Now that Wi-Fi is becoming an integral part of just about every new piece of consumer electronics, and even many appliances, it is more important than ever to have a usable wireless network throughout your home and office — and possibly your yard. Unfortunately, the typical ISP’s simplistic model of providing a single “all-in-one” modem+router+wireless gateway for your site quickly breaks down when faced with the real-world challenges of serving larger, or sprawling, homes or apartments. This is especially true for buildings with lots of wiring in the walls, lath and plaster walls, or metallic heating or air conditioning infrastructure in the floor or ceiling. The good news is that there are several ways to solve this problem, with varying costs and complexities. We’ll walk you through the available options and provide some perspective on which may be best for you.
Wi-Fi Range Extenders: Cheap, easy, but you get what you pay for
The very simplest approach to extending your Wi-Fi network is to add one or more range extenders. These small units plug into an electrical outlet and then can be configured to repeat the signal from your current Wi-Fi source. They are a wonderful solution if you don’t need much bandwidth, and don’t want to take the time, or spend the money, to deal with a wired device.
For older or slower networks, particularly those with limited broadband speeds from their ISP, one or more wireless extenders may be perfect. However, if you’re getting broadband speeds upwards of 50 Mbps, you probably won’t be able to take advantage of all of it in the areas where you use an extender (many extenders have very large “faceplate” maximum bandwidth ratings, but in real world tests their performance is typically substantially less). I’ve used them mostly to fill in coverage gaps while sorting out a better long-term solution.
Hard-wired Wi-Fi Access Point options
By far the best way to get high-performance networking throughout a larger home or office is to deploy wireless Access Points throughout. Depending on your needs and budget, APs can be anything from an old router or inexpensive consumer devices to a well-organized mesh of purpose-built APs. We’ll walk you through some of the pros and cons of each option.
Using routers as Access Points
Many of us have older routers laying around. Most of them can be used as a wireless Access Point by simply only connecting the LAN port to your main router. Some routers, like Apple’s Airport routers, have a built-in bridge mode, in which case you’d connect the one that will be used as an Access Point through its WAN port to your main Apple router. Re-using a router used to be especially valuable when standalone APs were much more expensive than consumer-grade routers. More than once I’ve bought a router specifically to use as an inexpensive AP. However, now there are a number of reasonably-priced dedicated AP options, so unless you already own a router you can re-use, it probably isn’t worth buying a new one for this purpose.
One other nice feature of using a router as an AP is that routers typically come with a number of LAN ports — allowing them to double as hubs. Dedicated APs usually only have a single Ethernet port, so if you have some wired devices to connect at the same location, you’ll also need a standalone hub.
Using Powerline to get Ethernet to your access points
Often you’ll want to put an Access Point someplace where you don’t have wired Ethernet. There are a variety of products than can supply Ethernet over your existing in-home electrical wiring — a technology called Powerline. They are typically sold in pairs, so one can be used at the transmitting end, and one at the receiving end, and are sold by most networking vendors, including Netgear, Linksys, and TP-Link.
I’ve used several Powerline products, and for the most part they work fairly well, with two caveats. First, if you have a complex electrical system, you may need to make sure that your transmitter and receiver devices are on the same leg of the service, or not isolated from each other by some other components. They also typically can’t be plugged into a power strip. Some include a passthrough socket, so at least they don’t consume an outlet, but many don’t. Since you’ll also be plugging an access point in, you may run out of outlets. Second, they can sometimes drop connectivity and need to be reset. That’s a simple matter of unplugging and re-plugging them. But if they are in hard-to-reach locations, or you are relying on them for un-attended operation, that may be a drawback.
The good news is that Powerline adapters, when coupled with a reasonable access point, will often provide better performance than a simple Wi-Fi range extender. However, like range extenders, none of them actually measure up to their claimed performance. For example, the highest-performance model tested by our sister site PCMag.com, the D-Link Powerline AV2 2000, is rated at over a Gigabit, butbenchmarked at just over 90Mbps.
Mesh of Access Points
If you’re willing to invest the time and money, and have wired Ethernet throughout your home or office, then a mesh-like solution of APs is the way to go. Mesh solutions can be administered from a single location, and provide the best options for optimum channel management to avoid interference between units. Until recently, mesh AP solutions were expensive, and a bit tricky to administer — because they have traditionally been marketed to larger enterprises. Now though, tech-savvy users can get excellent price-performance from products like Ubiquti’s Unifi wired Access Points.
Unifi Access Points come in a range of prices and performance levels, and can be powered over their Ethernet connection (using PoE). Unifi offers a powerful, centralized, management console, but it requires a little effort to understand how to use it properly if you’re not an experienced network administrator. The units do a great job of managing radio channels and handing off clients between each other — something that most of us have had to do manually until now. My only gripe is that they don’t offer any additional LAN ports, so if you need both to connect both wired and wireless devices in a particular location you’ll need to add a small hub.
For novice users, or for those who are setting up a new installation and also need routing and a firewall, startups Luma and Eero are launching mesh router/APs designed to be very easy to configure from your smartphone. You’ll pay a little more for the added convenience, and you won’t get the wide range of options you do with Unifi, but a 3-pack of either model is enough for most homes that are large enough to need a multiple Access Point solution.
How much performance do you need?
One lesson I re-learn every few years is no matter what performance level you buy into, it eventually becomes obsolete, or at least superseded. We’ve moved through 802.11b to g to n to dual-band to 802.11ac. 802.11n is more than enough performance for most current devices (with stated maximum data rates between 300Mbps and 450Mbps depending on the number of device antennas — although actual data transfer rates will be lower). However, if you’re buying new equipment and have a reasonable budget, getting 802.11ac support probably makes sense. Most 802.11ac devices claim support for 867Mbps or more, although as usual, real world data rates are lower.
Upgrading to Gigabit (wiring & routers)
It won’t do you much good to upgrade your Wi-Fi to some outrageously great speed if your wired infrastructure throttles it back to 100Mbits. So you’ll want to check and make sure your router can at least switch your internal traffic at 1Gbps. Or you can supplement it with a small Gigabit switch or hub. If your ISP is providing you with more than 100Mbps, then of course you’ll have one more reason to make sure your router supports Gigabit Ethernet both on the LAN side and the WAN side.
Handy tip for upgraders: If you have in-wall Ethernet and find you are only getting 100Mbps over it, check to see how many wires are connected to each jack. 100Mbps Ethernet only required 2 pairs of wires to be connected, but 1Gbps requires all four pairs. If you have extra pairs available, upgrading your wiring to 1Gbps may be as simple as connecting them. That worked in our house even with 20+ year old in-wall Ethernet cables. For patch cables, Cat 5 or better is recommended, although in my experience many Cat 4 cables will also work with Gigabit Ethernet.
Picking the solution that’s right for you
The key here is to decide which connectivity solution will work best for you — simply relaying Wi-Fi with no wired connection, relaying Wi-Fi using Ethernet over your power lines, or using APs wired into your Ethernet. If you need performance and have the budget, and access to wired Ethernet, wired APs are the way to go. If you want as much performance as you can get, but can’t run Ethernet cables to your remote locations, then a Power line solution may be right for you. And if you just want the simplest way to get up and running, wireless range extenders can be installed and configured in a few minutes.