New Linksys 802.11ac range extenders are a cord cutter's best friend

New Linksys 802.11ac range extenders are a cord cutter's best friend

Summary: Got a living room too far away from your router for your streaming devices? You need a wireless range extender with media bridge capability.

Linksys RE6500 is an 802.11ac media bridge and Wi-Fi range extender that can vastly improve the network performance of your wireless streaming media devices.

As I explained recently, I decided to "cut the cord" with my cable company, opting instead to consume my video content from over-the-air television and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu+.

Part of the cord cutting process involved an investment in better home wireless networking hardware. While 802.11g and 802.11n Wi-Fi is generally effective for certain types of applications such as web browsing and casual gaming and content consumption on mobile devices, it is not ideal for streaming high-definition video content.

Additionally, the effectiveness of most Wi-Fi capable streaming hardware using built in wireless networking can be negated by the layout of one's home as well as channel interference and especially walls and distance from the core wireless router itself.

Currently, the fastest Wi-Fi technology is 802.11ac, which is a 5Ghz standard that allows for up to gigabit speeds. Newer routers with multiple antennae and higher power wireless transceivers such as Linksys's WRT1900AC are able to take advantage of this.

Most wireless streaming devices have 802.11g and 802.11n, typically with one or possibly two antennae, that have a maximum throughput of 140Mbps per second, but in practice a great deal less because speed is highly dependent on signal strength as well as the number of spatial streams supported by the device and the access point it communicates with. 

One option is to wire your residence with Category 5 Ethernet cable or Coaxial (MoCA) in home runs straight to the rooms with the streaming devices and to eliminate wireless entirely.

However, for a number of reasons, many people will find it difficult and inconvenient to do that, so they look to devices such as Wi-Fi media bridges to provide a faster wireless connection than their built-in capabilities.

This week Linksys announced the immediate availability of a new wireless range extender product, the RE6500, which retails for $129.00 but sells on Belkin's web site for $99. The RE6500 is one of the few media bridges/range extenders on the market that can actually take advantage of the full speed of a powerful 5Ghz 802.11ac router such as the WRT1900AC.

The RE6500 also has an audio jack for broadcasting streamed music to external speakers connected to the device, such as from your smartphone or tablet.

Netgear has a competing product, the EX6200, which has an additional Ethernet port and a USB port for external hard disks, but it streets at $129 and lacks the audio streaming capability.

Linksys was already shipping a first generation 802.11ac media bridge since 2012, the WUMC710, which is now being sold at a heavy discount for about $42 street.

While the WUMC710 device is effective (I happen to own three of them) it hasn't been updated for a while and the device is a tad bulky and occasionally requires rebooting due to overheating and what I can only describe as first-generation glitchiness. It also has LED lights on the front panel that blinks bright blue, which can be distracting, especially at night when used in a bedroom or when watching a movie if placed near the TV set.

Another key difference is that the WUMC710 does not have the capability to simultaneously act as a wireless repeater, whereas the RE6500 does.

Installation of the RE6500 is simple: After attaching the two antennae, you connect and plug the unit's AC adapter into a wall socket. After the device boots up — which takes about a minute — you connect to its default wireless network using a PC or tablet and use Linksys's web-based wizard to connect to your home's own wireless network being broadcast by your router.

In your router or access point wireless configuration, you will want to make sure that on the 5GHz network, the network mode should be Wireless-AC or Wireless-N only and 40Mhz channel width in order to best take advantage of the RE6500's throughput.

If you don't have any Wireless-G legacy devices on your 2.4 Ghz network, you may also want to consider setting that to Wireless-N only with 40Mhz channel width as well. Keep in mind, however, even some newer devices, such as the iPhone 5S and iPad Air can experience reliability issues with 40Mhz channel width, so you may need to use another access point with a different wireless network SSID to support those devices. 

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Once that is done, you place the RE6500 it in the room that needs the high-speed connection, and use the device's four (4) Cat-5 Ethernet ports to provide connectivity to your streaming devices.

In my living room, I have my XBOX ONE, my TiVo and my Apple TV connected to the device with Ethernet cables, and I am able to get excellent streaming performance.

Additionally, because of the range extender capability, I'm also able to get superior Wi-Fi reception in the general vicinity of that living room as well as in my bedroom where I have an additional unit installed. 

I've been testing the RE6500 for about two weeks, and so far so good. The slim profile of the device makes it easy to conceal, and it has only one warm white light at the top to indicate the device is working, so it won't distract you at night or while watching a movie in your living room. 

The reliability and performance of the device so far has been good, and it's been an excellent -- and long awaited -- replacement for the WUMC710.

Do you use media bridges for your wireless streaming applications? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Networking, Broadband, Cloud, After Hours


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • This seems to be the norm with these devices.

    "...and occasionally requires rebooting due to overheating..."

    I have yet to find a consumer wireless router which hasn't exhibited this problem.
    • The fix

      > This seems to be the norm with these devices.

      I had several brands and models of router that had a madening tendency to require reboots whenever it was most inconvenient. I eventually replaced the factory firmware with OpenWRT. No more problems.

      It's not the hardware, it's the crappy firmware.
    • DIR-655

      I've had a D-Link DIR-655 for over 4 years, and the only times I've had to reboot it was when I was making a configuration change that requires a reboot - something I rarely ever do. I've been thinking of getting one of those new routers that's supported by open-source firmware, but my DIR-655 has been so trouble-free that I can't find a reason other than "because".
  • Router specific?

    Can it connect to any brand of router e. g. Comcast, Netgear , linksys , etc.?
    • Yes

      Any router, but if you want to take advantage of the throughput it has to support 802.11ac.
  • Range extender performance

    My understanding is that any implementation of a range extender automatically translates to cutting performance in half for devices connected to a range extender. This has been one of the major problems associated with using a range extender for areas where one has a weak signal. I'm sure this type of extender has the same issue, but I suppose you're getting quite a bit better performance with the "ac" standard, so maybe half the speed of a full "ac" connection isn't so bad?
    • Not just that...

      When we were stuck in the 2.4GHz band, we had the 'store-and-forward' problem, where packets had to be received in full by the repeater before they could be retransmitted. This wasn't entirely a problem for Netflix and DLNA, but the amount of latency added makes a complete train wreck out of VoIP and other TTL-sensitive protocols. I've seen 300ms ping times just to the router when connecting to a repeater.

      In theory, a dual-band repeater could solve this problem by setting the router to 2.4ghz-only, and setting the router to 5.2ghz-only, ensuring that they're not overlapping. While this would solve the half-duplex problem, it is up to the firmware as to whether it will retain its store-and-forward functionality despite there not being an RF-protocol reason not to.

      I'd be interested to know if this repeater model functions in this manner. Any information on this, Jason, would be very insightful.

    • And throw in error correction

      Adding wifi error correction on top of that even further reduces the bandwidth when compared to Ethernet.
      Alan Smithie
  • repeater performance?

    I was wondering if you were able to test the performance of the repeater functionality, generally repeaters significantly reduce the throughput on the repeated signal. I would love to know how significant it would be on an AC repeater.
  • WiFi to Garage

    Is this extender per-chance water proof? I am wanting to extend my home network to my unattached garage and I need something that I can place between the home and the garage. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for all.
    • In a garage...

      I would use a transparent box such as used for food leftovers and cut a small hole for the power cord at the bottom and seal it with duct tape. I would probably punch a few holes in the bottom so the device can breathe a little for heat dissipation. Your mileage may vary though.
    • Another product for you...

      I recently discovered Ubiquiti. They have an enterprise class AP designed for outdoor use that's got reliable signals out to 600 feet.

      Disclaimer: I have no connection whatsoever with Ubiquiti, other than as a satisfied consumer. I use another of their products in my home, and have been extremely happy with the performance.
  • "AC Range Extender?"

    I cannot say if the "AC" protocol handles relaying signals differently, but "b/g/n" extenders create additional packet traffic which can actually reduce bandwidth (speed) while improving signal strengh (fewer dropped connections & less interference from nearby routers). This review would be far-more helpful if it included some before/after RSSI and data rate info. However, bridging non-AC devices via wired Ethernet, to an AC router should definitely improve both LAN speeds and bandwidth for devices connected that way...
  • Alternatively,

    You can go with a higher power router such as Netgear Nighthawk which can output 1W and it is also simultaneous dual band. Since I replaced my old router with this monster I have Wi-Fi everywhere in the house able to stream HD. It completely replaced my hodge podge of routers, repeaters, range extenders.
  • In my experience, having an 802.11ac router is not essential but a

    reliable high speed internet connection is for cord cutters.

    I have a 2800 square foot average home and, until very recently, my home WiFi signal was beamed by an Apple AirPort Extreme 802.11n router. I had no problem streaming a Netflix, Amazon Prime or an iTunes HD video to my living room HDTV while simultaneously beaming an HBO go video to my basement iMac system and browsing the web on my iPad. (Granted, not a normal practice but something of a real world torture test)

    I couldn't do that, in my wildest dreams, with my AT&T DSL Internet signal but when I switched to a 25 Mbps Xfinity cable internet source, I could past that torture test with flying colors.

    Now, I will admit that there were areas in my home that did not show a full bar range on my device's internet source icon. So, since I had a spare AirPort Extreme base station around unused (an earlier model), I decided to see what would happen if I let OS X configure it as a WiFi extender.

    So I did and now I show full WiFi signal strength bars on my home devices anywhere in my home.
  • A technically superior solution is a wireless ethernet bridge

    .... coupled with a wireless access point. For this you need two devices: two simple routers, of which you turn one into a wireless ethernet bridge, and one into a wireless access point. Then you lose nothing of your bandwidth.

    Easy how-to:

    Cheaper and better than this range extender stuff.
    • DIY

      Is not the answer for most consumers. I'd question how much "cheaper" this solution actually is.
      • But is it "better"? That is really the question.

        Quite frankly, I had never heard of pjotr123's strategy before. Sounds interesting.
        • It's much better alright: no loss of bandwidth (speed)

          With "my" solution, you lose no bandwidth (speed) at all. With a range extender (repeater) you lose 50 %.
  • What about Powerline AV Adapter Kit Up to 200Mbps?

    I use Powerline AV Adapter Kit Up to 200Mbps which I purchased about 2 years ago for ~$50 (that's when I "cut the cord"). On the other end I connect another router in AP mode. I get 4 Ethernet ports and local wireless AP. It seems to work very well. I haven't seen any comparisons of Powerline adapters vs. extenders/repeaters. I feel that technology has matured.

    What I have learned over the years is quality depends as much on source as it does on your local set up, including the power of the streaming device. I use Roku, [old] Google TV and an old laptop and I can compare the performance side-by-side.

    PS: Yes, I have to reboot my routers from time to time. In my opinion, the need to reboot the router arises not from the heat but but some sort of "data saturation" after I have consumed lots of GB of data.