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The Best WiFi Extender for Xfinity Internet Service

posted by on June 08, 2020 in Internet & Networking, Computers and Software, Guides & Reviews, Top Picks :: 0 comments

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Do you have WiFi “dead zones” of your apartment or house? Suffering from data delays with slow-loading websites and buffering Netflix? After ensuring you’ve optimized your WiFi network, it’s time to get a WiFi extender, which, as its name suggests, extends the reach of your Xfinity WiFi network to all corners of your home.

Why is a mesh WiFi system the best extender for most Xfinity customers?

The most convenient and cost-effective WiFi extender for Xfinity customers is a mesh WiFi system, which uses signal amplifying/repeating nodes placed around your home to bounce the signal to all corners.

Simply put, mesh WiFi systems provide the best coverage with the easiest setup. The base unit of a mesh WiFi kit simply plugs into an Ethernet port on an Xfinity Gateway (or compatible third-party modem) and then assumes the signal-beaming duties of a router. The companion mesh network “nodes” (wireless signal receivers/re-transmitters) are plugged into power outlets, spaced out 20-30 feet from the router and then from each other, in a pattern that circles around the worst WiFi signal blocking barriers in your abode. Designed for self-installation in just 30 minutes,  you are guided through the entire setup process using a companion app (for smartphone or tablet) that activates and monitors the component parts, and indicates (with a gauge or color coding) when you’ve ideally placed the nodes for optimal coverage.

How we picked the best mesh WiFi system for Xfinity

Not all mesh WiFi systems are created equal. When evaluating mesh WiFi systems, we took into consideration speed, signal strength, the ability to handle older products (which require a 2.4Ghz WiFi band), aesthetics, and ease of use.

Aesthetics

From an aesthetics standpoint, some of the nodes are kinda clunky, trophy-sized obelisks (think a mini Washington Monument); others (like Xfinity’s own branded xFi Pods) are little roundish things that plug directly into a wall outlet (and resemble a night light, air freshener or rodent repellent). Most hide their antennas inside the packaging – a nod to aesthetics that arguably diminishes performance. Some nodes have an ethernet port for hardwiring to a piece of gear, like a gaming console or smart home device hub.

Speed & range

The latest WiFi technology is WiFi 6, or 802.11ax, with speeds of up to 6.6Gbps. (All WiFi speeds are cited at their top theoretical speed since real-life conditions vary the actual speed considerably.) However, the top tier of service for Xfinity customers is Gigabit Pro, which delivers up to 2Gbps. So, unless you’re just sending data between devices in your home, the 6.6Gbps products are overkill and cost two to three times other systems.

Mesh WiFi systems operate at two bands or different sets of frequencies. These dual-band systems have two networks, one running at 2.4Ghz and one at 5Ghz. For most people, a dual-band system provides plenty of throughput. Tri-band systems have one 2.4Ghz band and two 5Ghz bands, which makes it easier to manage congestion and optimize speeds. However, tri-band systems cost more than dual-band systems and aren’t worth the upgrade for most people.

When considering range, it’s important to note that all mesh WiFi systems and WiFi extenders suffer some signal drop off as you move further from the base. Like a new car that loses value the moment you drive it off the dealer’s lot, a mesh net starts decreasing the available signal strength as soon as you move a few feet from the Gateway and connected router. Then that signal continues to diminish in strength with each successive node you add to the chain. The best mesh WiFi systems lose little throughput even far away from the main base.

Handling old and new devices on the same network

Mesh WiFi systems mash-up the signals running on both 2.4 GHz and 5GHz radio bands, so the two bands are accessed with a single SSID (network name) and password.  Intelligent “band steering” and “beamforming” technology then directs the traffic, so your gear connects to the most appropriate frequency and node. 2.4 GHz signals travel farther but more slowly; 5 GHz signals are shorter in range but run far faster – so are better for data-intensive applications like video gaming.

A complication can arise with creating a single network, though, when you have older products like security and baby cams, smart door locks and multi-room speaker systems that only work on 2.4 GHz. Sometimes, these older products can't "see" the new mesh WiFi network because the new network is trying to connect on the 5Ghz band. The best mesh WiFi systems can identify devices that require a 2.4Ghz and provide a temporary separation of the two bands so that devices that require a 2.4Ghz connection are identified and handled accordingly.

Why we do not recommend Comcast’s mesh WiFi xFi Pods for most people

Comcast offers a mesh network solution that is custom-designed to work with Xfinity WiFi routers, called xFi Pods (a three-pack is $119).  Invariably, customer support staffers at Comcast will recommend them when you complain about the lousy signal strength in parts of your home. However, Techlicious doesn’t recommend xFi Pods for most people looking to extend their home WiFi network.

xFi Pods do have some good points. On the bright side, the devices use the router built into the Xfinity Gateway and run with the same xFi app you’ve probably already installed on a smartphone or tablet to monitor bandwidth use, set parental restrictions and check on your Xfinity Home security system. Because Xfi Pods are part of the xFi platform, they are easy to install, with the app directing and showing when you’ve made an ideal placement.  And because they are small and cute and plug directly into a wall outlet, these xFi Pods virtually disappear.

Comcast xFi Pod installation

But, relatively speaking, xFi Pods are slower in maximum output (200Mbps) and have a shorter range than other mesh WiFi systems. So you actually need more Pods in-line to move signals around the same size house, with each added Pod diminishing the speed more as you move away from your Xfinity WiFi router. And, having to add more pods will also increase your costs.

For example, at my friend Gary’s 4,000 square foot ranch-style house, there is a centrally located (in the kitchen) Xfinity XB6 Gateway blasting out a mighty 356 Mbps of download signal, as measured by Ookla’s SpeedTest app on a smartphone in the same room. But after processing through an xFi Pod, it’s a whole other story. Gary installed one xFi Pod 25 feet to the east of his Gateway outside of his wife’s home office, then plugged in another Pod at a staircase 20 feet to the west of the router to propel signals up one flight to his home office. Post-install, Speedtest measured download signals in those workspaces at 65 and 57 Mbps, respectively – roughly a six-times reduction in signal strength from the Gateway’s direct output, though certainly enough to still get the job done.

Our takeaway here? Pods suffice, within limits. xFi Pods will work if your speed demands are low and you just need a couple of xFi Pods to cover an apartment with one or two signal blocking obstacles to work around, like a brick wall, bathroom, or utility closet. But in a big house, you’ll need to start with the pricey 300Mbps Blast! (or higher tier) service, and even then, the reach will depend on how many obstacles you need to workaround.

Also, when xFi Pods are first put in place, Xfinity locks your Gateway to only show a unified band SSID and password. In my personal experience, it was impossible to set up older 2.4Ghz devices with the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz band merger. It required hours of time with customer service before I was connected to a top tier technician with the expertise and security clearance to get the job done.

Our pick for the best Xfinity extender for most people: Google Nest WiFi

The best Xfinity extender for most people: Google Nest WiFi

Robust performance, easy setup, and some unique extras make the Google Nest WiFi system the best WiFi extender for Xfinity customers. The Nest WiFi system has an attractive design, so you’ll be happy to place the node, or Points as Google calls them, out in the open. And, with such a strong signal, you can get away with fewer nodes than other mesh systems and still have whole-home coverage.

No surprise given its Google lineage, the Nest WiFi system is praised for its cloud-based Artificial Intelligence, which helps the Nest WiFi system to “beam steer” WiFi signals in the most efficient manner to deliver WiFi throughout your house. Nest WiFi uses an active monitoring protocol to weigh the relative distance between a device needing WiFi and the Nest WiFi components, as well as the current WiFi needs for each connected device and the capacity of the available frequency bands (2.4 or 5 GHz). All of that is done to increase overall system efficiency and make the most robust and fastest possible connection at any given moment. CNET found the two-piece $299 combo offered enough signal strength and band steering to provide sufficient coverage at the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home. The rig “aced” the mesh tests and was never guilty of “routing the connection through the extender when connecting directly to the router was faster” – a common complaint with less agile systems.

From the Google Home app, you can set parental controls for your children’s devices, including blocking explicit content, pausing the internet, and setting time limits. You can also prioritize devices, so you can ensure your living room TV will get flawless 4K streaming.

Beyond its WiFi capabilities, Nest WiFi distinguishes itself by building Google Assistant smart speakers into the Points. This opens up all sorts of voice-activated opportunities you won’t find built into other mesh systems, including the ability to prioritize specific devices, shut off WiFi to specific devices, block adult sites and create a guest network. And like conventional smart speakers, Points can recite a recipe and set a timer, share news, sports scores, and the weather, play music, make a hands-free phone call, control room lights, thermostats, and door locks. The discreet mushroom-shaped Points come in three colors – white, light blue, and a light peach – to blend into your décor more easily. (A privacy switch on the back of the Points mutes the microphone.)

Google Nest WiFi Point mute button

Nest WiFi tops several “best of 2020” reviewers lists, including being rated “Best overall” and “most well rounded” mesh WiFi system of 2020 by CNET,  earning an “Excellent” rating (4 out of 5 stars) by PCMag,  and scoring 4.5 (out of 5 stars) by TechRadar.  Consumers also love Nest WiFi, giving it 4.3 stars on Amazon and 4.5 stars on Best Buy.

Size: 3.56 inches (w and d) by 4.02 inches (h) per Point
Speed: Dual-band, AC2200 MU-MIMO
Range: 2,200 square feet per router, 1,600 square feet per Point
Ethernet jacks: 2 on the router
Parental controls: Yes
Extras: Built-in Google Assistant
Price: $269 for a router and one Point on Google, check price on Amazon

The best Xfinity WiFi extender for heavy users: eero Pro

While mesh WiFi systems can handle up to 100 devices, most have trouble smartly juggling the data demands of four or five simultaneous heavy users. The eero Pro (2nd generation) mesh WiFi system not only manages heavy data loads with ease, but it also outperforms other systems in reach and speed at the far ends of the network, making it our pick for the best Xfinity extender for heavy users.

In lab testing by Wirecutter, they found that even with six devices pounding simultaneously at the system, the eero Pro base router and nodes, called Beacons, connected “seamlessly to devices all over” the lab. And despite signal hops through two Beacons, the measurable signal speed was still plentiful at the other end of the 80-foot long, multi-room facility – with speeds reduced by just one-third from that measured at the base station. Reviewers at Android Central also marvel at how “seamless” the handoff of service is when moving a smartphone or tablet from one eero node to another – a talent observable in the app.

eero Pro Beacon

How does all that happen? The eero Pro is a tri-band system with a separate, second 5GHz channel radio that is devoted to communicating the millisecond-by-millisecond needs for signal apportioning and steering. 

Both professional reviewers at Consumer Reports and user reviewers (Amazon rating is 4.6, Best Buy is 4.8) also applaud the app-coached setup of the eero Pro and Beacon nodes as unusually easy and speedy – with each piece taking just ten minutes to add to the system. Once the network is set up, controlling the network functionality, including the scheduling of device access times for kids, pausing internet access, and checking device usage is also just a few taps away.

eero Pro Beacon nightlight

Like the Nest WiFi Points, the Beacons have a second function. Each Beacon has a built-in LED nightlight with an ambient light sensor and automatic dimmer, befitting its wall-hugging, night-light-like appearance.

Size: 4.76 (w) x 2.91 (d) x 1.18 (h) inches per Beacon
Speed: Tri-band, AC2200 MU-MIMO with backhaul
Range: 1,750 square feet per router, 1,500 per Beacon
Ethernet jacks: 2 on the router
Parental controls: Yes
Extras: Built-in LED nightlight with automatic dimming
Price: $399 for eero Pro router and two Beacons on eero, check price on Amazon

[Image credit: Google, eero, Techlicious]

Jonathan Takiff is a seasoned chronicler of consumer electronics (30+ years), longtime staffer for Philadelphia newspapers, syndicated columnist and magazine/website contributor. At last count, his 4,500 square-foot home testing zone included more than 60 connected devices, so his need for internet speed and stability knows no end.



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