For those not in the know, access points and range extenders may just seem like the same thing. And it’s understandable people would think that, given that both an access point and an extender accomplish pretty similar goals. But if you want to really optimize the performance or your network (and not spend unnecessary money on a product that won’t be worth your time), it’s important to understand the difference. And while this may be a showdown between access point vs. extender, each comes with its own distinct advantages in different situations.
What Are Wi-Fi Access Points?
What are access points? If you have a larger office or a more spacious house, chances are that an access point will provide you with a lot of value. While a traditional router creates a wireless signal by connecting directly to your modem with an ethernet cable, that range is pretty limited. An access point can help you expand that range without having to set up a new internet connection with a second modem and router.
An access point still needs to connect to the core LAN through the use of an ethernet cable, but it has a lot more flexibility – and fulfills a more specialized purpose – than a router would. Instead of simply creating a basic Wi-Fi host network for your modem, it creates a child network. That means that instead of having to set up multiple networks, you can have multiple smaller networks that cover the whole property. An advantage here is that customers can shift seamlessly between these smaller networks without having to log out and back in.
But administrators have a decent amount of control over how their networks are run, and access points provide an incredibly versatile way to set specific rules for different areas. You can even set up an access point independently from your core network if you like. An access point is also commonly known as a WAP (or Wireless Access Point). If you see that acronym used, you can rest easy that the manufacturer is referring to a traditional access point.
What is a Wireless Extender?
Now that you understand what is an access point, it’s time to get into wireless extenders. The function here is pretty similar to an access point, but instead of offering a completely new connection that allows you to create a subsidiary network for your primary network, a wireless extender – as the name quite obviously suggests – simply extends the length of your wireless network. Rather than providing you with distinct wireless access points, this sort of device just boosts the signal of your existing Wi-Fi network.
What’s especially cool about a range extender is how modular these devices are. You could feasibly have any number of wireless extender devices connected to a singular network, effectively broadening your reach to expand your Wi-Fi signal across every corner of your network area. Is that a practical choice? For most users, no. But stringing together multiple range extender devices is one of the most effective ways of using your wireless network to its full capabilities.
What About Wireless Repeaters?
If you’re shopping for a way to get the best performance out of your Wi-Fi signal, chance is that you’ll hear the phrase “wireless repeater” used with some level of regularity. You don’t need to fret about that at all. A wireless repeater is a device that accomplishes the same goal as a wireless extender. It just uses a different methodology to improve the same results.
A repeater simply takes the signal it’s connected to and rebroadcasts it, essentially creating a duplicate of the network. While there are some performance differences between wireless extender devices and wireless repeater devices, either one will achieve similar results. Just be sure to pay attention to the specs if you’re comparing one vs. the other so you can make sure you’re using the best signal possible.
All in One Device
You don’t always need to choose between range extenders and access points. There are a decent amount of devices that offer the functionality of a router but can be adapted into a wireless repeater, extender, or access point as the situation demands. This allows you to more flexibly use your Wi-Fi signal, but the fact that these devices come with so many wireless range extending options in one place also means that they tend to be expensive.
If you don’t know quite what you need for your home office, a router with diverse wireless capabilities can be a sensible solution. But it doesn’t have to come to that. If you take the time to figure out what you need, you can save yourself some money and time by investing in a standalone device rather than a fully features wireless network router.
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Disadvantages of an Access Point for WiFi
Wireless access points aren’t perfect, and there’s plenty of reasons why you’d want to try using a range extending device or even a router to expand your network. It’s a common tactic, but there are some risks to look out for when using an access point.
- An access point is a fairly expensive investment, particularly for businesses that might want to extend their signal dramatically beyond what a router is capable of. Many offices have found that using a router for each area with limited access is far more cost effective, even if it requires you to manage multiple networks.
- Speaking of management, access points require some serious work to get set up and to keep maintained, especially vs. a router. A complex access point device may hypothetically require an exhaustive number of ethernet hubs, switches, and other devices to get working the way you’d like.
- The connection created by a WAP is going to underperform vs. that provided by a router device. That’s perfectly fine is you’re just looking to create a network for guests in the lobby or for employee break rooms, but if you’d like to extend the signal of your core router into workspaces with weak signals, a WAP device can be a frustrating solution.
Best Uses for an Access Point in WiFi
The number of users that can connect to a WAP vs. a traditional router is astronomical. The router can often support only 20 or so people, while a WAP can fulfill the needs of dozens or even hundreds of users concurrently. The advantage for mid- to large-sized businesses is obvious. Using a WAP makes a whole lot of sense for larger offices, but the cost of scaling means that once you reach the needs of enterprise sized business, the cost efficiency can become a very big problem.
Disadvantages of Wireless Extenders
Wireless extenders can serve as a pretty sensible substitute for a WAP, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Wireless extenders are even more poorly fitted for huge businesses than WAPs are, and the disadvantages for work on that scale are a huge deal.
- Internet speeds are significantly weaker when put up vs. a router device. Since the extender has to achieve essentially double the load of a normal router (broadcasting a signal to both the modem and the connected devices), an extender generally offers half the throughput levels of a router or modem.
- They can be a threat to online criminals. In our review guide for routers, we talk about how much security matters. But once you add a new device to the equation – with its own unique vulnerabilities and compatibility issues – it can be hard to get unified security across your network. Fortunately, this can be remedied by finding a model that places an emphasis on security features.
- Due to their design, extenders magnify the interference from other devices connected to the network. Wireless interference is at least doubled when using a traditional extender, and weaker models can offer significantly more than that. That’s not a big deal when you’re just trying to get your home office computer synced up to your network, but it makes these devices impractical for higher volume offices and public spaces with a whole lot of users.
Best Uses for Wireless Extenders
Wireless extenders are an ideal choice if you have a personal Wi-Fi network but need it to reach just a little bit further. Arranging a modem so it delivers a clear signal to an entire house can be difficult or even impossible, but a wireless extender can provide you with that extra juice you need. Whether you’re looking for better video streaming in your home theater room or more stable work performance in a distant home office, it simply makes sense to use extenders or repeaters in a residential situation.
To the average consumer that doesn’t know much about networking, the difference between a wireless extender and an access point might not even be noticeable. But you’re not the average consumer. Smart shoppers will want to carefully parse the differences between the two so they can get an internet connection they’ll like without having to run an ethernet cable throughout the house.
We can even help you find the ideal models for you. Check out our guides to the top routers and repeaters once you’ve decided on a solution that suits your property. And be sure to dig deeper into the HotRate catalog. We want to be your one stop shop for gaming and networking, but we also have a ton of informative articles on shopping for hardware, optimizing the performance of your computer, and even building a new computer from scratch.