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Wi-Fi Access Points, Explained: Tips on Building a Serious Wired Home Wi-Fi Network

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Wi-Fi access points (WAPs, or APs) are similar to extenders, with one significant difference: an AP connects to the existing network, namely your router, using a network cable. And that changes everything.

While APs might sound foreign, they are the hardware component that broadcasts Wi-Fi signals inside Wi-Fi routers.

Separating the AP from the router is an excellent way to build an effective Wi-Fi network in a wired environment where the Internet terminal is not located at the center or any place suitable for a wireless broadcaster—a closet, a concrete basement, or a metal box. In this case, using a standalone access point connected to a non-Wi-Fi router is the best approach for optimal coverage.

In this post, I’ll explain briefly the idea of Wi-Fi access points and offer tips on picking the best one for your network. If you’re already in the know and want to buy one today, here’s the list of the top six access points among those I’ve tested:

Building a serious home network: Top best six access points to consider.

Dong’s note: I first published this post on February 1, 2023, and updated it on April 18, 2024, to maintain relevant information.

Wi-Fi 6 and 6E Access Points
Wi-Fi access points come in all different shapes and sizes.

Wi-Fi Access Points: Building a network with wired backhauling

Using a Wi-Fi access point means you build a network using network cables. That’s the traditional and the only way to have a top-performance network. That’s especially true with the help of Multi-Gig.

But first, what exactly is an access point?

Access points in a nutshell

As mentioned, an access point (AP) is a device that broadcasts Wi-Fi signals. It’s the minimum requirement for an infrastructure Wi-Fi network. In many ways, an AP is like a network switch, but instead of Ethernet ports, it incorporates radio bands that emit wireless data signals using one or more Wi-Fi standards for clients to latch on.

An AP must have at least one network port to connect to the existing network. Some even have more for you to host wired clients. Many access points also feature Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), allowing you to avoid running electrical wire to its location—the network cable also delivers power.

So, in a sentence, an AP is the required hardware component for a local network to host devices without running network cables to them.

Access points vs. Wi-Fi routers

We often experience Wi-Fi via a Wi-Fi router—or an ISP-supplied residential gateway. A Wi-Fi router is a standard router with built-in Wi-Fi access points. You have multiple functions in a single hardware box. As a result, you can use most Wi-Fi routers as:

  • A standalone access point: When you change its role into such or turn off its routing function.
  • A non-Wi-Fi router: When you turn off its Wi-Fi function.

The cabinet below highlights the roles of most Wi-Fi routers.

Popular roles of a Wi-Fi router

Below is the breakdown of four typical roles of a router. Not all hardware supports all of these, but most will have at least the first one plus another.

Some routers have even more roles—those from Asus, for example, also feature the proprietary AiMesh node role.

Asus Router Operation Roles
Here are the operation roles available in an Asus router. Note the Access Point and Media Bridge, the names of which might be something else in the routers of different vendors.

1. Wireless Router

This role is the default—the hardware will work as such unless you actively change that.

The hardware works as a Wi-Fi router that obtains an Internet connection and distributes it to the rest of the network via wired and Wi-Fi connections.

In this role, you must use the router’s WAN port for the Internet source. It’s also the only role in which the router’s routing and networking features (QoS, Parental Control, Dynamic DNS, VPN server, port-forwarding, etc.) are available.

Essentially, the hardware is now a standard routing box with a built-in managed switch and Wi-Fi access point(s).

Netgear WAX204 Roles
Here are the traditional roles of a Netgear router.

2. Access Point (AP)

Important note: Certain vendors call this role “Bridge.”

In this mode, the hardware now works as an access point. It connects to an existing router via a network cable and extends the network farther, both wired and wireless.

In this role, none of the routing and features are available. All of the device’s network ports function as LAN ports. Essentially, the router is now a network switch with built-in Wi-Fi broadcaster(s).

By the way, if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router with a Multi-Gig WAN port, using it as an AP is the only way you can take advantage of this port’s high speed locally—without a Gig+ Internet connection, that is—assuming you have a Multi-Gig switch.

TP-Link Router Operation Roles
A TP-Link router generally also works as an access point but not as a Media Bridge.

3. Repeater

The router now works as a Wi-Fi extender.

Specially, you use one of its bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network—this is the backhaul band. After that, you can configure one or all of its bands (including the backhaul band) with separate SSID(s) to serve clients.

In this mode, all of the router’s network ports will work as LAN ports of the existing network.

Linksys Router Operation Roles
Here are the operation roles of a Linksys router. Note that the “Bridge Mode” and “Wireless Bridge” are called “Access Point” and “Media Bridge,” respectively, by other vendors.

4. Bridge or Media Bridge

Important note: Certain vendors—those that use “Bridge” to call the “Access Point” role as mentioned above—name this mode “Wireless Bridge.” There might be other arbitrary names for this role.

In this mode, the router works essentially as a Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet adapter.

Specifically, you use one of its bands to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network. Now, you can connect wired devices to the router’s LAN ports to make them part of the network. (In most cases, you should leave the WAN port alone, but some routers turn this port into another LAN.)

In the Media Bridge mode, the rest of the router’s Wi-Fi bands are unavailable.

Extra: Bridge mode in a gateway unit

The bridge mode is a bit different in a gateway unit, which is a router + modem combo box.

That’s when the gateway will work solely as a modem and no longer has any router-related function.

You can read more about how to get the most out of ISP-supplied equipment in this post.

This post discusses standalone access points, which can be used to add Wi-Fi to an existing network. That brings us to the first question: When do access points make sense?

Wi-Fi Router vs. Access Point
A Wi-Fi router is a standard router with a built-in Wi-Fi access point. Separating the two makes it more flexible in terms of hardware placement.

When should you use an access point(s)

The first requirement before you can use an access point is wiring. You must run a network cable from the AP to your existing router or switch. Or let me put it this way: get your home wired so you can use a Wi-Fi broadcaster with wired backhauling. Running wires is the best way to build a robust Wi-Fi network. Often, only a single wire is needed and will make a huge difference.

After that, access points are applicable when:

  • you have a non-Wi-Fi router, such as the UDM-SE, and want to add Wi-Fi. (You can also disable the Wi-Fi function of a Wi-Fi router to render it non-Wi-Fi or use its Wi-Fi network for a different purpose, such as extending the coverage, creating a Guest network, or building a separate network for IoT devices.)
  • your router has dated Wi-Fi standards. In this case, you can use an AP to upgrade your Wi-Fi network.
  • you want to extend the Wi-Fi coverage via a network cable to that far area, such as a large yard, a detached garage, or an outhouse.
  • you want to build a robust enterprise-class Wi-Fi mesh system

No matter the scenario, APs allow for flexibility—you place one in an area where Wi-Fi is needed. On the other hand, using a Wi-Fi router means you need to place the Wi-Fi broadcaster where the Internet enters your home, which is often not ideal.

And that brings us to the second question: How do I pick the correct AP for my need?

Tips on picking access points

How you arrange access points is the same as how you do a mesh system with wired backhauling—each satellite unit is, in fact, an access point. There are two things to keep in mind, depending on how much coverage you need.

1. The number of units

In most homes, you’d need just one access point. And that’s easy: pick one of the Wi-Fi grades and features you want.

Generally, a standalone access point requires you to manage it individually, which is not a huge deal with a single unit—you have only one Wi-Fi network anyway. In this case, you generally want an AP that can be managed locally (instead of a vendor-assisted web portal and a required login account.)

On the other hand, if you need multiple units to blanket the desired area, it’s best to get those that can work together—essentially a Wi-Fi system—so that you still have a single Wi-Fi network. Managing multiple individual access points can be a pain, and many of them—especially those from different vendors—don’t work well together.

So, when multiple APs are necessary, it’s best to get access points that belong to a managed ecosystem, such as FIT of EnGenius, Omada of TP-Link, or UniFi of Ubiquiti. That’s generally how an enterprise-class Wi-Fi network is built, by the way.

There are other options, but the ones mentioned above are excellent since, among other things, they don’t require an ongoing subscription. The access points can also work as a standalone broadcaster with a local web user interface.

2. Power-over-Ethernet vs. power adapter

The second thing to note about getting APs is Power-over-Ethernet. As detailed in this post on PoE, this feature allows you to use the network cable to handle data signal and power to the supported access point.

Here's a TP-Link AP (top) in a PoE setup. Note the PoE injector in the middle.
Wi-Fi access points: This is a typical setup for a PoE Wi-Fi access point. Note the router (black), the PoE injector (middle), and the Wi-Fi access point.

PoE is perfect when you need to place an AP at a location without an electrical outlet, such as an outdoor location—in the middle of a large yard—or an attic. But if you intend to use an AP near a power outlet, PoE is not necessary.

To use PoE, you’ll also need a PoE switch (one switch can handle multiple APs) or a PoE injector for each AP. Make sure they use the same PoE standard (PoE, PoE+, or PoE++). Some access points include their own injector, but most don’t.

All business-class access points support PoE—most don’t even support power adapters. On the other hand, most home access points, which generally also work as extenders, require a separate power adapter and do not support PoE.

Extra: Access points vs. extenders vs. mesh systems

A mesh system consists of multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters (access points or extenders) that work together and can be managed in one place, such as a mobile app or the primary router unit’s web user interface.

In a mesh with wireless backhauling, each satellite unit is essentially a centrally managed Wi-Fi extender. In a mesh with wired backhauling, each satellite unit is essentially a centrally managed access point.

The most significant difference between a mesh system and using multiple individually managed broadcasters is that the former gives you better ease of use, low (or no) interference between broadcasters, and seamless handoff, while the latter doesn’t.

The final thoughts and the top list

Individually, Wi-Fi access points are excellent ways to build a Wi-Fi network because they all use network cables. When deployed correctly, they can work together as a robust mesh system. You need a router, preferably a non-Wi-Fi router, before using APs. This router decides all the features of your network—the access points only handle the Wi-Fi portion.

Ready to make the move? Below is the rating table of my top picks for the best access points you can safely bring home today.

ZyXel WBE660S Box ContentUbiquiti U6 Enterprise Access Point 1 5EnGenius EWS850 FITTP Link Omada EAP670 vs EAP610 sizesNetgear WAX630E Wi Fi 6E Access Point 2Asus ExpertWiFi EBA63 2
NameZyxel WBE660S Wi-Fi 7 Access Point’s RatingUbiquiti U6 Enterprise’s RatingEnGenius EWS850-FIT (formerly EWS850AP) Access Point’s RatingTP-Link Omada Wi-Fi 6 Access Point (via EAP670 and EAP610)’s RatingNetgear WAX630E’s RatingAsus ExpertWiFi EBA63’s Rating
Price
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Description
Statistics
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Features
Design and Ease of Use
Value
Performance
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Ease of Use
Value
Performance
Features
Ease of Use
Value
Performance
Features
Ease of Use
Value
Performance
Features
Ease of Use
Value
Performance
Features
Ease of Use
Value
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42 thoughts on “Wi-Fi Access Points, Explained: Tips on Building a Serious Wired Home Wi-Fi Network”

  1. I read the entire post and appreciate the insight. I’m left with the impression there is no practical difference between a multiple AP with wired backhaul setup and a wired mesh wifi system, other than buying them individually or in a package? Is that correct?

    I’m one of the people you mentioned with the home internet coming in at the front corner of the front house in a closet, and I want to have full coverage to both my front house and back house on an 8,000 sqft lot, if possible. If that’s not achievable because the back house would likely have to be a wireless backhaul, I’ll just do the front house and surrounding yard and let the back house get their own internet service. Either way, I need a system with multiple access points, I think.

    Would you suggest I buy one of your recommended 6/6E mesh systems, or do something like Ubiquity (or another system) with multiple access points? I care less about having gigabit speed everywhere than I do about having a good 200-300 Mbps wherever I am, with no distinguishable switch over when it goes from one node to the other. I can’t conceive of needing more than that even with 4K Dolby Vision streaming, but can see how it would be annoying when moving around the house if switching.

    Reply
    • > I’m left with the impression there is no practical difference between a multiple AP with wired backhaul setup and a wired mesh wifi system, other than buying them individually or in a package?

      A mesh system uses protocols (802.11 k/v/r) to hand over compatible clients (pretty much any modern laptop or mobile phone) from one mesh AP node to another, nearly instantly. The client device is aware of the change of AP / channel.

      A non-mesh AP handover is a bit hit-and-miss and the client can take quite a while to re-establish a connection with the router.

      Also have a look at Powerline which uses your electrical wiring in your house to carry your network. You can then place an AP in places you haven’t got ethernet cabling.

      Reply
  2. Hi Dong, slightly off topic for this post. What causes a particular WiFi to prevent emails from downloading? I in an Airbnb who’s WiFi signal prevents emails from loading. If I turn off WiFi or leave the signal emails will load when only connected to cellular. Using an iPhone 15 pro. Strange!

    Reply
    • It’s likely that the router’s settings have been changed (by a previous guest?) to restrict certain services (as a prank or whatnot)–more here. I’d reset it and set it up anew.

      Reply
      • HI Dong, it must be something else, I’ve moved on to another airbnb (Salerno) and the same thing is happening my iPhone, my wife’s and my iPad. When I turn off WiFi on my phone and emails come in. Must be related to my email service provider or Apple settings? Not a priority, I know you are busy but am very curious. Strange
        Carmine

        Reply
        • Then it’s likely the Privacy or Security setting on the device. It’s one of those dumb things Apple thinks it’s smart to make the default on their new OS updates. Also remove/disconnect your VPN , if any. Good luck!

          Reply
  3. Hi Dong,
    I read all four non-Wifi router reviews but none ticked all my boxes. I’m looking for an affordable ($300ish) multi-gig router to connect my AP’s via hard-wire. I could build a pfsense box in my price range but I’m not convinced that’s the best option. Could you lead me in the right direction please?

    Reply
    • Generally, I’m not keeping track of costs but Multi-Gig is still a novelty, David. You can always turn the Wi-Fi off. So this one might be up your alley — I’m still testing it.

      Reply
  4. Hi Dong,

    I’ve been using the Asus ROG GT-AX6000 based on your recommendation in another article, and it’s been working great. I have also now put in a wired backhaul to the other end of my home, and am now considering what access point to install.

    One factor I couldn’t confirm in reading the article (though it may be an implied assumption), is that; if I wanted to have a single interface to manage both the GT-AX6000 and the access point, then the Asus RP-AX58 would be my only option. Is that correct? Or would I be able to manage a different brand AP from the Asus admin page?

    Again, it might be a silly question, but I did want to make sure.

    Thank you so much.

    Reply
  5. Hi Dong,

    Great article! Could you consider doing a review of the AP OSes? Which has the best features for client management?
    Also maybe parental controls. (I know b2b pc are tough) but ability to limit client time per day, total usage time per day, block websites youtube, tiktok per client. Stuff like that.

    Reply
    • I already did that, Chris. More here. I only included solutions that are free to use.

      All enterprise/business solution has what you want, it’s not called “Parental Controls,” though.

      Reply
  6. Dong, thank you for the timely article…
    I recently purchased and installed a ASUS RT-AX88U as my router and moved our TPLINK AX50 as a AP. Wired.

    As you commented about the handover…My confusion is the WIFI, do they need distinct SSID’s, channels etc?

    Do you have recommended channels?

    Reply
      • Hi Dong, I have a Linksys AC2600 as my router and I’m thinking of using a Linksys AC1200 MAX Range Extender in each of my three bedrooms and have them set up as wired access points. The default SSID for these extenders is ***_ext with *** being my main router’s SSID.

        I would like to get that kind of seamless handoff as I roam from room to room in the house. Is it as simple as changing the ***_ext to *** and the same password as that for my main router? And I won’t have to manually switch network?

        Thanks for your advice.

        Reply
          • Thanks! I wasn’t thinking of a mesh system. More like extenders set up as wired backhaul access points. Like a star network. But I understand now what you mean:

            “It’s important not to take seamless literally. That doesn’t exist.“

            Whether it’s the same or different SSID, it is a client that decides which AP it wants to connect to and that is difficult to control.

            My phone remains connected to the living room SSID even when I stand next to the AP in my bedroom. The signal is one, two-bar strong and I think the phone just decides that it won’t look for a stronger signal just yet. So I have to manually switch to the stronger SSID in my room. I understand that clients will only look for a new signal and switch over when the connection is very bad.

            And it’s the same with mesh system and nodes. If I walk around connected, my phone will stay on its original connection until the signal is so weak it doesn’t work. Then it will look for a new node but because my house is not very very big, my phone will always be able to pick up the 2.4Ghz band signal from my main router in the living room. It’s just not strong.

            So it doesn’t help even if I change to the same SSID. I’m fact, in such a case, it may be better to keep separate SSIDs so that it’s easy to tell which signal is poor.

            Thanks again!

  7. I agree with BillD. I don’t understand why you didn’t took Unifi 6E enterprise in this test. Their AP’s work also standalone…

    Reply
  8. They are going that direction. But I have their WAPs and router and run Unify. They are REALLY trying to get me to let their cloud manage. 10 devives and free. I just couldn’t need 10! But I staill manage WAPs… They have been great too, but I’m thinking you’re referring that some features only work with their full suite; router, switch, WAP.
    Help me!! I am set for ceiling or even upper wall PoE mount. I can’t find a ceiling mount WiFi 6E!! I NEVER thought it would be a prob!!

    Reply
  9. I have an Asus GT-AX6000 main router with numerous other Asus access points, each WIRED to the main router. I am going to need outdoor WiFi in a freestanding pergola I am building.
    I’m thinking about either getting another Asus access point (like the ZenWiFi XD5) and putting it in a waterproof box or getting something that’s meant to be outdoors (but obviously doesn’t integrate with Asus). In either case, I’ll be able to create a WIRED connection to the main router. Any opinions on the tradeoff between keeping everything Asus vs. using hardware intended for outside?

    Reply
  10. This is slightly off topic but I have a question about your usual recommendations on best way to get food Wi-Fi coverage. Your recommendation is a mesh system with wired back haul. You are right but……..
    I would venture to say most people that go to a mesh system to get coverage do not have the easy ability to implement “wired” backhaul, if they did them they likely wouldn’t need a mesh network as they would have the ability to used the wired network for coverage. Am I wrong?

    Reply
    • It seems you’re stuck with the archaic definition of what a mesh is, or the idea that things and opinions are categorized as “wrong” or “right”. To answer your question, you’re just dated. Time for a new “firmware.” 🙂

      Reply
      • All I’m trying to say is if you are going mesh you will probably have to go wireless backhaul. Not what is right or wrong

        Reply
        • Or you don’t have to go wireless backhaul — and you shouldn’t. That’s what I was telling you. Your idea of “mesh” was applicable about 10 years ago. And I was there.

          Reply
          • Sorry still confused. Have high speed cable into the 3 floor. No Ethernet anywhere in the house, how do I get coverage to the 1st floor (or basement or backyard) without wireless backhaul. How is this 10 years ago concept.
            Am truly wondering what I have missed.

          • You can use wireless backhaul, but it won’t deliver the speed you’d like — wired backhauling is not a must. Like I said in the first reply, it’s not about zero terms, as in “wrong or right,” but always somewhere in between. Give this post a good read again, and more in this one. Please make sure you read before commenting as stated by the comment rules. I reply to all questions with the assumption that folks have followed the rules.

    • Pretty much. You can’t go wired everywhere. Unless you like walking around w/ your Tablet and a LONG PoE Cat6 cable w/ adapter. You need mesh in a decent sized house for portable devices. Maybe some are lucky enough that everything wifi is in same area, but chances are there will be a dead spot.
      Like I said, portable devices aren’t suited for hardwire. Then if you are a smart home nut like me, you know that things like the TV and AV Receiver can (and DEFINITELY are hardwired). But wifi is used as well, or the smarthome won’t pick the device up often.
      He just said it’s ‘best’! It avoids an extra jump or two, since all talk straight to switch. Then, there are aesthetics.
      I have a media cabinet where everything is hardwired cat6, (ip cams outdoors, extra ports, 2 rj 45 per bedroom, 4 in my office, 6 in home Theater, etc.. I have A LOT! But for a seamless install, they go into my walk-in closet. Although I’m going to graduate to a small server and build a very efficient closet for clothing, hidden stuff, and a cabinet that is temp controlled and shut. Temp sensor will turn on fans that pull filtered air in and through, exiting by pushed out into the attic. will have one-way flap.
      Soon, when I make 10+ GB switch from 1 gb system.
      Sorry I’m not at max clarity. I hope I answered right. It’s late and LONG DAY! I can just vouch for WAP PoE hardwire straight to switch. It is WIN-WIN-WIN! (I’m trying to find two AP WiFi 6e Mesh Sys to ceiling mount. Would think not so dang hard!!)

      Reply
  11. This is a good article, however I am surprised that there is no mention of Ubiquiti access points.
    There are devices that have WiFi and Switch, as well as standalone Access points.
    The Ubiquiti devices can be operated in conjunction with a Ubquiti Dream Router, a Dream Machine Pro or a PC/MAC with the appropriate Network APP installed
    Having recently switched to a Dream Machine Pro with 3 Access points I have been totally amazed at the stability of my system, especially the IOT devices which no longer suffer disconnect issues previously experienced with an ASUS Mesh system

    Reply
      • UniFi is no more proprietary than the Omada line. Hard to see why it was left off.

        As you point out, “But using multiple individually managed extenders or access points in a network is not ideal from the management’s perspective.” Yet of your list you only discuss Omada and maybe Asus as part of a system.

        UniFi has several AP form factors, including ceiling, wall, tabletop, outdoor that makes tailoring a WiFi system to one’s property easy and comprehensive. And even sometimes cheap. A competent router (UniFi or not) plus a few U6 Lites can cover most residences at a cheaper price than the high-end consumer systems.

        Reply
        • I’d not get an UniFi AP unless I have a UDR, UDM, or one of those Pro controllers, Bill. The post needed only five. If you use all of those I mentioned, you’d know why.

          Reply
          • I completely don’t understand? A UniFi router/switch setup gives one a single management console including a controller. That’s it. The UniFi AP system works fine with other routers/switches. Lots of people (including power users who might use something like a pfSense or OPNsense routers) use UniFi for WiFi because the APs do work well and are not expensive.

          • Completely understand this, Bill: I’m not you — there are things about me and what I pick you will never comprehend or agree with. As I said and mentioned earlier in this thread, I only picked five, and those from the UniFi family don’t make the list. I put them on a different list, and that list doesn’t include some of the ones mentioned here.

          • Whatever. If you want to say that UniFi’s customer support can be iffy, or their firmware has historically sometimes been buggy that would be understandable. What’s not understandable is making a statement that using random APs together is not a good idea and then making 2-3 of your recommendations random stand alone APs. Omada is more or less an imitation of UniFi’s system. Both are pretty good especially for home users. Another AP system that is easily findable and usable for consumers (even available in Microcenter retail stores) would be HP Aruba Instant On. Also, your linked previous article had a couple of paragraphs on the UDM/UDR and was not about APs.

          • Please read the posts carefully, Bill. Looks like you just skimped them — or any text — over to validate your points and get the opportunity to express your frustration and “knowledge”. As stated in the rules, I reply to each comment with the assumption folks have followed them.

      • They are going that direction. But I have their WAPs and router and run Unify. They are REALLY trying to get me to let their cloud manage. 10 devives and free. I just couldn’t need 10! But I staill manage WAPs… They have been great too, but I’m thinking you’re referring that some features only work with their full suite; router, switch, WAP.
        Help me!! I am set for ceiling or even upper wall PoE mount. I can’t find a ceiling mount WiFi 6E!! I NEVER thought it would be a prob!!

        Reply

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