The first article in this series explained the ins and outs of using WDS-based devices to extend and bridge wireless networks. This time, I'll be looking at solutions for wireless bridging and range extension that don't use WDS.
Please read references to access points (AP) as applying to either access points or wireless routers unless otherwise noted.
Where WDS-based repeater / bridges only work with other WDS-enabled devices, non-WDS devices work with any standard access point or wireless router. They look like a standard wireless client to APs and use the same association and authentication processes.
Because they act like standard clients, they have a key advantage over WDS-based devices in that they can use WPA/TKIP and WPA2/AES wireless security in addition to WEP. Their disadvantage is that because they act like clients, they need to use the SSID of the AP they are associated with. So you can't use the trick of configuring the repeater with a different SSID so that you can direct your client to associate with it.
When shopping for repeaters, it's hard to know what you're buying simply by reading product descriptions, because manufacturers don't have a common vocabulary to describe these devices. Non-WDS based devices are sometimes called wireless range expanders or range extenders. You'll also find wireless bridges, some of which use WDS and others that don't. But "bridges" are generally used to wirelessly connect wired network segments or single devices with Ethernet ports.
Some devices don't refer to bridging or repeating in their product name. The popular NETGEAR WNDR3700 RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router [reviewed], for example, makes no mention of bridging, repeating or even WDS support, even though it has it. Other routers supporting WDS, usually don't mention it either.
How To Tell
The surest way to know whether your prospective purchase supports WDS or not is to download the user manual and look at the wireless settings.
We'll use the EnGenius ESR9850 [reviewed] as an example product, because it supports both WDS and non-WDS repeating. Figure 1 shows its wireless settings when in AP Router Mode and with WDS enabled. The indicators of WDS support here are the WDS mode setting and the MAC address entry boxes.
Figure 1: ESR9850 wireless settings for WDS mode
When you set the router to Repeater Mode using the drop-down at the top left of the admin screen, the Wireless settings screen looks much different. Figure 2 highlights the key indicator of a non-WDS repeater, the Site Survey button.
Figure 2: ESR9850 repeater mode wireless settings
Clicking Site Survey brings up the screen shown in Figure 3, which lets you choose a wireless network to join.
Figure 3: ESR9850 site survey screen
That's about all there is to configuring a non-WDS device; no looking up MAC addresses or having to enter them on multiple devices.
To save you some time, I've put some current devices that support wireless range extension and bridging into Table 1. The EnGenius devices are the most flexible, because they support both WDS and non-WDS connection, bridging and repeating.
|Buffalo WLI-TX4-AG300N Nfiniti Wireless-N Dual Band Ethernet Converter||A,B,G,N||Yes||Non-WDS, Bridge only|
|D-Link DAP-1360 Wireless N Range Extender||B,G,N||No||Non-WDS, AP|
|D-Link DAP-1522 Xtreme N Duo Wireless Bridge / Access Point||A,B,G,N||Yes||Non-WDS, Bridge only, AP|
|Cisco Linksys WET610N Wireless-N Ethernet Bridge||A,B,G,N||Yes||Non-WDS, Bridge only|
|EnGenius EAP9550 Wireless N 300Mbps Access Point/Repeater||B,G,N||No||Non-WDS,WDS,AP|
|EnGenius ESR9850 300Mbps Wireless N Router with Gigabit Switch||B,G,N||No||Non-WDS,WDS,AP, Router|
|Hawking HW2R1 Hi-Gain Wireless-N Dual Radio Smart Repeater||B,G,N||Yes||Non-WDS|
|NETGEAR WNDR3700 RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router||A,B,G,N||Yes||WDS, Router|
|TRENDnet TEW-638APB 300 Mbps Wireless N Access Point||B,G,N||No||WDS, AP|
Table 1: Wireless Range Extenders and Bridges
Bridge only means that the product will not allow wireless clients to connect to it. So it can't be used to extend wireless range (unless you plug an access point into it).
I didn't include older G-only products in the list above because manufacturers are retiring them in favor of N-based products. If you're going to be using WDS, bridging or repeating, you definitely should be using 802.11n products. G-based repeating will provide only single digit Mbps throughput.
Make sure any product you buy has an Ethernet port. This lets you connect via a wired connection for setup and configuration and also gives you the option of using the device as a bridge to connect devices with Ethernet ports. Life is too short to be trying to set up a repeater over a wireless connection.
I don't recommend using the Linksys WRE54G Wireless-G Range Expander, which hasn't yet faded into the sunset. It not only lacks an Ethernet port, but also can be used only with WDS-enabled routers.