Mesh router vs. Wi-Fi range extender: Which is best for your home network?
If you're dealing with dead zones, your home network might be ready for some new hardware. Here's everything you need to know about your options.
Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Let's suppose, for some reason, that you've been spending a lot more time at home. You're working, you're homeschooling your kids, you're video chatting with friends and family, you're binge-watching The Mandalorian -- and you're pushing your home's Wi-Fi network to the limit. Perhaps you've become painfully familiar with those limitations -- including the spots where signal drops off and your device can't hold a speedy connection. What can you do?
I've already outlined some of the initial steps you can take to boost your connection without buying anything, but in a lot of cases, eliminating dead zones like those will require a hardware upgrade. Your best bets: Wi-Fi range extenders or maybe a mesh router with its own, range-extending satellite devices, called nodes. How do you choose which is best for you home? Well, for starters:
Wi-Fi range extenders are the best cheap option for smaller spaces. And the best model I've tested thus far is the TP-Link RE505X, which can be had for $80. Other options are available for even less.
That's the quick overview, but here's how I got there.
Locating local internet providers
Watch this: Mesh Wi-Fi or range extenders? Pick the best option for you
Like real estate, wireless networking is about three things: location, location, location. Whichever you choose to go with, range extenders and mesh extenders will only put out a network signal that's as strong as the incoming wireless signal from the router, minus whatever penalty you're paying for connecting at a distance.
So, if you aren't able to connect in a particular place in your home, then the best approach is to run speed tests in different rooms, with the goal of finding the spot closest to your dead zone where the router's incoming signal is strong. That'll ensure that the range extender or mesh point is able to put out the best possible network, and that it'll be able to cover your dead zone. From there, it's just a matter of finding the right hardware for the job.
There's a lot to think about as you work to upgrade your home network, so here's a quick rundown of what you should know.
When you aren't feeling well and you go to the doctor, that doctor will start by asking you questions and running tests to figure out what's wrong. That's the same diagnostic approach you need to take when you're trying to improve the quality of your home network. Your secret weapon on that front? Speed tests.
Running them is really easy. There are lots of free services on the web that'll let you check your speed, but the most popular (and the one I use when I'm testing routers out at home) is the Ookla Speed Test. It'll pair you up with one of several nearby servers as soon as you load the page -- from there, just click the big "GO" button and wait about a minute to see your current upload and download speeds, as well as the connection's latency. Also, make sure you're connected to your home network while you do this, preferably from whatever device you use online the most. If you're using a phone, disable cellular while you run this test.
You'll want to move around in your home, running a few speed tests at a time in each room where your Wi-Fi connection matters. If you want, you can repeat this process at different times of day. When you're done, average those download speed results in each room to get a sense of where your connection is and isn't up to snuff. If you're seeing speeds that are less than half of what you get when you're close to the router, then that's an area where you might be able to shore things up (and if those close-range speeds aren't close to what your internet plan allows, then you should call your provider).
At this point, you'll want to run through the basics. Try moving the router to a different spot (out in the open is best, preferably as high up and as centrally located as possible). You might also be able to eke out small speed improvements by repositioning the antennas. If none of that works, then it's time to start evaluating your hardware needs.
Wi-Fi range extenders: A good fix for small dead zones
If you've just got one or two rooms where the connection isn't usable, then a simple Wi-Fi range extender might be all you need. You've got a lot of options, but the best value that I've tested is the TP-Link RE220, a plug-in extender that you can find online at various retail outlets for about $35, if not less. If you're willing to spend a little more, go with the TP-Link RE505X, which adds in faster, more robust speeds and support for Wi-Fi 6.
Range extenders like these are a cinch to use. You'll plug it in, press the WPS button to put it into Wi-Fi Protected Setup mode, and then press the WPS button on your router to pair the two together. It won't boost your existing home network per se -- instead, it'll use that connection with your router to broadcast its own network. In most cases, you'll see it listed as the existing network name with "_EXT" tacked onto the end.
And don't worry too much about the brand. Range extenders like these are typically designed to work no matter what kind of router you're using. Just double-check that your router has a WPS button (almost all do) and you'll be fine.
Extenders like these are unlikely to hit your network's max speeds, mind you. In fact, most of the cheap, plug-in models that cost $50 or less won't connect much faster than 50Mbps, and they'll only offer enough range to cover a couple of rooms at best. When I tested a few of the top value picks out in my home, the RE220's 5GHz band was able to sustain speeds of about 75Mbps throughout my entire test area, with a radius of about two rooms (or roughly forty feet). That might not sound like much, but it's fast and steady enough to support video chats, HD video streams, and even basic online gaming if you need it to. That's terrific performance for the price, especially if it means the difference between a steady connection and no connection at all.
If you're willing to spend up for something fancier, look for extenders that support Wi-Fi 6. At $80, my top pick, the TP-Link RE505X, was almost twice as fast as the RE220, supporting speeds no lower than 140Mbps at any point in my house when I tested it out earlier this year.
Just keep in mind that location matters a lot with these things, because they can only put out a network that's as strong as the incoming wireless signal from the router. The best bet is to take a look at your speed test data and find the room closest to your dead zone with a strong signal from the router. That'll ensure that the extender is able to put out the best possible network, and that it'll be able to cover your dead zone.
Most of today's options also include signal strength indicators on the device or in the app that'll let you know if you've picked a good spot -- make sure to pay attention to those.
Mesh routers: Best for whole-home coverage
If your problem is bigger than a single room where you can't connect -- say, an entire floor where your speeds are spotty -- then your best move is almost certainly to upgrade to a mesh router. With multiple devices spread throughout your home, a good mesh router can sling a speedy signal from room to room, and you won't have to juggle multiple networks like you will with a range extender -- you'll just connect to the same network throughout your home (or two networks, if you're splitting the 2.4 and 5GHz bands into their own separate connections).
There's a bit of a mesh router renaissance underway these days, with lots of new, second-wave options hitting the market. Many of them cost a lot less than in previous years, but you should still expect to pay at least $150 for an entry-level system with multiple devices, and hundreds more than that for something top-of-the-line.
Ready to upgrade to a mesh router? You've got lots of new options in 2020
One thing to keep in mind as you shop: Software makes a huge difference with these things, because mesh routers are constantly using algorithms to calculate the best way to route your connection depending on where you are in your home. The best systems will always know when to connect directly to the router and when it's better to route your connection through one of the satellites, but others with less sophisticated software might get tripped up and route you incorrectly, which can needlessly slow your connection down.
In my tests, the brands that do the best job of routing your connection around drops or slow-downs are Google, Eero and Asus. Netgear and TP-Link have each performed pretty well, too, though not without a couple of hiccups with certain systems. Overall, I was most impressed with Google's Nest Wifi, which absolutely aced my tests as I wandered from room to room running speed tests.
Nest Wifi doesn't support the newest, fastest Wi-Fi 6 connections, but it's still plenty fast, and as steady and reliable as mesh routers come. The two-piece setup with the router and a single extender would be a good fit for single-story homes, and costs $269. Medium-sized homes might want to consider stepping up to the three-piece version, which costs $349. And keep an eye out for sales -- in past months, I've seen those systems marked down to as low as $199 and $299, respectively.
If you live in a large home, then a three-piece system is definitely a worthy investment. Nest is nice, but Eero, another option with strong software chops, currently offers three-piece setups for $279, complete with support for Wi-Fi 6. That's about $70 less than Nest's 3-piece system which doesn't support Wi-Fi 6 at all.
That Eero 6 system wasn't quite as sharp as Nest at steering my connection when I tested, but adding a second satellite to any mesh setup will make a noticeable difference in the strength of your connection. For example, when we tested a three-piece Eero setup at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home, we placed the second satellite down in the basement and measured the signal strength throughout the entire house. It made a clear impact, as that heat map indicates.
One last thing worth remembering: Wireless speeds are all well and good, but a wired, Ethernet connection will always give you speeds that are as fast as possible. If you have a home office that's far from the router, for instance, then placing either a plug-in range extender or a mesh router's satellite in the room and wiring your computer to it can guarantee speeds that are faster and steadier than what you'd get if you tried to connect wirelessly from afar.
Another range-extending option worth thinking about is to go with a powerline extender. Similar to a plug-in extender, a powerline extender uses two plug-in devices that pass the connection back and forth through your home's electrical wiring, which is typically a really speedy way to do it. Just plug one in near your router and connect it with an Ethernet cable, then plug the other one in wherever you've got a dead zone.
Powerline extenders can also be a nice option if you have pesky physical obstructions in between your router and your dead zone that would stress the wireless connection between the router and the extender. A good powerline extender will use your home's wiring like a shortcut to get around obstacles like those.
I haven't tested extenders like these recently, but I'll update this post once I have some good data to share. For now, this TP-Link model has a four-star review average with over 7,000 reviews, and is currently available for $60. Might be worth a try.