Expand a wireless network's range

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - It didn't take long for the wireless network in my home to become a necessity. Still, no matter how I tweaked the settings, the back patio remained a no-browse zone. But a few seconds after plugging in a wireless range extender, I was surfing among the fuchsias at full network speed.

I tested two products: the US$85 AirStation Wireless Compact Repeater Bridge-g WLA2-G54 from Buffalo Technology Inc., and the $70 AirPlus Enhanced 2.4GHz (802.11b) Wireless Range Extender DWL-800AP+ from D-Link Systems Inc. Both shipping units boosted the strength and distance of the signal from my wireless access point by about 50 percent. (The D-Link AirPlus also functions as a wireless access point, but I tested it only as a repeater for my network's existing wireless access device.) The "sweet spot"--defined as the distance from the access point within which you get a network's top wireless speed--increased from about 20 feet (600 centimeters) to 30 feet, and my network's maximum reach (with speeds dropping to 1 megabit per second on the periphery) grew from about 60 feet to 90 feet. Near the edge of the range, however, Web pages loaded much more slowly than they did inside the sweet spot.

Installing the extenders on an existing wireless network involved using a Web-based wizard to enter the Internet Protocol address and other network settings I received from my Internet service provider. And adding an extender was just a little bit more complicated than installing one at the same time as installing a network. My installation went smoothly for the most part; anyone who has ever installed a wireless network should have no problem getting a repeater in place. In fact, the repeater appears as a separate network when your computer's wireless adapter scans for access points.

Your Speed Needs?

Although both repeaters are able to extend the range of wireless access points from other vendors, each of them added more signal range and strength when connected to an access device made by their own vendor.

The Buffalo AirStation repeater boosted the signal from the company's AirStation G54 54-mbps wireless access device at the full 802.11g speed of 54 mbps. On the other hand, the repeater topped out at 11 mbps when I used it to extend the signal of a D-Link DI-614+ wireless router, although even this may be more speed than you really need. I could reach the D-Link AirPlus extender's top speed of 22 mbps only when I used a D-Link PC Card adapter that supports the higher speed to connect to a D-Link access point.

The Buffalo AirStation's performance was distinctly a notch above that of the D-Link AirPlus, regardless of the network setup: Its signal was a few kilobits faster, and I found that its range extended a couple of feet farther than that of the AirPlus whether linked to a Buffalo access device or to one from another vendor.

If the signal strength of your small-office or home wireless network comes up just a little short, a range extender can make a major difference in coverage--assuming that you are willing to pay $70 to $85.