What to look for in a wireless access point

A good way to eliminate dead zones in your house where wifi doesn’t work is to add one or two wireless access points to your setup.

Access points, thankfully, are no longer stupid expensive–they used to cost twice as much as a router in spite of being nothing more than a cut-down router–but almost every access point I’ve looked at has one or more compromises built in. That said, if you want something you can plug in and configure by filling out three or four things, you might be willing to live with those compromises.

Price. Let’s face it, if you have one room where the wifi cuts out, you don’t need to throw $200 at the problem. A $15 device can probably eliminate that dead spot if you can handle slightly slower network performance there. And I think everyone will agree 54 megabits is a lot better than zero.

Uplink speed. I see 300-megabit and even 1.2 gigabit wireless access points with wimpy 100-megabit uplinks. That means your device is only talking to the rest of your network at 100 megabits, not at full speed. If you don’t stream media from a home server this probably isn’t a big deal, but if you’re interested in access points, I suspect you probably do have a home network with a lot going on.

Wireless standards. If the access point only has a 100-megabit uplink, there’s no point in paying much extra for 802.11n or 802.11ac speed, because the access point will be the bottleneck. Anything about 150-megabit 802.11n is overkill. Even 150-meg 802.11n is theoretically overkill, but not by as much as you may think, due to overhead. It’ll still be nearly twice as fast as 802.11g.

Dual band. If the access point supports both 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands, compatible devices can jump on the 5 GHz band and run with less interference.

Detachable antennae. The whole idea is range, so you may want the option to detach antennae and replace them with bigger ones. Don’t expect this option on a $15 access point, but if you’re paying a higher price, this is something you may want.

Extra ports. It can be nice to have a few extra wired Ethernet ports, but they’re usually a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. But having this ability lets you sub in your access point for a regular switch and have it do double-duty. You’ll pay extra for gigabit.

USB. It’s nice to have a USB port or two that you can string a printer or hard drive off of. Another nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.

PoE. With Power over Ethernet, if you need to reach a dead zone with no nearby outlet, you can get power from the Ethernet cable, so you only need to run one wire, not two, and don’t have to wire up an outlet. You almost assuredly won’t find something with this feature and the previous two.

Extra modes. If you still have dead zones after setting up two access points, your best bet is to start adding repeaters. Repeaters give up half their bandwidth repeating, but they’re better than dead zones. Some routers have access point and repeater modes, so sometimes the best way to get a really nice access point is to buy a router. Just make sure before purchasing that the router you’re eyeing has that ability, or is compatible with DD-WRT so you can add that ability.

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