Wi-Fi extenders have a bad reputation in the tech community. People will often discourage you from using them. But do they deserve their bad reputation, and why do so many people love their Wi-Fi extenders if they do?
Why Do Wi-Fi Extenders Have Such a Polarized Reputation?
Wi-Fi extenders don’t universally have a bad reputation. The truth is that opinions on them are quite polarized.
On the one hand, you’ll find tech-minded people talking about how awful they are. Get a group of networking nerds together, and there is no end to the negative things they can say about Wi-Fi extenders. And, in fairness, those negative things are solidly grounded in both science and real-world experience.
Yet, at the same time, if you go read reviews on popular marketplaces like Amazon, there are piles of rave reviews. Many of the really popular extenders have 25,000+ reviews—with the bulk of them quite glowing, singing the praises of this or that Wi-Fi extender. Some of the extenders in our Wi-Fi extender buying guide have over 100,000 reviews.
The crux of the issue is that Wi-Fi extenders are fundamentally a band-aid for network problems. To use a medical analogy: If you’re bleeding, any sort of relief is welcome (especially if it comes at minimal expense)—but not all treatments are created equal.
Yes, a Wi-Fi extender can make an unbearably bad Wi-Fi situation a little more bearable, but the criticism of Wi-Fi extenders is certainly well deserved. They absolutely can help, but there are a lot of compromises in the process.
So let’s take a look at those valid criticisms to help you become a more informed consumer. Because, despite the shortcomings Wi-Fi extenders have, using one might just be the budget-friendly fix you need until a more permanent upgrade comes along.
Wi-Fi Extenders Decrease Bandwidth
Adding a Wi-Fi extender doesn’t restrict the bandwidth at the router level. If you have a device plugged directly into your router it will continue to operate as expected. Most Wi-Fi devices that are connected to the router and not the extender will generally do the same, too.
But, given the nature of how Wi-Fi works and how extenders connect to your main router, any device connected to the extender will have diminished bandwidth. And the extra overhead of the extender can impact other wireless devices, both connected to the extender and connected to the main router.
Wi-Fi is a half-duplex communication protocol (as opposed to a full-duplex communication protocol like Ethernet.) When your phone or any other Wi-Fi-connected device talks to your Wi-Fi router, it does so in a walkie-talkie fashion. The send/receive exchanging happens sequentially instead of simultaneously, as it does between a computer connected over Ethernet to the same router.
Because of that, when you’re using a device connected to the extender you’re passing all the data through a bottleneck. The extender has to take in data from the router, pass it to the connected device, and then work in reverse, all while losing some of the potential bandwidth to the overhead that process introduces.
If whatever you’re doing on the other side of the extender isn’t particularly bandwidth-intensive, then maybe you never notice the performance hit. But for demanding applications, the limitations become obvious pretty quickly.
Some extenders attempt to overcome this by using a dual-band setup (or, in the case of very expensive premium extenders, even a tri-band setup) to create a backhaul like mesh networks use. While that does partially solve the problem, there is still a performance hit associated with using a wireless backhaul.
However, cheap extenders, which make up the bulk of the market, don’t use this method. Further, the cheapest extenders rarely use current Wi-Fi technology. While your main router might be from the current generation or a generation behind, your extender might be much slower.
Wi-Fi Extenders Create Lag
Wi-Fi extenders don’t just limit your bandwidth—they introduce latency, and for the same reasons.
For some applications that won’t matter at all. When you load up a streaming video like the content on Netflix or YouTube, lag is largely irrelevant. You tell the remote server what you want to watch, it sends the stream your way. If there is a delay, the only time you notice it is right at the beginning of the exchange.
But for any application, like gaming, where delays in the back-and-forth exchange of information severely impact the quality of the experience, you might find that using an extender introduces an unacceptable level of latency.
Wi-Fi Extenders Introduce Interference
Adding a Wi-Fi extender to your home, by its very nature, adds more radio frequency “noise” to the environment. Where you previously had the signal from your router (and potentially the signal from your neighbors’ Wi-Fi routers) bouncing around, now you have all that plus the extra congestion from the extender.
In the best-case scenario, it has minimal impact and you don’t notice. In the worst-case scenario, it diminished the quality of not only your Wi-Fi experience but the experience of everybody else around you, too.
Wi-Fi Extenders Are Underpowered
When you look at the budget options on the market, you might wonder exactly how much power you can pack into a device about the size of a deck of cards that costs under fifty bucks.
And the answer is, not much power at all. Most Wi-Fi extenders are not particularly powerful devices. Even the manufacturers themselves give very modest suggestions in their documentation like “great for up to 25 devices,” and that’s largely assuming those devices aren’t very demanding.
You can find extenders with documentation suggesting they are good for slightly higher numbers like 50 devices, but you’ll pay a lot more for the upgraded processing power and range.
By comparison, modern routers can handle hundreds of devices, and the individual nodes on mesh systems are significantly more powerful than Wi-Fi extenders.
Wi-Fi Extenders Integrate Poorly With Existing Wi-Fi
Of all the criticisms of Wi-Fi extenders, this one could easily be considered the overarching umbrella criticism in that it encompasses practically every negative experience people have with them.
While the previous things we’ve talked about—bandwidth overhead, latency, and radio interference—can often be overlooked if the person using the Wi-Fi extender isn’t engaged in particularly demanding use cases, the overall cruddy integration with your existing Wi-Fi network is hard to overlook.
Part of the problem is that there is no standardization at all—beyond the basics of adhering to the Wi-Fi standards—between Wi-Fi extenders. Mixing and matching Wi-Fi routers and extenders, to a lesser degree, suffers from the same issues that mixing and matching mesh hardware does.
Companies don’t have a lot of motivation to make their Wi-Fi extender’s advanced features integrate nicely with hardware from any other company. If you see features on a given Wi-Fi extender that help ameliorate the headaches of using Wi-Fi extenders, they are almost exclusively limited to working with products from the same company.
For example, Netgear has a very handy feature called “One WiFi” where the company’s higher-end extenders will integrate with compatible Netgear routers to provide a more seamless mesh-like roaming experience wherein you can use the same SSID. Handoffs between the router and the extender are usually pretty smooth.
But we’re talking about features on premium setups, not $30 Wi-Fi extenders people are picking up off the shelves of their local big box stores on a whim. The reality for most people is that those semi-impulse purchases are not integrating very well with their network at home.
They have to use two SSIDs and manually switch between them or, if they try to use a single SSID across the main Wi-Fi router and the extender, the end-client hardware—be it their smartphone, game console, or laptop—just doesn’t want to play nice and frequently suffers from lost connections and other issues. Slow Wi-Fi is bad, but constantly-dropping Wi-Fi is worse.
So Are All Wi-Fi Extenders Worthless?
At this point, you might be thinking there is zero reason to use a Wi-Fi extender. We certainly seem to have just shredded the entire product category to pieces, right?
And it’s true–if you have the budget to upgrade to a better router, then slapping a band-aid on the shortcomings of your current network hardware is a waste of time. You should just upgrade to gear that is better suited for your needs.
But that doesn’t mean Wi-Fi extenders are total trash, unworthy of consideration. If you need to fill in a dead spot in your home or on your property, they’re a really inexpensive way to do so.
Let’s say, for example, you want to use the Wi-Fi on your phone while in the backyard. Installing a mesh system or multiple wired Wi-Fi access points around your property is certainly a solution. But that might not be worth it if your only goal is getting Wi-Fi to a couple of devices while you and your family relax under a gazebo out back.
Or maybe you just got a smart sprinkler controller, and the location along the garage wall or the far corner of the basement leads to the controller dropping off the Wi-Fi network constantly. Why revamp your entire network for a single device? A Wi-Fi extender is a perfectly acceptable band-aid for that problem.
Despite their shortcomings, if you’re willing to go with a “good enough” solution and not opposed to returning the Wi-Fi extender if it fails to meet your needs, it’s worth seeing if an extender is the band-aid you need. At least now, you’ll be prepared for the shortcomings and know when to give up (and when to be pleasantly surprised).
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