The rise of whole-home Wi-Fi systems, or mesh routers, should have sounded the death knell for Wi-Fi range extenders or repeaters. But to my bemusement, Netgear recently launched a new Wi-Fi range extender, the Nighthawk X6S (EX8000).
Now, both mesh routers and range extenders are designed to improve wireless coverage in homes. But mesh routers, which use multiple nodes to create a wireless network, are generally easier to set up and perform better than range extenders. Mesh routers allow client devices to automatically switch between its nodes without losing the Wi-Fi connection. They have a single network name (SSID), while extenders typically create multiple SSIDs that may confuse users.
But I soon learnt why the Nighthawk X6S is different from its ilk. It improves on the traditional range extender by using the same SSID as your home router. More importantly, it supports the 802.11k standard, which lets compatible devices (like Apple iPhones and iPads) roam seamlessly around the home, as they switch between the wireless bands from the router and the range extender.
In fact, the EX8000 feels almost like a node in a mesh router system. Like Netgear's Orbi mesh router, the EX8000 has three wireless bands, one of which is reserved for communication between the range extender and the router. This design ensures adequate bandwidth for client devices, unlike typical extenders that have only two wireless bands. Netgear even dubs the EX8000 a Wi-Fi mesh extender.
And like any range extender, the EX8000 will work with your existing router, instead of replacing it like a mesh router system would. This keeps the overall cost down.
Compared to other extenders that resemble oversized power plugs, the EX8000 is huge. It is a slab of plastic (around 860g) that stands upright. It reminds me slightly of the Orbi mesh router but in a black chassis instead of white. Like the Orbi, the EX8000 has four Gigabit Ethernet ports, which is an improvement over the two offered by most mesh routers.
I do not like the design of its status indicators - the light bleed from the white LEDs meant that it is difficult to distinguish between individual indicators, especially from a distance.
ETHERNET INTERFACE: 4 x 10/100/1,000 Gigabit LAN
STANDARDS: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, 802.11k
SECURITY: WPA/WPA2-PSK and WEP
VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5
Setting up the EX8000 is easy enough, especially if you choose the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) method, whereby you basically press the WPS button on the EX8000 followed shortly by the WPS button on your router. It can also be configured using a browser, but there is no mobile app interface.
Once I got the EX8000 running, I immediately noticed that the signal strength of the Wi-Fi network in my bedroom shot up from 40 per cent to around 60 per cent. In my usual download speed test, my test laptop recorded an average speed of 101Mbps, which is a slight improvement over the 80Mbps without the extender.
The best thing is that the Wi-Fi connection became more consistent with the extender - previously, there were brief moments when the connection speed dropped to zero as the laptop momentarily lost the signal from the router. However, the EX8000's performance is still below what a mesh router could produce (around 180Mbps to 220Mbps).
Its price is also a sticking point. At $339, it is more expensive than mid-range routers. In fact, because of market competition, a complete mesh router system (a set of two or three) can be bought for around this price now after discounts. It makes the EX8000 less attractive, unless you really want to keep using your existing router.
Verdict: The EX8000 shares almost the same features as mesh routers, but it cannot work alone. This, coupled with its relatively high price, makes it a hard sell for mainstream consumers.