BearExtender Mini gets your Mac connected to faraway Wi-Fi hotspots

The $50 BearExtender Mini is the follow-up to the company's 2010 BearExtender n3. Like its predecessor, the BearExtender Mini's goal is to let you use your Mac from further away from your wireless base station. The new model is half the size of and more powerful than the original n3.

The company says that the BearExtender Mini can pick up Wi-Fi signals from two to four times further away than the AirPort card built into your Mac.

The BearExtender Mini doesn't plug directly into your Mac's USB port, which would be nice. Instead, the dongle connects via the included Mini-USB cable. The unit measures barely larger than a house key. The included detachable antenna offers 2 dBi; a $6 upgrade gets you a 5 dBi omni-directional antenna.

Have Wi-Fi, will travel

To use the BearExtender Mini with your Mac, you first need to install special drivers. With the software installed, you'll get a BearExtender icon in your menubar. Since the device is meant to replace your built-in wireless card, you'll need to disable Wi-Fi on your Mac to use the BearExtender Mini.

The device ships with a small clip that you can use to attach the BearExtender Mini to your laptop's LCD screen, without obstructing the screen itself. It's small and light and the kind of thing I'm likely to lose, but that's a reflection of me and not of the BearExtender Mini.

The BearExtender Mini is a 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter, and it works solely with the 2.4Ghz band. The company says that while it recognizes the increased interest in the 5Ghz band--the less crowded Wi-Fi band embraced by the 802.11n and 802.11ac standards--"it has a big disadvantage compared to the 2.4Ghz band in terms of range," since higher frequencies mean shorter wavelengths, and shorter wavelengths mean shorter Wi-Fi range.

So although the 5Ghz band might be faster, the BearExtender Mini's goal is distance. In fact, though 802.11n can support theoretical speeds of up to 300 Mbps, the BearExtender Mini maxes out at 150 Mbps. A company spokesperson told Macworld that using the lower maximum speed helps keep the price down, and that most homes don't have access to Internet connections that get anywhere close to 150 Mbps anyway.

In my testing, the BearExtender Mini unquestionably extended my MacBook Pro's wireless range. Just ask my neighbor two houses down, whose unsecured wireless network I successfully connected to from within my own home--though I'm unable to connect to it using the Mac's built-in card.

Mooching a neighbor's Wi-Fi isn't the BearExtender Mini's goal, though. I also found that I could remain connected to my own home's Wi-Fi network at full or near-full strength in every room, on every floor. Without the device, my connection drops to one or two bars in the furthest reaches of my home.

Download speed, however, was a concern. In my repeated tests, I consistently saw download speeds of about 60 Mbps using my built-in AirPort card, and of about 44 Mbps using the BearExtender Mini. Upload speeds (7 Mbps during my testing) exhibited no significant differences in my tests.

When I tried the BearExtender Mini in places with lower-speed Internet connections, no downstream speed difference was noticeable.

The software

You'll use software provided by BearExtender to manage your Mac's Wi-Fi connection through the dongle. The software works, in the sense that you can browse available networks and select one.

That said, it's bone ugly and clunky to use. When you click to Connect to a network, there's no real sense that anything has happened, until you end up connecting to the network a moment or two later. Adding favorite networks is awkward, though of course that's not something you'll need to do too often.

In short, the software works well enough to get connected via the BearExtender Mini. But the app feels like an afterthought.

Bottom line

If you mostly get online at home within a room or three of your base station, you don't need the BearExtender Mini. But frequent travelers, students, and other folks who find themselves frequently facing spotty Wi-Fi with weak connections could likely benefit from the dongle's ability to pull in signals from far away. The Mini significantly improves upon the original BearExtender's form factor, and offers more power to boot.

This story, "BearExtender Mini gets your Mac connected to faraway Wi-Fi hotspots" was originally published by MacCentral.

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