The top performers in our review are the Netgear AC1200, the Gold Award winner; Hawking HW2R1, the Silver Award winner; and ZyXEL WAP3205, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a product to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 Wi-Fi boosters.
Mobile devices are ubiquitous today, which means that you need to make sure your home network is ready to take on the load of multiple wireless devices. One of the most frustrating things you can experience on a mobile device is a dodgy wireless connection. This can be tricky to solve in some homes because walls and other objects interfere with the wireless signal your router broadcasts. The solution is a Wi-Fi booster that rebroadcasts the router's signal.
Even in somewhat small homes, there may be a bedroom that doesn't have good wireless internet reception. All you need to do to fix that is place a Wi-Fi booster at the edge of your router's broadcasting range, or where the signal still exists but isn't particularly strong. The Wi-Fi booster extends the range of your home's wireless signal significantly, helping it get around walls and other interference.
If you're tired of getting a weak internet signal while you're lying in bed or cooking in the kitchen, then you'll want to consider getting a good Wi-Fi range extender. The internet has become a staple for many people across the world, and having quick and reliable access to the internet is more important than ever.
Essentially, the best Wi-Fi boosters sit at the edge of your wireless router's range, capture its signal and then rebroadcast it. This functions as a bridge of sorts, connecting your wireless router to your mobile devices. For example, when you connect to the internet with your tablet, it involves the following process:
How quickly information travels through this process depends on which wireless standard your router and Wi-Fi booster use. The most common standard is 802.11n, which has a theoretical limit of 300 Mbps throughput. With interference and other factors, you're likely to get much less than that. The latest standard, and by far the fastest, is 802.11ac. This standard can achieve throughput in the gigabit range. That's a lot of bandwidth, and would only make sense if you plan to stream 4K content through your home network.
Essentially, don't bother paying a premium for 802.11ac range extenders unless you know that you'll actually make use of the increased bandwidth. It can make a lot of sense if there are four or five people in your household who all like to stream content from a home media center. However, most people don't have home media centers and stream content from the internet instead. In this case, you'll most likely hit your internet service provider's speed limitations before you max out an 802.11n router's bandwidth – unless you're lucky enough to have Google Fiber.
You may notice Wi-Fi boosters and routers that use multiple antennas. What's the point of more antennas? Is it just for marketing? The answer is that having more antennas can have real benefits. Especially if there's a lot of interference in your home, a Wi-Fi booster with more than one antenna makes a big difference in Wi-Fi performance. With two or more antennas, the Wi-Fi booster can compensate for noise, or interference, and ensure that it's providing you with the best connection it can.
For home wireless networks, you need to be aware of how much interference is fighting against your wireless router's broadcast signal. Some routers broadcast on a 2.4GHz frequency, some at 5GHz, and some offer both frequencies. While 5GHz is generally regarded to be superior, 2.4GHz may be the best solution for your situation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. For example, the 2.4GHz frequency is common among electronic devices and is therefore more susceptible to interference. You also get lower throughput with a 2.4GHz signal. However, due to the lower frequency, 2.4GHz signals are better at penetrating walls and other physical obstacles. 2.4GHz routers usually offer noticeably better range than their 5GHz counterparts.
When high performance is all that matters, then you want a router that's capable of broadcasting a 5GHz signal. You'll also want a 5GHz-capable Wi-Fi booster, because most 5GHz wireless routers don't have impressive range. While the range may be poor, 5GHz offers excellent performance. You also won't experience much interference from other electronic devices, as not many use 5GHz signals, and most homes are still using 2.4GHz wireless routers.
The best range extenders can use both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies simultaneously. This allows them to make the most of both frequencies' advantages and disadvantages. It's important to note that wireless routers and range extenders that use both frequencies tend to be considerably more expensive than single-frequency variants.
You definitely want a dual-band Wi-Fi booster, even if your wireless router is only locked into one transmission frequency. The reason for this is that the Wi-Fi booster needs to receive, process and retransmit the signal from your wireless router. If you're limited to one band on your Wi-Fi booster, it effectively halves the throughput for any device that connects to the booster. When the booster has two bands to work with, though, performance doesn't degrade as much – it can receive on one band and transmit on the other.
If you have more questions, or want more in-depth details, check out our articles on Wi-Fi boosters.
Other Aspects to Consider
The vast majority of Wi-Fi boosters and routers allow you to use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), the latest version of which (WPA2) is the most reliable way for you to secure consumer-grade Wi-Fi equipment. WPA2 is an encryption method that is designed to allow authenticated users access to a Wi-Fi network via password and keep everyone else out. There are other encryption methods, such as WEP, but many of them have proven to be unreliable. Make sure that your booster and router can use WPA2 and that you have them enabled – otherwise, gaining access to your home network is rather easy for outsiders.
Even though we're talking about Wi-Fi networking here, you'll want to pay attention to how many Ethernet ports your Wi-Fi booster has. It's all well and good to increase a Wi-Fi network's range, but you'll always get the best performance when you're physically plugged in with an Ethernet cable. Especially for smart TVs and gaming consoles, ideally you want to have a wired connection to your booster or router. Too few Ethernet ports on a booster can be incredibly frustrating when you want a reliable connection for non-mobile devices.
Our Top Recommendations
Sometimes, you do get what you pay for. The Netgear AC1200, our Gold Award winner, is an outstanding Wi-Fi booster that sets your wallet back a fair amount. As the name implies, this booster's maximum theoretical throughput is 1,200 Mbps. That's thanks to the fact that it uses the latest wireless standard, 802.11ac. If your wireless router also uses 802.11ac, then you'll be able to enjoy gigabit wireless throughout your home. It's also important to note that the AC1200 operates on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, which gives you the strongest and most reliable signal you can get.
The Hawking HW2R1 earned our Silver Award due to its strong combination of range and features. While the HW2R1 only broadcasts on the 2.4GHz frequency, its three antennas ensure that that signal has a wide reach and reliability.
The best value on our lineup is the Belkin F9K1106. The major advantage of the Belkin is that it offers dual-band broadcasting at a low price. Despite being able to broadcast at 5GHz, the Belkin booster is only rated for a maximum throughput of 600 Mbps. This is due to the fact that the Belkin doesn't support 802.11ac. Still, if you don't want to spring for more expensive boosters but you want more throughput than a single-band booster can provide, then the Belkin is for you.