It's not often that I've come across a product that works perfectly, does exactly what it says it will, costs a lot less than its closest competitor and provides a real and salient difference in my computing experience. The US$44.97 BearExtender n3 does just that. Roland Saekow, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, realized that the 'Airbears' campus network wasn't complete enough to allow students to connect from all parts of the large campus, so he developed an external Wi-Fi receiver that can boost the range of a standard Airport-equipped laptop by up to 200%. He partnered with Jason Opdyke of Rokland Technologies and brought his extender to market this past December.
I was interested in taking a look, since my home network (comprised of a Time Capsule and several Airport Express units) still leaves a section of my house where I can't get a decent Wi-Fi signal, no matter what I try. I've been told that the only way to solve this is to run RJ-45 cable all around the outside of my house, and get a second router. Doing this would be ugly, inconvenient and expensive, so when I heard about the BearExtender n3, I had to find out if this would do the trick and vanquish my Wi-Fi-challenged rooms problem. Within ten minutes of opening the box I found that it did solve my issues, and in further testing I became even more impressed.
The box contains the BearExtender n3 along with two USB cables, one short and one long, and the software. The installer comes cleverly stored on a USB flash drive, so you MacBook Air users aren't left out if you lack a DVD reader. You can place the BearExtender n3 on the side of your computer or attach it with a convenient clip to a laptop screen. It does have some heft to it, but clipping it to the back, as shown in the picture, doesn't obscure any of the screen.
After plugging it into a USB port, installing the Railink driver software, rebooting and configuring a few settings, I tried it all around my house. In my highly insulated basement that needed four Airport Express units to get a signal from one side to the other, I was able to unplug two of them and connect just fine. Re-enabling the Airport card wouldn't even show me a network. The BEn3 overrides the Airport card in your computer and increases your signal strength from the reported 20 dBw (which translates to 100 millwatts) in an Airport card to 700 millwatts. It also features a 2dBi gain antenna, which, though large, bypasses interference created by the Airport card living in an aluminum case.
The result is the best extender I have ever tried at the the best price ever. I'm sure there are others, but I found the closest competitor is the Quickertech Quicky which is rated at 500 millwatts and costs $US225. The BEn3 ups the ante by 200 millwatts and costs only $US44.97. The BEn3 is about five times cheaper while providing better range. Both units use the Railink chipset and require basically the same software.
The downside, and I really don't consider this much of a downside, is that the BearExtender runs only on the 2.4GHz band; this doesn't give you the option of a 5Ghz 802.11n network. This probably won't be an issue for you if you're in a relatively interference-free area as far as Wi-Fi channels go (2.4GHz requires more space between channels for uncluttered networking); if you have lots of neighbors crowding the spectrum, though, the lack of a 5 GHz option might cause some issues.
If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, it won't work on a pure 5GHz 802.11n network since they both contain 802.11g radios. Additionally, Jason Opdyke told me in their testing they discovered that using a 5GHz network would have cut the range in half. The 2.4GHz band allows for backward compatibility with b and g devices as well as n, so regardless of what you have, you're covered.
Even if your network is limping along just fine, the BEn3 will give you a better signal. In my testing I found that a device showing 57% signal strength using the Airport card became 100% using the BEn3. The further away devices are the lower the numbers get, but with some rare exceptions the BEn3 showed much higher signal strength than using the internal Airport card. The BEn3 also showed me more Airport Expresses, connecting to one or two more than were found by the Airport card.
Here's another benefit I found. I really don't understand why it happens (maybe some of you can enlighten me in the comments) but the Internet speed test found at Speedtest.net showed the BEn3 consistently coming up with quicker download and upload speeds; often by as much as a third. Another nice feature is that it can be used to extend your network with other nearby Wi-Fi users.
There are some other minor downsides though. The thing is pretty big and I can see it being a hassle connecting and disconnecting it each time you move your laptop. No big deal if you're using a Mac Pro, Mac Mini or iMac. The software uses 32-bit drivers so it won't work under Snow Leopard with the following computers:
- Xserve (Early 2008)
- Xserve (Early 2009)
- Mac Pro (Early 2008)
- Mac Pro (Early 2009)
I can see the BearExtender n3 solving a lot of Wi-Fi woes cheaply and well. The best recommendation I can give it is that, rather than send back the review unit, I bought it.