Everybody has them -- those pesky dead zones in the house or office where the Wi-Fi signal is weak or nonexistent. Apple designed the AirPort Express as a handy little plug-n-play network extender, but a good number of people find it to be problematic both in setup and in operation. TUAW recently received a compact Wi-Fi Range Extender from Amped Wireless -- the REC10 (US$79.99) -- and ran it through some tests to see how easy it was to set up and also how well it worked.
One of the nice things about Apple's AirPort Express is how small it is; the old version that plugged directly into a wall socket was particularly useful, and I'm not exactly sure why Apple chose to go with the current white "Apple TV clone" form factor. The REC10 plugs right into a wall socket and takes up very little space. It's about 4 x 2.5 x 1.25 inches is size, and weighs just 3.7 ounces.
The way the REC10 works is to expand the range of your 802.11 b/g/n network by repeating the signal from your primary router. The device has two 600 mW amplifiers inside connected to a high gain 2 dBi antenna to extend your Wi-Fi signal up to 6,500 square feet.
Setup of the REC10 is incredibly easy; it's just plugged into a wall socket and accessed on its own initial "Amped_REC10" Wi-Fi network. Switch your iOS device or Mac to that network and then point a browser to a special setup page address, and you're led through the process of renaming the network and adding a security key. What's nice is that the setup clones your existing SSID and security key if you wish, making setup even faster. The new SSID is given an "_RE" suffix to contrast it from your primary network.
The primary criteria I used to judge the functionality of the Amped Wireless REC10 were range and speed of the network. The perfect range extender would provide vastly more coverage and bring those dead areas to life, while retaining the speed of the primary network. What I found in my tests was that range was increased a bit, but that speed was reduced somewhat as well.
To test the network range, I first walked in different directions in the front and rear of my house with my iPad mini until I lost the signal from the primary network. I then repeated the test while connected to the extended network. In both cases, the distances were measured with a tape measure to give me an approximate range figure.
Now there are a lot of variables that are going to determine the range of a Wi-Fi router or extender, like the materials that the signal has to pass through and where the extender is set physically in reference to the primary router. Amped Wireless suggests placing the extender in a location where it has a signal strength -- displayed by the setup web page -- greater than 70 percent. The test unit was placed where it had a constant signal strength of 79 percent.
Looking at the Wi-Fi signal strength indicator on my iPad mini, it was apparent that the extender was doing its job as the strength went from two bars to full bars in my office when I moved the device to the extended network. My outside measurements showed that I could walk about 10 feet further in any direction around my house and still have a Wi-Fi connection on the extended network in comparison with the primary network.
That 10 feet doesn't sound like much, but it means that every piece of my little suburban lot is now covered with a Wi-Fi signal strong enough to provide me with the ability to surf the Web from anywhere on the property. Previously, there were zones that were completely dead.
My next tests dealt with speed. I used a known location -- my desk in my office -- and ran the SpeedTest.net speed test while connected to both networks. Initially, my test results were a bit of a shock. For the primary network, I was getting an average 34.3 Mbps download speed and about 6.2 Mbps upload speed. On the extended network generated by the REC10, that download speed dropped by about half down to 15.9 Mbps and uploads remained identical at 6.2 Mbps.
I contacted Amped Wireless tech support to see if there was any way to tweak the device to get those speeds back to a more normal range. The quick response was that I should change the channel width on the extender from 20 MHz to 40 MHz and then reboot the device. When I did that, I was unable to connect to the network at all. Fortunately, when I changed the control sideband setting to Lower from Upper, the device once again accepted my connection.
After making this change, the download speed was much better, averaging about 25.8 Mbps. Upload speed, however, took a turn for the worse with speeds only averaging about 4.0 Mbps.
So, given that the range was only extended by about 10 feet and speeds were somewhat less than what was available on the primary network, would the REC10 be a good investment for the average Mac user? As with so many things in the computing world, it depends.
If you have a room or area inside or outside your home that is one of those inexplicable dead spots, and you'be been dying to have Wi-Fi service in that spot, then you'll probably be happy with the REC10 provided that you're willing to spend some time looking for the perfect spot to plug it in. After all, having Wi-Fi in that location -- even slower Wi-Fi -- is better than not having Wi-Fi or having to use cellular data minutes to work or play in your own home.
It all comes down to setting your expectations ahead of time. Don't expect that by purchasing an Amped Wireless REC10 that you'll be able to stay connected to your Wi-Fi network a mile away -- it's not going to happen. And even if your expectations are more conservative, like just being able to cover all of the dead spots in your home, be aware that your download and upload speeds might not be as fast as you like.
One more negative point about the REC10; it comes with Windows and Android Wi-Fi analytics tools for finding good spots to install the device or test signal strength. It does not come with the equivalent software for Mac OS X and iOS.
Finally, the words "Amped Wireless" light up on the front of the device to indicate that the device is in operation. While I didn't find the white light to be annoying, some people might -- and there's no setting for turning it off.
Amped Wireless does make other models of Wi-Fi range extenders that offer additional coverage and power, so if the compact REC10 doesn't do the job for you, the company has other equipment that might.
If you're looking for a range extender that is relatively expensive, easy to set up, and that works with just about any existing Wi-Fi network, then the Amped Wireless REC10 is probably for you as long as you're aware that it's not going to perform miracles.
- Small profile allows installation just about anywhere
- Easy and fast setup
- Provides coverage for areas that may have weak or nonexistent Wi-Fi coverage with a single primary Wi-Fi router
- Web-based setup and configuration tool is fast and well-designed
- Amped Wireless provides a 30 day return policy
- No Mac OS X or iOS Wi-Fi analytics tool
- Although signal strength is increased in formerly weak signal areas, you may not see full speed in those areas
- Depending on placement of the REC10 and the design and construction of your home, you may not see a markedly large increase in the Wi-Fi coverage footprint
- No way to turn off glowing white status light
Who is it for?
- Any person with reasonable expectations who just needs better coverage in his or her home or office