Do you ever fight about who's hogging the internet? Are you plagued by weak signal and Wi-Fi black spots in your home? We look at what you need to know about wireless routers and extenders to help you create a 'whole of home' wireless network that everybody can use.

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Routers

Almost every new gadget your family buys offers wireless connectivity, which puts an increasing burden on your Wi-Fi network. Add to that visiting friends and family, and your poor old router has a big load to carry. 

Most people will have a wireless router built into their ISP-supplied modem (called a modem/router). But it's not necessarily the modem that needs replacing, just the Wi-Fi router.

That's where the latest dual-band and tri-band wireless routers come in. These little boxes can boost your Wi-Fi considerably by replacing (or adding another local network to) your existing modem or modem/router. It could be the best thing since family court for settling squabbles. Here's how to give everybody a go on your local Wi-Fi network.

Dual-band or tri-band?

If you've had your existing Wi-Fi router or modem/router for a few years, you could be way behind on Wi-Fi speed. Wi-Fi routers (including those built into ISP-supplied modem/routers) have progressed from dual-band 'AC' routers (using the latest and fastest 802.11ac standard). Now there are even tri-band routers, which add an extra 5GHz band to help support more connected devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs. Technology market analyst Telsyte says the average Australian home had nine internet-connected devices in 2015, but that figure will rocket to 24 devices per home by 2019.

A dual-band Wi-Fi router creates networks using both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz band. A tri-band router has a second 5GHz band, which allows it to support more devices on that part of your local Wi-Fi network. Most devices such as smartphones and network-connected household appliances use the 2.4GHz band, so it gets a little crowded. Having a 5GHz band as well can take some of the load off, because the two bands don't interfere with each other, and less congestion equals more speed across the board.

Not all user devices can connect to routers on the 5GHz band, but it has become more common. In fact, the 5GHz band is becoming so popular that some of the latest router models have two 5GHz bands, along with the 2.4GHz band. They're commonly referred to as tri-band routers. 

Tri-band routers give you the highest overall throughput to help cope with having multiple Wi-Fi devices. Note, however, that they don't combine the two 5GHz bands to give double speed to a single device, but can stream to two or more devices over their two 5GHz bands, giving a higher total throughput. Tri-band routers are relatively new and not all brands offer them yet.

Tablets and laptops are a good example of devices hopping on the dual-band bandwagon, with their ability to use the faster 5GHz band, giving them an advantage for media streaming in the home. The more data-hungry devices that can be moved across to the less-crowded 5GHz part of the network, the better, leaving a bit more elbow room on the 2.4GHz side, which is the default for most devices.

Understanding the numbers

Understanding the basics of networking is simpler than it used to be, but it's still an alphabet (and numerical) soup of standards and protocols. Here's the simple version:

  • The current wireless standard is called 802.11ac. This is faster than its predecessor, 802.11n, and its predecessors g, b, or the lesser-used a, which vary in their speed, range and signal penetration. The ac-standard is backwards compatible with n, b and g, so you'll often see a router referred to as 802.11ac/b/g/n.
  • 802.11ac is a 5GHz-only protocol, while 2.4GHz uses 802.11n.

Key router points

  • Not all wireless routers include a modem. And not all modems include a wireless router. A router is not a modem, but these days both these devices are often supplied in one unit by your ISP, and set up for your ISP's network. A combined modem and wireless router combination is usually called a modem/router, rather than just a wireless router (or router for short). 
  • Look to your router first. If your local Wi-Fi network performance is suffering it's usually your router that's the problem.You can upgrade your Wi-Fi performance by adding a new router to your existing modem (or existing combined modem/router, depending on what has been supplied by your ISP). Most wireless routers only have the capability to create and connect to local wireless networks. You still need your modem to connect to the internet. Usually your modem is supplied by your ISP (though this is optional).
  • You can add on a wireless router. Your ISP-supplied modem may or may not have a built-in router, but it will usually have a spare ethernet port so you can plug in an external model. This external wireless router (such as the ones in our test) can be used instead of, or in addition to, the built-in wireless router. So if you have an older ISP-supplied modem/router you can still greatly increase your local network speed by plugging in a latest model wireless router.
  • A new modem/router can replace your ISP-supplied modem. But check with your ISP first to see if the modem/router is one that they support, otherwise you could end up doing the configuring and troubleshooting yourself, and that's a job for advanced users only.
  • Gigabit Ethernet ports are needed to connect to the NBN. The fastest (1000Mbps) connection for a wired network, via ethernet cable, uses a gigabit ethernet port.
  • QoS is router-speak for Quality of Service control, which can help you nominate what types of network traffic are important and therefore get priority – streaming media, for example.
  • Speed may be the same or different on each band – for example 300Mbps on each band or 300Mbps on one band and 450Mbps on the other, or even 450Mbps on each.
  • Concurrent/simultaneous dual band offers greater overall throughput by utilising both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands at the same time, rather than having to choose one or the other as separate networks (known as selective dual band). Simultaneous dual band is an advantage, but not all routers do it.
  • Security preset uses security encryption to prevent the network accidentally being left open and thus vulnerable to unauthorised users. Wireless routers normally offer one of several security standards, including WEP, WPA and WPA2. WEP is the least secure of the three and WPA2 the most secure and most common.
  • USB ports let you connect other devices to the router, such as a printer or external hard drive. This puts them on the network to share with all users. Note that a USB port may be specific for a printer or an external drive, and not necessarily either. Check the specifications for your router model.
  • LAN ports provide extra local area network ports to connect other devices via wired ethernet. This can take a load off your wireless connection.
  • Wireless range depends on a number of factors, including the type of house you live in (brick, for example, is harder for a signal to penetrate). Range can also be affected by bandwidth interference from other devices such as cordless phones or microwaves that commonly operate in the 2.4GHz band. Placing the wireless router as close to the middle of the home as possible will provide the best coverage.

Wi-Fi extenders

Households rely on wireless (Wi-Fi) networks for the increasingly diverse range of electronic devices spread throughout the home. But the dream of seamless internet connectivity can be ruined by poor network speeds, signal drop-outs or no signal at all. That's where you need a Wi-Fi extender.

The number of wireless devices in the average Australian home is growing. This includes mobile phones (via Wi-Fi), tablets, printers and myriad home entertainment devices such as games consoles and smart TVs. There's even an increasing number of lightweight laptops that don't have a wired ethernet connection port and then there's the so-called 'internet of things' (IoT) – 'smart' home appliances and stand-alone home automation devices that connect to your network.

Even a top-of-the-line wireless (Wi-Fi) router may not be up to the job of covering your whole home. A router only has a certain range (around 50m in line-of-sight) but obstructions such as walls and furniture can shorten that range or block it entirely, creating areas where there is no Wi-Fi signal – called black spots. 

Where the router is located in your home is important. Ideally it should be situated in the centre of the home to give maximum coverage in all directions, but that's not always possible. And even so, signal blockers such as solid walls can still create black spots. 

A Wi-Fi extender picks up the signal from your wireless router and relays it onward to give you a larger network. It can also be used to 'go around corners' to avoid Wi-Fi black spots. While relaying a signal can result in almost doubling your network distance, it can also drop network performance. So finding the right Wi-Fi extender for your needs and putting it in the right location is important.

Wi-Fi extenders come in a variety of kits, from the traditional all-in-one wall-plug unit that you simply plug into a powerpoint, to the new mesh network systems. A mesh network is a more 'intelligent' type of Wi-Fi system in which each extender (or node) talks to not only the main router but to the other nodes. This can give you a more seamless networking experience no matter where you are in the home, and can grow with the addition of more nodes, but they come at a relatively hefty price.

How Wi-Fi extenders work

Extenders generally work like this: you set up the backhaul (from the extender to the router) using one band (e.g. 5GHz), and then the extender creates two networks (2.4GHz and 5GHz) for the fronthaul, which is the connection from the extender to your user devices (clients). 

When you create an extended network you'll usually see it identified by some letters that are added to the name of the main (parent) network. This lets you know you're connecting to the extended network. Most devices let you customise these names, if you prefer.

Mesh networks use a feature called band steering, which gives you a single network name to connect both 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices. This means you don't have to worry about which segment of the network you're using, making it easier to use.

The current crop of wireless extenders is generally easy to hook up, even if you're not a technical person. All the extenders in our most recent test offer a 'wizard' or quick set-up routine through their web admin page. The basic process for setting them up includes:

  • The extender scans the area for wireless networks, you select the network you want to extend and enter the network password. 
  • Almost all extenders have clear signal strength or placement indicators on the device to help you find the best spot to put them in your home so you get optimal network coverage. The supplied documentation should explain what the indicators mean when they light up (using coloured bars or dots).
  • You may be asked during set up if you want to extend a second network (e.g. 2.4GHz if 5GHz is already done).
  • You'll see the new extended network name (SSID), usually with '_RPT' or '_EXT' appended, for example). You can modify the name, and select new passwords and encryption for them. 
  • Some extenders have apps that can be used to set them up or configure them after they've been set up.
  • Most extenders can also be set up by entering a URL (web address) rather than an IP address.

A Wi-Fi extender should have at least one ethernet port – which can be used to attach the extender to a switch or router in access point mode (if available), or it can be used to connect a client (user device) in extender mode. 

Some Wi-Fi extenders are classed as media bridges. They have multiple ethernet ports and are designed primarily for connecting non-wireless home entertainment devices to the wireless network. Just plug in the entertainment devices into the ethernet ports on the media bridge extender, and the extender puts them on your network by providing a wireless connection to the router. 

Key Wi-Fi extender features

Not all wireless extenders work the same way, so have a look at which of the following suits your needs.

  • Media bridge Look for one of these if you want to connect a lot of ethernet devices to your wireless network and won't be extending the network too far.
  • Wall-plug adapter These are handy if you only want to extend the network over a small-to-medium distance (e.g. apartment).
  • NBN users Look for the products that performed fastest in our extended position tests, otherwise your internet speed might be limited to the extender's capability. 

Mesh network systems

Individual Wi-Fi extenders can help prevent black spots, but they can be fiddly to set up and don't always provide an integrated solution. Some simply create a second (or third) wireless network that you have to switch to manually as you roam around your home. Wireless mesh networks are a smarter solution with a router as the main base and 'intelligent' satellite units that extend your network by relaying your router's Wi-Fi signal throughout the home. This makes it seamless to use no matter where you go. They usually include a wireless router and at least one or two 'nodes' and you can add more nodes to the system easily.

Whole-home Wi-Fi

Mesh kits provide what's commonly called 'whole-home Wi-Fi coverage' by using multiple nodes that have their own dedicated connection to the router. These kits often ship with two or three pieces – a Wi-Fi router and satellite units (sometimes called nodes). Ideally the router would be located centrally in the home, with the satellite units either side of it at far-flung areas where your original router may have trouble providing a useable signal.

They're also usually designed to be set up by non-technical users – more of a set-and-forget solution than mixing and matching different routers and extender units.

Almost a mesh kit

While most brands are working on bringing out complete mesh kits, some don't yet provide a 'one-box' solution and instead offer 'whole-home Wi-Fi' support to combine particular routers and/or extenders.

D-Link, for example, has this type of ad hoc mesh network solution which it markets as a 'whole-home Wi-Fi' solution. Only certain models (that otherwise look like normal routers/extenders) support this mesh feature. 

In our test of mesh network systems we used a D-Link DIR-882 router and two D-Link DAP-1620 extenders. When the WPS button (for Wi-Fi Protected Setup) is pressed on those devices, it puts them all on the same network using the same name and credentials. This saves you having to perform any configuration tasks. It's obviously early days for D-Link's mesh networking ambitions, as we found very little information on it (either written or through tech support) and it took quite a bit of trouble to set it up and get it working. 

Likewise, Asus has a feature called AiMesh, which was in Beta at the time of our testing. This 'whole-home Wi-Fi' feature allows different routers that support AiMesh to be used in a single network. The fastest router needs to be installed as the main router, and slower routers (which you may already own, such as the RT-AC2900, RT-AC68U or RT-AC1900P) can then be used as the extending nodes for the network. You'll need to download and install a firmware update for this to work on your existing equipment. We used the RT-AC86U (main) and RT-AC68U (satellite) routers.