Sometimes, in order to boost a wireless signal to cover every part of your home or office, you have to bite the bullet and invest in a wireless extender. Wireless extenders (which are also called wireless repeaters) wirelessly connect to an existing router and can lengthen the range of the wireless signal by re-broadcasting that signal. They are used to cover wireless "dead zones."
It is important to note that while extenders can extend your range, they can also halve your throughput. I suggest that if you are having problems with wireless coverage, you should go for a dual-band router. Most extenders work with the longer range 2.4GHz band. You want to pair the extender with the 2.4GHz band and reserve that band for lighter throughput tasks such as web browsing or checking email. Keep the 5GHz band reserved for wireless devices that stream multimedia or connect to gaming consoles, smart TVs… basically anything that is throughput-intensive.
Once you have the right equipment, the next step is determining the best location for your extender, and there are several methods for doing so which we’ll discuss. Typically, you want to place the extender mid-way between your router and where your wireless coverage starts to drop.
I was chatting with a product manager from a major networking hardware company who gave me a great tip for determining exactly where to place an extender. Set up a FaceTime chat between two users on two separate devices on your home network. Connect both devices wirelessly to the router. User one stays next to the router. User two gradually moves further away from the router. When the chat drops or experiences lag as the second user moves away, you've pinpointed a weak signal area. This area is a good place for your wireless extender (assuming that you can power it from that spot, of course).
Use a utility
Another way you can determine where your signal gets weak is to use the free software inSSIDer. inSSIDer will show you the signal strength of your router (measured in dBm). Install inSSIDer on a Windows or Mac laptop, or Android device. Note the signal strength when you are close to your router. Move away from the router and see where the signal strength starts to drop significantly. This is where you want to place your extender. (Note: The signal strength is usually measured as a negative number, and the closer that number is to zero, the stronger the wireless signal).
The above suggestions can be used whether you live in a detached house or in an apartment. However, if you do live in an apartment with other users' access points and routers in close proximity, it may be a good idea to take these readings on weekends or after work when most users are at home and connected to the Internet. Other access points sharing the same wireless channels in an area can also affect signal strength.
In general, I find that choosing a wireless extender made by the same company that makes your router is a good idea. However, that is not a hard and fast rule. Most extenders should be able to work with any router – you just want to make sure the extender supports 802.11n if you have an 802.11n router. If you have an older 802.11b/g router, an 802.11n extender should still be okay, but it may not work as well.
Also, before setting up an extender with a router, make sure both the router and the extender have the latest firmware updates! I've also discovered that with some extenders, you have to configure the extender close to the router before you can position it where you want it to live permanently.
Finally, if you want some recommendations for good extenders, we’d point you in the direction of the Western Digital My Net Wi-Fi Range Extender which we reviewed here. Other impressive models include the Linksys RE 1000 Range Extender, and the D-Link DAP-1320 Wireless N300 Range Extender is great for those on a budget (it can be purchased for not much more than £30 online).
For more tips on this issue, see our article on boosting your wireless router's signal. We've also got a guide to buying the best wireless router, and advice on setting up a wireless router, along with a guide to testing your wireless router's performance.