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Most people anticipate complete WiFi coverage. However, as you have surely observed, it is not typically the case. While the WiFi in some rooms is excellent, it can be challenging to stay connected in others. It can be the result of radio frequency interference or the construction material. Fortunately, using a WiFi extender or mesh network to expand your WiFi coverage is simple.

93% of American people, according to a research by the PEW Research Centre, use the internet. And setting up a WiFi network at home is the greatest method to guarantee that everyone is connected.

When streaming movies, browsing the web, or playing online games, a strong WiFi signal is crucial. However, what should you do if your signal is spotty or weak? You could try a WiFi extender or switch to a mesh WiFi system. If you’re like the ordinary consumer, you don’t know much about either or which will serve you best.

What is a Wi-Fi extender?

A Wi-Fi extender is a standalone device you plug into a power outlet or set on a surface within your existing router’s Wi-Fi range. It broadcasts a new Wi-Fi network into areas your router or gateway can’t reach using signals picked up from your original network. Its only job is to receive and retransmit data.

To address different use cases, most extenders now have two modes—repeat and access point. We’ll explain both modes and how an extender boosts your Wi-Fi range.

  • Repeat

In the default repeat mode, the extender connects to your existing router using Wi-Fi, but it doesn’t actually repeat your existing Wi-Fi network. Instead, it creates a secondary Wi-Fi network typically using the same network name (SSID), channel, and frequency. It accesses your primary Wi-Fi just like all your other wireless devices, so it needs your login information to function.

When your smartphone connects to the extender, the extender receives the phone’s data, changes the addresses, and forwards that repackaged data to the router—and out to the internet it goes. When the router receives a response from the modem or ONT, it forwards the response to the extender, which in turn receives, repackages, and retransmits the response to the smartphone.

That all said, the only thing “repeating” is the SSID, but you can change the name if you ever want to disconnect from the extender manually in the future.

  • Access point

In access point (AP) mode, the extender connects to your router using an Ethernet or coax cable. It doesn’t interact with your router through Wi-Fi and typically doesn’t use the same SSID either.

Unlike with repeat mode, you can place the extender anywhere you want—you don’t need to install it within the router’s range. After that, log in to the device using a web browser or app and create the secondary Wi-Fi network.

Read Also: Best Mesh Wifi For Thick Walls

When your smartphone connects, it transmits data to the extender. The extender receives the phone’s data, changes the addresses, and sends the repackaged data through the wired connection. The data arrives at the router and moves to your modem or fiber ONT.

  • Booster

The term almost always applies to Wi-Fi extenders because they “boost” your overall wireless range. For example, you may get a 30% signal from the router while standing next to the bedroom door. A Wi-Fi extender installed in the same spot may have a 95% signal, which is excellent.

So, if you move 10 feet away from the bedroom door, you may see a 20% signal strength from the router and an 80% from the extender. The extender has a stronger connection and a bit more speed, but you won’t see the best speeds unless you wire that extender to the router.

If you’re expanding Wi-Fi coverage into another room, an extender in repeat mode should suffice as long as there aren’t many obstacles between it and the router. An extender in AP mode is ideal if you need Wi-Fi in another part of your home or office and you don’t mind the cable—or there are too many obstacles for repeat mode to be effective.

But remember that an extender can cause interference, so keep it a reasonable distance from the router. You don’t want to install an extender only to slow down your primary Wi-Fi network.

What is a mesh router?

A mesh router can be two things:

  • A standalone router or gateway supporting mesh networking
  • One unit in a mesh system of two or more serving as the primary access point (router)
  • Standalone mesh routers

Some traditional standalone routers support mesh networking. ASUS AiMesh, for example, allows you to pair multiple routers together to create one whole-home Wi-Fi mesh network—no separate SSIDs and passwords needed.

TP-Link’s OneMesh is another example. Eight TP-Link routers support this technology, along with eight Wi-Fi extenders and three powerline adapters. As with ASUS AiMesh, all OneMesh units come together to create one whole-home mesh network with seamless roaming.

  • Mesh router system

Unlike the standalone routers and Wi-Fi extenders listed above, some mesh routers are designed to be a part of a multi-device system.

For example, a Google Nest Wifi 3-pack may include one router unit with Ethernet and two similar “points” with no Ethernet. If you need more wired connectivity, you can get a Google Nest Wifi 3-pack with three routers for a higher price—any one of these can be your primary router.

Generally, you want to buy a mesh system of two or more units since they depend on each other to provide wide Wi-Fi coverage—versus one central router that blasts Wi-Fi in every direction. The beauty of a mesh network is that you can easily add more satellite devices without worrying about keeping close to the central router unit.

To understand mesh, look at how traditional routers and extenders work together. Traditional routers broadcast Wi-Fi outwards from each antenna in a donut-like shape. These donuts intersect—like ripples in the water—to create speedy little hotspots in the air.

Wi-Fi extenders are separate devices and ideally need to sit within these hotspots for the best wireless connection when set to repeat mode—hotspot placement doesn’t apply in AP mode.

Communication between the extender and the router is a two-way street, so if you add another extender, you have dual two-way streets to the router but no pathway between the extenders.

Mesh networking is different.

All compatible mesh devices communicate with each other, creating a web of two-way streets. One unit still serves as the router, but all others become satellites that usually join the network automatically when you first turn them on. They’re all friends here versus two or three strangers forced to work together and refuse to speak to each other.

But the big takeaway with mesh networking is intelligent seamless roaming, and that’s where the mesh vs. extender comparison really gets good.

Moving between a router and an extender is similar to moving from one access point to another. Your device stays connected to the router, for example, until the signal grows too weak and it disconnects. Then it connects to the extender since it has a stronger signal. You don’t have to manually log back in, either, if you set your device to rejoin the network.

So why does this matter?

Let’s say you’re standing outside your front door and want to stream music, but your phone’s still connected to the main router. You get 10Mbps at the most, and because Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate, your speed drops to 0Mbps at times. But your stubborn phone refuses to disconnect. When this happens, your music stream pauses as it buffers. Annoying, right?

Now let’s say you install an extender just inside the front door, and you record 100Mbps in the same spot outside. But your phone still refuses to disconnect from the router and won’t automatically switch to the extender’s stronger signal, which would eliminate all the buffering.

Mesh is different.

Mesh networking uses intelligent roaming (also called smart roaming or seamless roaming) to eliminate the wait-and-connect scenario.

Let’s go back to streaming music at the doorway. This time, your device connects to the satellite device automatically because the signal strength between you and the router unit dropped below a set level. Behind the scenes, your phone and the router unit determined the satellite had a better signal, so your phone switched, and you didn’t even know it.

When you stand next to a speaker with the volume dialed up to glass-shattering levels, the music is really loud, right? You can still hear the music when you stand outside, but it’s nowhere near as loud.

The same scenario applies to Wi-Fi.

You can stand two feet from a router and measure around 850Mbps on a smartphone, which is typical for Wi-Fi 6. Depending on the router, you can record around 400Mbps standing outside the front door. If there’s an extender or mesh satellite next to the front door, the starting speed is 400Mbps because that’s the data rate captured from the router at that spot.

What’s important to note here is signal strength. The extender or satellite has a stronger signal because you’re closer to it than the router, so you could record 200Mbps out on the sidewalk versus 20Mbps in the same spot if you stay connected to the router.

Okay, but what if the extender or satellite supports 1,200Mbps? It doesn’t matter. You only get half of that from the start because the extender or satellite uses the other half to communicate with the router. So even if it captured 700Mbps by the door, the most you can get is 600Mbps on one wireless device.

Backroads give a speed boost

Some mesh kits use a third Wi-Fi band as a private backroad to provide more bandwidth. Now you get the full 1,200Mbps maximum transfer rate because the satellite uses that private road to communicate with the router or other satellites. But you’re still limited to the 700Mbps speed because that’s the data rate captured from the router.

Sometimes you can use Ethernet as the backroad, although it defeats the purpose of having wireless satellites. In this scenario, each satellite typically supports up to 1,000Mbps in wired speed via Gigabit Ethernet versus what it would capture from the router or other satellites via Wi-Fi.

This is quite the rabbit hole, we get it. The big takeaway is that you can add more and more satellites to the mesh Wi-Fi constellation, and the network automatically chooses the fastest path from the router to your wireless device. The speed you get depends on the number of Wi-Fi hops between you and the router, but you can eliminate the speed reductions by wiring them all together—if they support it.

Extenders can’t create a seamless Wi-Fi network: they serve as Point B only. In other words, if you connect to a second extender but the first one is closer to the router, your data travels between the second one and the router only, resulting in slower speeds.

If you already have a standalone router, getting an extender is a cheaper option. It’s not ideal for whole-home coverage, but it can give you some of the speed you may need outside your router’s range. AP mode guarantees more speed at the cost of cables running through your home or office.

Mesh networking is ideal for whole-home coverage. Compatible devices create constellations of Wi-Fi connections from a central point, offering better speeds than the router-extender setup. You can purchase a mesh system with identical units or a standalone mesh router and add compatible satellites as needed. But you can’t add just any satellite—you must pair a TP-Link mesh router to a TP-Link mesh satellite, for example.

WiFi extenders and mesh WiFi are great options for boosting your WiFi signal. However, they have different benefits and drawbacks. Ultimately, the best option for you depends on your needs and budget.

So, be sure to do your research before making a decision. With the right WiFi system, you can enjoy fast, reliable WiFi in every corner of your home or office. And for this, you’ll need the right hardware provider.

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