How many times have you clicked a video or a link and then waited… and waited? You can't know for sure if it’s your gadget, your Wi-Fi or the website that's holding up progress. All too often, the fault is your Wi-Fi signal.
A weak Wi-Fi signal limits the range, slows your speed and can cause a spotty connection — if it connects at all. There are many circumstances that can reduce your Wi-Fi's range or create dead spots in your home or office.
Odds are, the area you need to cover is simply too large for just one Wi-Fi router. In that situation, you need additional hardware to extend the wireless network’s range. Fortunately, it won't cost you too much if you know what you're looking for.
The hardware is helpfully called a "range extender," or sometimes a "repeater." Basically, you put it near the edge of your router's range. It pulls in your Wi-Fi signal and it rebroadcasts the signal with more power on a different Wi-Fi channel.
Tip in a tip: Identifying Wi-Fi signal issues is easier when you know exactly where the signal drops off. HeatMapper is a free download that helps you visualize Wi-Fi signals on a map of your home or office. Netspot does the same for Macs. You can also use an app that has a real-time signal strength meter, like the free Wi-Fi Analyzer.
Because the extender connects to your network via Wi-Fi, it doesn't need an internet cable connection. You can place it wherever you have a standard electrical socket.
Just one extender can help you cover a huge area that your existing Wi-Fi doesn't reach well. For an even bigger area, like a large office, you can get a few extenders and place them on the extreme edges of your signal to get the coverage you need.
Gadgets connected to an extender will get a slower connection speed than they get from your main router, because the extender has to receive the Wi-Fi signal and then rebroadcast it to your gadget, and do the same thing the other way. If you need a super-fast connection everywhere in your home or office, a better idea is to set up multiple routers, or access points, wired to a central router. But that's a whole other column.
Often you can choose whether the extender "clones" your network, which means it uses the same network name and password as your router, or creates a separate hotspot with its own network name and password. A separate hotspot network is good when you want to share that with guests, as it keeps them off your private network.
Extender prices range from $20 to $120, depending on the features and power. But in most situations a $40 to $50 model will work just fine. You just need to make sure it has a few key features.
A signal meter on the extender is helpful. At a glance, this tells you how strong the Wi-Fi signal is at the spot you're standing. Obviously it doesn't do any good to put the extender outside the range of your router, or close enough to the router that the ranges overlap too much.
If you have a dual-band Wi-Fi router, which means it broadcasts a signal at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, consider getting a dual-band extender. A single-band extender will boost only the 2.4GHz signal. Any gadgets that can also connect via the faster 5GHz, including many smartphones, tablets, computers and streaming gadgets now, won't get as much benefit.
Similarly, every extender on the market is going to support 802.11n Wi-Fi, but only the more expensive ones support the newer 802.11ac standard. If you only have an "n" router, you can skip the "ac" extenders because you won't get much benefit from them.
Many extenders also include an Ethernet port or two. This lets you run a cable to a gadget that doesn't have a built-in Wi-Fi receiver, like a desktop or older smart TV. This saves you the hassle of running a cable across the house.
While most range extenders plug right into a wall outlet, some include a pass-through outlet so you can plug another gadget into the extender. In a home or office with limited plug space, this might be a handy option to look for.
Finally, some extenders have more advanced special features, like built-in media streaming or file storage. Some can even work with your router to prioritize traffic for streaming video or gaming. Unless you really have some important media requirements, I wouldn't buy an extender based on these features.
If you aren't sure where to start, here are a few models. TP-Link's $20 TL-WA850RE is a good start. It's single band, but it has an Ethernet port, signal meter and plugs into a standard outlet. If you want a dual-band solution and 802.11ac support, the $50 TP-LINK RE200 is a good option. While TP-Link is usually a good budget option, some people prefer to buy a more recognizable brand. The Netgear N300 WiFi Extender is a basic single-band model that normally goes for $60 on Amazon. If you want a dual-band model, the Netgear AC1200 WiFi Range Extender costs $30 more.
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On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.