Wi-Fi Range Extender vs. Mesh Network
When you purchase a router, the expectation is that it will provide reliable Wi-Fi coverage throughout your entire house. However, as many people have experienced, this is not always the case. Various factors such as building materials, large spaces, and other electronic devices can disrupt the Wi-Fi signal and create dead spots in your home.
To address these issues and strengthen your Wi-Fi signal, there are two popular options: mesh network systems and range extenders. However, choosing the best solution for your needs requires some consideration.
It’s important to understand that mesh Wi-Fi systems and range extenders are not magical solutions that can improve internet speeds in every situation. If your internet troubles are caused by factors such as congestion from neighboring networks, a poorly positioned router, or a slow internet package, investing in a mesh system or extender won’t necessarily solve the problem.
Joel Crane, a Certified Wireless Network Expert and Wi-Fi Engineer at Juniper Networks, emphasizes that mesh systems and extenders are primarily designed to address weak signal strength. Before investing in a mesh Wi-Fi system, it’s crucial to check the signal strength in the areas where you need Wi-Fi coverage. You can use tools like InSSIDer Lite to map your home’s signal strength. Signal strengths between -67 and -30 dBm are considered good, while performance starts degrading below -67 or -70 dBm. Anything below -80 dBm may result in unreliable connections.
If you don’t encounter any dead spots during your signal strength assessment, the issue is likely related to your internet package rather than your Wi-Fi network. It’s worth testing your internet connection to ensure you are receiving the speeds you’re paying for. In this case, upgrading your internet package or switching to a faster internet service provider (ISP) would be more effective than purchasing new hardware.
However, if you do identify areas with poor signal strength, there are ways to boost your Wi-Fi coverage. First, ensure that your router is optimally placed in an open, central location rather than tucked away in a closet. Sometimes, simply repositioning the router can solve the coverage issue without requiring additional hardware.
If you do require assistance extending your Wi-Fi coverage, you’ll need to choose between a range extender and a mesh system. Range extenders typically connect to your existing wireless network and create a new network name. They relay traffic back to your wireless router, resulting in multiple network names (e.g., “SmithHouse” for upstairs and “SmithHouse_EXT” for downstairs). Devices tend to stay connected to one network until it’s out of range, at which point they switch to the closer extender for a better connection.
However, relying solely on range extenders can still result in slow Wi-Fi in multiple areas of your home. The process of repeating the entire Wi-Fi signal is inefficient since extenders listen to every packet and rebroadcast it without intelligent routing. Additionally, constantly switching between networks as you move around can be cumbersome.
Moreover, range extenders can introduce additional latency and slow down your Wi-Fi. Wireless communication is “half duplex,” meaning devices on the same channel take turns transmitting and receiving data. Extenders exacerbate this issue because they repeat every piece of information they receive, adding to the congestion.
Managing range extenders can also be inconvenient, as they often require accessing web pages to adjust settings or download updates. If you have extenders from different manufacturers, you may have to deal with two different sets of software, which can be complex and outdated.
While there are exceptions to these points, with some range extenders offering modern software and compatibility with routers from the same manufacturer, it’s not guaranteed that your existing router will support such features. At this stage, the line between a range extender and a mesh system becomes blurred.
In conclusion, when faced with Wi-Fi coverage issues, it’s crucial to diagnose the root cause before deciding on a solution. Assess your signal strength, check your internet package, and consider optimizing your current setup by repositioning the router. If you still require extended coverage, weigh the pros and cons of range extenders versus mesh systems to determine the best fit for your specific needs and circumstances.
Mesh Networks Are Seamless and Quick to Update
Unlike a traditional Wi-Fi extender that can be added to an existing network, mesh systems offer a complete replacement for your home Wi-Fi setup. While you can use them alongside your current router, it is usually unnecessary unless your internet service provider specifically requires it. Mesh systems are designed to replace the complex setup of a router and extender with multiple identical units strategically placed around your house that work together seamlessly.
In the past, the idea of replacing your router might have seemed daunting, but nowadays it’s a more appealing option thanks to the increasing availability of routers that support the Wi-Fi 6 (or even Wi-Fi 6E) standard. Wi-Fi 6 brings significant improvements in terms of both bandwidth and security. So, now that the prices of Wi-Fi 6 routers and compatible mesh systems are becoming more affordable, it makes sense to upgrade and enjoy the benefits.
Mesh systems offer several advantages over traditional extenders, even without Wi-Fi 6. Home mesh systems like Eero, Google Nest WiFi, and Linksys Velop utilize mesh access points that are all aware of each other. They can wirelessly forward traffic around the network as needed. These systems broadcast the same network name, allowing your devices such as phones and laptops to seamlessly roam between mesh access points. This makes the transition between access points much smoother compared to using extenders.
Moreover, because mesh units operate on the same software, they can intelligently relay traffic. For example, if you are connected to the second node located at the far end of your house, it will only rebroadcast packets if the client device in question is actually connected to it. This intelligent traffic management improves efficiency and performance.
Mesh systems also overcome the speed limitations of extenders by utilizing multiple radios to send and receive information simultaneously. They can use a 2.4GHz channel to communicate with the client device and then use the 5GHz channel to relay data to other mesh access points on the network. Some mesh systems even incorporate three radios, with one dedicated to communicating with the router and the other two dedicated to communicating with laptops, phones, and other devices. This is particularly advantageous when you have a large number of devices connected to your network. If possible, opting for a tri-band model is recommended for optimal performance.
For those considering mesh systems, the Amazon Eero Pro 6E is a tri-band option that supports Wi-Fi 6 and includes a built-in Zigbee smart home hub in its core router. If you’re looking for a more affordable entry into mesh networking, the Eero 6, a lower-end variant, is worth considering.
One of the significant advantages of modern mesh systems is the ease of setup and management. Instead of dealing with multiple configuration pages, you can conveniently manage your entire network through a smartphone app. Additionally, many mesh systems automatically update their firmware, which is a major improvement compared to most routers that require manual updates involving checking the manufacturer’s website, downloading a file, and manually sending it to your router.
Unfortunately, most users neglect this arduous process, leaving their networks vulnerable to security threats. With an all-in-one mesh system, you are more likely to receive regular updates, enhancing both usability and security, which is a significant advantage.