Wi-Fi Extenders versus Powerline Adapters

Wi-Fi signal can be boosted in two main ways, however, they are not equal and one does not always outweigh the other. In this post we look at Wi-Fi extenders and powerline adapters and see which the best choice is for you and your situation.

Wi-Fi Extenders

A Wi-Fi extender is a small wireless device that re-broadcasts the signal that it receives from your router. If positioned in the correct place in your home, you can gain Wi-Fi coverage where coverage is poor or non-existent. You may even be able to extend your coverage as far as your garden.

There are two styles of Wi-Fi extenders available: Wall plugs and small desktop units. The setup is one involving little work, usually just entering your Wi-Fi password to connect the unit to your network. The final step is to position it in the optimum place for the best balance between coverage and speed.

An extender can only re-broadcast the quality of the signal it receives. Placing an extender right at the edge of your router’s range where the signal is weak, will mean that the signal re-broadcast will be the same weak and unstable signal.

Where to Position a Wi-Fi Extender

Although most manufacturers recommend positioning the extender half-way between the router and the area that you want to cover. The ideal position would be without interruption of physical obstacles such as thick walls. Obstructions can reduce the strength of the wireless signal therefore reducing your signal.

Even in optimum position some signal loss is inevitable as most Wi-Fi extenders work using a single radio. The available bandwidth is split between receiving and broadcasting the signal. This effect can be minimised by the use of a dual-band extender. With the ability to receive signal from the router on one band and re-broadcasting it on a separate band it can reduce the potential cut in bandwidth by as much as 50%.

Although it is possible to use software of different brands, a Wi-Fi extender does need to be as least as fast as the router that 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 backwards compatible. The reverse isn’t possible as you will see a big drop in performance using an N-rated extender with and AC-rated router.

Although a Wi-Fi extender is an effective and simple increasing your Wi-Fi range, it may be slower than connecting a device directly to your router. You may also still come across dead spots.

Mesh Networks

A newer system that is based around mesh networks may replace extenders in the future. These are currently available through companies such as Google and its new Wi-Fi products and the Eero start-up.

Mesh Wi-Fi systems consist of one device connected to your modem and multiple devices around your home to provide full coverage for your home. A mesh network create a single seamless network whereas, extenders create a separate network with its own SSID (i.e. network name).

As each unit in a mesh network has two radios, one for receiving data and the other for transmitting data. Data can also be dynamically re-routed around all the units on the network rather than moving in a linear direction that takes place on a traditional network.

Powerline Adapters

Another way to improve your Wi-Fi performance is to use a powerline network. A powerline network uses the electric cabling in your home to boost your Wi-Fi signal. Powerline adapters which are a series of small wall-plug sized devices that have Ethernet ports and, in some cases, Wi-Fi functionality are placed around your home. Essentially, the powerline adapters turn your regular electrical outlets in to Ethernet connections.

The setup for a powerline network is also a relatively simple process. You connect the initial adapter to your router and a nearby socket. Another adapter is then plugged in to a socket in another room which a device such as a computer can then be paired with.

The advantage of powerline adapter over Wi-Fi extenders is that you do not need to worry about positioning them within range of your router. You also do not have to worry about dead zones.

With these advantages, it doesn’t mean that you will have nothing to worry about. Putting your powerline adapters on the same mains circuit will ensure that you get the best results. Although the signals transmitted between circuits, the strength of the signal diminishes every time that they do.

Keeping the distance between the adapters as short as possible will optimise your signal. The signal and speed gets weaker the further it has to travel. The ideal distance is no more than 200 metres, this isn’t necessarily the straight line distance between the rooms, this includes all of the excess wiring that might be hidden behind walls and under floors.

Electrical noise is a big factor on the performance of a powerline network. Unfortunately, electrical noise is unavoidable, it can be aggravated by plugging the adapter in to an extension lead, or near another large electrical appliance. Something seemingly insignificant as Christmas Tree lights can kill or limit your internet speeds.

Never use powerline adapters with surge protectors, power strips, extension cords, or uninterruptible power supplies. They can filter certain frequencies meaning a reduction in data transfer speeds or, worst case scenario, no data transfer at all.

Which is Right for Your Needs?

Both are convenient and relatively simple ways of getting around weak or no signal and are advantageous over laying long lengths of cable around your home.

Powerline networks are better for many users. Although they sound more technical, they really aren’t. For most, all you will need to do is plug them in and setup will usually take no longer than 5 minutes. There are also several benefits to powerlines. The range that they offer is greater, extending coverage to every room in your home without too much trouble.

Wi-Fi enabled adapters are also available, these combine the functionality of the powerline with the practicality of the Wi-Fi extender. They are also easier to use with Ethernet cables, if you wanted to directly wire a games console or such like.

Wi-Fi extenders are also a quick and easy option. However, spending time finding a decent dual-band model will be beneficial for you. A cheap, single-band unit is a waste of time and money.

Wi-Fi extenders do not offer a solution to dead spots in your home. Wi-Fi can be pushed in to each room that are beyond the range of your router but, heavy obstacles like thick walls or even a large wardrobe will reduce speeds.

Other Solutions for Poor Wi-Fi

Before buying in to either of these options, make sure that you are getting the most out of your existing set-up.

  1.        Upgrade your router – If it is more than a couple of years old, there is a good chance that an upgrade will benefit your performance. Routers supporting the latest 802.11ac protocol are three-times faster than older 802.11n routers. The ability to use 5 GHz band will give you a more stable and faster connection.
  2.        Update the firmware – Check for available updates for your firmware. An update can deliver performance improvements, providing you with a stronger and more reliable connection.
  3.        Tweak the settings – Delve into your router’s settings to make sure you’re using it at its fastest possible speed. Also, look at the channel settings to reduce interference from other nearby Wi-Fi networks (e.g. neighbours).
  4.        Check the position – Read our guide to router positioning and then re-think where yours is currently placed. Moving a router just a couple of feet in any direction can have a massive effect on the strength of its signal. Also think about whether there are any dense obstacles near your laptop, games console, or other device, that could be slowing it down.