fact–because only this Netgear and the Amped Wireless High Power SR20000G supported dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless. Without the dual-band support, Wi-Fi extenders are severely limited in how much throughput they can give you. I wouldn't buy one, and I wouldn't recommend one to anybody.
The Amped Wireless extender matches the Netgear on features and actually has gigabit Ethernet ports, which is nice (though you'll never come close to realizing those speeds). But it costs $140, which is almost double the price of the Netgear. $140 is just too much money for an extender.
The only other wireless alternative to an extender is a protocol called WDS, or wireless distribution system. Once upon a time, WDS was the go-to way to connect a couple routers–you could hack one with custom firmware like DD-WRT and turn it into a secondary access point. The problem with WDS is that it's slow, and worse, it only supports outdated WEP security (technically it's possible to use WPA, but it's hardly ideal). Basically, WDS is even worse than most Wi-Fi extenders, and it's not nearly as easy to set up.
SmallNetBuilder's Tim Higgins did make it clear to me that the Netgear's dual-band support doesn't mean it's going to produce awesome speeds, and the 23 megabits it posted in ABC.net's review corroborates his point. 23 Mb/s is better than most extenders, but hardly great. Still, that's faster than most home Internet connections.
"Dual-radio repeaters are interesting in theory," he wrote. "But in practice, you are stuck with a difficult choice. If you go with 5 GHz for the backhaul, then you may not get the range extension you want. If you go with 2.4 GHz for the backhaul, your clients might not support 5 GHz."
Higgins makes an important point, but for now, this is the best we're going to get. If you need a Wi-Fi extender, I recommend the WN2500RP. It's going to give you better speeds than any 2.4GHz-only extender, and at $80 it's pretty affordable. The advantage of an extender like the WN2500RP is that it will work with any router, but there is one other alternative: Apple's Airport Express.
If you already own an Apple router, you can buy another one and set up wireless repeating extremely easily. For $100, it's an easily solution that's guaranteed to work, though speeds won't really be any better. Similarly, some new routers on the market, like the ASUS RT-AC66U, can set up wireless repeating with another identical router. It's certainly worth checking your router to see if it supports this feature, even if it’s not likely to.
Wrapping It Up
To summarize, a Wi-Fi extender should be your last resort when it comes to filling dead spots in your house, but if you have no other choice, the Netgear WN2500RP is the one to get.