Review: EnGenius ERB9250 Wi-Fi Range Extender

Tuesday Jan 25th 2011 by Gerry Blackwell
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Wi-Fi networks can be fickle things with their share of dead zones and mysterious performance issues. Engenius's Wi-Fi range extender might help solve some of those problems, and won't require an enterprise network administrator to implement.

It's a rare office or home that doesn't have some Wi-Fi dead zones, areas that, for whatever combination of reasons to do with obstructions, interferers or distance from router, have poor or no wireless network coverage.

What can you do about them?

For enterprise network integrators and installers, there are a bunch of options, most requiring knowledge and expertise beyond what the average home user or small business owner possesses, and sometimes a significant expenditure as well. So we noted with interest a recent product from EnGenius Technology Inc., the 300Mbps Wireless N Range Expander (model ERB9250), which sells online for about $50.

EnGenius already claims that its Wi-Fi routers and access points deliver Wi-Fi range superior to competitors' products. Now the ERB9250 promises to extend coverage to remaining dead spots in networks that use either EnGenius's own or other vendors' router and AP products. And it also promises to be dead easy to install. We put this to the test, with mixed and slightly ambiguous results.

Testing the ERB9250

We tested the ERB9250 in conjunction with an older EnGenius router product, designed for home and small business use, the 300Mbps Wireless N Router with Gigabit (model ESR-9850), which sells online for about $70.

Setting up the ESR-9850 was fairly simple. Turn it on, plug in cable modem and wired network devices, wait for it to configure itself and then access the browser-based configuration interface from a computer connected by Ethernet cable.

We inserted the EnGenius router into an existing network, using the same security settings (Mac filtering only) and the same SSID. Changing the default SSID on the ESR-9850 to the one our devices already connect to was easy using the intuitive and well-designed browser interface.

Our first objective was to test EnGenius's contention that its routers deliver superior range - to the extent we could in our facility, a small suburban home with three home office setups on two floors. We tested this proposition by comparing the ESR-9850's performance with our existing router, a Draft N model from Netgear.

We measured signal strength in various locations in the house using inSSIDer 2.0, a freeware Wi-Fi signal monitor from MetaGeek LLC, and also timed large file transfers - first with the old router in place, then after installing the ESR-9850.

There initially appeared to be some instability in the network after installing the EnGenius product, with network devices not responding or responding with error messages. These problems resolved themselves seemingly spontaneously and have not reappeared - suggesting they were not related to the ESR-9850, or not directly.

We started by testing in two rooms on the same floor as the router: one the room in which the router is located, the other only 30 feet away, but with historically poor Wi-Fi coverage. In these rooms, the differences in performance between the two routers was negligible: a matter of a few seconds on transfers of a 210MB file that took about half a minute in the router room, a little over a minute in the other room. The received signal strength indicator (RSSI) reading in inSSIDer was also very similar in the two sets of tests: about -30 in the router room, -50 to -60 in the other. That said, high-bit-rate streaming video performance did seem better in the poor-coverage room after we installed the EnGenius router.

When we moved to the lower level in the house, the performance differences were more marked.

In one room -- directly below the router room and 15 feet along the same wall -- the 210MB file transfer actually took about 20 percent longer with the ESR-9850 in place than with the Netgear router. But when we took the test into the poorest-performing room, on the other side of the house -- and the other side of the furnace and central furnace pipes -- the EnGenius router moved the file across the network about three times faster than the Netgear box: in 2 minutes versus 6 minutes. This was despite similar RSSI readings with the two routers, which suggests at least the possibility that some other factor was at play. Still, results were similar in later repetitions of the same tests.

In other tests of coverage beyond the house's walls, the EnGenius router did not appear to deliver markedly better range than other routers we have had in place in this facility, including the Netgear Draft N router.

The next step was adding the EnGenius range extender to see what impact it would have on the continued wide differences in network performance from one location in the house to another.

The good news is that the ERB9250 was just as easy to install as the company promised - at least when using the EnGenius router. You plug it in, press the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button on the router and then press the corresponding WPS button on the ERB9250. The device finds the network and configures itself automatically. Once the orange WAN light glows steadily on the range extender - as it did within a few seconds in our first attempt at setting it up - the process is complete. WPS is a standard that many vendors' router products use, so setup should be just as easy with those products, though we were not able to test this.

We positioned the ERB9250, as EnGenius recommends, midway between the router and the dead zone, which in this case we considered to be the upper-floor room with poor (but not the worst) coverage. It would also be closer than the router to the worst coverage area on the lower level. We then repeated the same tests, with somewhat disappointing results.

The RSSI readings in the upstairs room were a little better. Windows now reported 'Excellent' as opposed to the usual 'Good' connection, and Web surfing seemed marginally brisker. But results from the file transfer test were almost identical. The same was true in other locations around the house, including in the worst-coverage area downstairs. Although in that room, again, RSSI readings were slightly better and high-bit-rate streaming video performance notably better.

Conclusions

The EnGenius ESR-9850 did seem to deliver better performance than an our older Netgear Draft N router. In our facility, adding the range extender did not significantly improve coverage in areas with relatively weak signal strength.

Experimentation with positioning of the range extender might produce more improvements, but we're guessing the reason for the disappointing results has to do with the reasons for poor signal strength in this kind of environment - namely obstructions and other interferers rather than purely distance.

In other environments with different coverage challenges than ours - open concept offices with fewer interferers and more pure range issues, for example - the ERB9250 might produce more marked results.

The trouble is, you won't know without testing it in your own environment. Our recommendation: Buy from a local bricks-and-mortar dealer if you can, and make sure you can return the product for a full refund if it doesn't deliver worthwhile results.

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